- India’s first penguin chick born in a Mumbai zoo died a week after its birth this August.
- The incident revived controversies about housing exotic species like penguins in Mumbai. The Humboldt penguin hails from the cold coastal waters of South America and eight of the penguins were brought to Mumbai from Seoul in 2016.
- Animal and environment activists are questioning the practice of showcasing animals in captivity, specially non-native species which require a huge investment to maintain.
The first chick born to Humboldt penguins at the Mumbai Zoo in August this year, died due to “birth anomalies”, within a week from its birth on India’s Independence Day.
The penguins were brought to the Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan in Byculla, from South Korea, two years ago amid controversy over housing exotic species like penguins in Mumbai city.
According to Bombay Veterinary College experts, who conducted a post-mortem on the chick, “new-born anomalies like yolk sac retention and liver dysfunction” were responsible for the chick’s demise. The death of the penguin chick has now revived the controversy over Humboldt penguins at the Mumbai zoo.
Eight Humboldt penguins were imported from the Coex Aquarium in Seoul in 2016, a move that was reportedly encouraged by Shiv Sena youth leader Aditya Thackeray. Within three months of the move, one of the female penguins, 18-month old Dory, died. After her death in October 2016, the zoo had dropped the contractor of the enclosure, only to reappoint it for another contract later.
The penguins are currently housed in a temperature-controlled, 1,700 square feet special enclosure. The enclosure has proved a major attraction, with school children particularly enthusiastic about this exotic species.
From South America to South Mumbai via South Korea
The Humboldt penguin (Spheniscus humboldti) hails from the cold coastal waters of Peru and Chile, an area also named after the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt. These penguins are found in a few other zoos in the world, including in the United States, United Kingdom and Germany.
They are estimated to number between 3,300 and 12,000 and are threatened, which is why these South American penguins were granted protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
In the Mumbai zoo, Molt and Flipper, the youngest male and oldest female respectively, were parents of the newborn chick. The rest of the penguins have now paired up, leaving one female without a mate.
Regarding the death of the penguin chick, zoo director Sanjay Tripathi said: “It was a birth anomaly. The first 30 days are crucial for first-born chicks of first-time penguin parents. Penguin eggs and chicks show 60 percent mortality. In this case, there were complications that developed suddenly and since it was internal, we did not know till it had deteriorated in 12 hours. There was a drastic reduction in its activity.”
The penguin chick was 75 grams at birth and its weight had increased to 97 grams before it fell ill. The family had been kept in a secluded nesting area for a few months and were not open to viewing.
Zoo officials assert that they constantly monitor the quality of the water and the freshness of the fish diet, which includes the staple Indian mackerel or bangda in Marathi.
A bad idea from the start?
The Plant and Animals Welfare Society (PAWS) filed a case for negligence against the zoo in Byculla, which is located at the foot of a flyover in a congested, polluted precinct in Mumbai.
Sunish Kunju, the secretary of PAWS said, “We have filed a complaint citing the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act as the penguin was diagnosed with liver and intestinal infections. It is possible that the food being given to the birds did not suit them even after zoo officials said all possible measures were being taken to protect them.”
Zoo authorities, however, claimed that the entire exhibit area had been disinfected and that they repeatedly conducted tests to check for and prevent infections.
Jose Louies from the Wildlife Trust of India told Mongabay-India: “I opposed the idea of bringing penguins to the Mumbai zoo. Zoos are no more considered as the best place for conservation education. Providing enclosure enrichment or near-natural conditions are not practised in many zoos. Bringing exotic animals which need special care and expert monitoring to India itself was a wrong move and now with the death of the penguins, it’s proven that what we feared just happened.”
“Also, there is a growing demand for exotic animals as pets across India, such trends also should be discouraged by authorities where private collectors are bringing exotic animals, often highly venomous snakes, into India,” he added.
Decades ago, such activists protested against the plan to upgrade the zoo by bringing in more prized animals, on the grounds that the animals would not survive the pollution.
According to zoo director Tripathi, the penguin enclosure costs Rs. 25 million a year. From August 2017, within a year, the entrance fee has gone up more than 10 times, from Rs. 2 for a child and Rs. 5 per adult to Rs. 25 and Rs. 50 respectively. He justified the hike on the ground that the zoo footfall had increased: “It has gone up from 1.2 million visitors in 2016-17, before the penguins were displayed, to 1.9 million after the enclosure was added. The total revenue was Rs. 50 million in 2017-2018.”
Rina Dev, who runs an animal and bird clinic in Mumbai and has worked with penguins in New Zealand, told Mongabay-India: “Penguins are definitely an exotic species and difficult to maintain, even in the U.S. and other countries. You need the correct infrastructure. In 2015, I worked with three species of penguins at the Wildbase Hospital at Massey University – the only dedicated wildlife facility in that country. It was especially for penguins: they would fly them there from other parts of the country. My experience has been that they are very susceptible to stress, even while handling them, in any new environment.”
She added that without their post-mortem reports, it is difficult to understand what went wrong. “You are shooting in the dark. I’m sure the zoo tried its best to save the chick. Even when a tiger dies, they say it’s due to old age or a heart attack when you have nothing to prove it,” she said.
“I see a lot of exotics from jungles like the Amazon which are thriving in India. With the right environment and diet, you are able to maintain them. You have to keep them happy and mimic their life in the wild, so that they don’t suffer from depression. Indigenous species are obviously easier to maintain. I see a St. Bernard’s dog maybe four times a month but a stray dog once a year. But even indigenous species require management in captivity: many of them have died in the zoo,” she added.
Stalin Dayanand of the environmental nonprofit organisation Vanashakti in Mumbai, was more forthright when asked whether such exotic species should be kept in zoos, attracting thousands of visitors. “It amounts to cruelty,” he told Mongabay-India. “Any such animal has spectator value. There is a lack of sensitivity towards it. Zoos are already a living hell for all animals. People who have no knowledge of wildlife should not subject it to such torture. I don’t think the Wildlife Board was consulted. Anyway, we are hopeless in conservation and in protecting our own species. The zoo is in such a sorry state. It is meant for conservation and education, not for recreation or entertainment.”
Dr. Anish Andheria of the Wildlife Conservation Trust in Mumbai, also against the move of bringing penguins to Mumbai, stated: “I’d said long ago that bringing them to Mumbai was not a great move. The death of the chick could have happened due to many reasons: lack of infrastructure to attend to baby penguins, lack of knowledge of ecology of penguins, or the absence of an infection-proof environment for chicks. I don’t know what or if all of them contributed to its death.”
The Mumbai zoo was a botanical garden from 1861 and the zoo “only added to the pageantry of nature 30 years later,” Hutokshi Rustomfram of the Save Rani Bagh Botanical Foundation told Mongabay-India. “For years we have been fighting to preserve the botanical garden from the forces of so-called redevelopment and modernisation. Around ten years ago, they envisaged spending Rs. 468 crores on this.” The group is campaigning to add “botanical garden” to the name.
Meanwhile, director Tripathi says that a new adjoining plot which it has acquired will constitute the third phase of the expansion: “We are proposing some exotic species like in the African savannah, a kind of mixed exhibit having giraffes and zebras.”