MUMBAI, India — An elaborate city plan to revamp Mumbai’s zoo into a world-class animal park has angered environmentalists who argue the project will damage the city’s 149-year-old botanical garden, in which the zoo resides.
Concerns over the fate of the garden’s trees have prevented the $105-million project from moving forward.
“The whole face of the garden will be changed,” said MR Almeida, a plant taxonomist and former vice president of the Bombay Natural History Society. “It will never be the botanical garden anymore.”
In the middle of an otherwise congested and polluted city, the Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan-Zoo feels like a lovely, green oasis. Towering trees — some 300 to 400 years old — form canopies under which visitors stroll through the grounds. Lovers gather on the well-manicured lawns. Birds fly overhead, their chirping a welcome change from Mumbai’s incessant honking.
Enclosures, most small and barren, dispersed throughout the park hold a lone hyena or a couple hippopotamuses. On a recent afternoon, two thin elephants stood behind a moat — chained to the ground — swaying back and forth. Until the zoo is upgraded, it cannot bring in more animals. The ones that remain tend to be old and are dying off.
The city government’s project will transform the 53-acre zoo by building two museums, an auditorium, a children’s exploration center and a so-called cheetah restaurant with a glass wall so “people can dine with the cheetahs,” according to a zoo official who asked not to be named. The project will also include adding almost 200 animals, many from Africa and Australia.
The upgrade will improve the health conditions of the animals there because it will have better hospital facilities and larger enclosures, according to Sanjay Tripathi, one of the zoo’s veterinarians.
“We will try to create the environment as per the natural habitat of that particular species,” the zoo official said.
The director of the zoo, Anil Anjankar, has said that the project would be able to go forward without disturbing any trees. He told GlobalPost the plans could be shifted as the construction goes to adjust for the trees and not cut them down. The animal enclosures can also be adjusted to accommodate trees.
But environmentalists argue that the current plan cannot be implemented without affecting the green cover of the zoo. The botanist Almeida, whom the city appointed to conduct a biodiversity mapping report of the gardens, told GlobalPost the project would damage one-third — about 1,100 — of the garden’s trees by putting them in animal enclosures. He also said it seems impossible to implement the extensive plan without cutting down at least some of the trees.
“I really fail to understand how it is possible to not cut down some trees,” he said.
|Lone rhino at the Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan-Zooin Mumbai. (Hanna Ingber Win/GlobalPost)|
He added that moving the trees also poses a great risk to their survival. When the city shifted trees to make way for a highway, all the trees died, he said.
“Animals can be shifted, trees cannot be shifted,” he said.
A group of conservationists in the city that formed a committee around this issue fears the plans will destroy the gardens and turn them into a “playground for the rich,” said Hutokshi Rustomfram of Save Rani Bagh Action Committee. Mumbaikars can now spend the day at the gardens for only 5 rupees ($0.11).
“Can you imagine all these animals in the heart of the city?” Rustomfram said. “What you need in the heart of the city is more green open space.”
Concerns over the effects on the botanical garden as well as heritage structures within the grounds have held up the progress of the project. The national Central Zoo Authority approved the plan in 2009, but the city is waiting for the final approval from an advisory body known as the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee. The committee told the city in May that it was concerned the project would affect the existing vegetation in the garden including rare tree species, but it has not yet received a response, according to Umesh Nagarkar, who spoke on behalf of the committee.
“If the present plan is pushed ahead, the committee has doubts about whether both [the botanical gardens and revamped zoo] can coexist,” he said.
Nagarkar said the city could go forward without the approval of the committee, but that would be rare.
Environmentalists argue that instead of implementing such a big project, the zoo should upgrade its hospital facilities and small enclosures for the animals currently there, and it should relocate large animals that need more space to reserves or sanctuaries.
Some animal activists also oppose the plan, arguing that even an upgraded zoo would be incapable of providing enough open space necessary for the animals’ physical and mental health.
“There have been multiple efforts to try and improve conditions for the animals at this zoo, but the Mumbai zoo has shown time and time again that they either lack the will or the capability to actually go through with making even the most basic improvements at the zoo,” said Poorva Joshipura, chief functionary of PETA India, which has been investigating conditions at the zoo for the past decade.
She argued that the neglect for the animals and lack of open space causes them to show signs of frustration, such as pacing and other unnatural repetitive behavior, and suffer to the point of becoming ill and dying early. Joshipura said the animals — and money — should instead be sent to India’s national parks.
“We need to modernize the way we think of conservation and of protecting animals and of protecting species,” she said. “Just putting them behind bars and gawking at them is not enough.”
While environmentalists such as Almeida suggest the animals be moved elsewhere, the zoo officials argue the zoo must stay where it is because another plot of land large enough for an animal park is not available in the already overcrowded city.
“Both the zoo and the garden trees must coexist,” said the zoo director, Anjankar. “There is no forest without wildlife. There is no wildlife without trees.”