It will be four years in April since Saheli died in Islamabad’s Marghazar Zoo. She died young for an elephant, whose lifespan is typically around 70 years.
Saheli was just 22 when one April day in 2012, she fell ill from an infection in her leg. Despite all the attention the zoo keepers and veterinary doctor could provide her, she died within days.
She was popular among the children who mourned her departure. Her soulmate Kaavan, however, lessened their pain.
Saheli had arrived in Pakistan as a gift in 1992. She survived her habitat discomforts for 20 years. Her discomforts were blamed on the inattention of the Capital Development Authority (CDA). After her death, the CDA management, instead of taking steps to remove the causes behind the negligent handling of the animal, just suspended two members of the zoo staff.
Unfortunately, Saheli’s partner, Kaavan, too is in pain, but of a different kind. Unlike Saheli, he is kept in chains. Some say Kaavan seems to suffer more from “the internal politics” of CDA officialdom than his chains.
Luckily, stories in the media about Kaavan’s misery have drawn attention of animal lovers at home and abroad to try to save him from meeting the fate of Saheli.
Kaavan, the male elephant, has proved sturdier than Saheli. He has been on his feet for almost 30 years. He is in chains because of his aggressive nature. In 1992, he had crushed a zoo worker to death.
Last year, the zoo renovated the elephant enclosure and built a moat for him at a cost of Rs2.5 million. But Kaavan smashed the moat, which is now being repaired.
A number of international non-government organisations have been working and raising their voice to give relief to the animal.
Representative Sunny Jamil of Help Welfare Organisation told Dawn that some 600 elephants are kept in zoos all over the world and NGOs have been campaigning for the welfare of the animals in general.
“We believe that animals, especially the elephants, should be sent to a wildlife sanctuary. Kaavan has remained chained for most of his life. He is a gift from Sri Lanka and we have written to the Lankan government not to gift any other elephant to Pakistan because it will also face mistreatment,” he said.
“Asian elephants are aggressive by nature, especially in the mating season. From November to March the animal is totally unpredictable. Moreover, small enclosures don’t allow them much movement to spend their energy. World class zoos arrange especial exercises for their elephants for an elephant must walk many kilometres every day to be healthy,” he said.
“A few days back, the animal (Kaavan) got stuck in his moat for almost three hours. We worried if he injured himself no medical help would be available to him as none exists in the country,” he said, suggesting sending him to some sanctuary in Myanmar or elsewhere.
“We have held a number of protests for the elephant’s right and animals’ welfare in general; and will hold more. I can’t imagine an elephant spending his life on concrete floor. That is injurious for his legs. There is no breeding system for the animals in the zoo,” he said.
“Local wildlife NGOs are not ready to raise voice against CDA because they get benefits from CDA,” he alleged.
“In a sanctuary, captive animals are trained and then allowed to join the herd. Elephants have sharp memory. In a zoo they have just Mahouts and administration staff for company, which makes things worse,” said Mr Jamil.
A zoo official, who has been in the profession for decades, recalled that the elephant in Marghazar Zoo was gifted by the Sri Lankan to the military ruler Gen Ziaul Haq.
“I still remember that the Mahout also came from Sri Lanka and stayed in Islamabad for almost six months. At that time milk for the elephant used to come from Sri Lanka. The Mahout used to warn that the elephant had a black spot in his mouth and would be very aggressive,” he said.
“An employee of zoo, named Sharif, went near him and Kaavan knocked him down with his head and put his feet on his chest. We rushed Sharif to Polyclinic but the doctors said his internal organs had been crushed and they could do nothing to save him.
“About eight years back, the elephant broke through the deer’s enclosure. Many times he has thrown stones and bricks on people. CDA management does not want to send him away because it has become a matter of prestige that it could not control even a captive elephant,” he said.
“At one stage, the management started giving liquor to the elephant to control his aggression during the mating season. That was no way to calm down an elephant in rage. I pity Kaavan and wish he were sent to a sanctuary but only after ensuring he wouldn’t be a trouble there,” said the old zoo hand.
“On the other hand, the CDA management has no sense of running a zoo. Animal experts are astonished when they learn that a civil engineer is working as director zoo. No wonder the number of animals in the zoo are dwindling. Some animals, like crocodiles, lions and leopards have completely vanished from the zoo and many enclosures wear a deserted look,” he said.
“A professional animal expert or veterinary doctor should be appointed as Director Zoo to ensure that animals are treated well and kept healthy,” he added.
Vice Chairman Pakistan Wild Life Foundation Safwan Shahab Ahmed finds it “a very complicated question” of whether to send the elephant to a sanctuary or not.
“Although international experts have been suggesting that, they are not considering whether those sanctuaries are legal and suitable for the animals. Moreover the animal (Kaavan) has lived with a Mahout for almost three decades so it must be used to his Mahout. Another problem is that the elephant has come as a gift from a country. How can gift from one country be sent to another,” he said.
“No doubt the enclosure for the elephant is very small. It is not fair to confine a roaming animal to such a small space. The feed being given to the elephant also is not the proper feed for him. An elephant has the intelligence of a seven-year-old child and restricting him to an enclosure is sheer cruelty,” he said.
“Another issue is that we cannot be certain about the comments of international experts. In the 1940s animal experts recommended to establish dairy farm to meet the requirements of milk and in 2005 they said that milk of dairy farm is hazardous because it has more quantity of lactic acid,” he said.
“I would suggest that a 45-acre, properly fenced enclosure is laid out for the elephant. But that would require Rs100 million. Then a female elephant should keep him company. Those animals live in herds under a female elephant’s leadership. So a female elephant bigger than Kaavan is required because only that is how he will accept her as leader,” Mr Safwan said.
Director Zoo Abdul Rasheed while talking to Dawn said that although he is civil engineer by profession, animals are his passion.
“I was working as a project director zoo, but because of some administrative issues, the management suggested I should take over the charge of the zoo and address the issues. I accepted the responsibility as a challenge. I have studied a lot about the animals, especially elephants. Now people take me for an expert on animals,” he said.
“There are three species of Asian elephants - Indian, Nepali and Sri Lankan. Sri Lankan elephants are more aggressive. Kaavan has been chained for two reasons: one is that his moat is being repaired; and two that if the temperature falls below 10 degrees Celsius, the animal has to be monitored closely. As soon as temperature will increase he will be unchained,” he said.
“We have provided him tyres and balls for physical exercise. Moreover a new, bigger enclosure will be constructed for the elephant. The existing enclosure is spread over 16,000 square feet and new one will be built on 80,000 square feet,” Mr Rasheed said.
Spokesperson CDA Ramzan Sajid said that a number of organisations have been contacting CDA regarding the elephant.
“We have taken steps (to improve conditions for the animal). A moat has been made in the enclosure of elephant. Although we can provide 45 acres of land, we have to see what the practice is all over the world for one elephant or not. We are also examining international practice,” he said.
“We are taking steps to provide all the facilities to the animal and he will continue to live in Pakistan,” he added firmly.
Published in Dawn, January 17th, 2016