Botanic Gardens Conservation International
BGCI provides a global voice for all botanic gardens, championing and celebrating their inspiring work. We are the world's largest plant conservation network, open to all. Join us in helping to save the world's threatened plants.

Indian Zoological and Botanical Gardens – Historical perspective and a way forward

Volume 1 Number 2 - October 2004

Sally Walker, Adit Pal, B. Rathanasabapathy & R. Manikam


Many colonial botanic gardens kept wild animals.  Some had respectable collections, which included great apes, rhinos, large carnivores and other exotica from neighbouring continental areas.  This practice was probably most prevalent in Asia where it can be argued that the elaborate gardens of kings combined with their collections of wild animals created a way of thinking that influenced the future development of colonial botanic gardens.  It was the colonial naturalists, however, that pursued, described and drew the myriad of species they found.  And it is because of this, we know of the presence of captive wild animals in Asian botanic gardens.  This paper describes some of these gardens, particularly in India, to provide a context for a new initiative, the Coimbatore Zoological Park Society in southern India.

The Coimbatore Zoological Park Society was established in 1986 by a group of wealthy and influential businessmen who acquired a 250 acres site surrounded by lush green hills 30 km from Coimbatore.  Breaking from the tradition of government-owned large facilities in India, this non-profit Society has planned an innovative conservation park intended to replicate in microcosm the greater area in which it sits.  The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR) covers 5520sq. km. in the Western Ghats.  It was established by the Ministry of Environment, Government of India, to provide a means of conserving the endemic and threatened flora and fauna of the area.  Since its inception the Society has collected plants for re-creating the different biomes of the NBR in natural habitat exhibits.  In the process it has built up the largest regional collection of endemic and threatened plants in the country.  The first phase of the Park will be a public botanic garden which will teach about the biodiversity of the region. 


The collecting, categorizing and keeping of both flora and fauna has been documented in early societies in all continental areas except Antartica.  Mankind gained control over flora and fauna by farming it – agriculture for flora, and domestication and husbandry for animals.  Domestication was the beginning of keeping wild animals in captivity, but collecting wild animals and plants for pleasure or study came much later when privileged families set up large establishments far removed from wilderness. 
The origins of botanical and zoological gardens and parks are not difficult to trace – from primitive to ancient civilizations (for example in Mesopotamia) when, according to Vernon Kisling,  “all classes of society had kitchen gardens and fishponds, and royalty and wealthy landowner class had shade gardens, ornamental gardens and parks” the larger of which contained animals.  This was the case in the Indian Subcontinent as well, including ‘hunting parks’ which were more like managed forests.  

Princely menageries and gardens, in the 18th and 19th centuries were maintained at great expense for aesthetic and intellectual pleasure or scientific inquiry. These pre-dated the public menageries and botanic gardens of 19th century zoos and botanic gardens but often allowed public access.  There are many examples of botanical gardens keeping animals, such as Singapore in South East Asia, in India and other Asian countries.  Many other countries in the region colonized by Europeans had agri-horticultural societies whose exhibitions and projects included displays of wild fauna, and from time to time these resulted in botanic gardens and menageries being set up, for example Singapore Botanic Gardens and Zoo Negara in Malaysia.

A significant example is the Barrackpore Park near Calcutta, in India, a beautifully landscaped garden with undulating hillocks and a large collection of both indigenous and imported plants, which belonged to the British Governor General.  It was also the site of a government menagerie, the purpose of which was to collect and hold animals from all parts of the Indian subcontinent so they could be described and illustrated for an ‘inventory’ of Indian fauna.  Although the project closed after a few years the menagerie remained for seven decades serving both as an entertainment for locals as well as guests of the government.  It also served as a holding area for animals that British naturalists wished to study further or to send ‘home’.  Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore and of the London Zoo, visited Barrackpore Park menagerie twice before returning to England to start the zoo.  Raffles could hardly fail to note the combination of beautiful landscaping and surrounding vegetation, scientifically documented plants and animals which may have influenced him when he founded the London Zoo a decade later.  The London Zoo is considered to the first ‘modern zoo’ of our age.

Much has been written about the influence of colonial manners and methods.  The British, for example, while attempting to create what passed for respectable botanical gardens in their sight found offense in both Mugal and Hindu styles.  From the straight paths, right angles and geometric patterns of some royal gardens to the ‘undisciplined mass of foliage united by rampant creepers’ in others, nothing was quite right.  The absence of an ‘Indian’ botanic garden style today may be due to the fact that colonial botanical experts were permitted to ‘have their way’ with so many significant gardens. On the other hand, Indian zoological gardens, some of them, at least, have their own recognizable identity (Harrison, B. 1962).

Indian Biological Parks

In the 20th century, a unique ‘zoo form’ developed by the Indian Forest Service and called a ‘biological park’ emerged, which evoked the vast hunting parks owned and managed by royals of early times.  The biological park is clearly distinguished from a zoological or botanical garden, park, or even the ‘biopark’ by its attempt to replicate forests that previously flourished upon the site, with naturally regenerating vegetation.  Very large moated enclosures (30 – 60 acres) including large tracts of rejuvenated forest and the best natural features and contours of the land, labeled trees, and a focus on fauna that is indigenous to the country are the signatures of Indian biological parks.  There are several of these in India for example, Assam State Zoo, Guwahati; Indira Gandhi Biological Park, Vizak;  Tirupati Zoo, Andra Pradesh; Nandankanan Zoo, Orissa.

During the colonial era zoology lagged behind botany as a scientific discipline (Vicziany, M., 1989).  In current day India, however, established public animal facilities outnumber their floral counterparts significantly, and are generally much better organized with better records, signage, public education and cooperation between zoos.  Public botanic gardens’ collections in India are not as well-documented, nor have they organized their collections creatively, so that visitors would derive either learning or enjoyment out of them.  Some gardens have added features to attract the public, not with plants but with elaborate lights for evening visits and musical fountains, such as the Brindavan Gardens near Mysore.  Zoological gardens in India are more scientifically oriented and are starting to realize the importance of high quality facilities for both entertainment and education.

Many Indian zoological gardens and biological parks, particularly those managed by forest departments, maintain organized displays of plants, usually in a separate area but still on the zoo grounds.  Some are named ‘zoological and botanical gardens’ or ‘zoo- cum-botanic gardens’.  Others cooperate with nearby gardens, such as the Nandankanan Zoo which constructed a bridge so that visitors to the zoo could easily reach the neighboring botanic garden.  However, none of these zoo-cum-botanic gardens have documented their plants adequately or provided interpretation of them for their visitors.


Back to the ancient

Contemporary natural history facility managers might benefit from taking a serious look at the origins of botanic gardens and zoos, that is, the more natural facilities of the ancients which combined both flora and fauna in their fiefdoms.  According to David Hancocks, a particularly ‘evolved’ zoo designer, when reviewing a chapter of the draft World Zoo and Aquarium Conservation Strategy,

“we have artificially subdivided institutions: we have parks that specialize in animals and other parks that specialize in plants, and museums that specialize in dead animals.  We inherited this way of looking at nature from our 18th century western forebears who dissected nature in order to make sense of it.   There is no need and probably no utility in maintaining these subdivisions for our natural history institutions today.” 

There is some evidence of a trend in the direction indicated by Hancocks.  Some American zoos have achieved museum status with the American Museums Association by undergoing a process of systematically documenting every species of plant and animal kept in their facility.  Some zoos in UK, Europe, Australia and South East Asia document plants as well, for example Chester Zoo, UK, Rotterdam Zoo, The Netherlands, Perth Zoo, Australia and Singapore Zoo, south east Asia.  And in contemporary zoo design there is a more widespread practice of incorporating vegetation from the targeted country or region into the design and landscape of enclosures, which are increasingly themed and designed around ecosystems, forest types or biomes rather than taxa.  Some zoos also have extensive conservation projects which involve plants, such as the Singapore Zoo and Jurong Bird Park in Singapore, who have been researching Heliconia, a South American plant, together for years.  Singapore Zoo alone has 200 varieties of Heliconia. 

These trends bode well for a future transformation of zoos, botanic gardens, museums and even national parks and sanctuaries – our ‘natural history institutions’ – to more integrated facilities which project a clearer and more meaningful educational message than has been possible so far.  Visitor studies of zoos are starting to suggest that zoos are not projecting the conservation message very effectively.  In meeting the challenges of such an imperative, it is possible that more of the world’s regions could develop their own unique form or style, such as India has with their biological parks, which better reflects their early history as well as their natural treasures.  


Back to the future in Coimbatore, India 

The upcoming Nilgiri Biosphere Botanic Garden and Conservation Centre is a pioneer attempt to integrate many new concepts.  A group of creative and wealthy industrialists and wildlife enthusiasts formed a non-profit Society with the objective of establishing a modern zoo to meet the growing demands of their industrial city.  An ambitious and detailed concept plan for the Nilgiri Biosphere Conservation Park was approved which included collecting appropriate plants for eight thematic zones, preparing the site, and numerous other tasks before even starting to prepare exhibits. 

The project has been designed according to the forest types of the Western Ghats, one of two designated biodiversity hot spots.  The project site is situated on the eastern slopes of the Nilgiri hills surrounded by the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR), which is the project’s theme.  Rich in endemism, the NBR, is perhaps the most widely known mountain part of the Western Ghats. The project will replicate the NBR on its beautiful 250 acre site which is surrounded by hills and naturally undulating, with dramatic variety in its landscape.

South Indian forest types in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve constitute eight thematic vegetation zones: Evergreen Zone, Semi-evergreen zone, Moist Deciduous zone (with 3 belts of Moist Teak Forest, Bamboo Brakes and Mixed Deciduous Forest), Dry deciduous zone, Rain shadow zone, Montane shola zone, and Thorn forest zone.  Animals, native to the NBR, will be settled into the appropriate zone.

From the outset, serious botanical research was established at the Coimbatore facility.  Systematic collection, protection, propagation and planting of indigenous plants to re-create the different forest types of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve is a major undertaking.   All plants are collected from legitimate sources, as scrupulously as a zoo will avoid illicit dealers for the animals.

Other ongoing works include:

  • propagation, germination studies, with 32 species of endemic and threatened rainforest species including Artocarpus hirsutus, Baccaurea courtallensis, Dysoxylum malabaricum, Palaquium ellipticum, Canarium strictum, Vateria indica, Hydnocarpus pentandra and Cullenia exarillata with records maintained on all parameters of the process.
  • research on the prevalence and intensity of pests and diseases of indigenous forest plantations, so that appropriate pest and disease control measures can be taken
  • development of software for plant documentation and management to cope with the enormous quantity of data generated by day-to-day botanic activities.  The program ENTADA has been named after India’s largest pod-bearing climber Entada rheedii.

This work began 1992 and in that time the collection has grown to more than 100,000 seedlings of more than 400 species. Of these, more than 350 species of 40,000 seedlings subsist in the field. NBCP has more plants indigenous to the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve than any other plant conservation area.  In recognition of this, NBCP has been awarded a grant under the BGCI Investing in Nature programme, a part of the National Plant Conservation Programme, an initiative to achieve one of the targets of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC), which aims to insure “60% of threatened plant species to be protected in accessible ex situ collections, preferably in the country of origin and 10% in recovery and restoration programmmes.”

As a result of its association with BGCI, the recently issued global strategy and the uniqueness of the collection, the zoo has decided to inaugurate the NBCP project by developing a dedicated botanical garden at the center of the site.  With the large number of plants already available and supported by BGCI, such a garden can be opened within the year.  The Anaikatty Wildlife Garden was originally planned to include a small exhibit area for small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.  The concept document for this has been rewritten with a botanic focus without having to change the basic plan. This part of the project is underway, with an eye to maintaining and expanding it in parallel to the development of the zoo enclosures, which depend so heavily on a very large amount of systematically managed vegetation. 

The broad aims of the Nilgiri Biosphere Botanic Garden are to utilise the plant resource quickly and effectively as a start-up project, capitalizing on the biome-specific garden, found nowhere else in India, and in very few places anywhere in the world.  This garden will be a nature and educational recreation spot with an environmental education programme with appropriate infrastructure and activities.  The facility will be used to introduce and interpret the highly complex conservation park consisting of animals as well as plants to the public. 

Neither conservation nor botanic garden education is new to the staff of NCBP.  Collaborating with the local NGO Zoo Outreach Organisation (ZOO), a long term associate of the Project, NBCP organized training in botanic gardens education in 1995 with BGCI in Coimbatore, Bangalore and Trivandrum in southern India.  ZOO and NCBP collaborate often with NCBP providing venue and local organization for ZOO programmes.  Recently NCBP staff created a ‘Tiger Trail’ at the zoo site especially for a ‘Teachers for Tigers’ training workshop for Coimbatore schoolteachers organized by ZOO and the Wildlife Conservation Society.  ZOO has also organized training in captive management of small animals, such as invertebrates and amphibians in collaboration with the Coimbatore Zoo.  The zoo staff also organise education programmes in the city as well as on site for special events, such as Wildlife Week, Environment Day and Animal Welfare Fortnightly.
The botanic garden and conservation centre is intended to combine most elements of all the natural history institutions in keeping with David Hancocks’ percipient comment.  Zoos in India, largely due to some of the foresters and conservation-oriented bureaucrats of post-Independence India, have focused more attention on their native animals in large natural enclosures.  The objectives of this botanic garden and conservation centre are conservation, research and education of the surrounding flora and fauna exclusively.  The NBCP function as a dynamic interpretation centre of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. 
Table :  A selection of botanic gardens and parks that kept animals during 19th and 20th century colonial India

 Wazir Ali Khan’s compound in Lucknow maintained gardens while hundreds of spotted deer, buck,  birds, mammals and reptiles were kept in public view behind an iron fence.
 The Botanical Gardens at Sarahanpur kept animals, some of which were painted by the artist employed by the garden to illustrate new specimens of flora.
 Lalbagh Botanic Gardens in Banglore opened in 1866 with an animal collection which later included tigers, lions, monkeys, kangaroos, orangutan, rhinoceros until 1920.
 Madras People’s Park was founded in 1855 with a zoo section. 
 The Trivandrum Public Gardens and Museum founded in 1873 with live animals in cages and open exhibits.  A Curator from Kew Gardens was brought over  to plan the layout,
 Victoria Gardens, Bombay, was founded as a botanical garden in 1862.  After adding a menagerie the Gardens were officially converted to a combined zoo and botanical garden in 1889.
 Udaipur Zoo, founded in 1878 by Maharaja Sajjan Singh of Mewar State contained a garden with medicinal plants and a specialist in horticulture from 1882-1920.
 The Maharaja of Baroda maintained a large garden with a collection of wild animals open to the public which inspired and stocked the Sayyaji Baug Zoo, officially opened in 1879. 
 Chamarajendra Zoological Gardens at Mysore was a 10 acre ‘palace zoo’ administered by the Department of Horticulture until it was transferred to the Forest Department in the 1970’s.
 Other royals had private menageries in their public gardens at Alwar, Gwalior, Indore and Kolhapur which are officially registered as zoos in India today.



Harrison, B., 1972, The evolution of zoological gardens, Proceedings of the Meeting of the International Union of Directors of Zoological Gardens at Singapore, IUDZG, Singapore.
Kisling V., 2000, Colonial Menageries and the Exchange of Exotic Faunas, Archives of Natural History 25(3): 303-320, London, UK
Vicziany, M., 1989, Imperialism, botany and statistics in early 19th century India, the surveys of Francis Buchanan (1762-1829), Modern Asian Studies, 20, 625.


Beaucoup de jardins coloniaux maintenaient des animaux sauvages en captivité. Certains avaient des collections respectables qui comprenaient des grands singes, des rhinocéros, des grands carnivores, et d’autres animaux exotiques provenant des aires continentales voisines.

Cette pratique était probablement plus répandue en Asie où l’on peut dire que les jardins soignés des Rois, associés à leurs collections d’animaux sauvages, ont créé une façon de penser qui a influencé le futur développement des jardins botaniques coloniaux. De plus, ce furent les naturalistes coloniaux qui ont pourchassé, décrit et dessiné la multitude d’espèces qu’ils ont trouvée. C’est la raison pour laquelle on trouve des animaux captifs dans les jardins botaniques d’Asie. Cet article décrit quelques-uns de ces jardins, particulièrement en Inde, pour fournir le contexte d’une nouvelle initiative : le Coimbatore Zoological Park Society en Inde du Sud.

Le Coimbatore Zoological Park Society a été créé en 1986 par un groupe d’hommes d’affaire riches et influents qui ont acheté un site de 100 Ha entouré par des collines à la végétation luxuriante à 30 Km de Coimbatore. Rompant avec la tradition indienne des terres appartenant au Gouvernement, cette société à but non lucratif a imaginé un parc innovant pour la conservation en ayant pour objectif de recréer, dans un microcosme, les différents milieux situés aux alentours. La réserve de la Biosphère de Nilgiri (NBR) couvre 5520 Km2 à l’ouest du Ghats. Elle a été mise en place par le Ministère de l’Environnement du Gouvernement de l’Inde pour disposer des moyens nécessaires à la conservation des espèces végétales et animales endémiques et menacées de cette région. Depuis ses débuts, la Société a collecté des plantes pour recréer les différents biomes de la NBR à travers une représentation des habitats naturels. Dans ce cadre, la plus grande collection régionale de plantes endémiques et menacées du pays a été constituée. La première phase du Parc sera d’aménager un jardin botanique public qui apportera des informations sur la biodiversité de la région.


Muchos jardines botánicos coloniales resguardaban animales silvestres. Algunos tuvieron colecciones respetables que incluían maravillosos monos, rinocerontes, grandes carnívoros y otros animales exóticos de áreas continentales circunvecinas. Probablemente esta práctica prevaleció en Asia donde se argumentaba que los elaborados jardines de la realeza combinados con sus colecciones de animales silvestres crearon un a forma de pensamiento que influenciaron el futuro desarrollo de los jardines botánicos coloniales. Sin embargo, fueron los naturalistas de la Colonia quienes se dedicaron a describir y dibujar la miríada de especies que encontraron. Debido a esto, sabemos de la presencia de animales en cautiverio en jardines botánicos de Asia. En este artículo describimos algunos de estos jardines, particularmente en India, los cuales forman parte del contexto de una nueva iniciativa, la Sociedad Parque Zoológico Coimbatore en el sur de la India.

La Sociedad Parque Zoológico Coimbatore se estableció en 1986 por un grupo de acaudalados empresarios quienes compraron 250 acres rodeados por verdes colinas a 30 Km de Coimbatore. Rompiendo con la tradición de la exclusividad gubernamental para poseer grandes extensiones de terreno, esta sociedad sin fines de lucro diseñó un novedoso parque para la conservación el cual pretende replicar un microcosmos del área mayor en la cual se ubica. La Reserva de la Biosfera Nilgiri (NBR) cubre una superficie de 5520 Km2 en las montañas occidentales (Ghats). Fue decretada por la Secretaría del Ambiente del Gobierno de India, con la finalidad de proteger y conservar la flora endémica y amenazada del área. A partir de su reconocimiento la Sociedad ha colectado plantas par re-crear los diferentes biomas de la reserva estableciendo colecciones que muestran los habitats naturales. En la actualidad comprende la mayor colección de plantas endémicas y amenazadas del país. La primera fase del Parque será un jardín público donde se enseñará acerca de la biodiversidad de la región.


Sally Walker, 29-1, Bharati Colony, Peelamedu, Coimbatore 641 004, Tamil Nadu, India. Website: www
Dr Rathinasabapathy and R. Manikam, Coimbatore Zoological park & Conservation Centre, 1388, Avinashi Road, Peelamedu, Coimbatore 641 004, Tamil Nadu, India.