I was reading this morning about some large animals – a rhino and a couple of elephants – in the zoo in Mumbai, a place called Ranibagh situated right in the most crowded part of the city. The unfortunate creatures are single, alone, without mates, without company, with no real friends except their keepers, who have their own lives and loyalties. But I am not going to come up with another sad rona-dhona story. This is a tale of valiant efforts and some measure of success. This is the story of animals who have people who care.
The state of zoos in many parts of the world leaves a great deal to be desired. There are newspapers galore talking of the woeful conditions of animals in zoos in cities that have been in the middle of some conflict or the other, caused by man or nature. You see reports almost every other day about a lion dying in Tripoli zoo or monkeys eating dead simians in a cage in Russia somewhere or birds struggling to stay above the water level in New Orleans. There are animals in distress everywhere in the world, some with no hope other than a merciful death. A lot of the time, it comes slowly, painfully, eventually. And then, once in a wonderful while, a miracle happens. Caregivers from all over the world are able to go into the zone of such greatly nightmarish proportions and save a few of these suffering creatures, giving them relief, care, food, medical treatment, hope, life. Not all of them survive, sometimes not enough can be done. But enough is done to make the rest of the world aware of what is happening, to awaken consciousness and consciences about this kind of cruelty, to start changing the world’s perspective on animals in zoos.
In this battle, there are those who have done plenty of good work and I, we, all of us salute them and cheer them on. While the media has spoken about a lot of them, some unsung heroes are never known, never seen, never heard of. Like the little girl in the park the other day who was feeding a small group of stray dogs with biscuits from her tiffin box. Like the young man who fosters injured pigeons from his chawl room near the railway tracks in central Mumbai. Like the rather foolhardy gentleman who pushes his luck every day when he walks through the national park tracking leopards to study their habits, so that they do not get caught and killed by less caring humans who have poached on the cats’ territory. Like the group of schoolchildren who have been saving up to make the elephants at the zoo more comfortable, even though their efforts may never be enough to make any kind of difference.
For some reason, animals are given unfair and very short shrift from most of humanity. Organisations like PETA, Save the Tiger, World Worldlife Fund et al do their bit, but it is not in any way enough to cope with the downside of the situation. There is just too much bad stuff happening for the good stuff to be able to balance it. Along the way, new species are being discovered – they recently found 12 new kinds of frogs in India – and old ones are being wiped out – the Tasmanian Tiger, for instance, has not been spotted in years in its natural habitat and the last specimen died in captivity a while ago.
In India, a group of enterprising, enthusiastic people has done much to increase awareness of what is happening to the tiger, that great striped cat that once roamed this continent. Save the Tiger is now a movement of worthwhile proportions, being supported by television campaigns, phonathons, fund collecting drives, government diktats and public noise made by a wide cross-section of people, from schoolchildren to celebrities from the sports and film world. Is it all helping? Actually, there have been contradicting reports, but on the whole the response has been favourable and positive.
There are so many animals waiting in line for attention, from the tiger to elephants in Mumbai’s overcrowded and neglected zoo, from small insects in the forests of the northeast to rhinos that cannot find mates. But the tiger has grabbed most of the pie where focus is concerned. It makes for good photographs, suits soft toys and has so many poems and stories written about it that almost anyone can identify it without too much trouble. The best part is that saving the tiger is a cross-border effort, which could help our two countries, in fact, India and Bangladesh, work together, thereby becoming better friends and perhaps increasing the scope for partnerships.
The Sunderbans tiger, a magnificent beast, often stalking through fields and waterways of both nations, once in a rare while caught and transported to safer regions – safer for both animal and man – and celebrated as a symbol of strength, vigour and beauty, could be the glue that keeps the bond close and firm for centuries.
Maybe that is something all of us should think about!
Ramya Sarma is a Mumbai-based writer-editor.