It’s a zoo out there

Fast running out of space for rescued wildlife, the Central Zoo wants to expand to Bhaktapur

There used to be a time when the Central Zoo in Jawalakhel was a menagerie for caged animals that looked miserable. But with help from conservation groups in Nepal and abroad, the zoo has now become a centre for conservation education in Kathmandu and a shelter for rescued wildlife.

Every year, more than 1 million people visit the lush 6-hectare park in the middle of Jawalakhel’s built-up neighbourhood to observe its 942 mammals, birds and fish and 127 species of reptiles. Most of them are students.

Much of the credit for upgrading the facility goes to Friends of Zoo, which has in the past 20 years built up a network of 200 schools and 6,000 members which actively involve students in activities like cultural and educational tours to Annapurna Conservation Area Project and Chitwan National Park, a Night Guided Tour, Animal Feeding program and Zoo Clean-up Campaign to teach young people the importance of conservation.

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In February, the zoo opened a digital interactive audio-visual centre to share information about the animals through multimedia.

"Conservation education is the only means through which we can educate the general public and students about nature and its importance. It is an important component — that is why we are focusing on digital education as well," says Chiranjibi Prasad Pokheral, Project Manager of the Central Zoo.

Zoo officials are often called to dart leopards or other wildlife in the outskirts of Kathmandu, and many of these animals are brought to the zoo for safety and treatment before being released back into the wild. Others, like a man eating Royal Bengal Tiger named Maharaja rescued from Chitwan National Park is a permanent resident.

Other long-term guests are pangolins that are rescued from smugglers, and even a pair of chimpanzees that were seized last year while being smuggled from Africa via Kathmandu to India. There are also rhinos, jungle cats, red pandas, barking deer, rhesus macaques and birds like barn owls, budgerigars, golden pheasants, owlets and the Eurasian eagle owl.

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In fact, there are so many wild animals that are brought to the zoo that it is running out of space. To address the problem, 15 hectares of land at the National Zoological Garden in Suryabinayak of Bhaktapur have been set aside for a Wildlife Rescue Centre. The idea is to relocate the zoo itself to Bhaktapur, but a decision to that effect taken in 2015 has still not been implemented due to turf battles between different agencies of government.

"We are hopeful because the government has allocated the budget for a detailed project report for the relocation, but it is a big project and it will take time,” says Pokheral. "We plan on shifting bigger animals to Bhaktapur while keeping the birds, reptiles and butterflies here in Jawalakhel and turn it into a research education centre."

Once it is operational, there will be a shuttle bus to carry visitors between Jawalakhel and the zoological garden 23km away in Surya Binayak.

Catching them young

A procession of uniformed school children walked through the glass door into the Field Marshal Sir John Chapple Education Centre in the Central Zoo one recent morning. They were giggles and pointing at their augmented selves on a monitor alongside a dancing chimp or submerged in an underwater world.  The children file ahead to eight digital kiosks, huddling in small groups answering a nature quiz and playing online games to learn about the animals in the zoo.

Making conservation learning fun and interactive is the purpose of the centre which was set up in February. After retirement from the British Army, Sir John Chapple worked to conserve Nepal’s biodiversity for more than 30 years, and is Chair of the UK National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC).

“To pay a modest tribute to a man who has devoted most of his energy to conservation and wildlife seemed like an excellent idea, and with support of the UK NTNC we came up with the idea of an education centre that lives up to the digital era," says Amita Sen (pictured below), the only Nepali trustee of the UK chapter of NTNC. “The public, especially student visitors, now get fun-filled access to conservation at the touch of a monitor.

Kathmandu’s zoo is small, but its role in conservation education through the Friends of the Zoo (FOZ) program gives it far bigger importance. FOZ now has 123 partner schools in Nepal and collaborates with Dwight International Schools all over the world.

The Education Centre at Central Zoo was funded by Nepal Investment Bank whose president Prithvi Pande recognised the value of making information about nature and conservation accessible to digital natives through state-of-the-art interactive displays. The digital kiosks will soon be updated with Nepali and English language options and with virtual reality glasses that will deliver a virtual tour of the zoo. And even if the Central Zoo relocates to Suryabinyak, the Education Centre will continue to offer yoiung visitors information about conservation.

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