KARACHI, May 18: With the death last week of a blackbuck, the species’ population at the Karachi Zoological Gardens has been reduced from 28 to a mere three over five years, and there is little hope of any increase since the remaining females have no mates.

The female blackbuck was discovered dead about a week ago. It was assumed that she died after colliding with the fence whilst running, since the animal had been healthy and no other reason was apparent, said a source.

Zoo officials failed to respond to Dawn’s inquiries about the real cause of death.

An autopsy of any animal that dies is mandatory under the zoo’s regulations. “The post-mortem procedure to identify the real cause of the animal’s death is not just a ritual but an extremely important measure to prevent further deaths,” said a source.

“There used to be a three-member team — a bacteriologist, pathologist and a senior wildlife expert — at the zoo, which used to conduct the post-mortems. But this protocol was abandoned two years ago.”

Over the past years, the zoo has also lost a number of deer of various species because they ran into the fence while running. The major reason behind this was the practice of burning dry branches inside the animals’ enclosures, and though this has now been stopped, animals continue to be provoked into a panicked flight by visitors who throw items into the enclosures.

Dwindling populations

Sources call “the great tragedy” of the Karachi zoo the fact that a number of animals have no mates, thanks to the administration’s failure to replace stocks upon the death of males or females of a species.

This has seriously affected the animals’ well-being.

The unpaired animals include a male Bactrian camel, a female black bear, a male papas monkey, two male Bengal tigers and a male zebra. Recently, the female blackbucks at the Karachi zoo have also been left without a mate. “The zoo used to get blackbucks and other animals from the Safari Park but the process stopped about two years ago when the zoo became an independent institution,” said the source. “The two administrations are at loggerheads with each other.”

For other species, growing mortality rates pose a serious threat to their populations at the zoo. According to Dawn’s source, two neelgai and a red deer died of an unidentified disease in March, while another neelgai and a red deer died in January. The neelgai population has thus been reduced to seven, and the red deer to four.

During 2007, the zoo lost 27 animals including 12 spotted deer, a puma, a black leopard, two female Bengal tigresses (one of which was killed by its mate), six fallow deer fawns, two blue bulls, a blackbuck, a red deer and a jackal. Reportedly, many of them died because of a blood parasite that was later identified as trypanosomiasis.

The loss of these animals represents a heavy financial toll. The puma, black leopard and Bengal tigresses were imported at huge costs while the price of a pair of deer ranges between Rs100,000 and 300,000. “The lack of trained staff, paucity of funds and inordinate delays in the release of funds are among the major reasons affecting the wellbeing of zoo animals,” a senior veterinarian confided in Dawn. “The number of big cats has been reduced from nine to four within two years while there has been no birth among them in decades. The administration has also failed to replace Anarkali, the zoo’s elephant celebrity, which died in 2006.”

A ‘chivalrous’ animal

The recent death of the blackbuck is doubly saddening because it is a special species. According to senior vet and former director of the Karachi zoo, Dr A. A. Qureshi, blackbucks are amongst the fastest land mammals and with a speed of 60 meters per hour, could give a cheetah a run for its money. Males are dark brown or black and have screw-shaped horns while the sand-coloured females are hornless.

“The animal is mainly found in the Indo-Pak subcontinent but has been introduced in other parts of the world,” he explained. “The highly-threatened species found itself in the spotlight in recent years when actor Salman Khan was jailed for killing two blackbucks and several endangered chinkaras.” He added that the hunting of blackbucks used to be banned under a British-era law that is no longer in existence.

In Pakistan, the species is almost extinct in the wild but has successfully been bred in captivity. Quite a few animals are found in private collections and public zoos and parks across the country. The largest concentration is in Lal Sohanra National Park, where there are hundreds of blackbucks.

The Karachi zoo has had a long association with the species. According to Dr Qureshi, the nazim of Bahawalpur gifted seven male and three female blackbucks to the US government in 1936, in acknowledgement of honours bestowed upon him. “After partition, the US government returned three male and nine female blackbucks to the government of Pakistan as a goodwill gesture,” he explained. “These animals were kept in the Karachi zoo for a year and then transferred to the Lal Sohanra National Park which had been developed specifically for the conservation and rehabilitation of blackbucks.”

The animal, he said, is reputed to be amongst the most chivalrous in the wild since it often sacrifices its life for the herd. “The female leads the herd while the male follows,” he said. “As soon as it senses danger, the male breaks away to distract the predator and in the process, often loses its life. These animals are worth their weight in gold and must be taken care of as such.”