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In the good ole bad ole sixties London Zoo was a regular outing for my family. Once through the barrier, my brother and I would make a beeline for the circular snake pit, where we’d hang over the side trying to spot the most dangerous specimen. The pandas were cuddly. The polar bears were surprisingly grubby, not white-as-snow at all. The big cats, whom I adored, at ‘feeding time’ were too smelly for my sensitive childish nose. I tried and failed to be interested in the birds so beloved by Dad. Most of all, I enjoyed the warm reptile house, the sea lions and the insects, but Guy the Gorilla was my tippy toppest favouritest of them all.

Red panda

The Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park in Darjeeling is a lifetime away from those old monochrome days. The animals reside in mountainside enclosures, rather than small cages. Many of them (particularly the carnivores) are nocturnal, so they don’t have to endure the inquisitive stares of the twittering hordes, and are not poked awake for the amusement of the public. But what’s good for the animals isn’t always so good for the paying visitor. As Jamie and I quietly made our way round the designated route, we heard people complaining that many of the animals were asleep.

The first enclosure you see is a high, wide piece of land covered in grass and boulders. Two glossy Himalayan black bears sat on their haunches when we arrived, nonchalantly sniffing the air while they examined a small hill of vegetables in front of them. Naturally, I wanted to slice them apart and rip out their gall bladders, but a dry moat held me back. Their organs are highly prized in the Asian medicine market, and that means their numbers are dwindling.

Further along a wide path lined with steep enclosures on either side, the electrifying roar of a nearby tiger kick-started my flight or fight reflexes. I reasoned with my sweating hands and pumping heart: we’re in a zoo, we’re safe. We passed the hairy Himalayan tahr, a wild goat that has been over-hunted and is in need of protection. I wondered how they felt about being within smelling distance of a tiger. There were plenty of other goaty, antelopey herbivores along this first section of the pathway – small, big, shaggy, smooth, curly horned, antlered – all of whom are endangered to some extent. Did you know a yak is exclusively male? A female is called a nak. Tibetans laugh at us for calling the females yaks, particularly when we ask for yak’s milk. Bull’s milk, anyone?

We reached the tiger area. Jamie was the first to spot the giveaway orange and black stripes. A large tiger paced through the undergrowth, prowled among the shrubs and trees, and appeared in full profile every now and again at the uppermost boundary of the first enclosure.

There is only one species of tiger, Panthera tigris, but there are nine sub species, divided by the territory in which they live. At the beginning of the twentieth century estimates put the wild tiger population at around 100,000. A hundred years later the estimate is nearer 4,000. Three of the original sub species are now extinct. The Indian tiger (P.t. Tigris) – aka the Bengal tiger – probably accounts for around 80% of the current total number. The Amur tiger (P.t. altaica), which lives mostly in Russia and is sometimes known as the Siberian tiger, is estimated to have a population of around 400. Hunted for fur and Asian medicine, the biggest cat of them all didn’t stand a chance against human pride, stupidity and avarice. But is it too late to save them?

The beautiful but deadly powerhouse in front of me continued to pace, and cold-blooded menace seeped through the wire fence, as I headed towards a bench across from the enclosure. Despite signs scattered around the zoo telling visitors to be quiet, groups of Indian tourists shrieked, laughed and pointed. At me. I know I should be used to this by now – I’ve been here for two years, and most of the time I am immune to the stares – but I just wished they’d look at the tiger instead. I pointed at the “Please be quiet” sign and “shushhhhhed” them. The volume went down, but they continued to slide surreptitious glances my way.

Pretty soon Jamie and I realised the tiger was tracing a continuous path across the top of the enclosure, down through the undergrowth and back up again. With a steady stride, it made no deviation to the route and paid no attention to the gawpers. Did this mean it was distressed? In the second enclosure a slightly smaller (younger? female?) tiger was taking a similar repetitive course. Do tigers behave like this when they are not in captivity? I don’t know, but I remember reading stories of big cats exhibiting signs of autism as they tried to find a way out of their tiny zoo cages in the old days. Black and white photos of puny men with one foot on top of a dead tiger, in various heritage buildings around India, floated into my head. I was overwhelmed by pity and frustration for the animals in front of me.

Clouded Leopard

Reluctantly we moved on towards the other cats. Most of them were asleep, unmoved by the shouts and claps from visitors trying to wake them up. Have you ever seen a clouded leopard? Probably not, as they are extremely shy and rare. I had never seen one before, and must admit to never having heard of the species. Designated as “vulnerable” on the IUCN list, this most beautiful cat (smallest of the “big” cats) is being hunted to extinction for its pelt. And as an ingredient for Asian medicine. Having removed most of the bigger cats from our planet, poachers now have the clouded leopard in their sights. Add to that the relentless deforestation of its habitat and you know this reclusive puss’s days are numbered.

Walking round the rest of the zoo we were hooked by the charm of its Tibetan wolves. Like a pack of everyday dogs, they happily nestled against each others’ luxurious coats as they slept, while one or two of them remained on alert.

Red pandas, for which the zoo – and this part of the Himalayas – is famous, were dozing in a number of enclosures and cages. Described by the WWF as “bamboo eating acrobatic loners” they are bright gingery red and ridiculously cute. This shy and rare part bear part cat (it is on the IUCN list as “endangered”) is the focus of an intensive conservation programme at the zoo: captive animals are bred and returned to nearby national parks.

With support from state and national governments, the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park is doing its bit to preserve Himalayan species and has specific projects dedicated to helping snow leopards, red pandas, Himalayan newts and Tibetan wolves. On the home page of its website the zoo tells us it is “…striving for the maintenance of ecological balance in the Eastern Himalayas with the following objectives:

  • Ex-situ conservation and captive breeding of endangered Himalayan animal species.
  • Educating, motivating and initiating awareness campaign among the local people as well as visitors on the importance of conservation of Himalayan eco-system.
  • Initiating applied research on animal biology, behaviour and health care.”

You can’t argue with that.

But surely any kind of enclosure is anathema to these wild animals? (Although I suspect the newts are quite comfortable.) To minimise their distress and discomfort I wonder if the research and conservation could be undertaken without animals being further disturbed by crowds of visitors. Yes, conservation is right and proper. Yes, we need breeding programmes if we are to avoid species becoming extinct. The only advantage I can see for having visitors to these places is to raise revenue. Perhaps guided tours would manage visitors’ behaviour better, and be less intrusive?

In the days of Johnny Morris’s zookeeper we were encouraged to ride camels and feed the elephants, while chimpanzees entertained us at tea-time. But all that stopped when we realised wild animals shouldn’t be kept simply as specimens for the amusement and education of the public. We no longer have to rely on zoos to learn about wildlife, there are plenty of sources available to us: books, the internet, films and fabulous documentaries.

Wouldn’t it be great to get to the point where animals are conserved and cared for away from the crowds, where breeding programmes are undertaken sympathetically and privately, and where the animal can retain some dignity? Surely animals have the right to a peaceful life. Even if it means most of us don’t get to see them up close.

Leopard cats - Millie's distant cousins

I don’t want to see a wild animal in a cage or an enclosure again. But I would be happy to pay to go on a sustainable, guided safari, where I might be in with a chance of seeing one in its natural habitat.

For more on tigers, have a look at the 21st Century Tiger website
For videos and photos of clouded leopards, click cloudedleopard.org

Red panda information can be found at Red Panda Network