Terming the situation prevailing at Peshawar Zoo “alarming”, an inquiry committee has held the top management of the facility responsible for the death of animals.

Following the reports of death of animals and birds in the zoo, the KP government constituted an inquiry committee headed by Kabir Afridi, the additional secretary of higher education, which submitted its findings to the government in June 2018.

“The vet officer, his subordinates and admin officer were advised about the health, precautionary measures and habitat development of the animals. Despite all this, the animals are dying which is an alarming situation for the administration. Project director zoo, admin officer, and vet officer are responsible for the death of animals due to poor operation mechanism.” the committee said in its concluding remarks to the inquiry report.

Nazer Hussain Shah, the secretary of environment, said that the committee had submitted its report and had not fixed responsibility but Chief Secretary Mohammad Azam Khan directed to revisit the inquiry report and fix responsibility.

In background interviews, senior officials of the environment department and one of the members of the inquiry committee pointed out multiple reasons for the ‘precarious’ situation in the zoo.

A member of the inquiry committee said that timing of the inauguration of the zoo was wrong and animals were exposed to visitors without acclimatisation. “It seemed the zoo was opened just to capitalise on the animals in the upcoming elections. The government should wait at least one year to open the zoo for visitors,” he said.

A senior official of the environment department also admitted that the decision of opening of the zoo to visitors was “political.” Former chief minister Pervez Khattak had inaugurated the zoo in February 2018.

Against the required 250 employees, only 35 workers including managerial staff are presently looking after around 100 animals apart from hundreds of birds. Big animals including elephant and giraffes are being brought in the near future.

“The animals will die if staff and other facilities are not provided,” said official of the environment department, who was looking worried about the prevailing situation in the zoo.

“It becomes very difficult to handle average 10,000 visitors on daily basis with such a skeleton staff,” he said.

Officials said that the zoo was supposed to be opened by the end of December 2018 but it was opened in February without provision of staff and necessary training. Estimated cost of the project is around Rs 1.2 billion and Rs 300 million has been allocated for the procurement of animals and birds.

Land for the zoo was acquired from Pakistan Forest Institute. Green trees were cut down that turned the site completely barren. After removing green trees, around 3,000 different species have been planted.

“Cutting green trees was a wrong decision and animals’ enclosures have exposed to hot weather,” said the member of the committee. He added that not a single technical person was consulted before and after execution of the project. NESPAK was hired as consultant for designing cages and other infrastructure.

Other major problems, according to him, were inadequate shelter, lack of professionalism in transportation and handling of animals and untrained staff. The zoo does not have laboratory. A young veterinary office and two assistants have been appointed to treat animals and birds.

“The existing staff does not have experience and capacity to look after animals. The management should send staff to Lahore and Karachi zoos for training,” he said.

The member of the inquiry committee said that instead of hiring and training the staff, the management brought animals and birds first which was wrong. He said that animals got sick and became restless because of constant encounter with visitors.

The management of the zoo is reluctant to share data about death of animals and birds. Multiple sources said that around one dozen carcasses had been shifted from the zoo to taxidermy section of the wildlife department for stuffing and would be displayed at tiny taxidermy museum. Stuffing of animals’ skin is still underway.

They confirmed death of black-tailed deer, hog deer, Chinkara, and blue bulls brought from Kohat and spotted deer, one fallow-deer and a monkey. A wolf had killed a monkey. They said that the death occurred before and after inauguration of the zoo.

An official of the zoo said that birds were also among the dead species.

Recently three cubs of common leopards expired. Some of the animals have been put in makeshift enclosures covered with dry reeds in an attempt to protect them from the sizzling heat.

Few days ago, this scribe saw young kangaroos tied inside the makeshift huts. After death of snow leopard, the management had to shift Markhoor, national animal, from the zoo to Abbottabad.

According to an eyewitness account, two dead deer were thrown to the enclosure to feed a lion. “It happened before inauguration of the zoo and that was very barbaric,” said the witness.

The official said that the inquiry committee members were neither shown skeleton, nor provided with postmortem reports of the animals therefore the committee was not in position to ascertain exact number of the dead animals.

Far from it, infighting among the bureaucratic circles is apparently adding to the agonies of caged animals that have been brought or being procured from different countries and regions.

Sources in environment department said that bureaucratic wrangling was causing delay in recruitment of staff and provision of facilities that can improve condition of the zoo.

Sources said that finance department had agreed to fill only 24 out of total 193 sanctioned posts in the zoo. They said that summaries moved by the department concerned for hiring staff were intentionally blocked or concealed by other departments that affected the whole process.

The daily Dawn in an editorial on June 19, 2018 commenting on the Inquiry Report stated the following:

To put at risk the lives and well-being of animals in order to score political points before an election is a particularly cruel gimmick, but how else can one interpret the findings of a committee looking into the recent deaths of several animals at Peshawar Zoo? According to its report, the facility’s top management “due to poor operation mechanism” is squarely responsible for the distressing situation. Even though zoo authorities, not surprisingly, are reluctant to divulge exact figures, several species of deer, as well as a monkey, three leopard cubs and a number of birds are said to have died over the past few weeks. From interviews with several committee members, cited in a report in this newspaper, it seems that against a requirement of 250 employees, only 35 — many of them not even properly trained — are looking after 100 or so animals aside from numerous birds. Moreover, full-grown trees on the site were cut down and the 3,000 saplings planted in their stead left the enclosures exposed to the summer sun.

Clearly, these issues needed time to be properly addressed, and if the facility had opened as per schedule in December 2018, that could have been achieved. The size of the workforce and the quality of their training may have been commensurate with their task, and the surroundings more conducive to the physical and mental well-being of captive wildlife. But, an election had to be won and, evidently, if a few animals died in the process, it was a gamble worth taking. This callous approach to animal welfare is sadly far too common. Let alone the dire conditions in other zoos, one can still recall the sight of a wretched caged tiger, and on occasion a lion, being paraded around in PML-N’s rallies until that attracted too much negative publicity from animal rights activists. While all politicians on the campaign trail want to be seen as saviours of the people, it should not entail cruelty to our fellow creatures.