Just ahead of the state assembly elections, a political slugfest has broken out in Assam over the relocation of a pair of black panthers from the Assam State Zoo in Guwahati to a Gujarat-based zoo run by Reliance industries.
While zoo authorities in Guwahati say that the relocation is part of an animal exchange programme done in adherence to all required procedures, the Opposition Congress has alleged that the documents produced by zoo authorities make no such mention. Animal activists, on the other hand, have questioned the transfer of animals from a state zoo to a private zoo.
The controversy erupted after it came in the public domain that a pair of black panthers were relocated to the Greens Zoological Rescue and Rehabilitation Kingdom in Jamnagar, Gujarat, on January 12.
Speaking to media, Tejas Mariswamy, the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) in-charge of the Guwahati zoo maintained that all required procedures and protocols were followed in the relocation of the black panthers. “The relocation was done with all the approvals of the Central Zoo Authority,” said Mariswamy.
Assam State Zoo authorities also said that in exchange of the black panthers, the Reliance-run zoo would help the Guwahati zoo get zebras from Israel. The Guwahati zoo has requested for four equines from the Zoological Centre Tel-Aviv Ramat-Gan in Israel.
Mariswamy told the media that such exchanges are routine and in a similar process the Guwahati zoo recently received a pair of Hoolock Gibbons from the zoo in Aizawl and is likely to send a tiger in exchange.
The opposition Congress, however, has hit out at the BJP-led Assam government, accusing it of blatantly shifting the two black panthers to a private zoo, conveniently forgetting the public uproar that the transfer of three elephants from Assam to a temple in Gujarat had triggered last year.
“Although a senior forest official claimed that 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 any such exchange and only states that the animals were ‘acquisitioned’ for the purpose of ‘display’,” said Bobbeeta Sharma, chairperson, media department of the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee.
“There is no mention of any exchange of animals in the letter addressed to the PCCF (Wildlife) of Assam. What was the official procedure followed and can such transfer take place for ‘display?’,” Sharma added, demanding an inquiry into the matter.
Questioning the urgency of transferring the black panthers in the midst of a pandemic, Sharma sought to know if the animals would be returned to the zoo after the ‘display’.
The incident has earned the Assam government and state zoo authorities the ire of local conservationists too.
“Animals from a state zoo cannot be exchanged with a private zoo,” said Rajkumar Baishya of non-profit organisation Chiriyakhana Suraksha Mancha.
Currently, the Assam State Zoo is the only breeding centre of black panthers in the country.
According to officials of the Assam State zoo, last year a black panther was exchanged with Mysore zoo for an ostrich, and before that another similar exchange had happened where a black panther was exchanged with a giraffe from the Ranchi zoo.