Almost 400 years ago, Mughal emperor Jehangir acquired a new animal in his private collection or zoo – the zebra. This unusual, striped animal fascinated him so much that he wrote about it in his memoirs as a strange creature. Some even imagined that the animal’s stripes had been painted!
The emperor decided to find out whether the zebra was indeed coloured or not. After much investigation, he made it public that the zebra, too, was a creature created by god. The stripes were natural, they had not been painted upon!
All through history, kings and emperors have kept private collections of animals to please themselves and to increase their status. The first zoo of the kind that we are familiar with today, was built in 1759, from such an animal collection, near Vienna, Austria.
The first zoo in India, too, probably came from the private collection of Raja Rajendra Mallick in 1854. The Marble Palace Zoo, as it was called, still exists in Calcutta.
Not content with establishing the Marble Palace Zoo, Mallick helped found the Alipore Zoological Garden too, which housed birds and animals of different kinds and attracted people from far and wide, according to an article in a beautifully brought out information and activity manual, appropriately called ‘Wild at the Zoo’.
Brought out by the Ahmedabad-based Centre for Environment Education, the imaginatively designed book is a storehouse of information that makes us look with new eyes at zoos and at the definition of ‘wild’ animals.
Even though Mallick’s zoo came up in 1854, the Madras Zoo, founded in 1855, was perhaps the first zoo to come up in the face of pressure from visitors, according to ‘Wild at the Zoo’. And therein hangs a tale…
Colonel Edward Balfour of the Government Central Museum in Madras (now Chennai) had a cheetah and tiger in the museum in 1854, who attracted great attention. The museum recorded a high number of visitors, which dropped once the animals were removed from the museum.
Balfour was quick to see the connection and soon enough the Madras Zoo came into being. The zoo shifted to new premises in 1980.
Today, there are over 300 zoos in India. They attract as many as 50 million visitors every year, according to the manual.
After India attained independence, the first all-India meeting of the people who ran zoos was held in Madras Zoo. Among the issues discussed was the need to design zoos that would first and foremost suit the varied requirements of the animals housed in them. The need to breed endangered animals so they could be reintroduced in the wild and the equally urgent need to educate people about nature and wildlife were discussed as well.
‘Wild at the Zoo’ lists out some of the well-known zoos in India: the National Zoological Park in New Delhi, Venkateswara Zoological park in Thirupati in Andhra Pradesh state, Indira Gandhi Zoological park in Vishakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, the Nehru Zoological park in Hyderabad, Arignar Anna Zoological Park at Vandalur, Chennai and the Sri Chamarajendra Zoological Park in Mysore, Karnataka.