Mumbai: A day after a female Humboldt Penguin, a prized new possession of Mumbai Zoo, died following an infection, a political row erupted here on Monday questioning the wisdom of keeping the endangered species in the harsh tropical climate of the metropolis.
The female Humboldt Penguin was among eight which were brought to Mumbai from a South Korean aquarium on July 26, and was undergoing acclimatisation before going on public view in November at the Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan, or Mumbai Zoo.
It is the pet project of Yuva Sena Chief Aditya, son of Shiv Sena Chief Uddhav Thackeray, and the duo is now under fire from Maharashtra Navnirman Sena for bringing the flightless birds to Mumbai.
MNS corporator and state spokesperson Sandeep Deshpande shot off a letter to Municipal Commissioner Ajoy Mehta demanding that the remaining seven Humboldts be immediately sent back to ensure their survival.
Deshpande said the Humboldt Penguins can only thrive in a cold climate and not a warm place like Mumbai and that MNS and environmentalists had been protesting against acquiring such exotic creatures right from the beginning.
“However, the civic authorities blew up Rs 2.50 crore of taxpayers’ money to acquire these birds… One innocent penguin has died — Who is responsible for this,” Deshpande wondered.
Stung by the MNS criticism that the project was implemented to fulfil Aditya’s ‘childish stubbornness’, Uddhav Thackeray sharply countered by advising Deshpande “to save the party before saving the penguins”.
“This is a protest by some ill-omened (panauti) persons… They should first save themselves instead of the penguins,” Thackeray said without naming MNS.
On July 26, the endangered Humboldt Penguins — three adult males, three adult females and two female babies — were flown from Coex Aquarium in Seoul to Mumbai and immediately transferred to a chilled enclosure in Mumbai Zoo.
This is the first time that exotic penguins would be exhibited in an Indian Zoo, and this particular group belongs to the South American species found on the cold coastal areas of Chile and Peru.
Owing to a steep decline in their population, this species has been listed since 2000 as “vulnerable” in the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Switzerland.
The Humboldts are black-and-white penguins with a black head and white border running from the eyes around the ears and chin and joining at the throat, blackish-grey upper parts, whitish underparts with black breast-bands extending to the thighs, and a fleshy-pink base to the bill.
This species of penguins can withstand temperatures of between 4-24 degrees Celsius and the quarantine areas created for them provide this controlled air-conditioned temperature range, without any outside contact barring the caretaker.
The BMC has prepared a special 1,700 sq ft air-conditioned enclosure with an average 16-17 degrees C and a 6,000-8,000 litre water pool as the permanent residence for these birds. They are being fed around eight kg of certain fish varieties daily.
Presently, Humboldt Penguins are on exhibit in around 100 select zoos worldwide.
The ambitious plans to acquire and exhibit penguins was announced by the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party-led civic body after the 2012 BMC elections, and it materialised ahead of the upcoming civic polls in early 2017.
The death of one Humboldt and the ensuing political controversy has now put a question mark on the entire project.