It has been over eight years since my first visit to Delhi Zoo or the National Zoological Park as it is officially called. This time the weather is a bit more friendly — less hot and damp — to my non-acclimatised fitness and there’s even less smog in town. In other words perfect conditions for a short visit and see if things have changed, and if the master plan has further materialised.
First thing I notice when I arrive at the gate — after I convinced the tuktuk driver that I just needed to be brought to the Zoo that was most certainly not closed today — is the renovated if not revamped entrance. And with the entrance the procedures are changed as well. Although I cannot remember all from eight years ago, this time the foreigner ticket has to be purchased at the booth left from the entrance gate. Next my rucksack and I undergo a physical check in the ‘gents’ lane, but not before I pay an additional fee for bringing a camera.
Before I reach the first enclosure I notice that they have made the warning message about the legal prohibition of teasing and feeding zoo animals stand out even more than last time (see Signage, Information and Education). So, after being searched and warned for what is not allowed into the park I decide to obey by the rules, because a few months in an Indian prison is not what I see as an appropriate extension of my stay in India.
The first enclosure I encounter is a mixed-species exhibit comprising spotted deer, barking deer or muntjac, sambar deer, nilgai and blackbuck. Unfortunately this is only one of a few mixed-species exhibits to be found on the Zoo grounds, so they haven’t lived up to their master plan yet. This enclosure with ‘Herbivores of Central India’ is of considerable size and provides shade and vegetation. It is a good example of what is about to come, many indigenous species — especially deer herds — in large dry moated paddocks. The grouping of the animal collection is a bit unclear, but it seems to be based on taxonomic arguments, such as primates, deer, carnivores, birds and reptiles, with the deer species outnumbering all the other species.
It is obvious that the biggest problem of the Zoo is water-related, scarcity of clean water and lack of proper drainage. Nevertheless an overhead water-tank should be operational by now as the zoo scheduled to have its own reservoir under the master plan.
The large water bird pond is still as impressive as it was eight years ago and doesn’t show to suffer from water shortage. Its green water is not a sign of bad quality but due to algae and duckweed growth, which both are beneficial for the water birds. The birds that populate the large pond are not pinioned and choose to be there on their own free will, but basically because of the food that is provided of course. Some of the bird species are migratory birds.
Turning left and with the remains of the old fort Purana Qila on my left, I enter the primate section. The lion-tailed macaque island is surrounded by a water-filled moat and comprises several enrichment features. The same can be said of the chimpanzee enclosure that is beautifully situated uphill and apparently contains some remains of a former wall, but this could be fake. Across from the chimpanzees a large moated grassy exhibit with a few large trees houses a few fat rhesus macaques and grey langurs, while another primate enclosure is under development in the farthest left corner of the Zoo grounds. Although I didn’t see any chimpanzees, I am afraid that — like in 2008 — there isn’t a large group of chimps in the Zoo’s collection, because only a low number of lion-tailed macaques and rhesus macaques are kept as well. This is an old-fashioned lack of behavioural enrichment and not good to fulfil the social needs of the great apes and the macaques, which all live in large socially hierarchic troops.
From this point onwards several large enclosures follow for different deer species, none of them held together in a mixed-species exhibit. Nevertheless, these are large modern facilities with large herds of deer species that provide space as well as shade, either through vegetation or artificial constructions. The sambar deer and blackbuck that inhabit the mixed-species exhibit near the entrance both have an impressively large enclosure at their disposal in this section as well. Especially the blackbuck enclosure is beautiful.
It’s obvious that improvements have been achieved in this part of the zoo, because various old abandoned relics from the past are there to be seen, situated close to the modern deer enclosures. At least they seem abandoned and not in use any more, which I hope they really are.
While enjoying the spacious layout of the park I hear in the distance the typical call of a gibbon species. I am looking forward to see if improvements have been made to the design and the enrichment features of their enclosure since my previous visit. Something that is really necessary when I see the small predator exhibits that I am about to approach. Two blocks of modern cages appear when I follow the main footpath along the blackbuck domain. Cages that contain and display a jungle cat (Felis chaus), common palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus), small Indian civet (Viverricula indica), Bengal fox (Vulpes bengalensis) and jackal (Canis aureus). All of which classified as Least Concern according the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, so they have no actual conservation value and are there just to be shown to the public. All the more reason to provide them with an enclosure that meet modern standards that allow natural behaviour, which is absolutely not the case in these ridiculously small enclosures here at Delhi Zoo, even though the cats have access to high level platforms.
Almost all exhibits here at the National Zoological Park, apart from the aviaries and some awful examples as the ones for the small predators, are moated enclosures according the original Hagenbeck style. Most of the moats are dry and accessible to the animals, and therefore not an additional burden to the limited water supply. The Indian rhino enclosure is a good example of such design, although the rhinos are denied access to the moat by a fence that looks rather fragile considering the mass of these pachyderms. But there is no reason for the rhinos to go walkabout in the moat, because they have access to a huge area with trees that provide shade and ponds to cooling off.
The next door bird section is much less impressive. The row of old-fashioned aviaries situated in a semi-circle around a shady area that is inviting for having a picnic — which is impossible as you are not allowed to bring ‘eatables’ on the premises — comprises a large collection of various bird species. Unfortunately, each aviary is small in size with just a few specimens on display, which seems to be the golden rule here at Delhi Zoo except for the deer species that are kept in large herds.
The single male African elephant that is housed in the south-east corner of the grounds has ample space to roam around in an area that is not perfectly landscaped. In fact this ‘neglected’ area looks like a wild savannah, nice! I can imagine that the elephant misses social contact of conspecifics and that he therefore tries to make contact with passing visitors. But unfortunately for him the footpath closest to the enclosure is blocked.
The hippopotamus, another pachyderm species not indigenous to Asia, is represented by six specimens. These hippos occupy two similarly designed enclosures, both with a large pool. The fourth pachyderm species of Delhi Zoo is kept in yet another differently styled exhibit. The viewing opportunities at the Asian elephants exhibit are better than at the African elephant exhibit, but that also means that the visitor has a good opportunity to assess what it’s lacking — enrichment features such as a pool. I see only one elephant, although there are supposed to be two of them — still not a herd of course. From the Asian elephant exhibit I walk back to the two hoolock gibbons (Hoolock hoolock), who have stopped ‘singing’ about an hour ago, and check out their enclosure. Unfortunately, although of a modern design with a deep dry moat, it is small and lacks sufficient enrichment. It is a pity to see there are no proper facilities to allow the gibbons to express their natural swinging behaviour through a forest canopy, or something artificial that resembles treetops more than the current design.
Several species can be found in more than one enclosure, such as the aforementioned sambar deer and blackbuck. Likewise, the Asian lions are distributed over two moated enclosures, of which the one close to the giraffe paddock is the best in my opinion. That one has a dry moat, several elevations, good shelters and observation platforms, while the other one has a water-filled moat and flat grounds. The giraffe enclosure that is situated back to back to one of the lion enclosures shows no sign of life. It is a beautiful dry paddock with large trees resembling a savannah area, but apparently it is empty — at least the information panel is empty as well. It is not the only enclosure that is actually empty while no notification or explanation is given. In this case it is probably due to questionable management because the Zoo’s giraffes died as part of a series of deaths in 2015 and 2016 of several different animals including hog deer, lion-tailed macaque, langur and cape buffalo. The last giraffe died in 2016.
More or less across from the giraffe enclosure there are two similar bear enclosure located next to each other. The enclosures for sloth bear and Asian black bear both have a typical amphitheatre design with a deep dry moat on the visitors’ side.
The Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris tigris) are distributed over three different enclosures. The Zoo is more or less famous for its white Bengal tigers, which is very unfortunate, because there is no such thing as a wild white tiger, in fact they are a genetic aberration and suffer from many genetic problems due to inbreeding in zoos (see also Having white tigers on display in zoos — an appalling logic?). All enclosures have a modern design and will stand comparison with most tiger enclosures of renowned zoos, although too small in size, of course, like everywhere.
Delhi Zoo management made a wise decision to have only a limited number of species on display. Whether or not it is financially driven, it allows for large enclosures to be developed and the possibility to create large social groups of species that do so themselves in the wild. But apart from the ungulates there are only a few specimens of most other species in the Zoo’s animal collection. This is a shame for especially the primates that live in social troops, such as the chimpanzee. Remember, there’s only one chimp according the Zoo’s own inventory on the website.
What’s striking is the total lack of specific children entertainment, neither playgrounds nor education.
Considering food and drinks I thought it would be safer to bring my own water, although there are several ‘water points’ scattered around the premises where drinking water is available. You are not allowed to bring your own food, but there are a few small and simple food stalls inside that sell ice cream and candy. Near the car park and the square in front of the entrance there’s a large food court for those already accustomed to street vendor’s food in India or those with a sturdy digestion.
The zoo is more or less famous for its two white tigers. I am not sure if they have good breeding results with these aberrant Bengal tigers, because that is what they are those white tigers. There are no wild white tiger populations, and those kept in captivity are highly inbred. (see also the White Tiger fraud on the Big Cat Rescue website). When the Zoo’s breeding results are poor it is not because the tigers won’t mate. For the first time ever I saw two tigers mate, right there in the zoo enclosure before my eyes. I couldn’t believe it at first, so I nearly forgot to take a picture. A white male copulating with a normal coloured female Bengal tiger in public, this made my visit to Delhi Zoo a success, no matter what. The focus seems to be on ruminants, especially deer. In general, there are large enclosures for these animales. The grounds are enormous compared to the number of animals in the zoo. Some enclosures are abandoned (budget constraints?). Chimpanzee hill seems very empty with just two chimps to inhabit it (1 male, 1 female). Other primate enclosures (Gibbon, Macaque), although rather modern in lay-out, do not provide a lot of enrichment.
They have an interesting policy regarding birds. Some birds are provided areas to nest but are free to go (storks and waterbirds), other birds are housed in old-fashioned aviaries. Like caged birds of prey with hardly any space to move (fly) around. The kites you see everywhere in Delhi you will see also in the zoo, occupying the trees. They have access to all the open enclosures. The wolf enclosure is a shame (although wolves were not seen). The one female lion seemed lonely in her huge enclosure. The other feline species (except the tigers) are housed in old fashioned cages, some with and some without high observation posts.