Tigers from Mexico, panthers from Assam: The making of Reliance’s animal farm

The government has allowed the private company’s Gujarat zoo to import endangered animal species from Mexico and, contentiously, a pair of black panthers from a public zoo in Guwahati.

BySourodipto Sanyal
Tigers from Mexico, panthers from Assam: The making of Reliance’s animal farm
Shambhavi Thakur
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The Central Zoo Authority has permitted Reliance’s Jamnagar zoo in Gujarat to import several endangered, vulnerable and near threatened animals from Mexico, information obtained under the RTI Act shows.

The permission, given on February 8 this year, cleared the way for the Greens Zoological, Rescue and Rehabilitation Kingdom, as the Reliance zoo is ostentatiously called, to acquire 286 animals of 17 species from a zoo in San Pedro Garza Garcia, Nuevo Leon. They include 50 hybrid Bengal tigers and as many hybrid lions and American flamingos; 12 African cheetahs; 10 jaguars and as many leopards, cougars, ocelots, margays, Mexican hairy dwarf porcupines, jaguarundis, American black bears, bobcats, Linnaeus’s two-toed sloth; eight brown bear, eight each of two anteater species.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies tigers as an “endangered” species; lions, African cheetahs and giant anteaters as “vulnerable”; jaguars as “near threatened”.

The Reliance zoo, apparently a “pet project” of Anant Ambani, youngest son of the company’s owner and India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani, is planned to be laid out on 250.1 acres. The company’s Detailed Project Report for the proposed zoo was approved by the Central Zoo Authority in early 2019. The CZA is a statutory body of the environment, forest and climate change ministry tasked with conserving biodiversity and overseeing the country’s zoos.

According to its Master Layout Plan, the zoo is set to house a wide variety of animal species, including barking deer, pangolin, Himalayan tahr, owl, pheasant, wild boar, rhinoceros, Asian elephant, sloth bear, fishing cat, Bengal tiger, jackal, komodo dragon, Bengal monitor lizard, water monitor lizard, anaconda, desert foxe, African lion, striped hyena.

Though many mainstream media outlets have reported that the Reliance zoo will be the “world’s largest”, it won’t be the largest even in India. The Sri Venkateswara Zoological Park in Tirupati spans over 3,000 acres, almost 12 times the site area of the Greens Zoological Rescue and Rehabilitation Kingdom. The Arignar Anna Zoological Park in Chennai, Nandankanan Biological Park in Bhubaneshwar, Assam State Zoo cum Botanical Garden in Guwahati, Nehru Zoological Park in Hyderabad, Indira Gandhi Zoological Park in Visakhapatnam, and Sri Chamarajendra Zoological Gardens in Mysuru, are far more expansive as well. And they are all run by the respective state governments.

Domestic transfers

In October 2020, the CZA had allowed the Reliance zoo to take 35 leopards from Sakkarbaug Zoo in Junagadh, Gujarat, and 25 more the following month, the RTI response shows.

The Sakkarbaug zoo, opened in 1863 by the Nawab of Junagadh, Mahabat Khanji II, and spread over 207 acres, is a breeding centre for the Asiatic lion and also houses the Indian wild ass, the Asiatic cheetah and chinkara.

In February 2021, it was reported that the Reliance zoo had taken a pair of black panthers from the Assam State Zoo, in return for four zebras from Israel. According to the Telegraph, the transfer sparked protests by members of the Chirakhana Suraksha Mancha, an organisation formed in 2017 to safeguard the Assam zoo, which was established in 1957 and is reportedly the only breeding centre for black panthers in the country.

“As per the Central Zoo Authority guidelines, an exchange can only take place between government zoos. The Ambani zoo in Jamnagar is a private zoo,” Rajkumar Baishya, general secretary of the Chirakhana Suraksha Mancha told me. “There is a clear guideline and rule on this.”

Bobbeeta Sharma, general secretary of the Congress, which also opposed the transfer, told the Federal, "Although a senior forest official claimed the transfer was done as part of an exchange programme under which the Jamnagar centre would help Assam acquire four zebras from Israel, the document produced by him did not mention such exchange and only states that the animals were ‘acquisitioned’ for the purpose of ‘display’?”

The Recognition of Zoo Rules 2009 don’t deal with the issue of exchange or transfer of animals between a private and a public zoo. The 2008 CZA guidelines do cover this issue but even they don’t bar such a transfer or exchange.

The guidelines merely state: “While approving an exchange programme the past track record of the zoo with regard to success in breeding and infant healthcare and upkeep shall be given proper weight age.”

Since the Master Layout Plan for the Reliance zoo was approved only in February 2019, it isn’t clear how it has such a track record to qualify for exchange or transfer of animals from a public zoo.

I emailed the CZA a set of questions about its various approvals to the Reliance zoo. This report will be updated if they respond.

Sourodipto Sanyal is an independent journalist.

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