Whenever we think of old Karachi, we always think of places like Empress Market, Burns Road, and Soldier Bazaar. However, we almost always tend to overlook a major monument of the city's heritage- the Karachi Zoo.
Established in the mid-18th century, it is one of the city's oldest landmarks. It is historically significant too since it is located on part of the land where East India Company factory used to stand.
In 1861 the Indian government put it under the charge of the city's municipality department. In 1878 the city's municipality, after several years of maintaining the zoo on its own, finally placed it under a trust to be maintained out of public subscription.
The Zoo came to be in its present state however in 1881, with the help of sizeable donations, which paid for its expansion and renovation.
Initially called Mahatma Gandhi Garden it was renamed after Independence as Karachi Zoological Gardens. Due to the ever growing number of animals, the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation finally decided to create the posts of a full-time curator and a qualified veterinary doctor in 1953, to look after the animals housed there. Currently its total sanctioned strength is 242 staff members, which includes six technical staff while the rest are all skilled or semi-skilled workers.
Located on Nishter Road and Sir Agha Khan III Road in the old Garden area of Karachi, the Karachi zoo covers a total area of 33 acres. It consists of a zoo, several botanical gardens, a natural history museum, a reptile house, an aquarium, a hospital and educational facilities.
The Zoo's Natural history Museum is very good, featuring indigenous as well as exotic stuffed animals belonging to different regions of the world. It allows visitors and science students the unique opportunity to study the evolution of various species of animals from close range. It was remodelled by the City District Government, Karachi (former known as the KMC) in 1991-92 and was formally inaugurated by the Japanese Princess in 1992.
The Natural History Museum is also a popular choice for field trips by students of various schools, whose teachers bring their students here to teach them about biodiversity and evolution. Apart from the stuffed animals, skins, antlers, horns and feathers of various species are also on display in the museum.
The Reptile house in the Karachi Zoo is one of the best reptile houses in the country and houses 13 species of snakes and lizards and crocodiles, including Cora snakes, Pythons, Sand Boas, Rat Snakes and the Cobra. Hatching of tortoises and crocodiles are also exhibited in the Reptile House. The reptile house was expanded and renovated in 1992 as well.
Apart from the reptile house, the zoo also features an aquarium. Constructed in 1953 this aquarium has 28 display tanks that contain a total of 30 different species of fish which number close to 300 in all. Presently the Karachi zoo houses 165 mammals, 460 birds and 210 reptiles.
Part of the many botanical gardens at the Karachi zoo, is a small garden in Mughal style which was established in 1970. It features stretches of lush green lawns with seasonal plants which occupy a major part of the garden. Different varieties of roses in many shades and colours can be found here which greatly enhance its aesthetic beauty. The roses surround several Mughal styled, centrally located fountains which lead to a structure straight from the Mughal era. It is the perfect place for a quiet afternoon stroll, away from the hustle and bustle of the city and is one of the finest green spots in the city.
The Karachi Zoo also features a veterinary hospital. Established in 1998, this veterinary hospital features modern diagnostic facilities such as an operation theatre, X-ray quarantine building, laboratory and an incubation room where eggs abandoned by the zoo's various captive birds are taken care of. It also arranges regular educational programs, with the collaboration of different educational institutions, in order to create public awareness regarding animals, their importance in society, morphological character, their behaviour, breeding habits, habitat, conservation and feeding processes etc.
Back in the 80s and early 90s, before there were any malls or coffee shops, the zoo or Gandhi Garden as it was commonly called, was the best place for a day out with the family. The sheer variety of animals there mesmerised children and adults alike. The lions, monkeys, bears, snakes and the elephants always held appeal no matter what age group the visitor belonged to.
As a child I remember queuing up for ages, waiting patiently in line with dozens of other children, to sit atop the elephant. Though one never got to take a ride on it, just sitting there was worth the wait and no matter how many times you'd done so before, it was always a novelty.
Apart from the animals the botanical gardens were also a major attraction. They made for the perfect getaway, ideal for a walk along the long stretches of green or for just sitting down with your picnic basket and enjoying the scenery. It was the perfect place to relax after the whole tour of the zoo, to sit down in the cool shade with your sandwich in hand, and just enjoy the beauty of nature around you.
Every visitor that came from the interior of Sindh, or even from Punjab, wanted to visit the Gandhi Garden even if they had seen it before. And it wasn't just the children that wanted to see it, but adults as well. They considered it a major point of interest, and no trip to Karachi was ever complete unless it included a visit to the Gandhi Garden as well.
Lately however, due to lack of funds and mismanagement, several animals have died at the zoo, including a few of the main attractions such as the lions and tigers. The Indian elephant named Anarkali which I remember from my childhood trips there also died on July 19th, 2006, after having been one of the Zoo's star attractions for nearly six decades.
One sincerely hopes that those in charge will take notice of the situation and step up to redress these problems. This vital asset of our city's heritage must be preserved, as it is a part and parcel of Karachi's culture and is still one of the most popular recreational areas in the city. Such is its appeal that even today, despite facing competition from so many quarters, its popularity shows no sign of waning.