KARACHI, April 27: Last week, a puma, a large slender cat kept in the Karachi Zoological Garden, suddenly died in the cage. Though nobody at the zoo is willing to talk about the cause of the death, sources say that the puma had stopped eating two days before she died, probably from lungs failure.

This is the second death among the six big cats in recent months at the zoo. One and a half months ago, a black male leopard had also died. However, his wasn’t a sudden death. Sources said the cause of the leopard’s death was TB. He had contracted the disease from his mate, who had died some two years back.

Recalling a visit to the zoo some five months back, Ahmer, a college student, said that when he asked a zoo keeper about the condition of the limping leopard which had a swollen body, he was told: “There is nothing wrong with him. Actually, he is fat and has completed his lifespan.”

What exactly happened to these two animals? The zoo in-charge, Mansoor Qazi, who has been heading the zoo for a decade, didn’t respond to any of the repeated calls made by this reporter. The other staff also declined to answer any queries.

TB is a major threat to zoo animals. During the past five years, many animals have died in the zoo but nobody knows the exact cause of their death as their autopsy reports are kept secret. Some of the dead animals include a female leopard, a female blackbuck, pelican, llama, two baby chimpanzees, tigress, ostrich, a male bear, lion — the living lion was bought from a circus three years ago — a male zebra, a female puma and an elephant — the celebrity of the zoo, Anarkali.

Sources said that the black leopard had gained weight because the zoo’s staff used to overfeed him. However, to say that he had gone old isn’t true. He was not above 13 and the fact is that leopards have lived up to 23 years in captivity as compared to 10 to12 years in the wild in other parts of the world. It all depends on how well they are looked after.

The sources further stated that the male leopard was a perfectly healthy young animal three to four years old when he landed in the Karachi Zoological Garden, along with his mate, trainer and a pair of tiger in 1996/97 from Holland. It is said that their health gradually declined and it was mainly because the zoo staff had no idea how to take care of this beautiful and precious creature.

The puma also came in a pair about three years ago through a contractor. The couple was hardly three to four years old. One of them died some time ago and the other gave in last week.

An unusual thing about the leopard pair was that the male and the female were kept together unlike the lions and the tigers.

However, the leopards didn’t reproduce though they lived together for five to six years. One major reason could be that they were sterile. Sources said that most animals sold by different private farms in Europe were sterilised before they were handed over to the client.

While the zoo management should be questioned over the purchase of sterile animals, this was perhaps the reason why the leopards were allowed to live together.

Considering the fact that lions are one of those species which are easy to breed, it’s hard to believe that there has been no lion birth at the zoo for a decade. In fact, it would be better to say that the last time lions’ cubs were seen in the zoo was in the ’70s because the ones which were born in the ’90s couldn’t survive for long. The same is true of tigers.

The visitors who frequent the place say they never saw these animals together. This reporter had found the lion many times on heat, moving in frustration towards the cage where the female was kept. On a different visit, the lioness was found rubbing its body on the bars of the cage where the male was closely sitting by.

According to a senior vet, animals should always be kept in pairs unless there is a health problem with one of them or the female is at an advance stage of pregnancy and the male can hurt her.

“When they are kept against their natural way of living, anything can happen. Their health is affected; they won’t reproduce and can even die of stress. Or they attack and kill the other animals in close encounter. This is perhaps what happened when a tiger killed its mate last year. Bactrian camel, bear, papas monkey and the female zebra are all living a solitary life at the zoo, which is against the normal practice of keeping animals in captivity,” he said.

Elaborating further, he said that among all the big cats, lions are the most social and live in organised groups.

Females go into season by the age of three, and have cubs about every two years. “They breed like cats and there should be no problem in their reproduction, if they are looked after with affection. For instance, Bhawalpur zoo produced 117 cubs in 24 years, of them 62 were sold to individuals and 37 to different organisations, zoos and parks.

Today, they have seven female and two male lions and a cub. If animals are breeding well in captivity, this shows they are happy,” he said.

The zoo administration’s lack of love for animals can also be gauged from the fact that most of the animals at the zoo are unnamed, which is against the traditions observed in zoos across the world. Even the most precious black leopards, the only pair at any zoo in Pakistan, are not named.

Pointing out other factors essential for the wellbeing of captive animals especially the big cats, a zoologist said that proper cages according to their habitat, timely vaccination, and a right quantity of food at the right time are crucial for healthy growth. The big cats should be given food around the sunset as these animals rest and hunt during the daytime and eat late in the evening. However, this practice is not observed at the zoo. The meat is thrown in the cages between 2pm and 4pm. It lies there till the sun sets. Their misery is also aggravated by the uncivilised behaviour of visitors who tease them and throw plastic bags and beverage bottles inside the cages.

The zoo faces a severe shortage of staff. For over 900 animals, there is only one vet and a private vet has to be called in to handle a case in emergency.