Under the Greenwood Tree

hey don’t sell hats outside the Colombo zoo, those bright green and pink palm-leaf mementos which, from almirah tops or forgotten corners, keep reminding a visitor to the Calcutta zoo of dust and animal smell. There are balloons instead, and tiny pinwheels made of shiny paper that glisten in the afternoon sun. Once inside, you realize why the idea of selling hats never occurred. A thick canopy of green offers shade to swathes of the zoo that would seem minuscule in comparison to the spread in Alipore. But as you take a walk down the shaded paths, the shrub-lined alleyways and the carefully-designed moats and sprawling lawns, you realize what a success the Sri Lankans have made of their legacy. Like the Calcutta zoo, the Colombo zoo in Dehiwala grew out of the menagerie of zoologically-inclined foreigners. But unlike the former, which owes its origins to the initiative of the governor-general of Bengal, Arthur Wellesley, in the late 19th century, the Colombo zoo has a more recent and less illustrious history. Its founder, John Hargenberg, got together the collection to facilitate his brother’s trade in animals with the West. It was taken over by the government as late as 1936.

Since then, the collection has been amply diversified to include an enormous variety of animals, reptiles, birds and fish, all cramped into 23 acres of land. Fortunately, the landscaping allows the exhibits to be arranged all around in tiers. On entering, one can either take the route to the right, and go straight to the pits of growling tigers, lions, cheetahs and the lone bear. Or one can go left into a darkened cave full of acquariums stashed with amazing kinds of fish, and then emerge to meet the twin penguins and the sea lion.

Unlike Alipore, the big cats here have no luxury of space. There are several, including a black panther, in cages so alarmingly small that you sometimes marvel at their agility. But they are there, well-fed, well-toned, with not a worry in the world, dozing or just looking out with eyes narrowed to slits. One wonders if they are let out for their daily exercise at night since they are so obviously preoccupied in the day.

The road to the reptilium is a raised wooden structure which accommodates a harmless-looking small estuarian crocodile beneath. But looks can be deceptive and one has to control the urge to feel its back, only an arm’s-length away. The most fascinating thing about the reptilium, especially for someone used to the Calcutta zoo, is the discovery of creeping and crawling members behind every glass partition, and the fact that there has been an effort to make things comfortable for the inhabitants, be it the anaconda, the East African Green Mamba or the more commonly available vipers and kraits. The rare albino Sri Lankan cobra and a spitting cobra add to the thrill.

The aviary in the zoo is an experience. An artificially created waterfall plunges into a small lake with a little hut in the middle. Just above the waterfall is the road to the big cats, one of the marvels of the zoo’s landscaping. There is thick vegetation all around, and the place, cool and moist, is overrun with gaily chirping birds that even target your candyfloss for food. The bird cages are well-stocked with a variety of eagles, hornbills and owls. The cockatoos and macaws, placed strategically alongside the children’s play area, caw endlessly, adding to the happy noise. The butterfly garden, with its small yet magnificent collection of 30 different types of butterflies, is a major attraction.

The zoo accommodates a number of primates, some in larger areas than the big cats. But the most distressing sight is that of the elephants, five of them, all chained to the ground. Thankfully, Alipore zoo now has them in open spaces surrounded by moats, although it still cannot stop visitors from feeding them all kinds of rubbish. Yet the elephants are the USP of the Colombo zoo which, together with the famous elephant orphanage in Pinnawala and the farm at Gonapola, form the National Zoological Gardens. The beasts provide entertainment in the form of joy rides at fixed hours, fodder for zoo research and bring in much of the international attention the zoological garden delights in. Space again proves the obvious spoiler. But couldn’t there be some other way to exhibit these creatures?

The Colombo zoo seems to have arrived at a compromise between the principles of conservation and entertainment. Since Pinnawala takes off much of the conservationist baggage from its shoulders, the Dehiwala zoo is free to entertain its visitors with sea lion and elephant shows, animal rides and pelican-feeding without guilt. Some of it may even shock animal-rights activists, but then the zoo has no pretensions of aspiring towards the neo-modern concepts of zoo-keeping. It manages its premises well, and has even successfully sold itself as a centre of serious research, inviting students from abroad to serve as volunteers to help with projects. It may not have the parkland of France’s La Palmyra, or gardens as luxuriant as the Chester zoo, but Colombo zoo has a quaint charm of its own. If you forgive its attitude towards the big cats and the elephants, the Dehiwala zoo is one of the most pleasurable spots in the city.

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