Rare Animals Dying in Indian Zoo

Thirteen rare tigers are killed by “stress.” A crocodile is found decapitated, its head discovered in a rhino’s cage. A deer dies mysteriously.

A series of strange occurrences recently has left a range of animals dead at India’s showcase zoo. But the deaths of 13 of the zoo’s 56 most prized beasts, the rare Royal Bengal tigers, have caused the biggest uproar: Lawmakers in Parliament mourned the tigers Monday, and India’s Supreme Court has called for an investigation.

Nine of the 13 big cats that died between June 23 and July 28 were white tigers, mutated versions of the Royal Bengal. Only 61 white tigers are believed to exist today, all in zoos around the world.

Explanations of what happened at Nandankanan Zoological Park vary — from stress and disease, to improper care and too few resources at the zoo.

Zoo Fed Tigers Decomposed Meat

Indian Environment and Forests Minister T.R. Balu said the tigers were sick due to a parasite and under stress, a condition exacerbated by a cyclone in November 1999 that ravaged the zoo and killed more than 10,000 people in the eastern state of Orissa. The zoo is located in Bhubaneshwar, Orissa’s capital. Activists, though, have blamed rotten meat or the use of the wrong medicine.

When the tigers began dying in June — nine in one night — the nation focused on the treatment of captive animals in a country that has no tradition of animal rights. Most state governments cannot afford to run zoos properly, and Orissa is one of India’s poorest regions.

Newspaper investigations have shown that zoos throughout India don’t have enough veterinarians on call, and that most zoo workers are unskilled laborers uneducated in animal biology.

After the cyclone, the zoo began withholding the animals’ food once a week to cut down on food costs. Investigators have been unable to obtain samples of medicine reportedly given to the animals.

Zoo authorities initially said the 13 tigers died of sleeping sickness, a disease carried by tsetse flies. However, tests by the government’s Pathological Laboratory in Calcutta showed that the deaths were caused by eating decomposed and contaminated cow meat, an official at the laboratory said on condition of anonymity.

Bizarre Death of Crocodile

“We do not have a clear report on what actually happened, whether the animals died of the [sleeping sickness] or something else,” said Manoj Mishra of the World Wildlife Fund in India. “The whole thing is bizarre because this disease does not take such a big toll.”

In a different sort of death at the zoo, a rare adult saltwater crocodile of South American origin died the night of July 26, its mutilated body discovered the next day.

On July 30, police arrested two men, one of them the crocodile’s former keeper, who reportedly confessed he had killed the animal to get back at the zoo. The man reportedly had been transferred out of his job at the zoo’s reptile enclosure after he was caught selling fish meant for the crocodiles.

Meanwhile, a deer was found dead Friday. The cause of death is not yet known.

So far, 21 zoo workers have lost their jobs as an investigation of the animals’ deaths unfolds.

It is the second rash of deaths in less than a year at the facility. When the Nandankanan zoo was lashed by torrential rains and high-speed winds during last year’s cyclone, trees were toppled and animals scampered with terror in their enclosures. An African lion, eight spotted deer and four black-faced langur monkeys were among the animals that died.