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KARACHI, March 8 Without developing expertise, proper infrastructure and taking stakeholders into confidence, the city district government Karachi's community development department plans to import a number of animals for the Karachi Zoological Garden and Safari Park, Dawn has learnt.

The long list of animals include two female African elephants, two pairs of lions, a pair of leopards, two female tigresses, a pair of ostriches and a few pheasant species for the zoo, while three eland deer, two pairs of Shetland ponies, six African parrots and five species of pheasants would be purchased for Safari Park.

A tender for three female and a male giraffe has also been published in newspapers recently. Officials confirm the import of these animals and the CDGK has acquired a no objection certificate (NOC) - mandatory for animal import - for four female African elephants from the National Council for Conservation of Wildlife (NCCW). No request has been forwarded yet for the import of the other animals.

According to sources, the elephant pair - being imported at a cost of Rs16,000,000 - would be brought from Tanzania, likely by the end of this month. The pairs of lions and leopards, however, would be purchased from a European country. An estimated amount of over Rs8 million has been allocated for the purchase of the big cats. All the animals would be two to three years old.

Unlike the administrative mechanism in the Punjab, where zoos and wildlife parks are under the wildlife department, the Karachi zoo and Safari Park are under the city government. For any animal import, however, the request has to be submitted to the wildlife department which, after consideration, forwards it to Islamabad-based NCCW for an NOC.

Animal import arouses concern

The import of animals in such a large number has caused serious concern among wildlife experts who believe that the zoo and Safari Park need to be upgraded, both in terms of expertise and infrastructure, before housing more animals.Along with financial woes, there is a dearth of trained people at both the zoo and Safari Park, where the conditions in which animals are kept are much below standard.

It is worth recalling that a female leopard captured from near Nathiagali by the NWFP wildlife department and gifted to the Safari Park in 2006 was kept in a turkey cage for over two years. Later, it was transferred to the Landhi-Korangi Zoo into a tiled cage and kept there till the issue was raised in this newspaper and the CDGK finally shifted it to the Karachi Zoo in an enclosure.

In Karachi, a number of animal deaths have taken place in recent years. The number of big cats has reduced from nine to four within two-and-a-half years while there has been no birth among them in decades. The male species are, reportedly, not kept together with females.

During 2007 alone, the zoo lost 27 animals, including 19 deer species, a puma, a black leopard, two female Bengal tigresses (one of them was killed by its mate when, after a long time, an attempt was made to bring them together), two nilgai, a blackbuck and a jackal.

Reportedly, many of them died due to an infection spread by a blood parasite, which was later identified as trypanosomiasis.

The animals that died last year include three nilgai, three red deer, a Shetland pony and over 40 partridges. The puma, black leopard and Bengal tigresses were imported at huge costs while the price of a pair of deer ranges between Rs100,000 to Rs300,000.

Experts are also concerned over the fact as to why animals are not being purchased from regional countries. This would not only reduce their cost, it would also increase the chances of the animals' survival, for animals of Asian origin would better adapt to weather conditions here.

No special effort has been made so far to house the new animals. It is said that the two elephants would initially be kept in the elephant house left empty after the death of Anarkali in 2006 till a facility is developed in Safari Park. The big cats would be kept at the zoo, where a number of enclosures are empty.

No transparency

According to sources, the zoo administration set up a committee last year for expert advice.

The committee comprised CDGK officials, a senior wildlife expert and a vet. In the few meetings held, the members only discussed the pros and cons of buying an African or Asian elephant and there was no mention of any other animal or even buying two elephants of the same origin.

A Safari Park official, however, claimed that there were two committees, one for considering the import of an elephant and the other for discussing the purchase of other animals.

He also claimed that the decision of buying a certain animal came from the high-ups of the community development department, who are no wildlife experts, and the zoo and Safari Park officials acted only as silent spectators in meetings. They were told about the decision and asked to look into the possibilities of purchase.

Explaining the reasons for importing elephants from Tanzania and big cats from a European country, Irfan Ahmed of Osaka Traders, the contractor, said that there were “problems” with regional countries.

“Poor diplomatic relations are an obstacle for talks with India, while there is a ban on capturing these animals in Bangladesh. In Sri Lanka, permission needs to be taken from their parliament for elephant export. Elephants are under the control of the monarchy in Thailand,” he said, adding that legal animal buying was much easier in European countries, where breeding farms had been developed for different species.

No city government official was available for comment.

Big cats in other zoos

Wildlife experts also believe that instead of bringing animals from abroad, it would have been a better idea if the CDGK had acquired big cats from other zoos in the country, where these animals are successfully bred.

At present, the Bahawalpur Zoo has seven lions (five of them females) and three tigers, all of whom were born at the zoo.

Dawn talked to Mian Naseem Akhtar, Deputy Director Wildlife Bahawalpur region, who also once headed the Bahawalpur Zoo and M. Saleem Akhtar Langha, who left as the in-charge of the zoo a month ago, and came to know that there had been no visits or contacts by Karachi Zoo officials for any animal exchange over the past three years.

“The Bahawalpur Zoo is considered the best place for lion breeding. Many zoos have bought these animals from us. Lions live in a pride and you have to provide them with conditions as close as possible to their natural habitat if you want them to breed. Proper ventilation, an open environment and appropriate food are necessary for the animals' wellbeing.”

'Tender system faulty'

Talking to Dawn, Dr Mumtaz Malik, NWFP wildlife conservator, said that the tender system, prevalent in almost all zoos of the country to buy animals, had many loopholes and hence should not be adopted.

“When you choose the lowest bidder, you, in a way, compromise on the animal's status, its health and the source it is coming from because the bidder will try to make money and arrange the animal, caring little about its source and health status. If unfair means have been used or the animal is smuggled, then the government also becomes part of the illegality under the CITES rules and regulations and the zoo ends up buying an expensive animal with poor health.”

The best way to import any animal, he said, was first to make correspondence with zoos of regional countries to see what is available and whether an animal exchange is possible.

“An animal exchange and government-to-government contact help save a lot of money. And if this is not possible, one should go and get first-hand knowledge by visiting the zoo from where the animal is intended to be imported from. Normally, zoos do have surplus stocks which they are looking to sell,” he said, adding that the South Asian Zoos Association could also be contacted for facilitation.

Exotic species, he said, always carried the threat of introducing new infections in the local environment and thereby could threaten the health of other zoo animals. The imported animals, therefore, need to be properly quarantined.