The cheetals were last seen alive at 8 pm that night. A zoo guard found them dead the following morning.
It is not clear how they died, but wildlife experts and veterinary doctors have refused to accept the conclusion of the probe by the state animal husbandry department, which blamed an anthrax attack. They have said that deaths because of anthrax do not happen on such a large scale, so suddenly, and without clear symptoms. Also, no trace of anthrax has been found on the premises of the zoo and in nearby areas.
Anthrax is a lethal bacterial disease that commonly infects herbivorous mammals which ingest spores of the micro-organism while grazing.
According to local people, the party at the zoo that night could not have been organised without the involvement of Neeraj Mali, the son of local BSP muscleman Shankar Mali. The Malis, who have about 50 criminal cases including smuggling of forest produce, between them, are known to control the zoo the biggest in Chhattisgarh and organise parties on the premises. A few years ago, Neeraj was arrested from the zoo resthouse, where he was holed up allegedly after committing a murder.
Neeraj and his father have been hobnobbing with the local BJP MLA, Raju Kshatriya, for some time now, and supported him in the recent assembly polls.
Neeraj confirmed that a party had been organised at the zoo that night, but said he had nothing to do with it. Yes, there was a party by some BJP men, but we were not involved. Let anyone bring evidence of our presence, we are ready for any punishment, he told The Indian Express. People say that we have controlled the zoo for years, but where is the evidence
He also denied that he had been arrested from the zoo resthouse. You know that police often do it. They make arrests at one place, and show it as having been made at another. I was not arrested from the zoo, Neeraj said.
BJP MLA Kshatriya denied that he or his men were involved in the party. It is a very serious issue. Twenty-one female deer died in one night. It should be probed by the highest agency of the country. I consider it to be a serious lapse by forest officials, not the junior ones, but the seniors, he said.
Principal Chief Conservator of Forests Ramprakash denied there was a party at the zoo that night. The allegation that some men partied inside the zoo is false. It is a closed enclosure, no one can go inside, he said. About Neeraj Malis arrest from the zoo some years ago, he said: I have no information about that. I cannot comment.
Wildlife experts said they got suspicious after investigators hastily blamed anthrax and buried the deer carcasses without performing autopsies.
A team of three doctors Dr R M Tripathi, Dr Anup Chatterjee and Dr Ritesh Swarnakar from Bilaspur Veterinary Hospital, who were helped by zoo doctor P K Chandan and veterinary experts from Durg, noted in their five-page report that anthrax possibly caused the deaths.
They decided not to conduct post mortem in public welfare as it can endanger other animals in the zoo and the life of human and animals in the vicinity.
Following the mention of anthrax in the report, the veterinary department surveyed the area but found no threat of the disease. We immediately conducted a survey of the area up to several square kilometres but did not find even one animal having remotest symptoms of anthrax, Dr Z H Shams, Bilaspur Veterinary Assistant Surgeon, said.
The probe report too found the remaining 33 cheetals in the same enclosure perfectly healthy, without any anthrax symptoms. In fact, no animal in the zoo has reported anthrax symptoms since then.
If it was anthrax, other animals in the zoo would also get affected and some of them would die. The claim that 21 females died of anthrax, all in one night, is ridiculous. Anthrax does not kill by selection, in such a quick span. I doubt if it was anthrax, P K Sen, a former director of Project Tiger and WWF (Tiger and Wildlife Programme), said.
The probe report has other irregularities. The bellies of some cheetals had deep vertical splits, clearly suggesting sharp teeth or a sharp object at play. The doctors report attributed the cuts to beaks of crows.
The deer were last seen perfectly healthy at 8 pm and the carcasses were recovered early morning. It seems highly improbable that crows would descend at night to attack the carcasses, experts said.
Bilaspur Congress leader Vivek Vajpeyi said there was a human role in the deaths. They did not die on their own. Someone caused these deaths, said Vajpeyi, who has galvanized people on the issue, and given submissions to the collector to probe the possible involvement of forest officials.