‘Emerald Isle – A Walk in the Thiruvananthapuram Zoo’, a coffee-table book, traces the evolution of the zoo from a private menagerie to a conservation centre

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Written by V Balachandran, the book, with 250 photographs by Suresh Elamon, has been brought out by the Department of Museums and Zoos in association with the WWF

Written by V Balachandran, the book, with 250 photographs by Suresh Elamon, has been brought out by the Department of Museums and Zoos in association with the WWF

Thiruvananthapuram Zoo, perhaps the oldest in India, and Simba, a lion in its enclosure, inspired Booker prize winner Yann Martel’s bestseller Life Of Pi. Now, a bi-lingual coffee-table book on that zoo, Emerald Isle – A Walk in the Thiruvananthapuram Zoo, narrates its history and how it has evolved over the years from a place to ‘see’ wild animals to a centre at the forefront of conservation efforts. The book in English and Malayalam was launched at the beginning of Wild Life Week, early in October, by the Department of Museums and Zoos in association with the World Wildlife Fund.

Nest of darters or snake bird on the premises of the Thiruvananthapuram Zoo

Nest of darters or snake bird on the premises of the Thiruvananthapuram Zoo
| Photo Credit: Suresh Elamon

Located on 55 acres in the heart of the city, it includes a lake and a rich botanical garden. S Abu, Director of Thiruvananthapuram Museum and Zoo, says, “Scripted by conservation enthusiast V Balachandran, the book was made possible thanks to the World Wildlife Fund. It has 250 photographs clicked by award-winning wildlife photographer Suresh Elamon. We focussed on the zoo, changes it has undergone over the years, efforts at conservation and breeding and so on.”

Balachandran takes the reader through the entrance of the zoo to the enclosures, one after the other, till the exit. In addition to the inhabitants of the zoo, birds that visit the lake and zoo premises, butterflies and dragonflies that flit around the botanical garden and some of the unique trees in the garden have also been mentioned.

Southern birdwing

Southern birdwing
| Photo Credit: Suresh Elamon

Balachandran, often called Thumbi appooppan (dragonfly grandfather) on account of his passion for documenting dragonflies and damsels, admits that he is not fond of the concept of a coffee table book because he finds them superficial and just a collection of pretty photographs. Nevertheless, he decided to do his best to introduce readers to the monarchs and experts who contributed to the evolution of the zoo and how it has kept abreast of developments in animal care.

He traces the development of zoos from the era of ‘travelling zoos’, which were a common sight at fairs and exhibition grounds. “I saw one about 20 years ago at the Bhagavathy temple fete at Mandaikadu in Kanyakumari district. Many of the animals were in a sorry state, confined to in small cages. Those itinerant menageries have vanished from Kerala. However, the sight of those animals scarred me forever,” says Balachandran, a great fan of naturalist and author Gerald Durrell. He adds that there are negative and positive aspects of zoos. There are zoos that help in the breeding of rare animals and engage in research, he points out.

Hippopotamus in the Thiruvananthapuram Zoo

Hippopotamus in the Thiruvananthapuram Zoo
| Photo Credit: Suresh Elamon

The first chapter of the book traces the development of the Thiruvananthapuram zoo from the reign of Swathi Thirunal (1816 to 1846). He had a private menagerie in the East Fort area. During the reign of his successor Uthram Thirunal, the Napier Museum was established and the zoo was shifted to its present location to attract visitors to the zoo and the museum. The zoo was opened to the public in 1857.

One of the tigers in the Thiruvananthapuram Zoo

One of the tigers in the Thiruvananthapuram Zoo
| Photo Credit: Suresh Elamon

During his research for the book, Balachandran came across the work of Reverend ST Pettigrew, a chaplain of the CSI Church in Thiruvananthapuram (1874-77) who had worked as a curator of the zoo for about four years. “Pettigrew had anonymously written a book, Life of an Indian Chaplain, where he talks about his work in Thiruvananthapuram. A superb work, it is available in the archives and one chapter of the book is devoted to his work for the zoo,” he says.

Although a copy was released, work is afoot to review the initial copy and add a few details, says Abu. He adds the department is planning a book on the flora on the premises of the Napier Museum and Zoo. “Home to more than 400 varieties of trees, we have many rare species of trees. For instance, we have one of the oldest rubber trees in India. It was imported from Brazil by Vishakham Thirunal Rama Varma during his reign from 1880 to 1885,” says Abu.

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