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By Benjamin Lyngdoh
Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated’. Well, we seem to treat our domesticated animals humanely. That way we are on the good side of Gandhi. However, this article stretches beyond the domain of domesticated pets and points towards the larger issue of animals within the park at the heart of Shillong city. On hindsight, there has been a news story on the park in recent months. Historically, it has been known as ‘Lady Hydari Park’ (named after the wife of Muhammad Saleh Akbar Hydari, the first Indian governor of undivided Assam) but last year the Khasi Students’ Union pressured the change of name into ‘Ka Phan Nonglait Park’ (as an honour to Phan Nonglait, the first Khasi woman who revolted against the British during the time of freedom fighter U Tirot Sing Syiem). Nonetheless, I have used the above name for the purpose of this article as till date the entry ticket reads as ‘Lady Hydari Park, Department of Forest and Environment, Government of Meghalaya.’ Be that as it may, the name and its name changing is not the brief here (with even Google maps and tour operators/agencies playing it safe by showing both names). The crux of the matter is the nature of animal-keeping and the difficulty which the park faces today. As such, if only the government/pressure groups would have seen the real issues at hand. Accordingly, I place the following pointers –
Firstly, Lady Hydari Park is located at the heart of Shillong city. That way it is an ‘urban park’. As such, going by the strict sense of the term it is a recreational park which is supposed to have wide open spaces for relaxation and rejuvenation. Accordingly, it is left to wonder as to how the features of a ‘Zoo’ (or ‘Animal Land’ in the words of KSU) resonate with it. Well, one might point to the fact of animals being kept and show-cased there. However, that is a travesty of what a Zoo is supposed to be in actuality. This is because the Central Zoo Authority (which is a statutory body of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and established in 1991) has laid down specific guidelines for a zoo as against parks (like our Lady Hydari Park). These are enforced through the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 and the National Zoo Policy, 1998. Flowing from these, concurrently the focus and action plans are based upon stressing on the conservation of the rich biodiversity with emphasis on wild fauna, conservation of endangered species, inspiring empathy from visitors towards wild animals and creation of a database for information sharing with other agencies involved in in-situ and ex-situ conservation. Hence, a zoo is a specialized spacious space with primary focus on animals and their wellbeing whilst disseminating knowledge to the interested stakeholders. This specialized thinking is the need of the hour and as such, shifting the animals from their current location is the clarion call.
Secondly and in relation to the above, let us be candid and get down to brass tacks! Lady Hydari Park is just an urban park by all means and purposes. Let us not supplement the word zoo or animal land with it. If anything, the section where the animals are kept in their enclosures is pitiable. They are so small. They are terrifyingly unhygienic. The birds hardly have space to fly. The fishes and ducks swim in filthy waters. Picture this; the Himalayan Black Bear is kept in a tight enclosure of just ‘six by three meters’. Just hold on a second and register this bear analogy in your thoughts. You will realize the gravity of the problem we are dealing with. It is sad to say that we do not care for the animals in the park. On the other hand, caring would be difficult because of paucity of space. As such, it shall be best if the animal enclosures are wiped out altogether and the animals are moved to other more conducive habitations of the north-east for the time being. This is where the issue of having our own state zoo becomes critical. It is a necessity and a priority. However, everything moves slowly in Meghalaya and the state zoo ‘news story’ is no different. It is disheartening to note that it has been more than a decade now since the inception of the initiatives for establishing a state zoo. One can only wonder as to when it shall see the light of day with the state government already acknowledging that it would take some more time.
Thirdly, ill mannered visitors are an irritant. Many visitors are irresponsible and inept. They engage in taunting and disturbing the animals. Carrying of sticks and twigs to poke into the animals are a common sight. Add to that, the shouts and screams directed at the animals when they are at their sleep. If only we could put those very ill mannered visitors inside those small cages then they would see the painful side of things. As such, it is sad to say that we do not have a ‘zoological culture’. We do not deserve to have animals in our midst. Most of us go to the park to have a jolly good time with not even the slightest inclination to learn about the animals from the display boards. This is where the management of the place becomes important. Proper planning and control is a must. The National Zoo Policy, 1998 also lays special emphasis on this aspect. However, this is most likely to fall into place when and only when we have a proper state zoo. Till that time, all is supposedly lost! This is another precise reason as to why the animal enclosures at the park are to be dismantled altogether for now.
Fourthly, I would like to highlight some of the fine prints of the National Zoo Policy, 1998. This is particularly important for Meghalaya as we are in the prolonged process of establishing it. The fine prints are; first, ‘since zoos require a significant amount of resources in the form of land, water, energy and money, no new zoo shall be set-up unless a sustained supply of resources is guaranteed’. Second, ‘every zoo shall maintain a healthy, hygienic and natural environment so that the visitors get an adequate opportunity to experience a natural environment’. Third, ‘the enclosure for all the species displayed or kept in a zoo shall be of such size that all animals get adequate space for free movement and exercise and no animal is unduly dominated or harassed by any other animal.’ Fourth, ‘a zoo shall not allow any animal to be provoked or tortured for the purpose of extracting any performance or tricks for the benefit of the visitors’ and finally, ‘each zoo should have a well drawn-up plan for educating the visitors’. These are all extremely important points. However, everything else depends on the ‘first’ fine print. As such, let us hope that we get our state zoo at the very earliest.
Lastly, apart from having a zoo, what is more important is that we have a ‘zoological culture’. We must develop a culture of empathy towards animals and assimilate knowledge from them. This can only happen through the proper management of a zoo and interest taken by the stakeholders. Lest we forget, there are thoughts in management that have developed through ‘observation of animals’; the most famous in recent times being ‘The Wolf Pack Hierarchy’ as recorded by a series of informational documentaries including the BBC’s Frozen Planet.
(The Author teaches at NEHU)