July 31, 2012

Alipore Zoo, Calcutta

“To those who can remember the dirty and rather dismal looking approach to Belvedere, the improved and satisfactory condition of the neighbourhood, at present, must afford a very striking contrast. Both east and west of the roadway leading from the Zeerut Bridge were untidy, crowded unsavoury bustees. Today we shall find on the site of the old bustees, the Calcutta Zoo. A very large share of the credit for the establishment of this pleasant resort is due to Sir Richard Temple, who was Lieutenant Governor of Bengal from 1874 to 1877, but long before the scheme assumed any proper shape, Dr. Fayrer, C.S.I., in 1867 and again in 1873 Mr. L. Schwendler (known as the 'Father of the Zoo') had brought forward and strongly urged the necessity of a Zoological Garden. The visit to Calcutta of His Majesty King Edward the Seventh, then Prince of Wales, was seized upon as an auspicious occasion. On the 1st January, 1876, the gardens were inaugurated by His Royal Highness, and in May of the same year they were opened to the public."
Sir H.E.A. Cotton, Politician–Barrister–Administrator–Journalist–Historian–Writer, in his book “Calcutta Old and New”

"Painted horses"

I am back in Calcutta (I don’t like the new name – Kolkata), the city as ancient as civilization and famous for its rich ancient customs that complement the poverty, filth and chaos of everyday life. For some one born and brought up in Delhi, comparisons are natural – Delhi is ancient but timeless and extravagantly royal, Calcutta on the other hand has long abandoned such pretensions – the city is vintage, the structures seem to be falling apart and yet the people make it work one way o the other, as if some magical force is holding its existence together. My ramblings were vast and my imagination soared sky-high as I made the 4-hour long journey, accompanied by two college friends Sunil and Aakash, from the sleepy suburb of Durgapur where our college is located to the heart of Calcutta with the simple motive of spending the entire day at Calcutta Zoological Park, popularly and in most official documentation referred to as Alipore Zoo. Though I, like all photographers, experience boundless pleasure in clicking nature and getting the occasional picture-perfect click, I do not possess the means to spend several days in exorbitant resorts in the middle of forests/sanctuaries like the Sunderbans or Kaziranga, and therefore zoos form an integral part of my itinerary whenever I get the rare opportunity to visit a new city/state. Alipore Zoo had long been on my list too, however my problems were compounded since most of my friends hate zoos and I was again stuck with the dilemma of having to travel alone and cut costs (which is a genuine issues given my spendthrift tendencies) – thankfully Aakash and Sunil came to my rescue the day before I was to travel to the zoo. So here I was, sitting cramped by the window seat of the bus and taking in the sunrise and the cold morning breeze while music blared loud into my earphones and my two companions slept unperturbed by noise and motion on adjacent seats.

The colors of Alipore

Alipore Zoo began out in the year 1800 as a small menagerie maintained by Arthur Wellesley, the then British Governor of Bengal, at his residence in Barrackpore, a suburb of Calcutta. Wellesley soon returned to England, leaving his collection in the care of one of his Zoologist friends. Plans were underway regarding establishing a proper zoo in Calcutta and they had support from the Asiatic Society of Bengal too, but couldn’t materialize due to unavailability of enough space to create a massive garden complex to house the animals – Sir Richard Temple, the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal, shifted the mini-zoo to Alipore and upgraded it into a formal, full-fledged zoo in 1873, thereby making it the oldest designated such property in the country. The zoo was finally inaugurated on January 1, 1876 by Edward VII, Prince of Wales and thrown open to the public the same year; the first batch of animals were from the private mini-zoo of the German electrician Schwendler, who also happened to be a member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal besides involved in setting up of telegraph communication between Agra and Calcutta and studying the feasibility of electric lamp lightning of Indian Railways; a monumental stone obelisk still stands in the zoo complex in his honor. The zoo saw rapid expansion as many more animals were gifted by Indian and British residents from all over the country; today it has a gigantic variety of flora and fauna on display in its 45 acre campus. Initially, the zoo was maintained by Schwendler himself along with Botanist-Professor George King; the first Superintendent of the zoological garden was Rai Bahadur Ram Brahma Sanyal, a most notable manager of the species in the zoo and far ahead of his times when it came to animal husbandry and upkeep – he introduced several successful breeding programs to the zoo, and also maintained journals where he recorded all observations regarding the animals (housing, feeding, behavioral patterns, reproduction and treatment) which he later published as “A Handbook of the Management of Wild Animals in captivity in Lower Bengal” (1892).

Schwendler's commemorative obelisk

Sleep-deprived as we were (left college at 4:30 am to catch the first bus), and after enduring the long journey to Calcutta and then to the zoo, naturally the expectations were high in our minds and there was eagerness writ all over our faces. However, as soon as we stepped down from the rickety bus, we were disappointed to see the small gate of the zoo and the cramped spot it was confined in, I had already mentally started comparing it to the Delhi Zoo (refer Pixelated Memories - Delhi Zoo), which, flanked by a medieval fortress and with its large enclosures presents a postcard-perfect moment. A colorful and extremely chaotic, though monotonous in its fares, bazaar was operating outside the Alipore zoo; there were vendors selling ice creams, hats, faux leather belts and guavas, while a line of taxis stood at attention, ready to drop one anywhere one fancied to visit; if one escaped being heckled by a group of beggars in tattered clothes and braided hair, there always were taxi drivers heckling visitors with inquiries regarding where they wanted to go, irrespective of if one just stepped out of the zoo complex or a bus/taxi! Waiting in the queue at the ticket counter and promptly realizing my folly of comparing cash-strapped, congested Calcutta with affluent, flamboyantly lavish Delhi, I promised myself to keep an open mind and just take in the sights and sounds of the place instead of judging and photograph the beautiful birds, animals plants with the new camera that my maternal uncle very recently gifted me. 

Standing proud - Swamp Deer

A small board outside the zoo notifies public that no eatables, plastic materials and polythene wrappers are allowed within and photography is permitted for free but for videoing the premises one needs to pay Rs 250 per hour. Once inside, we immediately looked if there was a map depicting a general idea of the enclosures and walkways and after consulting it we decided to follow the path that first took us along the aviary cages and then the enclosures of lions, tigers and jaguars. The map was actually very old and ill-maintained, and at first we thought that the zoo was quite small, but then realized that even the faded portions of the map were part of the premises and we shall have to spend at least 4-5 hours if we wanted to explore the complex in its entirety. The zoo was almost deserted and besides us there were only a few tourists.

Astounding, right? - Pariah kite

The remarkable bird enclosures, visible from a distance, are impressively designed in several unique shapes and boast of ample space for the small creatures within – some resembled small pagodas with their roofs topped by pointed finials, while others were massive circular wells surmounted by conical roofs and divided into numerous smaller sub-enclosures – the extraordinary range of bird species that the zoo boasts of can overawe any visitor – there are peafowl, pheasants, mynas, macaws, parrots, parakeets, kites, ostriches, emus, cranes and pelicans, besides numerous migrant birds are also lured into making stopovers at the zoo by the prospect of vast green spaces and water bodies that it has to offer. To the grey-green monotony of the cages, the beautiful birds bring tinges of vibrance and heartwarming attractiveness; several of the enclosures are also equipped with large wicker baskets and baked-mud pots (“matka”) for the birds to nest in. However at first glance, the enclosures appear to be eyesores, given that the wire meshes are thick, rusty and often double-layered, making photographing the quick avian fellows all the more difficult – the weather was opening up and dark clouds rumbled overhead while we were exploring the zoo premises, but clicking the majestic peacock that had begun strutting around its enclosure with its magnificent plumage spread and glistening was near impossible thanks largely to the thick wire mesh.

Large - One of the bird enclosures; it is divided into numerous segments radially. 

Next we headed to the mega-fauna enclosures – the massive elephants were roaming about in the extremely humid weather, perhaps like us waiting for the dark, ominous clouds overhead to open up and drench the world; the obstinate tiger was content with lying down somewhere in his thickly vegetated open-air enclosure (bound by a wide moat), the tall grass ensured that we couldn’t catch a glimpse even though we had circumambulated the enclosure several times in no less than 20 minutes. Among the other animals that we saw which didn’t have open-air enclosures but cemented cages were striking white tigers, regal lions, a very muscular Royal Bengal tiger and a magnificent jaguar – the condition of these animals was deplorable since they were being housed in very small spaces with cemented floors that certainly would heat up in summers and be chilly in winters, besides not providing a natural, foliage-and-rock environment to these mighty beasts; visitors, largely uneducated in animal husbandry and even otherwise, made mockery of the animals, teasing them and rattling the enclosure bars every time the animal decided to sit in a corner or enter the shed at the back; many of them resorted to shouting and making loud sounds to scare the animals – I felt a surge of pity and even asked one of the boys there to not do the same, but to no avail! At least, in this aspect, I have to concede that Delhi zoo fares far, far better than Calcutta zoo – the maintenance of animals is superior, so is the enclosure size and the treatment meted out to the animals by the visitors and zookeepers.

Majestic - Indian Elephant, once a common sight on the country's streets but have almost disappeared now and can only be seen in zoos and protected wildlife sanctuaries.

Moving ahead we saw deer, not aplenty as in Delhi Zoo – the Calcutta Zoo makes up with gorgeous birds what it lacks in terms of deer specie. There was a lone rhinoceros, grazing in a corner of his large enclosure, a hippotamus who soon disappeared in the depths of his pool, a bear that when teased by visitors ran to hide in his cave and a gharial basking in the sun. In a corner of the zoo complex, a segregated area has been created for inhabitation of bat species, and there were literally several scores of them flying around the tree tops or hanging upside down from the branches, it sent a chill down everyone’s spine just to look at them and almost everyone (except us since we were so engrossed clicking them) proceeded rather sharp and rapid over the low bridge through the bat territory. I was reminded of the recently released Batman movie (The Dark Knight Rises) which I really enjoyed watching in a theatre just a few days back, again with the same set of friends. Underneath the bridge flows a deep artificial stream and on considerate observation, one can observe large shoals of blue-ish fish swimming under the clear surface. The Reptile House too is located close by, but it was under renovation when we visited and therefore closed for public entry.

An attempt at minimalist photography

There’s a restaurant just around the corner next to the zoo entrance – shaped like a storybook cottage and lined with stone tiles in orange and deep red, it seemed to have jumped out of the pages of “Hansel and Gretel”, though the food served consisted not of cakes and doughnuts, but rice, noodles and Chinese-style curry dishes. The entire landscape is dotted with numerous small shops offering refreshments like water bottles and ice creams. At certain times it seemed that the zoo has more green space than enclosures and looks more like a glorified garden – couldn’t the space have been utilized more efficiently, perhaps increase the size of existing enclosures rather than stuff so many animals in small, pitiful cages?

Classic storybook-like - The zoo's restaurant

The zoo, until 2006, was home to Advaitya, a 255-year old Giant Aldabra Turtle, said to be the same as the one in the private menagerie of Robert Clive of the East India Company – it was said to be the oldest documented living being alive at the time of its death. Robert Clive gained the East India Co. a foothold in the Indian subcontinent through territorial expansion following military campaigns against the Indian sovereigns and their proxies and governors, under the suitable excuse of avenging British citizens’ death in the notorious “Black Hole Tragedy of Calcutta” (refer here Pixelated Memories - Black Hole Memorial) – not just Clive’s fame, but also his huge tortoise far outlived him, in fact Advaitya saw the establishment of the East India Co.’s territorial rule, its demise, the “Quit India” Movement, independence and subsequent partition of India, Pakistan and later Bangladesh, besides the banalities and frivolities of everyday grind. The turtle was the zoo’s pride and its demise was deeply mourned by the zoo authorities as well as all the major newspapers of the country. 

Black beauty - Black-crowned crane

For the past few years, the zoo is in news for all the wrong reasons – inability to handle the large population of animals, thefts, inefficient and often unethical cross-breeding programs, death of animals due to stress and lack of space for movement and so on. The zoo has also been warned by the Central Zoo Authority of India (CZAI) about the same and it risks its license to handle and showcase animals being revoked – even PETA India has called the place a “death trap for animals”. Our trip, however, was a good one and we enjoyed the time spent there. So did the other visitors and kids we observed. Certainly the zoo does need to address the issues about animal health and care and also try to improve itself in terms of visitor experience – benches meant for the visitors were unclean, signboards on the cages detailing the animal/bird inside were either absent or old and faded, water taps were broken and water dripped from everywhere except the faucets themselves, plus more route maps definitely need to be installed with immediate effect. I would hate it if the zoo were to be closed down, but given the space crunch that they face, especially by the pressure exerted by urbanization and infrastructure development in the surrounding areas, the zoo cannot expand any further, and it would perhaps e in everyone’s interest to shift part of the animals to another area, or create subsidiary zoos – point in case, the aquarium just across the road maintained and funded by the zoo authorities (we couldn’t visit it since it had begun raining cats and dogs by then). Awareness campaigns, if possible to organize and sustain, would unquestionably go a long way to attract publicity and visitors and profit the zoo and its financial needs. In my opinion, the zoo is a must visit place, especially during the period of late July to November since that’s when the migratory birds, especially the large and stunning Sarus crane, travelling to their winter destinations stop by at the zoo. 

A thing of beauty..

Location: Alipore
Open: All days except Thursday (If a holiday falls on Thursday, the zoo remains open that day and the weekly closure is observed on the next available working day).
How to Reach: One can avail bus/taxi services from different parts of the city. The locals, especially the bus conductors/taxi drivers, recognize the zoo by its vernacular nomenclature “Alipore Chiria ghar”, since most of them are uneducated, hence it’s better to ask them in vernacular.
Timings: The ticket counter opens from 9 am to 5 pm; the aquarium opens from 10:30 am to 5 pm
Entrance fees: Rs 20 (Rs 5 extra for the aquarium)
Photography charges: Nil
Video Photography charges: Rs 250
Time required for sightseeing: 4 hrs
Relevant Links -
  1. Deccanherald.com - Article "Alipore Zoo as vulnerable to animal theft as before" (dated Aug 28, 2014) by Prasanta Paul
  2. Kolkataonwheelsmagazine.com - Kolkata zoo
  3. Kolkatazoo.in (Official website of Alipore zoo)
  4. Lankabusinessonline.com - Article "In Indian zoos, life can be brutal and short" (dated June 5, 2006)
  5. Maamatimanush.tv - Article "Historic changes at Alipore Zoo – Model for the rest of India" (dated Nov 11, 2013)
  6. Outlookindia.com - Article "The Thief, His Tortoise, Their History, And The Revenge Of Myth" (dated April 28, 2006) by Vinay Lal
  7. Telegraphindia.com - Article "Zombies at Alipore zoo" (dated Aug 14, 2013) by Zeeshan Jawed
  8. Thehindu.com - Article "Under foster care" (dated Aug 18, 2013) by Shobha Roy
  9. Thehindu.com - Article "Want to adopt a lion? Come to the Alipore Zoo" (dated Aug 4, 2013) by Shiv Sahay Singh
  10. Thehindu.com - Article "Where past overshadows present" (dated Jan 14, 2001) by Gautaman Bhaskaran
  11. Timesofindia.indiatimes.com - Article "Parched & pained: it’s a dog’s life at Alipore zoo" (dated June 9, 2003)
  12. Wikipedia.org - Alipore Zoological Gardens
  13. Wikipedia.org - Carl Louis Schwendler

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