Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Welcome to the Zoo

Faisal Mahmud

Faisal Mahmud writes about the proposed plan to modernise Dhaka National Zoo

The display of exotic animals has been a sign of wealth and power for a long time. Even the ancient courts of Egypt and China had zoos, and those were represented as the far-reaching arms of the empires.

Dhaka National Zoo in Mirpur, with its astonishing area of 186 acres, is surely a place of pride for our countrymen. There’s also the fact that, area wise, this is the fourth largest zoo in the world.

However, with a collection of only 2,161 different animals and birds belonging to 165 species, its rating is nowhere near the world’s elite zoos. For those still unable to grasp the sorry state of affairs at the country’s premier zoo, here’s a trivia: London Zoo, spread over 36 acres, houses more than 16,000 animals and birds of over 700 species!
Dhaka Zoo has witnessed premature deaths of animals over the years. Many scandalous reports have been carried by the media regarding corruption and abysmal incompetence of the zoo authorities.

The animals have to suffer due to painful and almost oppressive condition in the zoo, which in no way resembles their original habitats. They are kept in small cages and are deprived of food and other necessities. It has been reported time and again that callous and corrupt zoo employees are responsible for such negligence.

“The problem with such animals is that zoo authorities do not know what to do with them. Obviously, hostile conditions and poor supply of food make it almost impossible for the animals to survive,” Professor Anwarul Islam, chief executive of the Wildlife Trust of the government, said.

Professor Islam told Weekend Tribune that the animals are brought in the Dhaka Zoo from abroad at a huge cost, only to be pushed to death through utter neglect. “The overall situation prevailing here is an insult to the concept of a modern zoo,” he added.

“It seems the zoo authorities are blissfully oblivious of the fact that a zoo is not a prison designed to punish animals. Recreating the animals’ natural habitat to the possible extent is a task performed with great care in any zoo worth the name. It is not possible to keep the animals alive in an artificial setting for long, particularly when they are deprived of the basic necessities,” he said.

He also said that unless the zoo authority is moved from under the supervision of the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock, no real improvement is possible. “No other country in the world has its zoos under the livestock ministry. Dhaka Zoo doesn’t have any expert zoologists as its staff. How do you expect it to become a world class zoo, under the prevailing circumstances?” the renowned zoologist said.

Luckily, this appalling scenario of our national zoo is likely to change, as the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock is taking a keen interest in revamping the whole outlook of the zoo.
“If the comprehensive plan that has been chalked out for the zoo is implemented, it is certainly going to secure its position as one of the top zoos in the world,” said Dr ABM Shahidullah, the curator of Dhaka Zoo.

He said that the ministry had contemplated a revamped look for the zoo after observing the trend of decreasing number of visitors and increasing number of animal deaths. “Studies have shown that captive animals will live longer and be more active in an environment close to their native surroundings,” said the curator.

Dr Shahidullah said that many prominent zoos now actively construct exhibits that allow animals freedom of movement, a variety of habitats and toys, and native foliage. “Some zoos have even begun housing species together that normally interact in the wild, such as certain types of monkeys,” he said.

Dhaka Zoo has enough space to allow modern and suitable facilities for the animals. “The beautiful natural locations of the zoo area can also be made as great recreational facilities for the visitors,” Dr Shahidullah said, adding that with that intention, the livestock ministry has teamed up relevant people to chalk out a detailed plan for re-shaping the zoo.

The curator informed Weekend Tribune that a team of experts from BUET had already submitted a 300-page comprehensive report, including a digital survey and feasibility study on modernising the Dhaka Zoo.

“The zoo authority, after reviewing that report, has given BUET the contract for preparing the master plan involving the cost analysis of complete structural design of the zoo,” he added.
He said that the zoo authority would seek funding from the government to bear the expenses of the modernization project. “We may also approach private investors for the project,” he said.

In mid-2011, a consortium of the Malaysia-based Kopeda Group and the local Maisha Group had submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock for setting up a park similar to Fantasy Kingdom and Nandan Park on 53 acres of land in Dhaka Zoo in exchange of bearing the expense that the zoo’s modernisation would incur. 
That proposal, however, had not been approved by the government, Dr Shahidullah said. “The zoo staff had protested against that proposal, as it would lose its identity if an amusement park was established on one-third of its area.”

“Besides, that proposed amusement park would have acquired the 18-acre North Lake, which attracts thousands of migratory birds every year,” he added.
About the current expenses, Shahidullah informed Weekend Tribune that the money earned from daily ticket sales and other activities directly go to the ministry, and it allocates a fixed lump-sum amount yearly for the zoo. Last year, the ministry allocated Tk 107 crore.

“The ministry, however, is planning to make the zoo self-sustained with its own earning and make the provision so that the money earned from its activities after the modernisation stays in the zoo,” said the curator.

While talking with Weekend Tribune, Dr Khondokar Shabbir Ahmed, a professor at the Department of Architecture in BUET and leader of the group that prepared the 300-page report on modernising Dhaka Zoo, said that they have prepared the report emphasizing on three core areas – education, research and amusement.

Professor Ahmed also told the WT that they are now working on preparing the masterplan comprising of structural plans and cost analysis. He said that it will be completed by June this year.

“A zoo doesn’t need to have an amusement park, it offers better amusement by itself if it is constructed and maintained in a proper way,” said Dr Ahmed. “The ministry has asked us, the architecture department of BUET, to conduct a survey over the land of Dhaka Zoo to identify its potential for possible modernisation, and we did that.”

He said that, in the proposed plan, the zoo will have an attractive digital gate so that visitors can see locations of animals before entering the zoo.

“The perimeter of Dhaka Zoo is too large for a visitor to walk. Also, in the tropical weather of Bangladesh, it is exhausting to walk all over the 185 acres to see different animals. So, in our report, we have suggested a ‘circular land train ride’ along the cages. Dubai Zoo has it and it is loved by the visitors,” he said.

“We also proposed a boat ride in the South Lake. Different animals will be kept in different cages along the banks of the lake and visitors can watch them from the boat,” he said. Dr Ahmed, however, said that their study report has suggested changing the existing system of caging the animals that gives a wrong impression to the visitors, especially children.

“The present cage system in the zoo is miserable. People are getting the wrong idea about the lifestyle of the animals by seeing their depressing living conditions,” he said, adding that their report suggests a large modern caging system for the zoo animals.

“We have also ensured preservation of sufficient greenery inside the zoo to give it a natural look. Facilities such as eco-friendly washrooms, restaurants and resting nests have been proposed in our report,” he said.

“In the study, we have also asked for launching ‘behavioural enrichment programme’ for the animals. We have observed that Dhaka Zoo has only veterinary physicians for the animals, but no veterinary psychologist. Modern zoos have psychologists because without their assistance animal behaviour cannot be comprehended or taken care of,” he said.

“We haven’t made any recommendation on the varieties of animals that the zoo should have, as it was not a part of our contract. Besides, such suggestions should come from the concerned experts,” he said.

When asked whether this massive project would be financially viable, Dr Ahmed said that if the zoo is modernised, then people wouldn’t care if they were paying a Tk 50 entry fee instead of Tk 10.

“Currently, about 10,000 visitors visit the zoo every day. If the proposed modernisation is implemented and advertised, then it would fetch at least five times more visitors,” he said.
“Bangladesh has been described in the Lonely Planet’s (world’s most renowned travel magazine) 2011 issue as the number one tourist destination. If its capital has a world-class zoo, it surely would attract a lot of foreign visitors,” he said.

Shared from Dhaka Tribune.

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