Also known as the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, the Darjeeling zoo is one of the most popular tourist places in Darjeeling. According to a news report during the Darjeeling bandh in June this year, around 5000 tourists visit the zoo every year. It houses exotic animals that you will probably never get to see otherwise. Moreover, in the Darjeeling zoo, these animals are much easier to see, unlike the Gangtok zoo, which is larger and keeps the animals in a semi-natural habitat. I tend to side with the Gangtok zoo on this, but the truth is that I haven't really seen that place.
The Darjeeling Zoo is about 2.8km from the Darjeeling Mall and it takes about 45 minutes to cover the distance on foot. Right next to it is the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, which is a pretty popular tourist attraction in itself. You should set aside at least 3 hours if you are headed to the zoo and HMI as you will need at least this much time to explore the two places properly. The zoo remains closed on Thursdays, so plan accordingly.
The zoo in itself isn't very large, but it houses some very interesting animals. Closest to the entrance are the herbivore enclosures, where you will see animals such as the Himalayan Tahr, barking deer, yak, and sambhar deer. This was the first time I was seeing a Himalayan Tahr, though I have seen yaks at places like Kufri in Himachal Pradesh.
In the Aviary are the birds of all colors and sizes. You find parakeets, macaws, and pheasants of various colors, shapes, and sizes. One can see the gorgeous monal and tragopan, and also gorgeous and rare pheasants such as the golden pheasant, silver pheasant, and grey peacock pheasant. These birds are a real treat to see. However, like most zoos, this place too makes you feel a little sad for the inmates. Zoos after all are only a little different from prisons.
Once you have seen the birds, you go up a little incline and come upon the animals. Here you will see the animals that you have probably only heard of. Shy and rare animals such as the snow leopard, clouded leopard, and even a black leopard (panther) are put in enclosures that make it extremely easy for tourists to spot them. The authorities have even managed to put a Royal Bengal tiger in an enclosure not much larger than those of the leopards. The animals mostly lie around, trying to ignore the human intrusion into their privacy, but if you do feel a sense of guilt for their plight, your delight at seeing these beautiful creatures will probably overshadow it. Humans after all are selfish creatures at the core.
Last but not the least is the Red Panda and this beautiful creature has a much better enclosure than its fellow zoo mates. When we reached the enclosure, the panda was lying on a branch, facing away from us. We decided to stick around a bit, and soon it got up and obliged us with a pose, before going back to sleep.
Next to the pandas are some more pheasants and some lesser carnivores, such as the jungle cat and the leopard cat. Once you have seen these, you can return to the entrance and buy some souvenirs. At the end of the trip, you may be conflicted about whether you loved the zoo or absolutely hated it, but the truth will remain that on this day, you saw some animals that you can brag to your friends about. Hmm...