In 1952 the Indian Board for Wildlife felt the national capital needed a zoological park to provide recreation for society at large. Therefore an ad-hoc committee was established of several high-ranking nature lovers of Delhi, including Smt. Indira Gandhi, to draft a proposal. In September 1953 a decision was made on the new zoo’s location, the site between Purana Quila and Humayun’s Tomb, which is the current location still. Furthermore, it was decided that the Central Government would develop the site into a zoological park after which it would be handed it over as a working enterprise to the Forest Department of the Delhi Government.
The Indian Board for Wildlife felt that a good zoo should be founded on modern principles with open, moated enclosures and naturalistic displays to serve as an example to other zoos.
The first plan for the development of such a zoo was drafted by Major Weinmann, Director of the Ceylon Zoological Garden — now the National Zoological Gardens of Sri Lanka. As Weinmann was not available for the long term, Carl-Heinrich Hagenbeck, owner of Hagenbeck Zoo at Hamburg, Germany, was asked to take things forward. He was the grandson of the world-famous founder of Hagenbeck Zoo, who was the first to introduce the idea of open moated bar-less enclosures. So the grandson was definitely suited for the job to meet the requirements of the Indian Board for Wildlife.
The preliminary plan was ready by March 1956 and provided a general layout of waterways, roads and paths, animal enclosures and sewage system. After some adjustment to meet the local conditions and topography of the ground the Government of India approved the plan on 31st December 1956. Honouring his grandfather Carl Hagenbeck, grandson Carl-Heinrich Hagenbeck designed from scratch a zoo like Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg with large open moated enclosures, only four times larger (100 ha), and the largest of India. For instance, the tiger enclosure was an exact copy of the tiger enclosure in Hamburg zoo, just bigger.
By the end of 1959, construction had sufficiently advanced. The Northern part of the zoo was ready to welcome animals as well as visitors.The grounds consisted of roads, waterways, moats, ponds, lawns, plantation and most importantly animal enclosuresand animal houses. Animals that had been arriving as gifts from State Government and individuals since the announcement of the establishment of a zoological park at Delhi, could finally be moved from the temporary pens to their permanent enclosures. The collection comprisedtigers, leopards, bears, foxes, monkeys, deer, antelope and many bird species.
The park was opened on 1 November 1959 as the Delhi Zoological Park. In 1982 it was officially renamed to National Zoological Park which reflected more correctly the purpose of this institution — a Zoo managed and financed by the central government to provide a model for other zoos in the country.
The first years after the inauguration Delhi Zoo fulfilled its duty as a ‘model’ zoo for the entire country. It was well known for its inspiring Hagenbeck style design and animal collection which was grouped according the then-popular concept of continental areas. In addition the Zoological Park was well known for its breeding successes of white tiger, lion-tailed macaque, and Manipur brow-antlered deer or sangai.
Unfortunately, due to bureaucratic delays and obstructive procedures the National Zoological Park deteriorated rapidly. Over the years, the government agencies that had to manage the Zoo had to deal with many more public issues. Most of these issues were of greater public importance than taking care of the Zoo. Especially, running the Zoo as a public enterprise complicates things. For instance the Delhi Public Works Department is the only agency that is permitted to do maintenance, and the zoo is a very low priority for the Department.
A possible solution to stop further deterioration could be privatisation. The Central Zoo Authority (CZA) has already made an attempt to achieve this for the National Zoological Park. If such a privatisation can be successful and will lead to a transformation that will make the National Zoo to be manageable and prosper again, other municipal and state-run zoos might follow the example. In 2001 a master plan was developed to make the National Zoo a world class zoo that is up to standard. The plan was prepared under the guidance of the CZA and will provide more space and a natural habitat for the animals. The plan’s full implementation was envisaged for around 2006.
Unfortunately the endeavours to become a world class zoo didn’t prove very successful, as the Zoo made the headlines, because of a series of zoo animal deaths in 2015 and 2016, such as hog deer, lion-tailed macaque, langur, giraffe and cape buffalo. Moreover, the zoo officials have been accused of under-reporting the number of deaths among the animal collection and presenting falsified postmortem reports to the CZA. This raised questions regarding the maintenance, management and attitude of the zoo officials.
But whatever may happen in the (near) future, the National Zoo has played a major role in modern Indian zoo history. At the National Zoological Park, birds and animals still live in an environment that in many ways resemble their natural habitat. The National Zoological Park not only provides a home for endangered species, but also helps them to breed in captivity.
Not unlike many other zoos in the world Delhi Zoo has suffered the occasional outbreak of an infectious disease. An outbreak of avian influenza in autumn 2016 even led to a complete shutdown from mid October 2016 until January 2017. This drastic measure was taken by the Delhi government to tackle the problem effectively, but partly due to the barrage of criticism over how it handled the dengue and chikungunya fever outbreaks among the City population during the monsoons.
Since its onset the Zoo is located on Mathura road next to the famous old fort Purana Qila. Remains of one of the walls of this old fort, built in the 16th century, are visible while walking along the northern edge of the Zoo grounds. Not far from the entrance you can also find a 17th century milestone, a Kos Minar built by Jehangir.
(Sources: Zoo and Aquarium History by Vernon N. Kisling, jr.; Zoo: A History of Zoological Gardens in the West by Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier; website National Zoological Park Delhi; Wikipedia; The Times of India)