By the end of this year, the Mumbai zoo hopes to get an exotic addition to its dwindling collection of animals. It will buy six Humboldt penguins – a species native to the coasts of Peru and Chile – from a zoo in Thailand. The city’s municipal corporation has allotted Rs 2.4 crore to buy the penguins and will then spend Rs 19 crore to care for them for a period of five years.

The penguins are part of a much larger transformation that the city has in mind for Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan, the official name for the botanical gardens that house the Mumbai zoo. According to zoo authorities, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, along with the state’s forest department, has acquired 110 acres of green land in the northern suburb of Goregaon to create an extension to the current zoo in south Mumbai’s Byculla area.

“The collection of animals in the two zoos will be different”, said Anil Anjankar, the director of the Byculla zoo. “The Goregaon zoo will house only large animals, both indigenous and exotic.”

Worrying record

Yet experts are wary, given the zoo’s poor reputation. In the past decade, the 53-acre Veermata Udyan has faced severe criticism because of the dismal conditions in which the animals are kept and the high number of deaths of creatures in its care.

In 2010, for instance, 11 zoo animals died of various ailments in a span of three months. The included a lioness, an alligator and some deer. In fact, in 2010-'11 the zoo lost 150 animals and birds, recording the highest mortality rate among all Indian zoos.

Animal rights activists have routinely criticised the zoo authorities for not ensuring 24-hour veterinarian services on the premises and not providing companions for lonely inhabitants.

The zoo director, however, blames the lack of space on for the high rate of animal casualties. The Central Zoo Authority – the agency that monitors zoological parks across India – has guidelines specifying the sizes of enclosures that different animals are to be provided. “But our enclosures are small and till a few years ago, they used to house more animals than their carrying capacity,” said Anjankar, who claims that the number of animals per enclosure has now been readjusted, with the surplus inmates being sent to other zoos or released in the wild.

“We cannot bring in new animals till we develop new facilities. The ones that have been dying are those that have completed their life span,” he said.

In 2007, the Byculla zoo authorities announced a plan to revamp the park on the lines of international zoos. The project was to cost the municipal corporation Rs 433 crore. However, the proposed transformation would have completely rebuilt the zoo, adding amusement park features at the cost of most of the green open spaces.

“The proposed plan treated the premises as if it were a fresh piece of land rather than a 150-year-old heritage botanical park,” said Hutokshi Rustomfram, a trustee at the Save Rani Bagh Botanical Garden Foundation, a non-profit forum that has been at the forefront of the opposition to the 2007 plan.

In 2011, the plan was finally rejected by the Central Zoo Authority and the Maharashtra Heritage Conservation Committee, and the Mumbai zoo was told to ensure that any changes made to animal enclosures do not encroach upon existing green space.

Mill land

The zoo’s new makeover plan does not, in its blueprint, affect the botanical gardens around the enclosures. Instead, the zoo is in the process of acquiring seven acres of land from a defunct textile mill adjoining the premises. The additional space is intended for more animals. Besides the penguins that are expected by the end of the year, the zoo hopes to eventually acquire zebras, jaguars, sloth bears, lions and other creatures, both for Byculla and the new zoo in Goregaon.

“For now, the penguins will be the most expensive to maintain, because we will be bringing in trainers from abroad and our staff will be spending a few weeks in Singapore and Bangkok to learn how to look after them,” said Anjankar. “But our zoo needs an attraction of that kind.”

While the zoo authorities claim these plans are in the pipeline, the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee is awaiting the submission of a formal proposal. “No changes can be made on the premises without approval from our Committee,” said V Ranganathan, chairman of the committee.