The Alipore Zoological Gardens in Kolkata has a massive emotional and nostalgic significance in my life. From as far as my memory serves me, Alipore Zoo has been the most quintessential place of my childhood frolics. My fascination with animals and the homely surrounding of this menagerie is perhaps the reason that I kept coming back to visit the zoo even as I grew up. I never bothered that others thought that it was rather juvenile to visit a zoo even in your 20s, as I could never hold myself back from visiting it time and again.
Back in 2011, I had come here as a journalist to report on how and why the Alipore Zoo was dying. It pained me to see the levels it had sunk too; political flags surrounding its entry gates, the zoo being held to ransom by political goons, animals being reportedly stolen from their cages and several of them not being looked after properly. Frankly, it was quite evident then that the authorities were not taking sufficient care to maintain the zoo efficiently.
A few weeks back I got a chance to visit the Alipore Zoo yet again. Having heard of the many ‘changes’ that the zoo has brought in to initiate its new development process, I was keen to have a first-hand account of those supposed changes. Over my stay of around four hours there, I closely scrutinized the various parts of the zoo and came to my conclusion.
I am presenting my views in the classical way. Here are my observations on the good, the bad and the ugly of the Alipore Zoo as of 2014.
Glass enclosure: There is absolutely no doubt that the new glass enclosure for the Royal Bengal Tiger is ‘the’ main attraction of the zoo currently. Since the time it has been announced, it has created quite a buzz and people were thronging this enclosure like bees do for their hive. Does the glass enclosure then live up to its hype? Thankfully yes.
The real thrill though is the pleasure of watching a Royal Bengal Tiger, without any nasty nets and grills obstructing your view. Although I didn't get to view the tiger from close by, I did see it resting in its shed comfortably. The glass panel looks quite solid and there is no evident danger of it being broken down by the animal. Overall, two big thumbs up for this new glass enclosure.
Mechanical entry gates: This area had been under construction for nearly three years. It was quite a relief thus to see these new mechanical entry gates which has really made a massive difference in controlling the crowd outside the main gate of the zoo.
With more than a dozen of these in operation, I did not even have to wait for two minutes to get inside the zoo despite a sizeable crowd being present there. The area is large and the ticket counters too have increased which helps in managing the crowd. Hopefully, it will remain this way.
Open-air vans: Although this vehicle is just for the elderly at present, but it is a good addition to the zoo nonetheless. I had seen similar battery-operated cars in the Nandankanan Zoo in Orissa, and to see it here in Kolkata was pleasing. These six –seater vehicles are pollution-free and will really help many of the senior citizens relish the zoo experience.
Children: There is something endearing in the sight of a child sitting on the shoulders of his father or grandfather and seeing him/her having a great time. There were plentiful of similar scenes like these in the Alipore Zoo. These are views which I have witnessed throughout my life and have myself been a part of as well. It was thus heartening to see children gaping in wonder at the animals in the cages.
Frankly, no zoo can claim to be a genuine one unless it attracts children (not the pesky ones who bawl away at the top of their lungs though). Alipore Zoo, thankfully, has managed to do that successfully over the past many decades and continues to do so even now.
Inadequate enclosure space: The most basic thing that we can provide an animal in a zoo is sufficient space for it to roam around. Sadly, it is the very thing in which Alipore is lacking behind cardinally. Apart from the newly launched glass enclosure, almost all the other enclosures have less than adequate space for the respective animals.
Be it the elephants, the bears, the alligator, the deer, the birds or the other big cats as well; the enclosures of the animals are alarmingly small and grungy. They are very compact and do not allow the animals to move freely. This is something that I had reported on two years back. Sadly, the situation remains the same. Moreover, most of the enclosures were filthy and probably had not been cleaned in days. The authorities have to understand that insufficient moving space and lack of cleanliness leads to unnatural beahviour among the animals and eventually limits their lives.
Lack of security personnel: When I was moving about in the initial area of the zoo, I was pleased to find a few security guards roaming around the cages. However, as I moved further I found the crowd thickening and the number of guards gradually slimming down. There were many cages, outside which the crowd created a ruckus and intervention by guards is essential in these cases to control the unruly ones. The guards are also needed to guide you in the correct direction. Alipore Zoo is gigantic and many a times I needed to know where a certain cage was located. Unfortunately, due the lack of security personnel, I had to make use of the Ice-cream vendors. This was the same case with several other visitors.
Food: Now one is not asking for palatial restaurants offering delectable delicacies inside the zoo premises, but one does wish to eat a decent meal whilst inside. That is something which is alarmingly missing from the Alipore Zoo. While it has only one genuine restaurant to speak of, the food inside was just about edible. Though they charge you almost at par with any renowned restaurant, the quality of the food is extremely shoddy. The other eatery inside the zoo is an open-air restaurant which offers everything from dosas to chow mein to chole bhature . However, the food quality again is horrible. If you want to avoid these, then you can always go for the low-quality, badly fried, but highly priced patties and chips. If you are however looking to eat a satisfactory meal inside the Alipore Zoo, my advice is that you better survive on water for the day.
The Crowd: As is the case with our country, it is mostly the common man, the ‘aam junta’, who is responsible for taking our country to deplorable heights. The same also applies to Alipore Zoo; as the crowd of visitors here is primarily responsible to bring it to this atrocious state.
From disturbing animals by shouting and throwing food and other items at them, to openly flouting all disciplinary norms set by the authorities; the crowd at the Alipore Zoo does it all. They have a gala time here by eating their home-cooked food, playing games and dancing inside the seating area and by spreading litter to all possible corners of the zoo. It is an ugly sight to witness visitors coming in hordes and spitting and peeing at different corners. The lack of tight security allows the crowd to behave this way and it is ultimately the overall ambience of the zoo that suffers.
The Alipore Zoo is a significant part of Kolkata’s heritage and nostalgia. Unless we behave responsibly and take care of it, we can never expect the authorities to do the same either.
It goes without saying that the Alipore Zoo has to learn from other better zoos and inculcate its finer aspects. Before it does that however, it should try and improve on the facilities it already has and transform itself into a world class menagerie. Having a good amount of people thronging in your premises doesn’t mean that you would cease to better your services. Unless it starts doing that, the Alipore Zoo would forever remain a mediocre affair.
Like I mentioned at the beginning, the Alipore Zoo has massive emotional and nostalgic meaning in my life. Thus, I can never ignore it. I have and will continue visiting it till the time I am in this city. The next time I visit the zoo; I would try and pen another report. And at that time, I wish, the Good would be the only elements I would write about. The Bad and the Ugly would hopefully be buried deep under the cage of the Royal Bengal Tiger.