A 5-year-old Bengal tiger walked into Nandankanan Zoological Park in India on April 30, drawn perhaps by a female tiger therein. He remained for more than a month in the twelve-acre park, eating the food provided and without any inkling of leaving — and then he did just that, scaling an 18-foot iron wall that was built to regulations to prevent tiger escapes.
In the month-plus that he remained at the park, the tiger was the cause of plenty of controversy. Some called for him to be released into the wild, while others wanted to keep him in captivity for breeding purposes. The tiger, though, clearly decided to take things into his own paws, apparently using angle irons set at 8 feet and 16 feet high to support the fence and damaging a CCTV camera tracking his movements in the process.
It’s hard to be surprised that the tiger realized he’d best seek freedom. It’s one thing to have all your meals provided by keepers, but another to realize that your movements are severely restricted. One often hears reports of animals escaping from zoos and parks or at least trying to, though few are successful as the tiger. Recently, a penguin got out of his tank at Sea World in Florida; he ended up returning after running into too many tourists.
A number of studies have indeed found that animals in captivity endure their full share of stress, underscoring that their confinement is hardly to their liking. Elephants in zoos and parks have been found to be suffering not only from stress, but from a lack of exercise that makes their lifespans half as long as they would be in the wild. Some have proposed ways to alleviate the stress of captive animals with “enrichment programs” that involve changing their environments and encouraging them to forage and hunt.
But others have been arguing that there is more than sufficient reason to phase some animals out of captivity. South African wildlife officials recently did just this for an elephant named Thandora.
After 23 years in the Bloemfontein Zoo, Thandora has been successfully reintroduced into the wild at Gondwana’s Game Reserve in South Africa in the past few months. Doing so required quite a bit of preparation, as the reserve’s Vanessa Naude writes. Thandora was kept for some time in a transition site, to increase her fitness (she needed to be able to walk up to eight kilometers a day) and stride length. She had new surroundings to get used to and certainly far more space than she’d been accustomed to for years. She also had to learn to forage on her own and to eat the natural food (such as branches) on the reserve (rather than ham and cheese sandwiches).
After two weeks, during which she endured a bout of severe colic, Thandora was observed to be slowly losing her zoo habits and to be joining a group of elephants cows and a calf. More recently, she has been seen to show a preference for an older bull elephant. As Naude writes:
If we look back at how far Thandora has come and how she has progressed: From a pumpkin-loving, companion craving, captive elephant, to an independent liberated wild animal.
Wildlife officials monitored Thandora’s movements on a 24-hour basis for a month and are hopeful that the experience of reintroducing her into the wild can be applied to other elephants.
Unless we can convince governments to really crack down on development and habitat destruction and vastly step up protections for so many animals from rhinos to pangolins, zoos could become the sole option for some species that face extinction. Stories like that of the Bengal tiger’s brief sojourn in Nandankanan Zoological Park and of Thandora rejoining elephants in the wild are a wake up call about why we must campaign to save their ecosystems and to work towards relocating animals in the wild if such is feasible. Would any of us really want to spend our lives in a cage?
Photo from Thinkstock