Zoos are like jails,” additional solicitor general Altaf Ahmad told the Supreme Court days after 12 tigers died in Bhubaneshwar’s Nandan Kanan Zoo, “and it’s time for the court to improve the conditions of its inmates.” But given the estimated 20,000 deaths that take place in a year in India’s 258 zoos, the apex court has a real task on hand. “The figures are alarming,” said Chief Justice A.S. Anand while asking for a probe report on the tiger deaths. “We now find the animals’ condition is worse (than poaching) in the protective custody of zoos.”

Take a random listing. In May 1996, six leopards died of feline entritis in the Patna zoo. In December 1996, two tigers and three leopards died in the Bhopal zoo of a viral disease. In March 1999, 25 black bucks perished in the Bikaner zoo in an attack by stray dogs. And, in January this year, 16 cheetal died of cold in the Lucknow zoo.