Tale of survival: B'luru's Bannerghatta Biological Park

How Bengaluru's Bannerghatta Biological Park pulled through with meagre resources

The impact of Covid-19 is particularly severe on zoos

Amidst ‘zero revenue’ for months, zoo conservators have fought the odds to ensure the safety of animals and fulfil their requirements ranging from routine feeding to advance veterinary care. Credit: DH Photo

Though the Covid-19 pandemic has hit all the sectors the world over, its impact is particularly severe on zoos and aquariums that are left to fend for themselves. Curators at the facilities have no work-from-home option and must attend to the animals every day.

Amidst ‘zero revenue’ for months, zoo conservators have fought the odds to ensure the safety of animals and fulfil their requirements ranging from routine feeding to advance veterinary care.

In a candid interview with DH, Bengaluru’s Bannerghatta Biological Park (BBP) Chief Conservator and Executive Director Vanashree Vipin Singh, IFS, highlighted the challenges and the lesson learnt during the pandemic.

DH: How did the Covid pandemic impact BBP’s operations?

VVS: The impact of Covid on us (BBP) was on two fronts — administrative and veterinary care. During the lockdown, we had to function with absolutely zero revenue.

We are one of the largest zoos in India with an annual footfall of 16 lakh and Rs 35 crore gate collection.

The pandemic hit animal feeding and management of human resources at the BBP. Procuring food, paying the staff and maintenance expenses were still the same.

Also, we had to spend on veterinary care and disinfection as the threat of infection was (perhaps still is) imminent for zoo animals.

DH: How did BBP sail through the crisis?

VVS: When the lockdown was announced, our staff and veterinarians collectively decided to cut down on unnecessary expenses and live as a community to keep the infection at bay. We rationalised animal feed without compromising the nutritional value. Despite a steep fall in the revenue, we did not cut salaries and diverted the workforce to things like maintenance and repair to support the functioning of the zoo. Our veterinarians and support staff stayed in the zoo for nearly six months monitoring animals and birds daily.

We had savings from the previous year’s revenue to meet the expenses and people support our adoption programme generously. The Zoo Authority of Karnataka (ZAK) and the state government also helped us manage the situation.

DH: Were animals put on a special diet keeping the pandemic in mind?

VVS: Besides the 2,300 plus animals of various species, the park also has one of the largest concentration of carnivores. The diet, therefore, varies from animal to animal. During the pandemic, we rationalised the daily feed more than the special diet. In fact, our mortality rate during the pandemic has been less than the annual average of 5%.

DH: With no visitors for some months, how did you plan the work for the staff?

VVS: This was challenging. After the initial cleaning of cages and feeding animals, the field staff did not have much work, but we started to assign them different tasks. Some have become masons repairing the compound and cage walls. Some of them were assigned to different works to ensure they were engaged all through the day.

We also took care of the children of our field staff, especially mahouts and kavadis. Our education officers took daily classes and gave them full access to the library and other materials since they did not have access to online classes. Since we took care of their families, the staff were relaxed and focused on work.

DH: How have you prepared for the unlock guidelines? What precautions have been put in place to prevent any possible infection?

VVS: Just like we did during the first wave, we have come up with standard operating procedures (SOPs), which is awaiting government clearance. All safety and Covid protocols have been put in place and we have also been doing rehearsals. The focus will be on online ticketing to avoid crowding. We are also encouraging family bookings so that each family can be taken around as one unit. All buses will operate with 50% capacity. The BBP has also successfully vaccinated 98% of its staff. Animal keepers are given PPE kits. We regularly disinfect cages, pathways and entrances.

DH: What changes are you planning to incorporate in managing BBP post-Covid-19?

VVS: Covid has helped us assess our capabilities. The pandemic has given us time for research and public outreach. We are planning to train our staff in a variety of areas to enable them to multitask. We plan to stagger the entry of visitors with absolutely zero waiting time on arrival. There will be a tech-enabled interpretation centre where visitors will be educated about conservation.

Besides, we want to be self-reliant in animal feed supply like how we are self-sufficient in revenue. We are also exploring online platforms to reach out to children and students to upscale zoo volunteers and organise regular talks on conservation.

DH: BBP had reached out to the public for the adoption of animals,  especially for feeding. How did it go? Have people responded positively?

VVS: The pandemic has depleted our annual revenue of Rs 25 crore to Rs 30 crore. At the same time, we require Rs 2 crore monthly for all expenses, including feeding the animals and staff salaries. With absolutely zero visitors for months and having to utilise our savings, we are worried about the revenue. This was when we reached out to the public for adoption and were supported by Sandalwood star Darshan. Many celebrities and people came forward to adopt. We raised Rs 1 crore from the campaign.

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