Captive breeding at Darjeeling Zoo

Captive breeding at Darjeeling Zoo

July 15, 2014

Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park (PNHZP), better known as Darjeeling Zoo, has, for many years now, been the site of successful captive breeding programmes, especially of endangered high-altitude animals like red panda and snow leopard. It is one of the very few high-altitude zoological parks in India, the others being in Kufri (near Shimla) in Himachal Pradesh, in Nainital in Uttarakhand, and in Gangtok in Sikkim.

The entrance to PNHZP

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (centre) at PNHZP

A successful tradition

The conservation and breeding in captivity programme at the zoo began in 1986, with snow leopards. So far 40 of the elusive creatures have been bred successfully and many of these have been gifted to zoos in other parts of the country. The other animal for which a major captive breeding programme is running is another endangered creature, red panda, also called ‘fire cat’ because of the red fur and somewhat cat-like appearance (red pandas are smaller than their Chinese siblings, the world famous giant pandas). This programme started in 1990 and like the snow leopards, many of these have also been gifted to other zoos. The number of snow leopards and red pandas kept at PNHZP now stand at an impressive 14 and 17, respectively. Significantly, PNHZP is the first Asian zoo to have started captive breeding of snow leopards.

Successful though the breeding programmes have been, one major problem has been the re-introduction of the animals into the wild. After all, one of the major reasons for starting the captive breeding programmes was to increase the population of red pandas and snow leopards in the wild. Poaching and habitat loss have significantly reduced their numbers. No snow leopard from PNHZP’s breeding programme has been released into the wild till now. As for red pandas, in 2003 and 2004, four were released, but only three survived. One couldn’t take the pressure of living in the wild and fending for itself. Since then, releasing red pandas in the wild has suspended. Instead, the animals are gifted to other zoos.

A red panda at the zoo

The heart-breaking journey of the female red panda who could not survive in the wild, Mini, has been documented beautifully by the famous wildlife film-making duo, the Bedi brothers (Ajay and Vijay), in their Green Oscar-winning documentary, Cherub of the Mist. This documentary also tracked another female released in the wild, Sweety, which, however, survived and gave birth to a young after mating with a wild panda.

New breeding programme

Now, Darjeeling Zoo has started a new breeding conservation centre for red panda and snow leopard. It has been set up in an area of 5 hectares inside the zoo. The aim this time is to not just breed, which PNHZP has anyway been doing successfully, but to successfully release the snow leopards and red pandas in the wild. For this, three pairs of snow leopards and two pairs of red pandas have been kept at the centre.

However, releasing captively bred animals in the wild is not an easy task. They are used to getting fed by the keepers, and even if they are made to hunt for their own food, living in a limited area automatically brings in a semblance of protection. So the instincts to hunt for food and to fend for themselves is often not developed adequately, and as a result, the animals often get killed, either by predators or by humans for selling body parts (for traditional medicines and the skin as decorative fur).

According to AK Jha, the director of PNHZP, earlier the resources of the zoo were limited; now, though, with guidelines from both the international conservation organisation, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and India’s Central Zoo Authority (CZA), they are confident of successfully releasing the animals in the wild. Also, according to Jha, they are doing their own feasibility study this time, so that there are no hiccups.

But even with all the help, developing the required instincts in the animals would be a time-consuming process. According to the zoo authorities, snow leopards born now could be released in the wild only in the next four to five years. Red pandas though could be released earlier, in the next one to two years.

(From left) Red panda cubs; snow leopard cubs carried by a PNHZP warden

Besides red panda and snow leopard, Darjeeling Zoo is also known for a whole host of other rare animals and birds, including the common leopard, Tibetan wolf, Himalayan black bear, common langur, Himalayan tahr, Bhutan grey peacock pheasant, satyr tragopan or crimson horned pheasant, blood pheasant, kalij pheasant, Himalayan blue sheep or bharal, Himalayan salamander, Himalayan monal (type of pheasant), red jungle fowl, slow loris and Himalayan palm civet.

Habitat of the snow leopard

Habitat of the red panda

From the early nineties, Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park has been designated a breeding centre by Central Zoo Authority for 10 endangered Himalayan species, of which, as the coordinating zoo for five species and as a participating zoo for five other.

As the coordinating zoo – Snow leopard, red panda, Tibetan wolf, satyr tragopan, Himalayan salamander

As a participating zoo – Himalayan blue sheep (bharal), Bhutan grey pheasant, Himalayan tahr, blood pheasant, Himalayan monal

(Clockwise from top) Satyr tragopan, blood pheasant, Bhutan grey pheasant, Himalayan monal (female & male)

(Clockwise from top)Tibetan wolf, Blue sheep, Himalayan tahr, Himalayan salamander

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Comments (3)
Shyamal Reply
July 15, 2014
The pictures are very nice.
Sanjukta Das Reply
July 15, 2014
I've visited Darjeeling four times and every time I've gone to the zoo. After all nowhere else can you see red pandas in captivity, and it's very difficult to see the reclusive creatures in the wild. All the other animals are also endangered and hence hard to find. So this is a unique zoo in a sense.
Parashar Reply
July 15, 2014
Very good article, with lots of information and wonderful pictures.
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