Curtains fall on Marghazar Zoo in Islamabad

Published December 17, 2020
Dr Amir Khalil of Four Paws and IWMB personnel take a transport cage to the bears enclosure at Marghazar Zoo on Wednesday. — White Star
Dr Amir Khalil of Four Paws and IWMB personnel take a transport cage to the bears enclosure at Marghazar Zoo on Wednesday. — White Star

ISLAMABAD: As if losing Kaavan was not embarrassing enough, Four Paws took the two Himalayan brown bears to Jordan on Thursday where they will be properly taken care of.

Following the animals’ departure, the only wildlife expert, Dr Z.B. Mirza, quit the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB), citing old age. The 85-year old biodiversity expert is the second member to quit IWMB after World Wildlife Fund (WWF) withdrew its membership in protest when the two lions died at Marghazar Zoo this summer.

Z.B. Mirza maintained that sending off the bears was shameful. “We endorsed international propaganda that Pakistanis are incompetent and are cruel to animals,” he said.

Since long, conservationists argued that while zoos advocated conservation, saved endangered species and educated public, Islamabad zoo offered none. Animals were often displayed in small, cramped conditions until the Islamabad High Court took notice and decided to end cruelty to animals there.

In May, the court ordered it to be shut down and Kaavan, the two bears and 400 other animals relocated to better sanctuaries.

“The bears had to leave because Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa governments declined to adopt them after the court got involved. They feared the wrath of the judge, who was taking personal interest, had anything happened to the bears which were keeping poor health,” a senior official in the climate change ministry said. Among many who declined to help the bears was the only bear sanctuary in Balkasar, home to nearly 70 rescued bears. It also stayed away from the controversy.

Two Himalayan bears depart for Jordan; Another IWMB member quits

The official said there was little the ministry could do after taking charge of the zoo from the Metropolitan Corporation Islamabad in July. The court had already ordered the zoo to be shut down in May.

“Even though the ministry came in with the intention to fix the zoo, it was too late. The case became bitter after the two lions died,” the senior official said.

Another conservationist with the ministry, requesting not to be named, explained that the government could not bear pressure from the media as well as animal rights activists at home and abroad who had been demanding on social media and through emails to let the brown bears go.

“The IWMB was no longer in the mood to face the Islamabad High Court. The relocation of the elephant and the bears was taking attention away from other matters,” the official told Dawn.

He said letting the bears go was not a matter of ego, but what was best for them and for now it was a happy ending to a sad story.

Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Climate Change Malik Amin Aslam committed to take legal action against individuals to had shown cruelty to the animals and reduced the zoo to a level where it had to be closed.

But, IWMB Chairperson Rina Saeed Khan said: “We don’t want to be stuck in the past; we want to move forward. PC-I and funding for a sanctuary and the animal conservation centre have been approved and work will begin on the plan next month. Once the sanctuary is completed and the bears have recovered, they will likely be returned.”

The ailing bears got special attention after the global animal welfare organisation, Four Paws, arrived in August. They were fed fish, chicken, fruits and vegetables. While the golden shine in their furry coats seemed to have returned after the special care, they continued to show signs of distress and aggression, seen by their swaying from side to side, which is caused by prolonged captivity in a poor environment.

While Bubloo, the male bear, has severe infection in one of its canines, and which will be extracted soon after landing, the female bear, Suzie, cannot chew, said Dr Amir Khalil, who heads the Four Paws team in Islamabad.

Bubloo and Suzie were dancing bears confiscated from street performers and their teeth had been pulled out. They were four years old when they arrived at Islamabad zoo.

On Wednesday, it took Dr Amir Khalil one-and-a-half hours to dart the bears, shift them into transport cages and load them on to the truck. The bears will leave for Jordan early Thursday morning.

“We can’t wait to see the bears walk into their new species appropriate home in Jordan,” Dr Khalil added.

Compared to the limited and stressful life in Islamabad zoo, each bear will have 5,000 square kilometres wilderness to roam. There are already 10 bears in the sanctuary called Al Ma’Wa for Nature and Wildlife. Located 1,200 metres above sea level, the sanctuary is run in collaboration with the Princess Alia Foundation.Just like Kaavan, the bears were also gotten acquainted with their transport cages over the past few weeks.

“Pakistan took a lead in raising awareness about animal welfare,” Dr Amir Khalil said, pointing out that nearly 70 animals in Marghazar Zoo needed attention and proper care before they were also shifted.

“There is a lot of pain across the world. There are animals in distress in many developed countries - the US, Europe and Africa. But Kaavan became the light in the darkness and inspired people on how to offer better places to animals and for this we also appreciate the government for its support,” he added.

The shifting of the bears was kept away from media spotlight. With the last two animals gone, Islamabad zoo stands officially closed.

Published in Dawn, December 17th, 2020

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