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Dehiwala Zoological Garden like some other overseas has been the subject of much controversy and debate among both national and international tourists, animal lovers and animal rights activists. The main contention for argument is the state of animal welfare and freedom in captivity. Foreign tourists often post negative reviews online on the treatment of animals in captivity in Sri Lanka. Certain entities lobbying for animal rights went so far as to call the Sri Lankan public to boycott the Dehiwala Zoo, demanding for a closure.

However, recently the government declared plans to upgrade the Dehiwala Zoo, keeping it open until 9.30 pm as a night park. Based on a concept by Minister of Sustainable Development and Wildlife, Gamini Jayawickrama Perera, animals will no longer be kept inside cages.

Acting Director General of the Department of National Zoological Gardens, Dhammika Malsinghe said that the Dehiwala zoo is the only Zoological garden in Sri Lanka since 1926. Set up in 1926 by John Hagenbeck as a depot for captured wildlife destined for zoos in Europe, it was purchased by the government in 1936.

“The 23-acre property has no space for further expansion which is necessary as it is located in an urban area. But the number of animals has increased with time. Animal welfare has a prominent place internationally and cages are being frowned upon,” Malsinghe acknowledged.

According to her, in order to manage the over-populated Dehiwala Zoo, some of the animals are now being transported to the Pinnawala Zoo, orphanage and the Hambantota Safari Park. “This is done in order to maximize the available space for the animals. The animals that remain in the Dehiwala Zoo would have more spacious enclosures”, she claimed while disclosing that there are also plans to develop a new visitor facility which includes recreation, employer facility, internal road system, as well as larger enclosures for lions, small cats, chimpanzees, orangutans, white tigers and jaguars.

The development project is a master plan that combines five projects which includes an orangutan enclosure, entrance complex for visitors, children’s area, chimpanzee enclosure and jaguar cages.

A new entrance complex to house tourists is in the pipeline where they will be catered to in a modern day environment. “Currently, the queues to enter the zoo stretch along the main road on some days,” said Malsinghe.

Assistant Director of the Department of National Zoological Gardens, Gayani Karunaratne said that the children’s park would be upgraded with modern facilities while the new chimpanzee enclosure is being constructed and is spacious compared to the old enclosure. It contains big trees for the animals to climb unlike its out-dated enclosure.

The new enclosure for exotic birds opened in June and provides a free space for caged birds to fly around, perch on trees or idle on the ground. Visitors could go inside the enclosure to observe the birds.

Currently visitors will be able to see a zebra foal born on November 7 trotting along with its mother. The partitions in deer enclosures would be removed. An enclosure for elephants is also being constructed to let them roam free without chains.  Three elephants will be kept in Dehiwala while the rest will be transferred to Pinnawala.

Malsinghe said that local species of monkeys would be sent to the zoo in Pinnawala. “Two species of monkeys were kept in islands within the zoo for a long time. Other monkey species will be in cages as they need large spaces to roam free which is not possible within the Dehiwela zoo. But we have made their cages very big”, said Malsinghe.

Asked why animals were confined to a tiny cage at night, Malsinghe shot back saying that it is for the security of animals, employees and the neighborhood. “Personally, I would like to keep them out, not for exhibition, but to give them more freedom.”

Malsinghe elaborated that she has to have the consent of the employees of the zoo before carrying this out and so far she hasn’t received a positive response.

“Some animals, especially carnivores are more active at night,” she said.

As a compromise for this, in the chimpanzee enclosure, there will be a separate cage to keep them at night. She also disclosed plans for a new animal hospital.

“The pits used as enclosures for tigers and jaguars are not accepted today,” admitted Malsinghe while adding that the new enclosures for Jaguars and white tigers are currently under construction.

Assistant Director Gayani Karunaratne said that the new enclosures would be more spacious and would accommodate only the white tigers and jaguars. “It was earlier shared by the two pairs of Bengal tigers that have been transferred to their new enclosure,” she said.

The Bengal tiger enclosure is spacious and includes a pool as well as tree trunks, plants and rocks available in their natural habitat. There are spacious enclosures for the rusty spotted cat, civet cat and golden palm civet.

Another spectacle is the African lion cubs lying with their mother. According to Karunaratne the cubs this time are breast-fed by their mother unlike the previous occasion when she had cubs. “When they grow they will be transferred to the Safari Park in Hambantota”, said Karunaratne. Currently, the lioness and cubs are let into the enclosure every other day.  This is done to protect the cubs from the male lion as it tends to attack its own young.

The lion is kept inside the cage on the days that the cubs are out.

Malsinghe also emphasized the need to attract more tourists, since currently the number of tourists visiting the zoo is very low compared to the number of visitors at Pinnawala. “So far there has been no publicity for the zoo. But with the development plan we hope to get publicity and attract more tourists by increasing animal welfare with this new development plan,” she said.

During the last year, only 30,400 foreign tourists visited the Dehiwala zoo. The average revenue of the zoo is Rs. 200,000 per day which equals its average expenditure per day.
“There is no recommendation for the number of visitors per day. The more the visitors the more Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) we get,” said Malsinghe.

According to Animal Welfare Coalition, Convener and Attorny-at-law, Vositha Wijenayake, animals have the right to be free and live in their habitat and being caged is a restriction.
“This causes psychological impacts in addition to physical impacts which makes keeping animals in cages an act of cruelty”, said Wijenayake.

Young Zoologists Association, President, Parami Vidyaratne said that expansion of cages is an improvement on the existing conditions. The Young Zoologists Association (YZA) operates from within the Dehiwala zoo premises. “In addition to bigger enclosures it is important to pay attention to landscape of the enclosure. This should suit the particular species. The Bengal tiger cage is satisfactory this way”, said Vidyaratne.

He further elaborated that these enclosures should portray or replicate the natural habitat of the species in the best possible way due to space limitations.

“New spacious enclosures would help reduce stressful behaviour of the animals. The Dehiwala zoo is not just a place where animals are caged. It is also a place that has an educational purpose. The Dehiwala zoo serves as the only place for naturalists, students as well as average citizens to educate themselves on such a wide range of species. This is where university students do their research and some species are preserved only because of the zoo which acts as a genetic bank” said Vidyaratne.
(Pics by Mushtaq Thasleem)

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