Five months after her ‘pen pal’ Noor Jehan passed away, Madhubala, caged behind concrete bars at the Karachi Zoo, stands under the tree where her best friend is now buried. She gazes at onlookers with vacant eyes that only show emotion when her mahout enters her enclosure with sugar cane.
Approximately 12 kilometres away, Madhubala’s herd partners Sonu and Malaika, housed at the Safari Park, suffer from knee swellings, cracked feet and joint pains.
All these African elephants, the last of the species in Pakistan, are suffering a fate they never signed up for. They — along with Noor Jehan — arrived in Pakistan 14 years ago. They were captured from Tanzania, after poachers shot their mother in front of them.
According to the zoo staff, these young ladies, now between the ages of 16 and 17, were just young calves when they were brought as captives to Karachi. They were then separated: Noor Jehan and Madhubala were sent off to the zoo, while Malaika and Sonu were kept at the Safari Park.
While the three remaining elephants are inching towards a reunion, it is at the cost of losing one of their companions.
The African pachyderm Madhubala will join two elephants from her original herd when she is rehomed at Karachi’s Safari Park. But will this guarantee a better life for her?
After Noor Jehan’s painful death earlier this year due to a tumour, the international animal welfare organisation Four Paws — which is closely working with the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC), which runs the Karachi Zoo — recommended immediately moving Madhubala to the Safari Park, a relatively greener and calmer place, for a “better chance at life.”
After some back and forth, a decision was made to move Madhubala to the Safari Park by mid-September, says an official at Karachi Zoo who did not want to be named.
He says Four Paws — who are currently in the city — had visited Madhubala and declared her fit to be moved to the new abode. “They said she is absolutely fine,” he says.
The elephant’s mahout Yusuf, on the other hand, says he was given special instructions by the doctors to ensure Madhubala was stress-free. “For the next few days, we have been told to stay with her day and night,” he says.
But a visit to the zoo shows Madhubala was anything but relaxed. She repeatedly made attempts to break down the door of her enclosure and kept banging her head on the steel bars of the cage — what experts call a “clear” sign of distress.
Yusuf has also noticed this. “She just doesn’t want to be alone. She wants you to sit next to her and talk to her. She gets agitated whenever she is alone,” he says.
“Imagine losing someone you have spent over a decade with… it gets very lonely,” says Yusuf. The mahout, who has been looking after the elephants at the zoo, adds that he had no idea what he would do once Madhubala was moved to the Safari Park. “We have spent a lifetime with these elephants.”
A closer view of Madhubala’s enclosure proves that preparations for her relocation are in full swing. Apart from her main cage, two other small pens have been taken down and transported to the Safari Park.
“They want to save money,” the official at the zoo says, pointing at the dismantled pens.
At the Safari Park too, a 25 foot by 38 foot concrete cage, identical to the one at the zoo, is under construction.
Earlier, Dr Amir Khalil, who is heading the Four Paws team, visited the Safari Park to oversee arrangements there for Madhubala’s enclosure. After the assessment, he suggested some measures, including a larger allocation of space for the elephants, from three acres to five acres.
Dr Khalil adds that Four Paws would also train the on-ground staff before Madhubala is rehomed. But given the KMC’s tainted past , doubts remain regarding whether relocating Madhubala is the solution to the wildlife crisis.
Despite living at Safari Park, which is termed a better place for elephants, Malaika and Sonu have been diagnosed with several diseases over the past several years. Recently, a report found that Sonu was suffering from a foot injury that seemed to have occurred due to the damaged concrete floor and moist conditions in her enclosure. Meanwhile, Malaika had developed a parasitic infection, the same that had eventually led to Noor Jehan’s death.
Zohare Ali Shariff, who has hands-on experience of captive wildlife management, explains to Eos that one common reason that captive animals, including elephants, were less immune to illnesses was the non-fulfilment of their basic needs.
“Elephants are highly intelligent animals, who have a very strong memory, they remember everything,” he says. “From the day they were put in captivity, these animals have been mistreated and tortured. They are beaten with sticks and are screamed at. All of this causes the elephants continuous stress and ultimately affects their health.”
Shariff says Madhubala may be suffering from several traumas. The primary one may be the loss of a loved one. “She was attached to Noor Jehan and witnessed the entire drama that unfolded before her death… this must be deeply embedded in her memory.” This explains her long visits to Noor Jehan’s grave.
Solitary confinement at the zoo and years of abuse have also deeply affected Madhubala, and a new enclosure at the Safari Park may not help with her healing, as Shariff says it is “too small and another torture cell.”
Elephants, he elaborates, need an environment that, if not a mirror, is similar to their natural habitat — land spread over hundreds of acres, earth underneath and abundant trees.
“Even with captive elephants, they should be provided an environment that functions according to the animal’s needs,” he points out.
Shariff also highlights how it may take Madhubala several months to adjust with the other elephants, even if they were originally members of her herd. He says elephants are not predators and the chances of a fight among them are relatively low, but there is a standard protocol in such matters that must be followed.
This includes first introducing the elephants to each other from a distance — or adjacent enclosures — and then slowly increasing their interaction.
Shariff hopes that moving Madhubala to the Safari Park would improve the quality of her life, but at the same time expresses apprehensions on whether government organisations, such as the KMC, can be trusted with taking care of the elephant.
He laments the KMC’s previous mismanagement, adding that neither the diet nor the veterinary care provided to captive animals in the city was at par with international standards.
“It is not possible to release these animals in the wild, they have been in captivity almost their entire life,” the expert adds. “The only option is to make zoos better.”
On the other hand, Jude Alan, animal activist and founder of the ‘I Am Noor Jehan Movement’, says the elephants in Karachi should be sent to an international sanctuary, such as the Islamabad elephant Kaavan was.
He tells Eos that when talks pertaining to Madhubala’s relocation had first started circulating, the KMC had agreed on providing 16-18 acres of land at the Safari Park. “But they have now agreed over less than five acres… Is this a joke?”
Elephants, on an average, walk for over 30km in a day. The Safari Park land cannot even be regarded as a drop in the ocean.
“The government does not care about these animals or their well-being, they have robbed the elephants of their rights,” Alan asserts, adding that African elephants belonged to Africa and should be sent back. “Let’s show them some dignity, we owe them this.”
The activist added that he, along with 22 other people, were working on taking this battle to court.
According to a 2008 study, zoo life can be deadly for elephants. It states that elephants born and raised in zoos live less than half as long as elephants living in their native areas. African elephants live an average of 60-70 years in the wild.
Scientists link most of these deaths to obesity because, even though the animals are well-fed, they get very little exercise. More recently, science has also revealed that elephants possess elements of neural wiring in their cerebral cortex, just like humans, linked with higher cognitive functions such as social awareness and language.
However, the same networks also makes these giant mammals susceptible to extreme boredom, depression and stereotypical behaviour during imprisonment — as in the case of the Karachi elephants.
And yet, all that zoos care about in Pakistan is entertainment for people during holidays.
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 3rd, 2023