Penguins in Mumbai: Dream arrival at Byculla Zoo slowly turning into a nightmare

(Editor's note: This article was originally published on 27 July, 2016. It is being re-published in light of the fact that a humboldt penguin died at the Byculla zoo on Sunday, barely three months after it was procured along with seven others from an aquarium in South Korea.)

It was sometime in June 2009 that a press conference was organised by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (under whose purview the Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan — better known as the Byculla Zoo — falls) at the zoo to announce its plans for a major facelift. The Rs 433-crore makeover plan included, among other things, the installation of observatory zones, a taxidermy museum, food courts and an underground parking facility.

What's more, the plan drawn up by Thai firm HKS Designer and Consultancy envisioned splitting the zoo into thematic zones — each of which would represent a different continent and house animals and attractions accordingly.

Fantastic stuff!

In attendance at the press conference were Shiv Sena leader at the time (and now Sena supremo) Uddhav Thackeray and his younger son Tejas. Thackeray Jr exhibited a keen interest in nature, evident in the way he rattled off species, genera, phyla, orders, families and classes of nearly every bit of flora and fauna upon which he laid his eyes. Meanwhile, BMC and Byculla Zoo staff fell over each other to speak about the nitty-gritties of the detailed blueprint of the new and improved Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan.

The question and answer segment of the interaction soon began and amid the flurry of queries, came a particularly astute one — and one that would set the wheels in motion for Monday night's development.

Reporter: Which animal would you most like to see at the zoo?
Uddhav: A polar bear


Polar bears in India? Now that was a bad idea if I'd ever heard one.

Nevertheless, perturbed although I was with not knowing exactly how to digest that bit of information, I took solace in the fact that I already had a headline for the report I would file later that day.

Fast-forward to 2016 and past revamps of the plan, run-ins with the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee and the dropping of several expensive bells and whistles, the Byculla Zoo finally welcomed eight Humboldt penguins on Monday night.

But wait just a minute, you may well exclaim.

What do penguins have to do with polar bears, you may well ask.

Polar bears belong in the Arctic Circle, while penguins almost exclusively live in the Antarctic. Bringing in penguins in place of polar bears is less a case of buying Pepsi because Coca Cola wasn't available than buying a block of mature English cheddar cheese because Coca Cola wasn't available.

It was in 2011 that the plan to bring in penguins was first announced by the BMC. There's no clarity about just when the idea of polar bears was shelved — if at all it was considered — and the plan for penguins was mooted, but after numerous delays, the little tuxedo-clad flightless birds were on Indian soil for the first time.

The first thing visitors notice about India is the intoxicating mix of aromas and odours (or something to that effect), wrote Gregory David Roberts in that must-carry-around-if-you're-visiting-India that is Shantaram. But it's unlikely that our new monochromatic friends will have even had the opportunity to experience a single aroma, never mind a mix, seeing as how they were carted off into a 'specially designed 1,700 square foot air-conditioning chamber' immediately after arrival.

This will be their home for three months while they 'cool off'.

A senior BMC official told PTI that "after the cooling period is over, these penguins will then be shifted to the Penguin Exhibition Centre where people can see them."

Their shift to the Penguin Exhibition Centre is expected to occur in November, but there's a very real concern: Will all eight Humboldt penguins make it to November?

A glance at the Byculla Zoo's mortality record is required. According to a 2014 Indian Express report, "Thirty-nine mammals, 22 birds and 10 reptiles died at the zoo in 2010-11. In the following two years, the total number of deaths were 34  and 63. Up to August 2014, the number of mammals and reptiles at the zoo have remained the same since 2012-13 at 147 and 32 respectively, but around 61 birds have died in the first six months itself."

The report continues that Byculla Zoo has the worst mortality rate (12.1 percent) among zoos in the country.

Unsurprisingly, people are up in arms. And among those leading this public outpouring of incredulity at the arrival of the penguins is Anand Siva, a motivational speaker who describes himself as an 'Anti Theist Vegan'.

His anger has been mounting since news reports began to emerge about the penguins being on their way, but no sooner than those tiny tykes had arrived at last did Anand go into meltdown:

Anand also suspects a political angle to this strange case of forced migration:

Oh, he's also got a conspiracy angle, asking as he does, "How do we know they didn't bring in 10 penguins and 2 died? So on record we will always see only 10?"

It's easy to dismiss the protesters, the Petas and the Anand Sivas of the world as being kooks with too much time on their hands. After all, why let science-based facts get in the way of a great story?

First Indian zoo to host penguins

It's catchy. It's got a nice ring to it. It's great publicity. It's good political mileage to have ahead of the 2017 municipal elections. And it's a great story. My concern, however, is about the potentially sad ending.

Here's a question: Do you think the penguins will still be healthy by the time the civic polls actually take place?

Considering Byculla Zoo's record and the weather conditions in Mumbai, it's not something I'd bet on. I'd be more inclined to bet on those polar bears actually coming to Byculla Zoo in the near future.

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Updated Date: Oct 24, 2016 09:11:02 IST