Column | When politicians take a fancy to animals

A staff member cleans glass as a Penguin is seen inside its enclosure at the Byculla Zoo in Mumbai
A staff member cleans glass as a Penguin is seen inside its enclosure at the Byculla Zoo in Mumbai. Photo: PTI

Who could imagine that penguins, considered to be the most harmless among birds, could cause so much of controversy, that too far away from the cold climate of the Antarctic region which is their natural habitat. But Mumbai, which is known more for its heat and humidity, is witnessing a big argument on whether it is worth the cost to keep 10 Humboldt penguins in the Byculla zoo, located in a very congested part of the country's commercial capital. Battling on behalf of the penguins is the state's powerful Tourism Minister Aditya Thackeray, son of Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray.

As the head of the Shiv Sena's youth wing, Aditya had persuaded the then BJP-Shiv Sena government in the State and the NDA government at the Centre in 2017 to permit the import of eight penguins to be kept in a temporary enclosure of the zoo, as he had a personal fascination for penguins which don't fly, but use their wings to swim. Since he was the prince charming of the Shiv Sena, which controls the the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, his wish was fulfilled and the penguins became a major attraction, especially after one of the eight died due to bacterial infection.

Now as the city's guardian minister who is also in-charge of tourism, he wants the Byculla zoo to host more exotic species from all continents like the more famous zoos of New York, Tokyo and London.

But Aditya is facing charges of being cruel to penguins removed far away from their natural habitat but also for the cost of maintaining and rearing the penguins at a cost of Rs 4 crore a year. But the zoo authorities have retorted that the zoo's income had shot up from a mere Rs 50 lakh per year to more than Rs 3 crore annually.

But questions continue to swirl whether one man's fancy for a particular animal species should cost so much for the city, while Thackeray's supporters argue that big cities need big investments which in turn would bring bigger income. They also say that lakhs of visitors, who are not even able to travel to Delhi, which has the country's biggest zoo, benefit by seeing the exotic species. Even the Delhi zoo does not have penguins.

Uddhav Thackeray and Aditya Thackeray
Uddhav Thackeray and Aditya Thackeray

Mulayam Singh's fancy for lions
Aditya is not an exception. Despite the common belief that Indian politicians are only obsessed with politics round the clock, there are some politicians whose obsession with animals and bid to create a visual enclosure for them have made news. For more than three decades, Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav has been obsessed with starting a zoo for lions in his native Etawah district in Uttar Pradesh, as he feels the habitat is suitable for the bigger cats.

Despite being chief minister thrice Mulayam could not get approval from the Centre for import of lions from Gujarat's Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary, the country's only sanctuary for Asiatic lions, as there was strong resistance from the Gujarat government. But Mulayam was determined and set up a government-run safari for other carnivores and herbivores.

Finally, it was his son Akhilesh Singh Yadav as chief minister who managed to get eight lions transferred from Gir to Etawah. But when five lions died due to canine distemper, Gujarat leaders including Narendra Modi protested that no environment was safer for the lion except Gir.


The Central Zoo Authority, rattled by the deaths, however allowed the lion-breeding programme to continue in Etawah, but said no to visitors. But Mulayam wanted people of his region to see exotic species like lions, bears and African deer. Finally, in his 80th year, Yadav was thrilled to see the lion safari park being opened for visitors by the current Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Other safaris are expected to open once the COVID-19 situation normalises.

Another bid for lions
Kuno Wildlife sanctuary of Madhya Pradesh, 260 km from Etawah had been witnessing another controversy which emerged from the obsession for lions and cheetahs of an urban-based politician who was an activist environment minister at the Centre. Jairam Ramesh, who handled the sensitive portfolio under Manmohan Singh wanted the two majestic animals — one confined to Gir and another extinct from India since 1940s — to be brought to the 700 square kilometre sanctuary whose grasslands host the leopard.

Mulayam Singh Yadav
Mulayam Singh Yadav

Though the Supreme Court bench headed by Justice KS Radhakrishnan had permitted translocating a few lions to Kuno, but both the Central and Gujarat governments have serious objections, and the transfer is unlikely to happen during the prime ministership of Narendra Modi. Now the Supreme Court has accepted the recommendation of an expert committee to import from Iran a dozen cheetahs, so that the world's fastest animals return to India.

Modi and peacock
PM Modi himself has shown his love for animals by posting a picture of a preening peacock in the gardens of the his official residence in Delhi. The pictures had gone viral, with some wildlife activists protesting that the prime minister should not have fed the National Bird, as it was listed as a wild animal. However, peacocks are abundant in urban Delhi and the pictures of then President APJ Abdul Kalam attending to a wounded peacock in Rashtrapati Bhavan's Mughal Gardens had stirred many hearts. Similarly, Modi's pictures showed a human and relaxed side of a leader who has always been busy with work and speeches. Subsequently, the peacock also became a darling of cartoonists in the country, who used it in their work on the prime minister.

Lions at Gir
Lions at Gir. Photo: AP/File

Raghavan's snake park
In Kerala a politician's love for snakes helped in public awareness but also huge controversies. The snake park at Parassinikkadavu, which was promoted by communist stalwart M V Raghavan, will be celebrating four decades of its existence but for many years the park and its special inhabitants were involved in legal and political battles. But Raghavan persisted that the park was a public service which needs to be preserved and promoted. The acceptance for this park has been widespread in recent years. Similarly, penguins are becoming a part of the Mumbai cityscape thanks to Aditya Thackeray.

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