On a blistering Saturday afternoon in Lahore, throngs of children peer through iron bars, amusedly pointing and whistling at a sleeping lion. The massive African cat, also known as Panthera leo, is often referred to as the king of the jungle, but in this case its ‘jungle’ is an enclosure – with an approximate area of just 1,000 square metres – right next to one of the busiest parts of Lahore. Situated opposite the Avari Hotel on The Mall, the enclosure is part of the city’s British-era zoological gardens.
Spread over 25 acres of land and housing about 1,400 animals, the Lahore Zoo was set up in 1872. To ensure that the animals’ confined environs would not be too restricting or too close to the hustle and bustle of city life, its builders located it away from residential and commercial neighbourhoods and adjacent to Lawrence Gardens, the oldest public park in the city. This is true of other zoos in the country as well. Karachi’s zoo, for instance, was set up within a British-era garden and the one in Islamabad is part of a public park called Marghazar.
Over the decades, the three cities have expanded in such a way that their zoos are now located in, or near, their centres. This has not only restricted the space the animals require, it exposes them to urban noise and pollution too. Zoo managements sometimes take special measures to prevent the animals from running into nearby human settlements. These measures often take the shape of chains, cages and fortified enclosures.
Disease and death are rife in Pakistani zoos. Only in May this year, the lone elephant at the Lahore Zoo, Suzi, died allegedly due to the negligence of its keepers. Even earlier, there have been news reports of another elephant, Kavaan, being kept in chains at the zoo in Islamabad, without adequate protection from the elements.
Its plight led to demands by animal rights activists, non-government entities and even international celebrities for improving living conditions for zoo animals in Pakistan. Those making these demands point to the Pakistan Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1980, and urge zoo managements to maintain an environment that comes up to the provisions of this law. The stir they created has found Kavaan’s cause a renowned champion — American singer and actress Cher. Her associates are talking to Pakistani authorities on how she can help to ensure the elephant’s well-being.
How far Cher’s initiative will go to improve the treatment animals receive at Pakistan’s zoos is a matter of conjecture, but one sure way to do so is to improve how the zoos are managed. The lifestyle of the animals kept in a zoo is only as good as the management that oversees them, acknowledges Tanvir Ahmad Janjua, deputy director of the Lahore Zoo.
The zoo in Lahore has an autonomous management, consisting of a board of directors that includes veterinarians, zoologists and representatives of civil society, besides government officers. The management has the authority to spend the money generated through entry tickets on maintaining and improving the zoo’s infrastructure. With 3,000 to 4,000 people visiting the zoo everyday, the daily average revenue generated by these tickets is around 100,000 rupees. On special occasions, it balloons up many times: on Eid and other national holidays, the Lahore Zoo sees as many as 50,000 visitors a day, adding up to nearly 1.5 million rupees. Another source of its revenue is the fee that different vendors and contractors pay for running food stalls and recreational facilities on its premises.
The Lahore Zoo has 275 staff members. Out of these, two are veterinarians and 25 are keepers (or caretakers), each taking care of a specific group of animals. The rest are guards, gardeners, janitors and clerks. The management can also acquire the services of consultants from the University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, Lahore, if and when required. In its public statements, the incumbent board of directors claims it wants to maintain a healthy, happy and expanding animal population at the zoo. In practice, the treatment of the animals is far from ideal.
After entering the zoo’s premises from its Lawrence Road gate, the first thing one notices is a rolling green mound. Well-maintained and paved walkways meander from its top to different animal enclosures. Most paths are covered with Indian fig and mulberry trees, providing shade and offering a soothing walk even under the bright summer sun. The place looks like an ideal family picnic spot.
One can see signboards at regular intervals that caution visitors against feeding the animals and getting too close to them. The barriers at some enclosures, including structures to protect the animals from rain and sunshine, do not seem strong enough to prevent a physical interaction between human beings and beasts, but men in yellow safety jackets can also be seen nearby, ready to jump in as soon as an untoward situation emerges. Janjua stresses that the animals’ enclosures are also monitored by CCTV cameras to avoid any accidents.
This picture perfect situation starts changing as one gets closer to the enclosures. Most of the animals appear cramped for space — except perhaps the rhinoceros that seems to have plenty of space at its disposal, but then it is also one of the largest extant mammals on Earth. A large number of reptiles are confined between a concrete wall and a smudged glass screen that separates them from humans. A small alcove in the concrete wall is the only space available to them to rest. A wolf paces inside a small cage in a rather agitated manner. Its skinny body exposes its ribcage, visible even from a distance. A magnificent puma and several lion cubs also seem to be unhappy about the less than sufficient space allocated to them.
The zoo houses 20 lions of different ages but it does not seem to have enough space to accommodate all of them. The management says it is planning to sell some of them to overcome space constraints. The sale, in fact, is standard operating procedure. Whenever the population of an animal species exceeds the number the zoo can accommodate, the surplus animals are sold off.
On a mid-September day, some dead fish can be spotted on the premises of the zoo in Karachi’s Garden East area. They seem to have died less than a day ago — blood is splattered around their bodies. The management gives multiple explanations over the next two days for their death — each differing from the other. The level of cleanliness in the zoo is far from satisfactory and the state of the animals here is worrying if not downright pathetic.
The zoo has just one veterinarian and its management keeps complaining about the lack of both money and staff that it requires to keep it neat and tidy. Unlike the Lahore Zoo, it is under the direct administrative control of the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC).
The zoo still attracts a large number of people every day. Approximately 30,000 people visit it every weekend. Officials say these large crowds are partly to blame for the lack of atisfactory sanitary conditions at the zoo. They freely litter everywhere, disregarding our instructions, says Salman Shamsi, the zoo’s director for culture, sports and recreation.
People perhaps do not realise that the zoo does not have sufficient sanitation staff to handle the waste they are throwing away. A large portion of its employees is nearing retirement age, but KMC has put a temporary ban on new hiring.
It is quite obvious that the Karachi zoo is being run only as well – or as badly – as the city itself.
Additional reporting by Namrah Zafar Moti
This was originally published in the Herald's October 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is currently in his sophomore year at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.