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Rewilding to restore a natural order

The bald eagle in Alipore Zoo of Kolkata. Credit: Shubhobroto Ghosh

The Alipore Zoo in Kolkata houses a confiscated bald eagle, the national bird of the United States. The bald eagle is a species native to, and found mainly in, Canada and the US. Finding a bald eagle in such a distant zoo makes one ask whether the caged bird could be returned to its country of origin.

The debate on captivity versus freedom and the ethics of caging non-native animals in foreign zoos is perhaps as old as zoos themselves. The presence of the bald eagle may be seen as an opportunity for thousands of visitors to learn about animals. But it is difficult to ignore the fact that the bird ought to be in its natural habitat.

Release of captive animals from zoos into natural habitat was earlier known as reintroduction. There is also the possibility of releasing captive animals rescued from wildlife trade by repatriation to their countries of origin. The bald eagle looked healthy, another reason that its repatriation seemed possible.

Releasing animals from captivity back into their habitat is called rewilding. A BBC programme recently highlighted the plight of rescued kangaroos found in North Bengal amid a discussion whether to keep the kangaroos in Bengal or to return them to Australia. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has guidelines, recognising the challenges of repatriating animals confiscated in faraway locations. These guidelines are not exhaustive or infallible though.

There have been several cases of successful re-introduction programmes involving captive animals, including the Arabian oryx and golden lion tamarin. In India, reintroduction programmes include the pygmy hog project in Assam and vulture release initiatives in Haryana, Assam and West Bengal.

In the United Kingdom, rewilding projects are being carried out by some captive facilities, such as the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust of the Jersey Zoo, and the Aspinall Foundation that runs zoos in Howletts and Port Lympne in Kent. While Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust has had several successful reintroduction programmes including the pygmy hog captive breeding and release project in Assam in India, the golden lion tamarin reintroduction project in Brazil, and various bird projects in Mauritius, the Aspinall Foundation has created zoological history by releasing gorillas bred in captivity to the wild in Gabon, cheetahs in South Africa and black rhinos to Tanzania.

The foundation is in the process of releasing its entire herd of 13 African elephants in Howletts Zoo to Kenya in what may be the world’s first elephant reintroduction project.

In India, the Delhi High Court recently turned down a public interest legal challenge to release from Delhi Zoo an African elephant named Shankar. His plight in captivity was highlighted in the Indian Zoo Inquiry project supported by Zoocheck Canada and by Nikita Dhawan, a volunteer for World Animal Protection in India.

Objections and concerns associated with the translocation and relocation of elephants in captivity are valid, but the idea is that animals should not be seen as commodities or curiosities in captivity in zoos. One has to start somewhere to return them where they rightfully belong — in the wild.

In India there are at least two recorded cases of release of captive elephants into the wild. The first one is that of captive elephants released in Palamau in Jharkhand by the Maharaja of Surguja around 1920. These elephants bred and thrived in the wild. The second case is that of tame elephants of the Andamans that were brought to Interview Island and North Andaman by the P.C. Ray Timber Company. The abandoned elephants survived and bred and their population lives to this day. In South Africa, one of this article’s authors, Karin Saks, is carrying out pioneering projects on rehabilitating and releasing primates.

Many concepts about the status of wildlife and animals were not considered seriously in the last century but notions of environmentalism, wildlife conservation, animal welfare and animal rights have become part of mainstream thinking today. Maybe visitors in Alipore Zoo can be prompted to explore the idea of returning the bald eagle to its real habitat.

Shubhobroto Ghosh is Wildlife Projects manager at World Animal Protection (India) and author of ‘Dreaming In Calcutta And Channel Islands’.

Karin Saks is a South African primatologist. Her work and relationship with her baboon “child” Darwin was published in 2003 by Penguin in ‘Life With Darwin and other Baboons’ by Fransje van Riel.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d44151-022-00080-y

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