Eleven zebras, one tiger, and one lioness died from 2 January to 3 February at the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Safari Park at Sreepur, Gazipur. A five-member probe committee was formed by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to find out what happened.
The committee submitted a report which found that the grass there [Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Safari Park] contains nitrate, which is harmful to the animals.
The authorities, meanwhile, did not seem to have much of a clue as to what happened until the publication of the report. On 25 January, Jahidul Kabir, project director of the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Safari Park, told The Business Standard, "Each year during the breeding season, the zebras fight each other. This is how four of the animals died inside the park."
This is not the first time animals have died inside our zoos or safari parks. What are we doing wrong?
To find some answers, we spoke to prominent wildlife conservation expert Dr Mohammad Ali Reza Khan, Ornithologist and the principal wildlife specialist at the Dubai Safari Parks, Public Parks and Recreational Department, Dubai Municipality.
Recently a number of animals died in our Gazipur safari park. Experts are pointing to reasons like inbreeding, anthrax, pneumonia, grass containing lead, industrialisation around the safari park, adulterated food, bacteria in the food etc. What are your thoughts on the issue? Do you agree with these reasons?
These might be the reasons. But what I find really disturbing is, no one is talking about the loopholes in the policies. Why in the first place were zebras and giraffes brought to the country when they are Savannah animals?
And then, if you have created an ecosystem where tiger, monkey and deer coexist, you must keep a 20 feet deep and 25-30 feet wide water body or a wet or dry moat, so that when the tiger attacks, the deer can run and hide while the tiger can't cross the lake. Did we follow such designing guidelines?
It's easy to point to a cause of death instantly, but it's the long-term planning we should talk about that will eventually reduce the death rate.
We are bringing South African or foreign animals to our zoos and safari parks. Are we risking these animals' health? Should we rather conserve our local animals?
Wild animals from exotic origins can only survive when their proper habitats, with the same temperature and humidity as their countries of origin, can be recreated and maintained. Diet is a very important factor as well, so is daily care and veterinary care.
For example, giraffes are not grazers but browsers. So, their diet cannot be only dry grass or pellet food — daily natural browsing opportunities must be provided. On the other hand, Zebras cannot thrive in monsoon climates. They are animals of the Savannah with semi-arid conditions.
Browsers are herbivores that feed on leaves, soft shoots, or fruits of high-growing, generally woody plants such as shoots, twigs, leaves of tall trees and some shrubs. Grazers, on the other hand, feed on grass or other lower vegetation.
Bangladesh already has two safari parks, one in Gazipur and the other one is in Cox's Bazar. We also have a wildlife centre in Gazipur. But the government has approved yet another project for a new safari park in Moulvibazar. Is it necessary at all?
First of all, our government needs to decide what it wants - do we want a wildlife sanctuary or a safari park or a national park or is it a zoo that will bring money? Because trust me, whatever we are doing here, does not fall in any category.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has clear instructions for every one of these establishments. If we are opting for a safari park, we can follow the examples of the Safari parks of Africa. These are natural forests, where the animals native to that part of the world roam at large and the spectators visit them, in caged vans.
For example, we travel on water vessels inside the Sundarbans, although the vehicles are extremely harmful to the rivers and the ecosystem of the Sundarbans. Instead of fossil fuel-run boats, the Sundarbans area should only be entered in solar-powered or battery-run vehicles, so that the environment is unharmed and the water is not polluted at all.
What I want to say is the government has to decide whether they want to preserve the natural forests that we have, or they want to destroy the Lathitila or any other forest to establish high walls and buildings in the name of safari parks and housing hundreds of exotic and dangerous animals.
What are the international practices for maintaining safari parks?
It depends on the land and environment, and the climate of that particular place. Internationally, the governments only provide the guidelines while NGOs or the autonomous zoology associations take care of the sanctuary or the wildlife residences. Even when it's operated by a government, it must be with people with wildlife or zoological backgrounds.
For example, the London zoo is owned by the zoological society of London, not even the Queen. The American wildlife conservation centre, which was previously known as the Bronx zoo of New York, is owned by the New York Zoological Society, not the American government.
It was in the 1980s when the concept of caged animals or zoos had changed into Immersion zoos, which means the animals are near natural animal habitats transformed into wildlife that will match their original environment or climate. Even the greenery around will be designed with precise landscape planning. You will maintain the proper combination and quality amount of herbs, shrubs, climbers and canopy trees.
And then what kinds of animals are kept is also very important. The hooved animals like rhino, elephant, deer, buffaloes etc will be kept in a similar space because the food habits of these animals are quite similar.
So these are some of the practices international wildlife conservationists follow.
Let me give you an example. You are not supposed to keep tigers or bears in the proposed Lathitila safari park, as there are human habitats around. So what we could do is create a beautiful sanctuary for elephants, our indigenous rhinoceros, wild buffaloes, many species of birds, reptiles and indigenous fishes, etc. Because the environment there is perfect for these kinds of animals.
Again, even the interior of the park shouldn't incorporate any sharp-edged structure so that the character of a forest is kept intact.
What do you think we lack in terms of having such animal sanctuaries in the country? What are we doing wrong here in Bangladesh that these animals are dying?
Safari parks in Bangladesh do not conform to global standards. They have destroyed natural forests and jeopardised the wildlife. The country also does not have a proper lab to test diseases that might affect the wildlife.
The Dhaka Zoo lab is of low quality with machines lying idle because they were bought without having anyone who knows how to operate them. The authorities also do not conduct regular check-ups or tests on animals kept at the zoos and parks.
Bangladesh does not have a single internationally acclaimed wildlife veterinarian. People in Bangladesh consider curators as the highest post in the zoo world, which is very untrue. This is happening because the Dhaka Zoo is apparently run by a curator, or people see the curator as the key person in Dhaka Zoo.
But in reality, a zoo or animal sanctuary is managed by three levels of management personnel - 1. The animal keepers 2. The curators and vets 3. The administrative staff which includes the managers, Directors, DG and COO (Chief Operating Officer) or CEO (chief executive officer).
Marketing Manager, PR Manager, Human Resources Manager, Education Manager, Wildlife Conservation Manager, Animal Management Manager, Veterinary Manager, Show Manager, Rescue and Rehabilitation Manager, etc are also part of the third group.
The zoo is run by zoologists/wildlife biologists where one or two vets take care of the health of the wild animals.
But in our country, you won't find any such admin structure. A recent report says that in our national zoo, there is only one vet for the 300 animals residing there.
It is the general people that I blame. For no specific reason, we Bangladeshis kill any animal, be it a common species or an uncommon one. It is not the first time that animals have died in this country. If we see some bird or snake - we have to throw stones at it or beat it to death.
Unless we change this attitude, or at least come up with a proper wildlife policy and also implement it, the situation won't change in this country.
As an academic and also an expert on the subject, what are your thoughts on the entire animal conservation situation of Bangladesh? What steps should be taken to overcome these issues?
First and foremost, Bangladesh must hire at least four wildlife experts from South Africa, Singapore or Malaysia.
For the situation at the Gazipur safari park, the government should stop the park's operation for the time being and form a committee with local and foreign experts to take stock of the park's situation and go forward with the recommendations made by the committee.
For the government initiative of opening another safari park in Lathitila forest, overseas consultant teams should be hired first to do a feasibility study. Based on that, the government should decide if they really want to build a man-made amusement facility inside an existing natural forest with alien animal species that can destroy the existing habitats of the local wildlife.
Also, a periodical complete checkup of the animals is necessary and the reports should be publicly available to any reporter, researcher or member of parliament.
After all, the international norm for government or private sector operations must be to follow a Standard Operating Procedure or SOP. As far as I know, there is no SOP for our zoos or safari parks. This is simply because these institutions are run by the wrong set of people with no set principles.