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How Alipore Zoo was born, and how it could have been born earlier!

10 August, 2022 17:12:05
How Alipore Zoo was born, and how it could have been born earlier!

The July 1843 edition of the now defunct ‘Calcutta Journal of Natural History’, edited by John Mclelland of the Bengal Medical Service and Asiatic Society, contained an interesting paper by a now unknown author, titled ‘Proposal to form a Zoological Garden in Calcutta’.

Citing the example of zoological gardens in Europe and America, the author stated that the London Zoological Garden, opened in 1828, had become one of the city’s “most interesting places of general resort”, earning more than 10,000 pounds per year from ticket sales alone, in those times. Therefore, Calcutta ought to have its own zoological garden, which would be less expensive to maintain than London Zoo, since the animals could be locally sourced, and “trees would afford the whole of the requisite shelter” thanks to the tropical climate.

Quoting one Mr Raleigh, who was apparently the first to come up with the suggestion of a zoo for Calcutta, the author stated that a starting capital of around Rs 1.50 lakh (in those days) would be required to set up the zoo, based on the sale of shares and subscriptions. 


However, it was another three decades before this paper, dating back nearly 180 years, was taken seriously. In 1873, almost exactly 150 years ago, Lieutenant-Governor Sir Richard Temple formally proposed the formation of a zoo in Kolkata, and the government finally allotted land for the zoo based on a joint petition by the Asiatic Society and Agri-Horticultural Society.

This seems a little puzzling today, since a private menagerie (collection of animals) of exotic species was already in existence in the residency at Barrackpore, established by Governor-General Richard Wellesley around 1800 as part of the Indian Natural History Project. Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore, visited this menagerie in 1810 and saw his first tapir (a large, pig-like mammal found mainly in Latin America) there. It is said that Raffles used some aspects of the menagerie when he acted as advisor to the London Zoo before its opening. 

Who knows, had the British authorities in India been more proactive, Calcutta may have opened its zoo before London!

Anyhow, the zoo was formally opened in Alipore, and inaugurated on January 1, 1876 by Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, and opened to the public on May 6. The initial stock of animals came from the private collection of Carl Louis Schwendler, a German electrician working for Indian Railways, and gifts were also accepted from the general public. The animals from Barrackpore Park were added to the collection over the first few months of 1886, significantly increasing its size. 

As our unknown author wrote in 1843, “...whatever the interest and importance of such an establishment might be likely to prove in a scientific point of view, its success would mainly depend on it being made a place of recreation, and general amusement to the people of Calcutta.”

Approaching the 150th anniversary of the year in which the Zoological Garden, Alipore was formally proposed by Lt-Governor Temple, we can only marvel at the prophetic nature of the above statement. 

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