On May 1, 2012, due to the negligence of the CDA (Capital Development Authority) staff and veterinary staff at the Islamabad zoo, the 20-year-old female elephant died after being in chain since the day of her arrival at the zoo and being sick for the past one week.
The Sri Lankan Government had gifted this animal to Pakistan in 1991 to complete the pair at the zoo. She was like my own child, cried Faiz Mohammad who took care of Saheli since she was one. She was brought to partner with Kaavan, a male elephant who has been here for 27 years. Sri Lankan elephants are a sub-species of the Asian elephant and live anywhere between 60 and 75 years. Saheli was 22. Surprisingly, the male elephant, donated by Bangladesh, that has never been cooperative with the zoo attendants went near his zoo-mate and tried to help her out but in vain.
The female elephant named Saheli ailed suddenly on April 29 morning and was unable to stand up. CDA even used a crane to help her stand on her feet, but in vain.
The animal had a wound in one of her rear legs which was pointed out by Aminals a couple of months ago. But the Zoo management did not bother to take it seriously. As a result, within a matter of days the minor injury turned into a severe wound and female elephant started limping.
The CDA has two permanent veterinary doctors at the Zoo, but they too could not help improve Saheli’s wound.
Saheli had always been friendly with the visitors while ‘Kavan,’ the male animal, is kind of unfriendly. Both were always kept in chains despite repeated verbal and written protests by Aminals.
Saheli’s mahout Bilal says that the elephant had been the victim of sheer negligence on the part of the CDA officers who could not provide the Zoo with all the facilities required for her better upkeep. CDA Chairman Farkhand Iqbal has suspended Muhammad Bilal but no action has been taken so far against any senior officer. Director Zoo, CDA, Sajjad Shah has also suspended Faiz Muhammad, a mahout, soon after the animal fell down owing to illness. He said that the head mahout Bilal always tried to maintain his monopoly at the elephants’ pen because he earned a lot of money from the visitors by offering elephant rides and photographs with Saheli. He said, for last several months, Bilal had been opposing the deployment of another two workers at the pen and had refused to serve the animal in their presence as they shared the earnings from elephant rides.
It is also being said that Saheli may have been poisoned or given an over-dose of tranquiliser, resulting in her death. Responding to a query regarding chances of poisoning the animal, the Zoo Director confirmed: “There is politics in the zoo. Therefore, urine and stool samples of the sick elephant are being sent to the laboratory to know if the animal has been poisoned.”
An enquiry committee headed by Member Administration Shaukat Mohmand has also been formed to ascertain the cause of death. An experts’ team of National Veterinary Laboratory has already taken three samples from the dead body for examination. It will take two days to ascertain the cause of the death.
Recently, the CDA management was considering to handover the elephant couple to Punjab Government for being unable to afford their food requirement.
A huge crowd of visitors was witnessed around the dead animal. “As we set out for zoo, I had planned to ride the elephant, but unfortunately, she is no more,” said Maryam, a small girl standing sorrowed near elephants’ pen.
Mohammad stood next to Saheli’s body, where flies circled above. Lying on the ground with a small sheet covering all but her head and feet, Saheli, even in death, remained the centre of attention for visitors who had come to spend Labour Day with the animals. Other zookeepers kept checking on the body, occasionally splashing antiseptic water around it to keep the surrounding as clean as possible. The elephant compound was covered with sheets to detract visitors from crowding around it.
Zoo authorities had sent Saheli’s samples for testing when she was sick and sent a second set of samples after her death. “We are waiting for the results to figure out what went wrong,” said Director Sajjad Hussain Shah.
The doctor checked her the night before and she was reportedly fine. She ate this morning and then just passed out after a while, said Shah.
Mohammad said, “She was very playful. I would call her name as soon as I entered the zoo gate every morning and she would trumpet in response. When I entered their cage she would come running to me. Now I can sense the tension in Kaavan’s behaviour. He has been so impatient and anxious ever since she fell ill.”
Sulheri said that the animals at the zoo were seasonally examined. Saheli could have had some internal problem but these blanks can only be filled when the lab results come out in the next two or three days, he added. The body will be buried and the skeleton will be extracted for preservation at the Natural Historical Museum at Shakarparian, he said.
“This is the first time such an incident has taken place at the zoo and we are extremely saddened by it,” said Director Shah. “However we do need another elephant to pair with the remaining one and hope the authorities will procure one soon.” Aminals hope this would not happen and in fact the remaining male elephant will be handed over to another Zoo.
Later, Veterinary Officer Dr Bilal Khilji was called for the medical help and Deputy Director Zoo Saleem Ansari (who is a veterinary doctor himself) supervised the treatment but the wound could not heal.
An officer of the CDA requesting not to be named said: “Money which is collected from the citizens for offering them a ride and having pictures with the elephant is the reason behind all what happened.”
“Whenever a new director takes charge of zoo, he tries to depute his favorite persons at the cage of the elephant. Mahaut (caretaker) of the female elephant, Bilal, was suspended about six month ago and two zoo attendants Riaz and Adil were deputed at her cage.
“Later, Bilal was reappointed on his previous position but he was not allowed to go in the elephant’s cage. And when the female elephant got injured, both attendants ignored it as they had no prior experience of taking care of elephants.”
Another officer said: “Each elephant is worth Rs15 million and management of the zoo has been playing with the life of animals for the sake of a few hundred thousand rupees which
are collected every month.
Mohammad Naeem, who had come along with his son to visit the zoo, said it was really painful to see the condition of the elephant. “While I was a kid in 90s, I got a chance to enjoy a ride on its back and now it is painful to imagine that the elephant has been killed through Zoo management’s negligence”.
World Wide Fund for Nature Biodiversity Director Uzma Khan said that foot conditions are one of the reasons for mortality amongst elephants. The animals are at a greater risk of such injuries when they are died to the ground for a long time, which can even lead to arthritis, she added.
She cited a research commissioned in UK, which states that an elephant can only be tied while undergoing surgery. She added that elephant management is a tricky subject. “They need open space and an enclosure big enough to keep away from other animals. But that is not the case [in Marghazar Zoo.”
If elephants are not kept in a good environment, they suffer psychologically that can also contribute to their sickness, she added. “An elephant tied up is like a person in solitary confinement,” said Khan.
She said that of all the zoos in Pakistan only Karachi Zoo has just recently improved its elephant enclosure whereas Lahore Zoo is planning to renovate soon.
‘No Legislation to Keep Animals Safe in Zoos’
Khan said that Pakistan does not have legislation for zoos. India has a central zoo authority that maintains a database of zoos — they shutdown zoos that fail to live up to standards.
There are six elephants remaining in zoos in Pakistan: two in Karachi Zoo, two in Karachi Safari, one in Lahore Zoo and now one in Marghazar Zoo Islamabad.
But without legislation, there is little that can be done. As Khan put it, “How do you monitor a zoo without set standards?”
The public outcry and media reports over the absence of qualified staffers, which has caused the deaths of some rare species and continuous mistreatment of animals at Marghazar Zoo, has finally caught the attention of the civic authorities.
The CDA has written to the Economic Affairs Division (EAD) requesting that it make arrangements to train civic agency officials performing duties at Marghazar Zoo, commonly known as Islamabad Zoo.
According to the contents of the letter, which was approved by CDA Chairman Nadeem Hasan Asif, help has been sought in areas including animal healthcare and veterinary medicines, zoo and animal management, animal nutrition, public safety and wildlife conservation.
EAD’s Technical Assistance Program receives, processes and coordinates various federal and provincial government requests seeking training of its officials.
The training is designed to improve and teach capacity building and human resource development, among other technical expertise.
A senior official of the CDA’s Environment Wing, which manages Islamabad Zoo’s affairs, lamented that the lack of a law that keeps wild animals at government-run facilities.
“The absence of sound legislation hinders the formation of standards pertaining to animal-keeping at zoos across the country. Without these, one cannot question the authorities or animal caretakers running such facilities,” he added.
To compound the problem, the animals at Islamabad Zoo do not have access to nutritionists who can ensure their well-being.
“Each animal follows a balanced diet in accordance with its age, needs and the weather conditions, while sick or injured animals are supposed to be put on special diets. The responsibility for this lies with nutritionists, who are in shortage at Islamabad Zoo,” said a zoo official.
The zoo’s management relies on downloaded diet charts of different animals because of the shortage, he added.
Islamabad Zoo was opened in 1978 and covers an area of 82 acres. The zoo houses 68 animal species, most of which are mammals, and employs over 100 staffers. In 2008, the CDA devised a plan to expand the zoo but today, it remains just that.
When contacted, a top CDA Environment Wing official claimed the zoo’s state of affairs reflected the overall state of other government departments.
He said the civic agency had recently formed a Zoo Advisory Committee on Animal Healthcare that has representation from the private sector, animal welfare organisations and the CDA.
During the course of this year, several birds and mammals have died owing to caretakers’ apathy. Recently, an Uryal fawn died after his leg fractured because he was mishandled while being shifted to another cage.
Similarly, during the same month it was reported that over 60 birds died when jackals managed to enter their enclosure. “A night watchman was suspended from duty and the case was later closed,” said a zoo official. The death of a Vervet monkey was also reported this year.
“The seriousness of the city managers can be gauged by the fact that when an animal dies at the zoo, they don’t even bother to arrange for a replacement,” the official added.