In Depth

Delhi zoo faces inquiry after white tiger kills young man

The attack is 'latest in a long history of avoidable tragedies' at India's National Zoological Park

Officials at Delhi zoo face a police investigation after it allegedly took them more than 15 minutes to reach an enclosure where a white tiger fatally attacked a young man.

It is unclear if 20-year-old Maqsood Khan, who is believed to have had mental health problems, fell or jumped into the enclosure at India's National Zoological Park on Tuesday.

But witnesses told local media that before the tiger attacked it had "watched" Khan for up to 15 minutes, during which nobody came to his rescue.

"After he fell down, the white tiger came towards Maqsood," one witness told the Indian Express. "As the tiger came closer, he clasped his hands and seemed to be praying. The tiger watched him closely for 15 minutes."

Other witnesses said it was not until some visitors threw stones at the tiger – possibly to distract it – that it suddenly attacked and carried Khan around in his jaws.

The zoo insists its enclosures are "absolutely safe", that Khan must have intentionally jumped in and that a guard quickly sounded the alarm.

However, several witnesses said he appeared to lose his balance while standing on the edge of the barrier and that it took officials a long time to arrive.

The government's Ministry of Environment and Forests has ordered an inquiry into the incident and an investigation is being carried out by police.

Bittu Sahgal, the editor of the wildlife and conservation magazine Sanctuary Asia, told the New York Times that there should have been a fast-moving emergency plan in place to deal with the incident. "If someone walked inside, or fell inside, there should have been tranquilizer guns, there should have been rifles, and it should have been three or four minutes," he said. "The boy's life should have been saved."

Sahgal said that zoos in India are typically understaffed and overcrowded with "scattershot" supervision and a failure to regularly register animal births or deaths publicly.

Heather Timmons, correspondent at Quartz, says Khan's death is just the latest in a long history of avoidable tragedies.

The walls separating visitors from the white tiger enclosure are "lower than waist height for most adults" making it relatively easy to fall or jump, she says.

Timmons says that dozens of animals die at the zoo every year from unnatural causes, including 18 black bucks that consumed sewage-laced water in 2010. The following year, two giraffes died, one of which got its head stuck in a y-shaped branch and the other developed "severe diarrhoea".

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) protested outside the zoo last year after eight tigers died in a period of just six months. The zoo said natural causes had killed the tigers, three of which were at least 20 years old and three were still-born cubs.

But Himanshu Malhotra, an environmentalist and a member of the zoo's advisory committee, told the Hindustan Times that the zoo hospital needed "immediate improvement" with more veterinarians.

"The facility does provide a much-needed green respite for thousands of Delhites every week," says Timmons. "But it would be safer for the hundreds of animals now lodged there – and, as this week's incident shows, some of the visitors themselves – if Delhi Zoo became a park instead."

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