Hyderabad, June 6: The lions at Tirupati’s Sri Venkateswara Zoo live under a caste system.
Some are pampered, allowed as much sex as they want, and are hailed as the finest of the Asian breed. The other set survives in jam-packed same-sex cages, fed but not cared for, denied copulation rights, objects of pity that is mixed with contempt.
These 70 were “rescued” from circuses across India seven years ago after the Supreme Court banned circuses from training or exhibiting bears, monkeys, tigers, panthers and lions.
At their new home, the ringmaster’s whip no longer cuts into their skin, but they live under concentration-camp conditions. The 14 females are kept apart from the 56 males because India’s wildlife laws do not allow sex between hybrid animals — or between hybrid and “pure” breeds.
“We were instructed by the central zoo authority that we must not encourage regeneration of these hybrid animals,” said A.V. Joseph, the state’s principal conservator of forests (wildlife).
“We keep these animals tranquillised most of the time so they don’t get violent for lack of sex,” zoo warden Raghupati said.
Sources explained that circus lions tend to be hybrids of the Asiatic and African varieties, probably because the owners buy animals from both groups and interbreed them. According to wildlife experts, hybrid animals tend to have genetic anomalies and if allowed to breed, weaken the gene pool of the species.
At the zoo, styled a wildlife park, they are seen as impostors. “These animals are not wildlife; so no particular effort is made to promote their well-being,” said the chief conservator of forests, S.K. Das.
“But we don’t starve them of food or medicare although these circus animals eat more than those captured from the wild — about 8kg of meat every day,” warden Raghupati said.
So the zoo is feeding them and waiting for them to die. “The zoo authorities in Delhi said these animals must be allowed to live as long as they can. That’s all,” a forest official said.
The females are aged between 8 and 14 years but most of the males are over 15. “The average life span of wild lions is less than 15 but those in captivity live for 20-25 years,” said Praveen Bhargav, a trustee of NGO Wildlife First.
There is a campaign afoot for mercy killing of the over-20s who cannot move well any more.
Besides, there’s the fear of poachers. Memories of Sakhi, an eight-year-old tiger that was killed and skinned in the Hyderabad zoo, is fresh in everyone’s mind.
“Instead of letting them rot and die at Tirupati, the animals might as well be distributed among the country’s smaller zoos so that, at least, children can learn about wildlife,” said Imran Siddiqui, founder of the Tiger Conservation Society in Hyderabad.
Some of the lions ferried to the zoo — from circuses such as Rambo (Surat), Grand National (Mumbai), Venus (Bihar), Apollo (Varanasi) and Royal (Kerala) — have already died.
A few tigers were also brought there but only one survives. When there were more, they were denied sex, too.