In May 2013 on grounds of cruelty and commercialisation of wildlife the Ministry of Environment & Forests rejected all proposals to set up dolphinariums anywhere in India. Therefore, in place of a dolphinarium the Greater Cochin Development Authority, Kochi wanted to establish a penguin park. Luckily it did not materialise or it would have been a repeat of what happened at the Surat Aquarium in February 2014 when 12 sharks procured from Malaysia died within an hour of arrival. To set up a proper marine environment at this underwater aquarium to eventually accommodate 30 sharks for Rs 20 lakhs, the Surat Municipal Corporation imported Rs 30 lakhs worth of synthetic salt from Israel.

Then in August 2014, penguins were again the main attraction with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) setting aside Rs 2.40 crore to buy six from Thailand, and another Rs 19 crore for their maintenance at Jijamata Udyan or Byculla Zoo. Upon knowing, BWC sent letters of objection to the Union Minister of Environment & Forests and the Central Zoo Authority saying animals, birds and reptiles that are not of India find it extremely difficult to adjust in our zoos and so they suffer and/or die which in itself was a good enough reason to stop entry of all foreign creatures to be housed in India’s zoos. The CZA wrote that “the proposal was not advisable from the point of view of animal welfare issues, negative publicity, economics and difficulty in creation of naturalistic conditions” but gave no clear cut assurance regarding zoos housing foreign creatures.

It was therefore not that surprising when in July 2016 eight colour coded Humboldt penguins from the COEX Aquarium in Seoul, South Korea, arrived and begun their three-month quarantine at the Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan and Zoo in Byculla, Mumbai.

A colossal waste of around Rs 50 crore was spent on constructing a fancy climate-controlled prison enclosure comprising of pools, feeding areas, artificial habitat, water pumps and rectangular and circular tanks. The place will have a seating capacity for over 150 people who will to BWC’s disgust sit back and view the unfortunate penguin prisoners through acrylic glass… so very pathetic, in view of the suffering it can’t even be termed entertainment, leave alone education or conservation which zoos claim to be promoting.

BWC had covered their proposed import in Compassionate Friend and requested readers not to visit the penguin prison. Meanwhile the CZA in a complete turn around (very likely due to political pressure since it was initially planned to get penguins for the Byculla Zoo in 2011 and announced by the BMC in 2012 after the elections) replied BWC that they had granted permission for the import “after taking due comments from the Executive Director, World Association of Zoos and Aquariums and Senior Director, Singapore Zoological Gardens. Further, the acquisition of penguins was approved subject to due screening of the penguins against zoonotic diseases prior to transportation and following the guidelines laid down by the Central Zoo Authority for the transport of captive wild animals. Besides, the VJB Udyan Zoo, Byculla, Mumbai has taken export permit for acquisition of Humboldt penguins from CITES. The VJB Udyan Zoo, Byculla, Mumbai has signed a contract with Sivat Services Incorporated, Tex, USA and Oceans International Pvt Ltd, Australia for providing expertise in construction of exhibit and also to provide staff for taking care of health and upkeep of penguins for next 5 years.” So, BWC is waiting and watching… The pathetic penguins will probably meet the same fate as hundreds of creatures before them who suffered and died in this zoo during recent years.

BWC’s fears are materialising earlier than expected. In September 2016, the BMC forfeited as much as Rs 1.4 crore which was earnest money deposit collected from the contractor responsible for constructing the penguin enclosure since it was discovered there was no joint venture between him and Highway Construction Company and Sivat Services. (Strangely, the BMC was initially keen that this contractor should also construct a marine aquarium and a robotic zoo.) Then, on 18 October 2016 one (a male) of the 8 imported penguins fell sick and died of bacterial infection in quarantine without even being put forward for public viewing. That left 3 males and 4 females.

On Independence Day 2018 the zoo proudly declared that a penguin egg had hatched and the parents “were taking good care of the chick”. But the chick died within a week and the zoo kept it hidden for two days after which the initial reason given was “birth anomalies” based on the post-mortem. The zoo had first tried to attract visitors by announcing the birth, then the death of the chick, followed by how the parents were mourning its death. For several days thereafter the authorities publicised the factors that caused the death of the newborn penguin including “a dysfunctional liver and yolk sac retention” because how else could they absolve themselves of all blame. BWC feels the penguins should never have been imported into India, leave alone bred by the zoo.

In February 2020 it was revealed that the authorities were focusing on acquiring varied fauna in order to offer new attractions to the public when the Byculla Zoo major revamp was completed. The plan to obtain 3 more penguins was in the pipeline. Of the 7 left, 1 female was without a partner and they hoped to find a mate for her so thought of getting another pair as well. As per the contract with Goatrade Farming Co Ltd, the Thailand-based procurement agency, they were liable to replace the male penguin that died during its quarantine period.

In September 2021 the Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) floated a Rs 16 crore tender for the upkeep of the penguins for 3 years which made political parties corner the Shiv Sena ruled BMC. It was then announced that 2 penguins had been born at the zoo this year, one in May and the other in August.

South America is the homeland of Humboldt penguins. Off the coasts of Peru and Chile they swim just below the surface of the water at speeds of 30 kilometres an hour. While feeding on small fish and krill, they joyously dive down 500 feet. No prizes for guessing how they will accomplish this activity in a 250 square foot quarantine, or in a 1550 square foot exhibit area at the zoo in Mumbai.

Penguins that live in extreme conditions take thousands of naps every day because they need to remain alert to dangerous predators. In the wild, these penguins live in large colonies and it’s important for them to communicate among themselves socially. They are monogamous, so how will five females and three males adapt to life in captivity without stress?

They are said to be clever enough to rarely reproduce in zoos – let’s hope so! In the wild they lay their eggs along cliffs, in nests among piles of guano or accumulated droppings of sea birds. Since they are given salt-free water in captivity they make their supraorbital glands (that enable them to drink salt water) dormant.

Unfortunately they did reproduce and 7 years later in 2023 their number rose to 15. The zoo then decided to offer a pair in exchange for some other animals from a zoo in India.

Humboldt penguins have always kept away from humans, so why can’t humans keep away from them and let them live undisturbed to preen themselves in their own natural habitat? (As protection against the elements, they gather oil from their preening glands and apply it to their feathers and flipper edges.) Over-fishing has already harmed the specie’s survival.

BWC requests people never visit the Byculla penguin prison because it endorses and encourages their imprisonment.

Page last updated on 04/12/23