With neglect and abuse rampant, Pakistan must permanently shut down its zoos
Dr. Mehreen Mujtaba
Animal rights activists in Pakistan and around the world argue that the country’s zoos are failing to provide a suitable habitat for the animals they house. Cages filled with garbage, a lack of proper diet, abuse from zoo carers as well as visitors and an often illegal backhand trade of exotic birds and endangered species are all well-known facts about Pakistan’s zoo culture.
Kaavan, the depressed lonely elephant who made international headlines, was chained and kept in captivity for three decades at the Marghazar Zoo in Islamabad, and became a poster child for Pakistan’s zoo abuse over the years. Finally, activists took notice, including A-list international celebrities like American pop singer, Cher, and Kaavan got his freedom.
This has led in turn to activists voicing their concerns for other caged animals in the same zoo. Like the endangered Himalayan brown bears who never received proper medical care and were living in their enclosure with festering wounds.
Finally, international pressure has compelled authorities to take notice of the gross irregularities at the Islamabad zoo as well as other zoos across the country.
Pakistan has over 14 zoos, 10 of which are government-owned, and four are private. The Lahore Zoo was established in 1872 and boasts an unenviable track record of mishaps. Despite a master plan of approximately Rs. 202,830 million ($1.28 million) that aimed for the improvement and addition of facilities, not much has been done for the animals’ wellbeing in Lahore.
Islamabad Zoo, established in 1978, interestingly served as a sanctuary for animals gifted by various countries with cordial bilateral relations with Pakistan. It was later turned into a zoo due to a growing number of species within its grounds.
Unfortunately, it lost 15 animals in recent years, including an ostrich, lion cubs, a blue bull and a bear. But more than 30 animals have died in Peshawar Zoo since it was inaugurated in February 2018, including a rare snow leopard.
In Pakistan the plight of zoos has deteriorated to such an extent that it would be better to close them permanently.
The country relies on outdated legislation enacted in 1890 during British colonial rule to provide protection to animals from cruelty referred to as the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. The Act lays down penal sanctions for violators but fails to embody a holistic approach towards animal welfare. In 2018, due to the obsolete nature of the penal sanctions, the Act was amended to ensure stricter punishments.
An English writer and social reformer, Henry Salt wrote a revolutionary text titled “Animal Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress”, igniting the debate around the principle of animal rights. It questioned the cruelty of shutting up a wild animal in a cell, whereby the animals lost distinctive features of their characters.
Globalization has had numerous effects on the modern world, many of them good. But humanity is currently living through one of its grave side effects. Wildlife consumption and habitat degradation are leading to loss of biodiversity and in early 2020, resulted in a deadly pandemic with a near-certain zoonotic source – COVID-19.
The pandemic illustrates the simple fact that governments must pay heed to animal welfare-- because it plays a crucial role in public health, national security and economic policy deliberations.
Islamabad High Court has recently taken remarkable steps with regards to the cruel treatment meted out to animals kept in the capital’s Marghazar Zoo and has passed orders to relocate the animals to a safe and friendly sanctuary till the time their physical habitat is rehabilitated.
In this regard, the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board under the administrative control of the Ministry of Climate Change has proposed the Marghazar Wildlife Conservation Center with the objective of transforming existing zoo facilities into a world class center for wildlife conservation, rehabilitation, education and public awareness regarding the ecological and cultural importance of indigenous flora and fauna conservation.
The plan is ambitious-- to improve the current infrastructure of the zoo by increasing the movement of animals and limiting space for visitors, with animal specific design features that resemble natural habitats. Most important will be strengthening the human resource that manages the affairs of this proposed wildlife conservation park.
Whether or not the plan will make it to the implementation stage remains to be seen. But it is certainly a step in the right direction.