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Animals behind bars

December 02, 2012


Karachi zoo

A modern zoo serves as a home away from home for animals where every species is provided with an environment close to its natural habitat in the care of well-trained keepers. It is also a place which offers opportunities for human and animal interaction.

This positive change towards wild animals in captivity has made it possible to revive the population of some critically endangered species, at least at the level of the zoo if not in the wild. The success stories include the ones of Arabian oryx, David deer and Przewalski horse.

Unfortunately, state-run zoos in Pakistan, by and large, are still in their initial phases of transition. The conditions at the zoos in general are pathetic and efforts being made for improvement are minimal and far too slow-paced to meet the challenges confronted. Due to a dearth of expertise and funds, animals are forced to live in unnatural conditions. This explains why state-run zoos are often in the news for all the wrong reasons: death and disease.

A case in point is the Karachi Zoological Gardens which has recently seen a number of deaths that included a Bengal tiger, a leopard, a Shetland pony, a nilgai, a red deer and a baboon.

Though zoo officials have made the claim that all these animals were ‘too old’ and it was primarily their ‘old age’ that led to their death, inquiries show that neglect and lack of care contributed to their death.

The leopard, for example, had been deprived of its spacious enclosure specifically meant for big cats and shifted to a cage earlier used to keep hyenas and jackals until only a few months ago.

Sadly, frequent mortalities at the zoo could never bring a significant policy change for improvement, though the facility generates Rs50m to Rs60m revenue every year. Unlike other provinces where public sector facilities for captive animals are run by their respective provincial wildlife departments, facilities for captive animals in the city, two private zoos and the Safari Park, are run by the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC).

The KMC (and the defunct city district government) seems to have a penchant for importing exotic animals as it has spent millions of rupees on their purchase. This year’s new arrivals at the zoo include pumas, Bengal tigers and white lions. However, there is a big question over how these big cats and some other animals have been acquired.

For instance, the KMC hasn’t yet acquired the mandatory no-objection certificate for importing Bengal tigers and white lions, though four months have passed since their import. The NOC, issued by the National Council for Conservation of Wildlife (NCCW), should have been acquired before the import.

It is important to know that the government has never legislated to run facilities for captive animals on scientific lines. There is no official quest to find qualified staff, rather zoo/Safari posts are offered to in-service government employees and one finds sweepers working as keepers.

Given the dismal state of affairs, it is no surprise that facilities for captive animals have failed to serve their purpose in the city. The situation is more or less the same at other facilities in the country, with perhaps a few exceptions.

“Pakistan has a combination of good and bad zoo facilities. In fact, conditions vary within a zoo. But this does not mean that we undermine the role of zoos in encouraging love for animals and inspiring people to help animals. A few decades ago, western zoos were also like menageries. We need to improve ourselves and to be honest, people do talk about animal wellbeing and there is a consciousness amongst civil society today,” says Uzma Khan, Director Biodiversity, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), discussing the justification for zoos.

Khan, one of the few experts in the country on animal behaviour and welfare, believes that city zoos could be improved by reducing the number of species and housing animals in their correct social setting. “Animals need natural surroundings to follow natural instinct which is important for their wellbeing. This way they are more active and interactive which generates public interest. Who wants to see sad and dull animals?” she adds. All captive facilities in Pakistan, according to Khan, have one common problem; untrained keepers. “It’s the root cause of many other problems. Keepers are a low grade and low paid job and most cannot read and write. There is neither organised training nor structured career growth, although opportunities exist but it’s usually not a priority area,” she points out.

Khan also feels very strongly about legislation on zoo standards like other Asian countries while calling for administrative and financial autonomy for captive facilities, which, she says, should be run by a committee of experts.

“The cost of the zoo ticket needs to be increased as the funds generated would be linked to keepers’ training. A zoo must be equipped with basic veterinary equipment, a full time vet and education officer on duty.

“Each exhibit must have relevant signage highlighting the conservation status and information about the animal,” she suggests.

Replying to Dawn’s queries, Bashir Saddozai, director Karachi zoo, admitted that the facility lacks standards and that he does not have the relevant educational and professional background but insisted that he is trying his best to improve conditions at the zoo.

“Right now, the zoo is on top of government priority list and some measures have been taken for zoo’s uplift; for instance, induction of two zoologists and a vet (earlier there was only one of each) and setting up a bookshop which would open soon,” he said, adding that many schools had visited the zoo in recent months on invitation. The government, he said, allocates the same amount of money for the zoo which it earns from it and plans to induct educated keepers.

Among other factors, it is important to have a strong body advocating animal rights in order to push the government to reform captive facilities. An educated and sensitive public is an asset for a society as it could make the government accountable, even for violating animal rights.