Karachi zoo is the second oldest and the biggest in Pakistan. Although the zoological gardens have undergone numerous changes, served various purposes and held different titles since its inception in 1799, they remain one of the oldest landmarks of the city.
In 1775, the merchants of the East India Company were evicted by the Kalhoras as they were suspicious of the British. Subsequently, during the early Talpur rule, local Hindu merchants also placed an embargo on the presence of the British. But ultimately, when the Talpurs gave in to the Company demands, Nathan Crow was sent as the British Agent to Karachi and Thatta in 1799. It was in his administration that the East India Company established a factory in the then deserted outskirts of Karachi in 1799. The factory had huge gardens surrounding it. Due to his dubious activities, Crow was expelled in 1800 and the factory was closed down. The gardens became government gardens — known locally as Sarkari Bagh and marked on the map of Karachi prepared by Commander Charles in 1833.
As the British constructed quarters in Karachi for their soldiers in 1839, this 43-acre garden began to be used for cultivation of fruit and vegetables for the consumption of British forces under the supervision of Major W. Blenkins, Assistant Commissary-General and Superintendent of Gardens. Blenkins undertook its redesign. The irrigation was arranged from Lyari River and a dairy farm was also established on this piece of land. The government provided 100 rupees each month for its maintenance. In 1847, Major Blenkins reported that he had not drawn that subsidy for two years and, on the contrary, during the same period had made a profit of 17,032 rupees for the government. This was achieved by feeding vegetables to the troops, fodder to government cattle, the sale of its produce to private parties and the supply of pigeons, rabbits and leeches to the local hospital. By this time it had at least 15 wells and a reasonable water delivery system too.
Over two hundred years old, Karachi’s Zoological Gardens hide glorious stories of the past
J.E. Stocks wrote in Note on the Botany of Scinde (1846): “Sir Charles Napier is doing great things; has planted rows of young trees over all the avenues and streets; and has formed a capital government garden, which is a depot for garden shrubs, and supplies the troops with fresh European vegetables.”
The government transferred the garden to the municipality in 1861 on the condition that it will not be sublet or transferred. It was converted into a public garden in 1869 and was renamed as Queen Victoria Garden which was locally called Rani Bagh, presumably some time during this hand over. Travel writer Richard Burton described the availability of sweet water and a bandstand for music in the garden in 1877. The municipality sought some improvements and in 1878 planned to develop a zoo with a proviso that it be maintained on public subscriptions through a trust.
HRH Imam Aga Ali Shah built a palace in Karachi which was known as Pir ji Wadi (the valley of the pir) that faced the zoological gardens. He obtained permission from Henry Napier Bruce Erskine, the Commissioner in Sindh, to build a gate of the garden in 1882. The Imam bore its cost; an existing plate indicates the donation of the space for the gate.
As was happening with some other colonial gardens, a small zoo was established in 1884 which was laid out under the supervision of Benjamin Traill Ffinch as Chairman of the Garden Committee (he was also the director of Indo-European Telegraph Company) assisted by H.M. Birdwood. Cricket and croquet grounds, a handsome bandstand and well-laid paths were established. Ffinch conceived the idea of importing plantation from abroad and obtained expert advice from botanists. His correspondence to this effect is archived in the records of Kew Gardens in London. Karachi’s own residents donated much of the early animal collection. A beautiful and well-laid garden emerged. By 1890, there were 93 mammals and 465 birds housed there. W. Strachan was appointed as its first professional (zoological) superintendent in 1889 who served for 10 years. The succeeding European superintendent failed to do a good job and left soon after his appointment. After that, for the first time, the locals were assigned this position. Initially it was Ali Mahomed who served until his death in 1911. His brother, Ali Murad, who initially supported the zoo as an overseer of the animals, took over as superintendent in 1911.
The centrepiece of the garden, a beautifully executed Victorian fountain was constructed in 1883 jointly by the municipality and N.N. Poochajee in memory of Bombay philanthropist Cowasjee Jehangir Readymoney. An 18-foot high four-layered fountain is connected to an 11,000-gallon tank through which water keeps circulating.
Sir Evan James, Commissioner in Sindh (1891 to 1900), took a great interest in the flora and fauna of the province. He introduced California grapes and a vineyard flourished in the garden which became famous for its delicious grapes for well over half-a-century. A variety of those grapes was popularly known as Karachi Gulati.
Some evidence of donations from local philanthropists exists in the way of old plates, one of which reads: ‘The metal for this cage was presented by Seth Nanhamal Banarisdass 1903.’ Another reads: ‘The cage was presented by His Highness Mir Sir Faiz Mohamed Khan Talpur GCIE Ruler of Khairpur 1905.’
The Beaumont lawns established in 1910 stood in midst of all this change. These lawns were named after T.L.F. Beaumont, President Karachi Municipality and Chairman of Garden Committee 1903-10, who was also a member of Bombay Natural History Society.
However, little mention of the zoo can be found before 1913 when Furrel and Ludlow wrote that while Karachi was a young city with not many attractions of interests to tourists, the zoological garden was well worth a visit. In the early part of the century, the zoological garden and surrounding botanical garden were a popular meeting place on Sundays for all sections of the community. In 1921 the zoo had three maalis (gardeners), a clerk and a shop.
On his visit to Karachi in 1934, Mahatma Gandhi received a huge welcome in the very same garden. It was arranged by the Karachi Municipal Corporation. In that event, it was announced that the name of the place was being changed from Victoria Garden to Mahatma Gandhi Garden. It than became one of the main centres for political gatherings before the Partition.
Following Partition, the name was changed again to Karachi Zoological Gardens, yet it continued to be popularly known as Gandhi Garden. In 1953 the KMC appointed a zoo curator and a veterinary doctor. When the first curator was announced, the garden still bore the crest of Mahatma Gandhi. Free entry was discontinued in 1955 when a charged ticket was imposed.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 11th, 2016