Solitary confinement at Karachi zoo takes toll on elephant Madhubala

Published August 23, 2023
A visibly weak Madhubala in the barren zoo enclosure.
— Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
A visibly weak Madhubala in the barren zoo enclosure. — Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

KARACHI: Solitary existence in a barren, lifeless enclosure for the past few months has taken its toll on zoo elephant Madhubala that has gone too weak and persistently shows signs of immense stress, it emerged on Tuesday.

A recent visit to the Karachi Zoo showed that the loss of long-time partner Noor Jehan over three months back had a profound impact on 16-year-old African elephant Madhubala as she seems to have lost her distinct personality.

She no longer shows the energy she once displayed when Noor Jehan was there for her to see, touch, play and smell.

During the visit, this reporter found Madhubala constantly hiting her head against the enclosure’s iron bars till its handler shouted at her and she immediately moved away. Her eyes looked depressed and she visibly suffered from weight loss.

Four Paws’ team due in city today; vet says zoo elephant is ‘perfectly fine’, ready to be shifted to Safari Park

Sources in the Karachi zoo told Dawn, on the condition of anonymity, that Madhubala had often been seen banging her head against the iron bars since Noor Jehan’s death in April this year.

“This is a reality. Most of her time is now spent in expressing this abnormal behaviour, causing black marks near her eyes,” a source said, adding that the frequency of this abnormal behaviour was much lower when she had a companion.

Also, constant secretion from Madhubala’s temporal glands was visible on the side of her head, which indicated stress and aggression, among other things, the sources said.

Some videos appearing on social media in recent weeks had also shown the animal chained in the daytime.

When these concerns were raised with zoo officials, they claimed that Madhubala had no health issues whatsoever.

“She is perfectly fine and ready to be shifted to Safari Park as she is now free of the potentially fatal infection,” zoo vet Dr Amir Ismail said.

He claimed that the disturbing videos of the elephant were old ones.

According to officials, the plan for Madhubala’s relocation will be prepared and finalised by Four Paws — an international team of experts working for animal welfare — which would be reaching Karachi on Wednesday (today).

The team had been assisting zoo and Safari Park officials for the past few years after the Sindh High Court took up a petition raising concerns over elephants’ well-being.

The team last visited the zoo in April to help save Noor Jehan that later died after falling into her pond.

At that time, the organisation had strongly recommended that Madhubala be relocated as soon as possible to a “species-appropriate place to at least give her a chance at a better life”.

In 2021, the team in its report had suggested zoo elephants’ relocation to Safari Park. The process is still pending.

It’s important to mention here experts discourage keeping elephants in zoos as their needs cannot be adequately met in a captive environment. Consequently, their welfare is severely compromised.

Potential causes for poor welfare in zoo elephants include restricted space and opportunity for exercise, unsuitable climate, extended periods of confinement, hard or wet flooring and inappropriate diet and, above all, lack of an environment that mimics the social structure elephants need to thrive.

Elephants in the wild can exist in herds numbering up to 58 animals. Female elephants particularly are intensely social animals.

Published in Dawn, August 23th, 2023

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