Zoo animals threatened with starvation

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People are not the only ones who suffer when a country is in distress. The Government is increasingly concerned about how confined animals will cope with the country’s deteriorating economic situation.

The Department of National Zoological Gardens, which supervises the country’s zoos, attributes the shortage of essentials to the country’s economic downturn, which was triggered by tax cuts and mismanagement, and resulted in an increase in fuel prices. The country can no longer afford to import food, medicine, or other essentials, and prices have skyrocketed due to inflation.

With only a few hours of electricity per day, acute fuel shortages, and rising prices of basic goods due to the local currency’s devaluation, zoo officials are facing difficulties in feeding animals.

Starving animals due to human error

The absence of financial resources to supply daily food to the animals at the Dehiwala Zoo and other national zoos, according to officials from the Department of National Zoological Gardens, has exacerbated a food crisis at the zoos.

The animals at the Dehiwala Zoo are facing a severe food crisis, according to Minister of Wildlife and Forest Conservation Mahinda Amaraweera.

According to officials from the Department of Zoology, the animals at the zoos are experiencing an acute food crisis, due to a decline in foreign visitor arrivals, a decrease in the number of local tourists due to a lack of fuel, and an increase in the prices of food products.

The Department of National Zoological Gardens is also in charge of elephants that are the subject of litigation, and the cost of caring for them is estimated to be around Rs 45 million per year, according to officials.

The sum provided by the Government in the Budget has dried up, according to officials, due to the aforementioned reasons. Suppliers that provided food to the zoos must now be paid Rs 59 million in back payments. A minimum of Rs 120 million is required, as well as the necessary financial arrangements for the remainder of the year.

Taking into account the explanation offered by zoo officials, Minister Amaraweera decided to coordinate with the Treasury to provide the necessary financial support.

The Minister directed the officials to swiftly set up an animal welfare system. The Minister said the present economic crisis has had a significant impact on both animals and people, and that the Government will take all necessary steps to protect them.

Have suppliers pulled the plug?

Director-General of the National Zoological Gardens, Dr. Tilak Premakantha said the present situation at the Dehiwala Zoo and other zoos cannot be classified as a ‘food crisis.’ He said animals are now receiving their meals, but food providers are experiencing difficulties.

While conceding the dire situation that zoos are in due to the economic downturn, he dismissed the notion that the country’s zoo animals are on the verge of starvation.

He highlighted that the suppliers are providing food, based on the agreed-on tender requirements, but that due to the fuel crisis, the suppliers are facing difficulties in transporting food to the zoos. He said not only was there a lack of fuel, but that prices had also shot up. He added that suppliers are complaining that they are unable to transport food daily to the zoos and that they have to form long queues for fuel.

Dr. Premakantha said these issues were brought to Minister Amaraweera’s attention.

Saving money by growing food 

In light of these concerns, the National Zoological Gardens has taken steps to grow their own produce to feed these animals.

Dr. Premakantha said the 16-acre site in Gonapola, Horana, will be utilised to its full potential. Thus, the National Zoological Gardens will take steps to cultivate grass, jackfruit, Kitul, and vegetables. When queried if the area was previously used to plant food crops, he said it was, but that it was not high on the priority list.

He said they now have no choice but to grow the food the animals require on their own. However, he said a scarcity of workers remains a concern, but that he will take steps to recruit the employees they require.

To feed the caged animals, it is planned to farm fish, livestock, and poultry in the area. The Director General is enthusiastic about the cost savings that will be realised by using this strategy.

Meeting the demand

When asked what they plan to do for the caged carnivores, he said meats have to be purchased from suppliers and there are no substitutes.

As for pricey imported foods like apples, they plan to substitute them with locally-grown alternatives such as guavas. He said the animals should be given a balanced meal.

Separating animals or birth control?

The National Zoological Gardens is also experiencing difficulties following a steep rise in animal births. “Birth control methods will have to be utilised,” Dr. Premakantha said.

When it comes to caged animals in a zoo, he said, the zoo follows animal husbandry rules. “However, animals such as deer and Sambar deer are multiplying over time because authorities have turned a blind eye.”

He said they might need to separate the animals to keep numbers in check.

He further said after obtaining consent from the Ministry of Wildlife, they planned to release these surplus creatures into the wild.

When queried about the animal exchange programme, he said talks are underway and this will begin soon. “If these zoos continue to function after these animals have been relocated and acquire other animals, the suffering may reappear,” he said.

Animal feed rationing

Minister Amaraweera said rationing animal feed will make it last for longer periods of time. However, rigorous rationing is unlikely to cover the entire range of food required, therefore, this is not a long-term solution. “Diets in zoos are planned precisely. The apples of orangutans, for example, are weighed to the closest gramme. Not being able to offer a balanced diet might have severe consequences for an animal’s health and welfare,” he said.

No more zoos

Spokesperson for Rally for Animal Rights (RARE), Panchali Panapitiya said this is a nightmare for all animal lovers in Sri Lanka.

She believes that this is a valuable lesson for Sri Lankans, and that it is high time to close zoos.

“Let any animal that cannot be given to a sanctuary or released into the wild die a natural death at Dehiwala Zoo. Maintain only two elephant sanctuaries to house elephants that cannot be released into the wild. The space at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage and Zoo can be made into Elephant Sanctuary Pinnawala for bull elephants. The space at Ridiyagama Safari Park can be converted into Ridiyagama Elephant Sanctuary for the female elephants and all current staff can be retained,” she suggested.

She also requested that the authorities stop breeding elephants unnecessarily.

“The going gets tough during an economic crisis. When there is poor revenue generation and operating costs rise, the zoo tends to fall into neglect.”   Animals in the Ridiyagama Safari Park have also been affected by the national turmoil. Tourists are unable to visit due to the crippling economic crisis, choking the park’s revenue. Animals may go without food or treatment due to lack of funds, while zoo employees may be deprived of their salaries.

Sri Lankans are used to eating three nutritious meals a day, consisting of fish, poultry, beans, and nuts. However, for the vast majority of Sri Lankans, three meals has become a pipe dream. Grains have now become one of the main meals.

At the same time, all animals require metabolisable nutrients and energy. Specific tastes, digestive systems, and feeding methods have to be catered to. A balanced diet is crucial to the animal’s well-being.

These creatures have never known anything other than the cages they see day in, day out. They have no understanding of inflation and only know that they must eat to live. Starving them will only result in their untimely death.

Pix By Kelum Chamara

By Thameenah Razeek