To the estrangement of my friends, I’ve always had a peculiar interest with zoos; human beings themselves have evolved from the great apes and I believe that even to date, certain characteristics of human beings can be traced to those of animals. Whether it be the ferocity of a tiger, the antics of a baboon or even the stealth of a snake, it’s all in there. Lahore Zoo, in particular, was once graced with a reputation of housing some of the most diverse animals from across the subcontinent and beyond; as well as being a place of solace where one could truly connect with their inner spirit animals, but it has recently fallen to insurmountable depths.
My father, whose office was situated right across Lahore Zoo, would always tell me how, a number of years back, he would hear the window-rattling roars of the African lions as they would feast on their meals as soon the clock struck 5pm. The intensity within them was palpable. The animals were fierce, agile, vibrant – and always ready to engage. Unfortunately, my father seeming to be talking about a bygone era, something that I came to the conclusion of when I visited the Zoo in February 2017, after many years. The sad state of affairs was mouth jarring, with the multitude of animals being restrained to the most minuscule of cages, barely anything more than what a prisoner can expect from a cell nowadays.
Back then, maintenance was not much of an issue and the animals lived healthy and well exercised lifestyles. But now? Well, in a nutshell, they can be described as barely even being a shadow of their former selves.
The overly confined cages, mundane living conditions, lack of exercise, in addition to the industrial expansion within Lahore’s Mall Road has led to a huge fall in the zoo’s tourism rate, and an unfortunate surge in the mortality rates of the animals.
Lahore Zoo seems to be infamous for its disturbingly high mortality rate, with some animals dying only days after their arrival. Allow me to give a slight reiteration of the zoo’s most recent casualties:
1): In 2014, the Zoo’s female white Rhino, Kawo, died on account of old age.
2): After that, on May 13, 2017 Suzi, Lahore Zoo’s trademark African bush elephant and arguably the most attractive resident of the Zoo died at the age of 31. She had been residing at the zoo since the tender age of six, and had been living alone since 1992.
3): In October 2017, a wallaby had passed away. This was then followed up by the death of a male cheetah in November 2017 who died after spending only 30 days at the zoo. The four-year-old cheetah and its female pair had been imported from South Africa on October 29, 2017; and the female cheetah, too, had died earlier on.
4): On June 30 2018, a female giraffe had taken its last breath at the Zoo only a week after its arrival. The animal was one of the 3 giraffes that were bought from South Africa at a staggering amount of Rs.19 million. Although the wildlife director said the giraffe was already ill when it arrived in the country, it seems to be uncanny how the animal’s health was not properly evaluated before dishing about such an astronomical amount of money.
5): Later on, during 2018, a 12-year-old Bengal tigress that had been residing at the zoo since the age of 3 had also perished. Soon after this, another tigress which was brought in from Bahawalpur Zoo in 2014 also followed in close succession.
Indeed, all these deaths did not go by without scrutiny, and there were a number of questions put towards the project managers of the institution. When questioned about bringing in a new elephant to replace Suzie, Hassan Ali Sukhera, the Zoo’s Project Director said: “There are no monetary issues on our part. We have the needed funds. Our biggest issue is the environment”. He cited the example of the recently purchased 14 giraffes; 10 of whom died due to the fatigue of travelling and the unhealthy environment.
Furthermore, to quote World Wide Fund (WWF) Director Uzma Khan’s words: “When an animal is imported, it should be kept in quarantine for at least two weeks. Unfortunately, Lahore Zoo does not have facilities to keep animals in quarantine.” She even went on to say how the animals are immediately put up for display, which is against the recommended practice. Additionally, she outlined how air pollution could be a factor which has accentuated the mortality rates of the animals.
Given all these evident infrastructural and management related shortcomings within the Zoo, the question must be raised of how it is still allowed to continue in the way that is currently doing so? The authorities themselves have pointed out how the zoo lacks the adequate infrastructure and added to that, the location becoming incredibly overpopulated; it appears to be nothing short of an animal right’s violation to confine the animals to that place.
The zoo’s website (http://www.lahorezoo.com.pk/) states that they “May prepare development project up to the value of Rs. 10.000 million”, but every single rupee of this seems to be going to waste when all that is being given in exchange are unhealthy and stressed out animals who don’t seem to last very long.
Personally, I tend to visit the zoo after a period of two months or so. My initial interest was sparked with the arrival of the majestic white tiger back in January of 2018, but since then most of my trips have been lackluster and it was only after visiting it for the first time that I began to pay true attention to my surroundings.
The cages are always a mess, the water in the turtle enclosure is plagued with dirt while other animals can be seen loitering about in their own waste. There are two types of animals: most of them are incredibly tired, lying about doing absolutely nothing in an attempt to pass through another rigorous day of children throwing pebbles and food at them. I saw how the white tiger lay limp on the damp ground as the crows pecked away at his glob of meat. I saw how puma sat in a corner, the furthest it could get from human view. I saw how every single one of the lions seemed as uninterested in their lives as virtually possible. I saw how a monkey was perched at the edge of its cage, grabbing on to the bars like a lost soul.
The other kind, most notably the desert wolf, the jackals as well as the puma seem to be so mentally frustrated and psychologically damaged that they resort to rampantly pacing about their tiny cages in an attempt to exercise their mind and escape their mental anxiety. They don’t even bother to eat their food; it simply lies in front of them: as if they have no purpose to live for it.
The African Grey Parrot – one of the most intelligent animals in the world – can be found trying to dig through the dirt in its cage; also seemingly tired of its living pathetic conditions. This is incredibly odd since the species is known to commit self-harm if they do not have any consistent source of mental exercise.
Another main issue is how the visitors throw plastic materials and stones into the cages. Some of the items get gobbled up, which can easily contribute to a multitude of possible illnesses. None of the zoo staff makes any efforts to warn the visitors; for even a single glance at any member of the staff indicates their lack of enthusiasm in caring for the animals.
The animals are usually accustomed to quiet environments, but even that is deprived with the setup of an incredibly loud music booth right beside the photo stand where visitors can get their pictures taken alongside some exotic parrots.
There’s a lot to consider here; and there’s a lot that can actually be done. At this moment in time, not only is the Zoo a burden on the economy with over Rs 50 million going to waste with the death of these animals due to their lack of care, but it’s also a fundamental invasion of the animal’s rights by subjecting them to such substandard living conditions.
A zoo serves many purposes. Among many others, it’s supposed to save endangered species by bringing them into a safe environment. To provide an enriched habitat in which the animals are never bored, are well cared for, and have plenty of space. Clearly, this doesn’t seem to be the case with Lahore Zoo. Even if the authorities attempt to improve the living conditions; they still may not be able to bypass the horrendous air quality conditions.
So, what’s the solution? Although it may seem difficult, I believe that shifting the animals from the Mall Road Zoo to the Safari Park at Raiwind seems to be the only viable option. This would provide the animals with the much-needed upgrade to the environment that they desperately seem to be in need of, and they will have much more space to move about in. The mental deprecation that the animals are undergoing is imperceptible, and I am of the belief that enough animals have perished already. To boost tourism rates, the authorities can even set up buses than can travel from the old Zoo to the Safari Park at certain terms which may further engage the masses. The ticket rates can be slightly increased if they need to be, but this option surely must be considered taking into account the astronomical amounts that have been floundered and wasted. This would not only provide the animals with the quality of life that they duly deserve, but it would also upheave the economic burden that the authorities have already undergone.