Zoo animals suffer as food prices surge amid Sri Lanka’s economic crash

Dehiwala Zoo in Colombo has been hit by both runaway inflation and a plunge in visitor revenue, leaving it scrambling for options to keep its animals fed.

Lion_Zoo_Sri Lanka
A lion sits at a zoo in Dehiwala, Sri Lanka. Image: Harshana W, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Sri Lanka’s main zoo is bracing for a food crunch for its 4,500 animals, amid runaway inflation that has pushed food prices up by nearly 60 per cent and brought misery to Sri Lankans hit by the worst economic crisis in their country’s history.

Images have circulated widely on social media showing severely emaciated lions in cages. But the Department of National Zoological Gardens, which manages Dehiwala Zoo in Colombo, has denied that the picture came from there. Department head Thilak Premakantha said that while the zoo does have enough food for the animals for now, it’s considering measures such as releasing or giving away some of the animals to cope.

“It is a fact that our revenue has significantly decreased due to the reduced number of visitors, especially the foreign tourists, and the slashing of government funds, so we are readying to manage an upcoming crisis,” Premakantha told Mongabay.

The Ministry of Agriculture, which oversees the zoo department, is demanding that Dehiwala settle an outstanding amount of 59 million rupees (about $164,000 at the exchange rate as of June 14) for animal feed for the first half of this year. For the remaining six months, the zoo will need at least twice that much for feed.

Compounding the skyrocketing food price is the plummeting revenue for the zoo, which, like other tourism operations in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, has been hit hard by COVID-19-related closures for the past two years.

Annually, the zoo requires about 500 million rupees ($1.4 million) for staff salaries and another 500 million rupees for animal feed and other supplies. Its approved budget for 2020 barely covered that, at 1.07 billion rupees ($2.97 million) — and that was before COVID-19 struck, triggering a collapse in tourism and in the zoo’s revenue.

Our animals have specific food requirements, and if the food is not up to standard, it can impact their health.

Roshan Nimal Shantha, veterinarian, Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage,

Measures being considered

With a squeeze on operational funding looming, Premakantha said his department was considering letting go of some of the animals. Among those that could be the first to be released are common herbivores native to Sri Lanka, such as the spotted deer (Axis axis), sambar deer (Rusa unicolor) and Sri Lankan spotted chevrotain (Moschiola meminna).

Dehiwala Zoo currently has more than enough of these animals, which are also commonly kept at wildlife sanctuaries across the country, Premakantha said.

“These animals breed easily, but only about four members of each species may be enough for the zoo,” he said. He added the idea of letting go of the animals is still under discussion, and that if it goes through, the zoo department will work closely with the Department of Wildlife Conservation to ensure the animals are properly quarantined before release.

A more immediate measure is to find alternatives for some of the food items that the animals are usually fed. These include apples, which aren’t grown in Sri Lanka and must be imported. But because of the rupee’s massive devaluation, imports have become extremely expensive.

Premakantha said it’s possible to introduce other local fruits, like guavas, as a replacement fruit. He added this will be tried with some of the animals.

Dehiwala zoo also has a farm where it already grows leafy greens and other vegetables. The zoo now plans to increase cultivation there and use any free space to grow food.

Another suggestion has been to collect produce thrown out by supermarkets or hotels, but this could pose a health risk to the animals, said zoo veterinarian Roshan Nimal Shantha.

“Our animals have specific food requirements, and if the food is not up to standard, it can impact their health,” he told Mongabay. “So we cannot try such options for every animal.”

Lion’s share for the lions (and tigers and elephants)

The zoo is home to 56 species of mammals, with 264 individuals accounting for the literal lion’s share of the cost of food. Each elephant at the zoo requires about 150 kilograms (330 pounds) of leafy greens a day, while adult big cats like Bengal tigers and lions need about 7 kg (15 lbs) of meat per day. The zoo calculates that the daily cost comes out to nearly 54,000 rupees ($150) for the elephants, 31,000 rupees ($86) for the tigers, and about 28,000 ($79) for the lions.

The carnivores are likely to be the worst affected as food costs rise, as there’s little in the way of alternatives for them. Beef is the main source of food for the zoo’s lions, tigers and jaguars, and chickens for the smaller felines. Predatory birds and other animals like otters get fish, but the prices of all these items have increased exponentially across the board. And unlike vegetables that can be grown or sourced more easily, meat is expected to get scarcer over time.

Zoo vet Shantha said there’s a risk that suppliers, unable to cope with the rising prices, may resort to providing substandard food, thereby triggering a health crisis among the animals. But he added the zoo regularly inspects the quality of the food provided to animals before meals are served, so it should be easy to maintain quality.

Medicines, much of which have to be imported, are also in short supply, for humans and animals alike. Dehiwala Zoo’s animal hospital has a stock of regular medicine and should be able to find any other required medicines, Shantha told Mongabay. The zoo also needs milk powder to feed infant animals, and this is already running short.

Possibility of international assistance

Zoo officials say they’re trying to quickly learn from the experience of other countries that went through similar economic collapse, such as Venezuela, Lebanon and Sudan. Mongabay previously reported that animals had been stolen from zoos in Venezuela, likely for food.

It was also reported that other animals were slaughtered by the keepers to feed the captive carnivores. A year ago, rescue teams successfully relocated about 15 lions and tigers abroad from Lebanon, Reuters reported, along with more than 250 other wild animals, cats, and dogs.

In Sri Lanka, as food shortages become imminent, there’s a similar offer for help at hand.

Amir Khalil is a veterinarian and director of project development at Four Paws, an international animal welfare charity that specialises in animal rescue operations. The organisation has rescued zoo animals from within war zones and also assisted zoos that faced neglect as a result of political or economic crises. In these circumstances, Khalil told Mongabay, “the zoo animals are helpless without keepers taking care of them and giving them food.”

Khalil spoke to Mongabay from his base in Vienna, where he had recently returned after a visit to check on zoo animals in Ukraine. The Four Paws team has assisted in taking care of zoo animals in countries wracked by political or economic strife, including Lebanon and Sudan.

The picture of the skeletal lions doing the rounds in Sri Lanka is actually from one of Four Paws’ rescue missions in Sudan, which suffered a crippling economic meltdown exacerbated by international sanctions. If Sri Lanka makes an official request for assistance for its zoo animals, Four Paws will be ready to respond, Khalil told Mongabay.

He added he previously visited Sri Lanka in 2005, just after December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 30,000 people on the island.

“There were lots of domestic animals that had lost their owners and had become a stray population. I saw that many Sri Lankans fed them and organised vaccination programs. I figured that Sri Lankans are compassionate, a key ingredient of the country’s culture. This makes me confident that the zoo will be able to find the first round of support locally,” Khalil said.

There’s already a plan for domestic outreach. The zoo plans to introduce a foster parent scheme under which donors can sponsor the cost of maintenance of some of its charismatic animals. It has also already set up a fund to collect public donations to tide it over.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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