The zoo of mighty players and their petty politics

by Hassan Shahzad

The News/ April 27, 2020

Animals have climbed down Margalla Hills and gates of walking trails have been closed to save human beings from them. Similarly, gates of Islamabad Zoo have been closed to save animals from human beings as spread of coronavirus in animals is feared with human interaction.

The big cats that have climbed down may have come here to say hello to their caged fellows, who may be labouring under the delusion of being left on to nature. Listening into their silence and whispering back these animals and birds make up composition of a sad melody.

The caged animals in Marghazar Zoo are different from other zoos in the country. The additional burden that they have to bear is the burden of political shenanigans of different parties.

This zoo would have been running as sluggishly as others but then the political party that was in opposition in Islamabad local government gained power at the centre.

The federal cabinet was dragged into the matter to decide that the zoo be placed under Ministry of Climate Change. On September 8 last year when the ministry took over the zoo, the scribe interviewed State Minister for Climate Change Zartaj Gul Wazir. Having entered the ministry’s compound, no one could miss the clumsy handling of affairs and the tension about who is the boss. However, she made it clear that her ministry will turn around the zoo as at present managers of the facility used to eat the meat bought for carnivores, who are fed farmed chickens.

On the contrary, the situation worsened to an extent that Islamabad High Court had to take up the case. This time, the scribe met Islamabad Mayor Sheikh Ansar who says that he is hopeful that something good will result for the zoo.

“Funds are our main problem. After the court took up the matter, it is heartening to see that minimum funds were issued by the CDA without much hassle for the zoo. Second, there is an issue of professionalism. We need the right man for the right job, which unfortunately we have so far failed to have,” he said.

He said they are taking care of hygiene and food issues at the zoo in view of coronavirus spread. “We also make sure that the whole city remains clean but unfortunately some officers interested in cheap publicity use our efforts for their photo-ops,” he said.

This lone elephant is stuck at the Zoo for decades now

He said they will review minutes of the federal cabinet’s decision to give the zoo to the Climate Change Ministry and then challenge it in court as it is illogical for a federal ministry to run a zoo. He said due to unprofessional attitude of the DG Zoo, deaths and diseases spread among animals and they had removed him. But now he again has been made member of the committee to look into affairs of this issue.

He said Local Governments Commission was meant to resolve problems of local governments but due to conflict of interest of an advisor, it has become an accusation factory for them.

Against this background, it is safe to state that the zoo has become a football for different political actors.

Since, CDA pays salaries of its employees and arranges food for animals, it will be better that the civic body runs this facility. There has been visible improvement in city affairs since Chief Commissioner Amer Ahmed Ali was given charge of the civic body. He will heed advice of professionals, as he has at the time of redesigning Islamabad, to run the zoo and it will be good for this recreational facility.

The Federal Government on April 14, 2020 made the Ministry of Climate Change responsible for Islamabad Zoo.

The zoo was previously the responsibility of the Metropolitan Corporation Islamabad, which is under the Ministry of Interior, but the climate change ministry has spent 2019 trying to convince the government it could manage the facility better.

In Feb 2019, State Minister for Climate Change Zartaj Gul told a parliamentary body that the zoo was in terrible condition, and exotic animals kept there were dying for want of trained caretakers and handlers.

In July, she compared the zoo to a zoo in Lahore, saying that the Islamabad zoo had an annual budget of Rs 110 million and earns just Rs 450,000, while the Lahore zoo had an annual budget of Rs 130 million and generates Rs 33 million.

She also claimed that the zoo’s caretakers and handlers took home the feed meant for its animals.

Adviser to the Prime Minister on Climate Change Malik Amin Aslam said the zoo is in need of a lot of improvement.

“We will take Friends of Islamabad on board, which is a group of concerned citizens to bring changes in the day to day affairs and improve the living conditions of animals,” he said.

He added that there are plans to develop standard operating procedures that would focus on cleanliness, care and food for the animals and improve interactions between animals and humans.

This Zoo has become infamous for the inadequate and poor conditions of animals and the size of their enclosures and for mismanagement over the years.

It is an old zoo and there have been no updates since it was built in the 1970s, said Katie Sipra, a member of the animal welfare and veterinary committee formed last month on orders from the Islamabad High Court.

“In short everything needs to be made better at the Islamabad Zoo. The enclosure for the bear is a cement pit with no grass. Standing and walking on hard surfaces such as concrete can cause foot, joint, muscle and circulatory problems, and overall poor physical fitness. The zoo is missing boundary walls in several places. Wild animals such as boars and jackals sneak in and irritate the animals and eat their food,” Ms Sipra, who was a zoo keeper for years at the St Louis Zoo in the United States, said.

She believed that Islamabad zoo had significant potential with the right people and proper funding.

“Zoos are more than just about bringing animals to people. Islamabad zoo can be a place of education and conservation,” she said.

She added that basic questions needed to be answered such as considering the natural habitat of animals, their eating habits and their activities in the wild.

“The answer to these questions will help you improve enclosures. The key is adding variety and animal enrichment. Animals should be introduced to novel items that they can play with or toss in cinnamon to give them something new to smell. Such initiatives go towards improving animal welfare,” she said.

Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB) Chairman Dr Anis Rehman listed rat infestation as one of the zoo’s major concerns. “Rats and mongoose have dug burrows in bird cages and eat all the food,” he said.

He praised the team of vets that were concerned about the welfare of animals, adding: “This is a golden opportunity to improve the conditions of animals at the Islamabad zoo.”