“We have had three lions in the zoo in the past. They lived their full life and died because of natural causes. I still remember how we gave the last of the lions a respectful burial, performing all the rituals,” said Radhakrishna Gharti, a zoo staff for the last 25 years.
“That was a male lion. It had grown so old and fragile in the last days that we had to shift it to an isolated place to keep it away from the visitors as it disliked noise and disturbance.”
According to Juddha Bahadur Gurung, who recently signed an MoU with the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) of India in capacity of the member secretary of National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC), the body that oversees the zoo, "a zoo without lion is simply incomplete."
Gurung informed that India is ready to gift the creature to Nepal if we can meet the criteria for the zoo.
“However, the fact is we do not meet the international standard for keeping a lion. International law specifies the quality of cage and the requirements related to space and human resource,” said Gurung.
“International law does not allow anyone to just gift an animal until the giver and taker are sure that all the standards are met. Actually, the responsibility to ensure the wellbeing of the animal is more on the giver,” said Gurung. “Or else, we would have got a lion from India long time back.”
He added that the zoo would also love to get a zebra, another animal the zoo has been deprived of for a decade. “Both lion and zebra are very beautiful and much sought after animals, but they have been absent for a very long time now.”
As both are not found in Nepal, the zoo can have them only if another country which has them presents it to us, Gurung explains.
Sarita Gyanwali, a program officer at the zoo, adds that the lack of space has indeed limited the zoo´s capacity for adding more species. “It is true that we do not have sufficient space to accommodate more animals. For instance, even if any country is ready to provide us a lion right now, we hardly have a place for it,” she said. “But even other countries might not be willing to donate the animal to us as the population of lions has been declining very fast.”
After the lions in the zoo died one after another, the empty cages were gradually occupied by leopards, tigers and bears. Currently, four leopards and one bear occupy the space erstwhile inhabited by lions. According to Gharti, one of the cages had turned too old and had to be repaired before placing the bear in it. Other exotic animals that Nepal gets only through exchange program are siamang, ostrich, hippopotamus and some rare bird species.
One-horned rhino, Royal Bengal tiger, Asiatic elephant, wild buffalo, yellow headed turtle and gharial crocodiles in the zoo are considered very special, too, by the zoo visitors.
The zoo that stretches over 120 ropanis of land was set up in 1932 by the late Prime Minister Juddha SJB Rana. After the political changes of 1951, the government took over the zoo. It was opened for public only in 1956. Over the years, the zoo´s management changed hands among various government departments and it was handed over to NTNC in 1995 for 30 years. Currently, it accommodates 116 species, including mammals, reptiles, birds and aquatic animals.
More Hippos might join zoo soon
Though it is not sure how long will it take for the zoo to have a lion, it might soon get a pair of hippo, thanks to a recently signed deal between Nepal and India. Hippos first made it the zoo all the way from Thailand in 2000. Currently, just one hippo is living in the zoo. Zoo officials believe that entry of more hippos would help the existing hippo to combat loneliness.
“NTNC and Central Zoo of India signed a memorandum of understanding on May 27. It is to foster closer professional zoo relationship as well as to protect and conserve threatened wildlife habitats,” said Gurung.
He further informed that India has hippos in surplus and so it is ready to give a pair to Nepal. “As it is a kind of exchange program, we are going to present what we have in surplus such as birds, deer and so on. Actually we have already sent them the list of the surplus animal and waiting for their response.”
Though exchanging animals with other countries is not a new thing for Nepal, official agreement of this kind is indeed new, Gurung explained. He added that under the MoU, both the CZA and NTNC will sponsor exchange of its personnel to participate in workshops, trainings and exposure visits held in their respective countries, annually.
“A group of Indian experts recently came here upon our invitation to assess our resources and utilization. The MoU is valid for 3 years and hopefully, it will bring significant results,” he stated.
Meanwhile, Gharti informed that it was not easy for the first and the only lot of hippos to adjust in the zoo in the beginning. They needed warm water and the zoo had used the boiler system to keep the pond warm. Gradually, the mammals got used to the climate and atmosphere and later they no more needed the conditioned water.