03 June 1999

War ravages Belgrade's Bengal tiger

The Times of India, June 3, 1999

War ravages Belgrade's Bengal Tiger

By Siddharth Varadarajan

BELGRADE — The day after NATO's bombs first roared menacingly in Belgrade, Prince, the local zoo’s favourite Bengal tiger, became so traumatised he started eating his legs.

Other animals reacted to the bombardment and air-raid warnings with similarly destructive pathologies.A lion aborted, as did the constrictor, zebu and zebra. A tigress smothered her four-day-old cubs, devouring two of them. Both the Canadian and European she-wolves killed and ate their offspring. Many birds, including a mother owl, also killed their young.

Vuk Bojovic, manager of the Belgrade Zoo, has never experienced anything like this. A balding but bushy-haired man, he throws his hands in the air as he describes what is happening to the animals. “It is horrible. There is no water or electricity for days on end. We cannot change the animals’ water. Their meat is getting spoilt.”

However, it is the infanticide and cannibalism that really disturb him. “Because of the noise of explosions, these animals have an inkling of impending doom. They see that there is no future for their offspring.” Whenever the city is bombed or the sirens sound, the animals howl — a “concert of screams” is how one zoo worker described it — while the birds fall completely silent.

Slobodan, a pilot and volunteer at the zoo, wanted me to write about Prince. “After he was born, I took him to my apartment and brought him up,” he said. “We went for walks in Belgrade and for rides in my motor boat. He had such a good nature. But now..."

We went to the shed where Prince was being kept in isolation. Slobodan stroked the tiger’s face through the bars of the small cage in which he now lives, whispering endearments in Serbian. Prince, who is enormous, twisted in pleasure. The ends of his rear legs were a hideous red, the flesh exposed.

The zoo has tried everything to stop him but every time they put a bandage he would rip it off. “I think it is his protest against the bombing” said Slobodan, his eyes misting over. He quickly put on his dark glasses and motioned that we should leave.

As we left, Prince roared in a way that I had never heard a tiger roar before. I have seen many tragedies that this war has caused. But what broke my heart was the sight of Prince, my proud compatriot, born and nurtured in a foreign land, now reduced to gnawing at his flesh because he cannot cope with the savagery of a conflict more ferocious than any beast of prey.

It is the one image of this insane war that will stay with me forever.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well, it's a comment made after nearly eight years and is probably worth it... Probably if you have seen the film Underground (1995) on the moral and political break-up of the Balkans - made by the Serbian director Emir Kusturica - the first shot starts with the bombing of the Belgrade zoo by the Nazis....