KARACHI, Dec 22: Four lions, a rare species, being “imported” on an expired permission were seized by the customs authorities at Karachi airport in the early hours of Wednesday.

Sources said that the lions were handed over to the Sindh Wildlife Department late Wednesday night for safe keeping till the issue was sorted out.

The sources added that the lions were shifted to the Karachi Zoological Gardens because the SWD did not have any such facility of its own where the carnivorous big cats could be housed.

Until some years back, big cats — mainly lions and tigers — were imported in large numbers by the private sector as some people kept the big cats in their private zoos as a status symbol.

The National Council for Conservation of Wildlife (NCCW) banned the import of all big cats by private parties when the issue was highlighted in the media.

Customs Deputy Collector Attaullah Shabbir earlier told Dawn that he had received a letter from NCCW official Umeed Khalid that the certificate being shown by the importer, which had been issued in January 2008, was not valid and no animals could be imported on that NOC. He said he was told that the consignment should not be released as there was a complete ban on the import of big cats by private parties.

He claimed that the lions would not be released till the customs got a clearance report from the NCCW or SWD. But as these lions could not be kept at the airport, the SWD was being requested to keep them for safe keeping till the issue was solved, he said, adding that the lions would remain the property of the customs and legal proceedings were being initiated against the importer.

Mr Shabbir said that he did not have all the relevant documents available with him but from the few that he had it seemed that the four lions had started their journey most probably from the Czech Republic and after travelling through Germany had boarded a flight from Frankfort for Pakistan and landed at Islamabad airport. It was late Tuesday when these lions arrived at Karachi airport, he added.

Responding to Dawn queries from Islamabad, NCCW's Umeed Khalid said that no NOC had been issued to private parties to import lions or big cats over the past couple of years, as the government had imposed a ban on their import.

“So if the importer was presenting any NOC issued by the NCCW it would not be valid for import,” he added.

The sources said that the only NOC / permission the NCCW had issued for import of tigers after the ban was in place was in the name of Salman Shahbaz, the son of Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif.

But when the media reported the matter on the imported Siberian tiger's arrival, Mr Sharif immediately announced that the tiger would be donated to the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government. However, the decision was changed before it could be handed over to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and now the Siberian tiger was being kept at a Punjab wildlife department's facility located in the Murree Hills, the sources added.

Responding to Dawn queries, Sindh Wildlife Department's conservator Dr Fahmida Firdous said that she had received information that a few lions were to be brought into the country through Karachi airport. She said she alerted her staffers posted at the airport who on late Tuesday reported that the four lions had arrived from Islamabad.

She said that the documents, including the NCCW's NOC and import permit, presented by the importer were issued on Jan 12, 2008. “The validity of the NOC is six months so even if these documents are correct, their validity has expired,” she said. She added that the NCCW had banned the import of big cats, including lions and tigers, a couple of years ago.

She said that the NOC presented by the importer was sent to the NCCW secretariat in Islamabad for verification as a precautionary step. She added that the NCCW also confirmed that it was an old NOC, which was issued a couple of years back, and lions could not be imported on the basis of this NOC at present.

Dr Firdous said she was writing a letter to the Customs Collector in this regard. She said SWD's Game Inspector Nazar Hussain had also been directed to inform the customs staffers at the airport not to release these lions, as the import permits / NCCW's NOC being presented to get these animals cleared were not valid. She said that the SWD would prosecute the importer under the Sindh Wildlife Protection Ordinance, 1972.

She said that she was requesting customs officials to detain these lions and these animals, most probably, would be kept at the Karachi Zoo, as the SWD does not have a facility of its own where such animals could be kept for safe keeping.

Besides, the public could also see these lions at the zoo till the issue was sorted out after the legal proceedings.

It is worth noting that Pakistan is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) of Fauna and Flora which monitors and controls the trans-boundary relocation of highly endangered and rare species. Its focal point in the country is the National Council for Conservation of Wildlife (NCCW) which, if satisfied with the intentions of the importers, can issue permits for the import of such species controlled under the Cites.

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