Zoo Story

Reliance Zoo

The latest news on Ambani’s expanding empire might leave most readers slightly puzzled.The Supreme Court has dismissed a petition by wild life activists to cancel the government’s permission to Mukesh Ambani to open and manage a zoo covering an area of 168 acres.He has been collecting animals from different quarters including Black panthers from Assam and elephants courtesy forest department of Assam in a manner that has raised eyebrows.

The Supreme Court has found no merit in the complainants’ plea that Ambani does not have the experience and expertise to run such an institution.After all,the complainants’ might further argue that until recently Ambani had shown no such great interest in conservation of wild life.

Though somewhat arcane the subject merits more than the passing glance it has been getting from media.

Has Ambani shown or recently acquired a deep interest in zoology,wild life and nature,like say the American president Theodore Roosevelt, who showed such a passion and had been the first advocate and founder of national parks for conservation of wild life?That does not appear to be the case.Then?

It is nothing else but investment.His fast accumulation of capital drives him to search for ever new fields for investments and profit.Such a field happens to be the current blend of entertainment and information,infotainment in short.

A most profitable variety of such fields is natural history,seen at its most spectacular in the Disneyworld and the Sea World of America. Though these breath-taking shows are run with expert advice and maintained with the help of scientists and vets,nobody will claim that scientific knowledge is their primary concern.Ambani’s zoo will also not lack services of zoologists and vets,but most probably only to the extent that they help rake in money.

Zoos and museums are these days degenerating into something like public circuses maintained by the government. Politicians of our time and country might well wonder why on earth they should go on holding such shows at government expense.Forest department officials too perhaps think such things an unnecessary burden on their shoulders.Their main business today,to gather from the track record of forest departments of Northeastern states,is inventing ways of eluding inconvenient laws and fudging records for the benefit of the agents of development/investment.The lack of interest is glaringly evident in skinny,mangy and lackadaisical animals with moping philosophical rather than natural habits leaving half-eaten unripe bananas,indigestible pulses,or stale rotting hunks of meat served them every day.All that has followed from epochal displacement of science from public life and knowledge.

Actually zoological gardens(of which word ‘zoo’ is an abbreviation) like botanical gardens have been in origin and basic character serious institutions for scientific study of fauna and flora.Animals are kept there for scientific observation of their life,physiognomy,habits and instinctive behaviour at close range.That is why the current tendency is to get them out of cages and put them in natural scenes resembling their original habitats.

The London Zoo,or for that matter Whipsnade at a little distance,was founded in 1826 by serious scientific students of wild life and animal behaviour,by a scientific society including illustrious scientists of that time like Sir Humphrey Davy and professional zoologists like Joseph Sabine,member of Linnaean Society.Though a subsidiary aim of that society had been to excite the curiosity and enthusiasm of common people,the main aim had been pursuit and popularization of science.Science in those days was regarded as more beneficial and enlightening than any traditional wisdom,however sacred.

The situation today is quite different.Science is regarded as an obscure and extremely complex miracle-working profession best reserved for professionals and removed from life of the people.NASA is a word whispered with reverent accent like the name of some awesome Godman.Like sages of yore who mastered space ships and test tube babies and plastic surgery.

Hence zoos are not places that draw University professors and researchers.There are exceptions like the experiments in captive breeding of threatened animals or your Rhino breeding project at Kaziranga and Project Tiger of Manas and Ranthambhor.But these are isolated projects and leading politicians have little interest in them.Few seem to be aware that such experiments are designed to preserve from collapse the web of life in which all species are held,except their originators and some amateur enthusiasts.Nor is there much thought on what is to be done if the experiments are so successful as to cause overpopulation of such species.

Hence Ambani’s project may well be the precursor to large-scale private investments in zoos and wholesale transfer of state zoos to private ownership.The considerable area of land covered by any state zoos is also an allurement few big investors are likely to resist.And yet one more instance of science serving the holy project of acquisition of property and profit with stellar success will have come to light.But to that extent the public will also be deprived of any consciousness that science is actually meant to enlighten and empower them.

Hiren Gohain is a political commentator

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