Overcoming the road blockades and braving the protests, hundreds of people came to the Karachi zoo on Feb 20, 2013 to see 31 large snakes, which have been brought there as safekeeping for a few weeks.
On Feb 17, a week after the pythons arrived at the airport, the customs officials handed them over to the Karachi Zoological Gardens after the importer failed to provide the relevant documents. The pythons were, in fact, imported by two young snake enthusiasts, who breed different species to raise awareness about non-venomous snakes and encourage others to keep them as pets.
The snakes, which include a non-venomous boa constrictor, reticulated, ball and Albino pythons, started their journey from Oklahoma in the United States nearly 16 days ago and had not eaten until Feb 18. The largest 17-foot-long reticulated python refused to eat but the 14-foot-long Albino python grabbed and swallowed a rabbit as soon as it was offered.
“We couldn’t have kept them in a small room so we had to hand them over to the zoo,” explained a Pakistan Customs spokesperson. “The day the importer gives us the NOC, he can take the snakes.”
The importer needs to have a no-objection certificate from the National Council for Conservation of Wildlife (NCCW) if they want the custody of the snakes. “We didn’t know that an NOC was needed to bring the pythons,” said Adil Ahmed, the owner of the trading company that booked the shipment. “The request for the NOC has already been submitted and hopefully we’ll have it in a few days.”
Earlier, some customs officials claimed that they ‘seized’ an illegal consignment of pythons but their spokesperson later clarified that the consignment was stopped because the importer had incomplete documents.
“How can international trade on these pythons be illegal if they have been delivered from the United States and had made a stopover at the Hong Kong airport?” asked Ahmed.
But the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation administrator Muhammad Hussain Syed reached the airport as soon as the consignment was seized to announce that the snakes were the zoo’s property.
Even the zoo director, Bashir Sadozai, struggled to explain who owned the snakes. “These have been gifted to us by customs officials,” he claimed.
The officials insisted that the species were rare but the importer said that all of these snakes are common in the US, where people keep them as pets.
The entire cost of buying the snakes and their shipment to Pakistan comes down to around Rs 400,000, which makes it affordable for the zoo administration to obtain as well. Sadozai claimed, however, that they don’t import pythons on their own because “their import is prohibited.” He failed to explain, however, how private collectors are able to import them.
The entrance fee to the reptile house where the snakes are being kept is Rs 10 per person. On Feb 18, when public transport was thin on the roads, the zoo managed to sell up to 300 tickets. “We are expecting at least 3,000 visitors on normal days,” said a hopeful zoo official.
Just after a few days however, the zoo was struggling to take care of the slithering reptiles and is unable to provide them with proper accommodation. Three days after being brought to the zoo, some of the pythons reportedly contracted allergies, while the younger ones have become more aggressive.
Red spots have appeared on the yellow-skinned, 10-feet-long reticulated albino python, which has been made to live in an enclosure that was previously occupied by venomous snakes. The enclosure is also littered with mites and other insects.
“The allergy is spreading, and this python would soon become weak,” said a reptile expert. “No one at the zoo is qualified to handle these snakes. As a matter of fact, they don’t even know the names of the species.”
Most of the pythons are young, and therefore need careful handling, but the zoo administration seems to be ill-equipped to take care of them. “The pythons have been kept in dusty enclosures, which were previously occupied by venomous snakes. No one has bothered to clean the place, which is also infested with insects,” said a snake enthusiast, who was among the hundreds of people who visited the zoo.
Some young reptile enthusiasts, who import and breed large snakes, said that authorities needed to put in place proper heating arrangements to keep the pythons alive. “There is just one 200 watt light bulb in the enclosure where two of the largest pythons are kept. That is not enough. Pythons can go weeks without food, but they get uncomfortable in the absence of heat,” said a person who deals in pythons.
“There is little that can be expected from zookeepers. Until recently, they did not even know what to call a Keelback Water Snake. And they were feeding it birds, instead of toads,” the dealer added.
Another snake enthusiast who had visited the zoo, said that young pythons, which were just a few weeks old, seemed to have become aggressive. “They are fighting for territory. They are usually wary of human interaction, and need some place to hide.”
When contacted, Karachi zoo director Bashir Sadozai, said that the snakes probably caught allergies due to the change in climate and water.
Adil Ahmed, the owner of the trading company that booked the snake shipment from the US, said it would still take a couple of days before he received the necessary document to satisfy Pakistan Customs.