Mumbai: Baby penguin's death puts Byculla zoo in the spotlight

Updated: Aug 25, 2018, 11:19 IST | Arita Sarkar and Ranjeet Jadhav | Mumbai

Questions arise around wisdom of raising penguins in city, as newborn dies within days

The nestling was born in the Byculla Zoo on August 15
The nestling was born in the Byculla Zoo on August 15

Just a week after its birth on August 15, Byculla zoo's latest member, a Humboldt penguin nestling, passed away on August 22. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), which released this information only on Friday, said the chick died of congenital defects.

The penguin chick was born on August 15 to three-year-old Molt and his partner 4.5-year-old Flipper after an incubation period of 40 days. On the day it was born, the chick weighed 75 grams. The veterinarians at the zoo had then claimed that the condition of the chick was stable and they were recording its weight once a day. The zoo officials hadn't named the chick as they were unable to identify its gender. They'd planned to find it out through a DNA test in a couple of weeks.

All's well until...
All was well until the morning of August 22, when the veterinarians began noting a sharp decline in the chick's weight. "The chick had been putting on weight every day, and was 95 grams on August 21. The parents were taking good care of the child. However, the next day, the vets noticed that its weight had dropped by 15 grams.

They tried to revive the chick's health by feeding it fish slurry; the parents tried to feed their child a couple of times too," said a zoo official. But it was already too late. When the veterinarians went to check on the chick, they found that it was already dead. Civic officials said they didn't reveal the news to the public as they were waiting for the results of the post mortem, which was carried out on August 23.

The post mortem was carried out by a team of professors from Bombay Veterinary College including a pathologist, microbiologist and an avian specialist. The cause of death was attributed to yolk sac retention, which occurs when the chick doesn't absorb all of the yolk meant for its nourishment during incubation, and liver dysfunction. Zoo officials said at the time of post mortem, the chick's liver was found to be swollen.

Citing the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Species Survival Plan and other sources, zoo officials claimed there is a 30-35% mortality rate of chicks less than 30 days old, adding that the first three months are crucial for the survival of the chick.

Experts divided
Meanwhile, experts were divided on the issue. While veterinarians felt since the chick was a first for Byculla zoo, there is a lot to learn from the experience, other wildlife experts were of the opinion that BMC didn't have the adequate facilities to care for the exotic birds.

Dr NVK Ashraf, chief veterinarian and senior director at Wildlife Trust of India pointed out that yolk sac retention can lead to a weaker immune system, leaving chicks vulnerable to infections. "Retention of the yolk sac is quite common. If the egg is incubated properly, when the chick hatches, it should have absorbed all the nourishment contained in the yolk. If they don't, then they are susceptible to pathogens and chances of infection are always higher when they are bred in captivity," he said.

Dr. Deepa Katyal, a veterinarian at the Animal Wellness and Rehabilitation Centre in Chembur, felt there are several factors at the time of incubation that contribute to the proper growth of penguin chicks. "From the size of the mother who is incubating the egg, to the brooding temperature, all of it ascertains the absorption of the yolk. In case of yolk sac retention, there are external feeding mechanisms like tubing that can be adopted for birds in general," she said.

This is the second penguin death at the Byculla zoo. The first one had died when the flightless birds had been brought to Mumbai from South Korea back in 2016. Back then, activists had criticised the idea of bringing them to a tropical climate.

'it was a bad idea to bring the penguins to mumbai'
Bittu Sehgal,
founder, Sanctuary Asia magazine
'A zoo that has no plan for reintroduction of endangered species, or a hardcore conservation agenda, is little more than a peep show with less redeeming social value. Most children come away from it feeling like they've visited an entertainment centre. The extravagant amount of money spent on jailing exotic animals could better be spent on converting the magical botanical wonderland into a hands-on, world-class Nature Interpretation Centre, and on winning support from the lakhs of visitors for the protection of the wild habitats of the state's beleaguered wildlife'

Dr Anish Andheria,
director, Wildlife Conservation Trust
'I'm not an expert on penguins, but I'd said long ago that bringing them to Mumbai was not a great move. The death of the chick could have happened due to many reasons - lack of infrastructure to attend to baby penguins, lack of knowledge of ecology of penguins, or the absence of an infection-proof environment for chicks. Don't know what or if all of them contributed to its death'

Kedar Gore,
director, Corbett Foundation
'This had to happen. To keep such exotic birds with specialised climate requirements in the Mumbai zoo was itself a foolish thing to do. We are unable to manage the upkeep of Indian species even. Getting penguins to Mumbai might have been a decision taken on someone's political whim'

Bahar Dutt,
'What has happened is unfortunate. This is what wildlife lovers have been saying all along — that [penguins] should not be kept in a tropical climate. That's the bigger problem'
Inputs by Fiona Fernandez

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