Death of Noor Jehan sparks debate about future of Karachi Zoo

KARACHI: Nestled between a cluster of high-rises and bustling markets in the nation’s commercial capital, Karachi Zoo has long been a favourite destination for animal lovers and tourists.

Established in 1870 and officially named Karachi Zoological Gardens, the site is home to hundreds of wild animals, birds, and reptiles that continue to attract a large number of visitors, particularly children, despite dwindling fascination due to years of neglect.

The 152-year-old site, for quite some time, has been in the headlines for being a “terrible place” for wild creatures, with many calling for shutting it down and moving the animals to sanctuaries.

The debate was sparked by the lingering misery of an elephant who, after being treated by foreign veterinarians for a variety of medical conditions that she reportedly developed due to months of inadequate care and treatment, died Sunday.

Named after Noor Jehan, the queen of the fourth 17th-century Mughal emperor of the subcontinent Jehangir, the 17-year-old mammal was operated on by foreign veterinarians last week but did not recover properly, with her condition worsening to an alarming extent.

She was one of the last four captive elephants in Pakistan, all of them in Karachi, including two at the zoo.

A video of Noor Jehan showing her limping and struggling to stand apparently due to weakness went viral on social and mainstream media last week, sparking a public outcry.

Supporters of the call to shut down the zoo include Minister for Climate Senator Sherry Rehman and Bakhtawar Bhutto-Zardari, a sister of Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, have urged the provincial government to shut down the zoo as it lacks the capacity to care for the wild animals.

“Karachi Zoo should be shut down because it is clearly beyond the capacity of KMC,” Bakhtawar said in a tweet, referring to the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC), which runs the zoological garden.

A hashtag #Free animals — shut down Karachi zoo# remains a popular trend on Twitter, with many calling for the animals to be taken to sanctuaries to save their lives, as the zoo administration is seen as incapable of caring for them.

Others are calling for converting the zoo into a botanical garden, cautioning that a “land mafia” has long been eyeing the prime land to add more high-rises to an already growing concrete jungle in the metropolis.

Faiyaz Alam, a Karachi-based social activist who also served as a coordinator at Karachi Zoo from 2003 to 2004, said “greedy” land developers have long been eyeing the city’s prime land.

‘Hope is only option’

According to Mahera Omar, co-founder of the Pakistan Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), a team of veterinarians from the global animal welfare organisation Four Paws was due in Karachi later this week to further assess the mammal’s condition.

The organisation had also arranged the transfer of 36-year-old Kaavan, the country’s “loneliest” elephant, to a wildlife sanctuary in Cambodia in November 2020, to spend its remaining years following a years-long campaign by animal lovers from across the globe.

Last year, an Austrian veterinarian team operated on Madhubala, an 18-year-old elephant named after a legendary Indian actress, to relieve her pain caused by a broken tusk infection.

The veterinarians have already suggested shifting Madhubala from Karachi Zoo to “specific species housing,” fearing that she might suffer a similar fate due to “inappropriate” conditions at the facility.

Endorsing the suggestion, Director Karachi Zoo Kanwar Ayub told Anadolu that arrangements are being made to relocate Madhubala to the city’s Safari Park, where another two elephants are living in an “adequate environment.”

Noor Jehan’s condition, nonetheless, prevented her from being transferred to the Safari Park at this stage, he added.

“We are strictly adhering to the instructions of the vets, who are widely regarded as the best in the field of elephant care,” he said, adding that “Of course, given her deteriorating condition, it’s not going to be an easy task.”

“Hope […] the only thing we have at the moment,” he remarked.

Describing the public outcry over animal treatment as “justified,” Ayub, who took over the charge of the zoo last week, said, “If things had been taken as seriously months ago as they are now, the current phase could have been avoided.”

“If we fail to deliver, the public has the right to criticise us,” he said, adding that the new management is working hard to improve zoo conditions.

No plans to shut down zoo

KMC spokesman Ali Hassan Sajid said there is no plan under consideration to shut down the zoo. “Neither the Sindh government nor the KMC has any such a plan of yet,” he told Anadolu.

Sajid downplayed the heated debate, saying: “Animals live and die. This is completely natural. Our duty is to provide them with the best possible health care and food, which we are already trying to do.”

“Patients do die in the hospitals, sometimes even due to human error or negligence, but it does not mean hospitals should be shut down,” he went on to argue.

Nevertheless, he claimed that several steps aimed at improving conditions at the zoo are being considered.

However, social activist Alam blamed deteriorating conditions at Karachi Zoo on a lack of trained staff, particularly vegetarians who are supposed to deal with wild animals.

“It’s not the environment itself, but a shortage of trained staff and a complete lack of trained zoologists and vets, which are killing the animals there,” he told Anadolu.

Alam contended that the situation at Lahore Zoo is far better than that of Karachi Zoo just because of the trained staff and experienced vegetarians.

“Lahore Zoo is also located in the heart of the city and has a much lesser area compared to Karachi Zoo. The only advantage it has is the qualified staff,” he insisted.

Adoption of modern techniques such as staff training, coordination with zoos in the region, and telemedicine contracts with qualified vegetarians across the globe can completely change the situation within a couple of years, according to Alam.

He did, however, advocate for strict adherence to global standards, particularly the procurement of animals through “captive breeding” rather than poaching.

“Zoos are operating across the world. They are now a part of daily life […] education in particular. We cannot simply shut them down just because of our own inefficiencies,” he said.

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