Wednesday May 29, 2024

Noor Jehan's ailing health sparks concerns about wildlife in Pakistan

"Zoos across Pakistan should all be privatised and closed permanently," animal rights activist says

April 16, 2023
Noor Jehan is being lifted out of her enclosure at the Karachi Zoo by the Four Paws team in Karachi in this undated photo. — AFP/File
Noor Jehan is being lifted out of her enclosure at the Karachi Zoo by the Four Paws team in Karachi in this undated photo. — AFP/File

ISLAMABAD: Residing in captivity across zoos in the country, wildlife in Pakistan is suffering at the hands of human violence, incompetence and ill-trained caretakers, veterinarians and animal pathologists, who are unable to provide relief to their agonising state and mental trauma leaving them vulnerable to death.

The misery of Noor Jehan, an African elephant in captivity at the Karachi Zoo suffering from severe health issues, has brought back the painful memories of Kaavan — the elephant who was mistreated at the Islamabad Zoo.

An Asian elephant Kaavan, who was said to be the loneliest elephant in the world and spent years of solitude due to the demise of his female partner Saheli, had developed serious psychological issues and health complications including injured feet and fatigued behaviour.

He was shifted to a sanctuary in Cambodia to spend the rest of its life in peace and free to roam for miles in a jungle near other rescue elephants.

The story of Noor Jehan is similar to that of Kavaan, but with a tinge of callous carelessness of the department concerned. The female elephant got injured at the start of this year after she had a confrontation with another elephant that damaged her kidneys and left leg leaving her unable to walk and pass urine.

Four Paws, the same organisation that helped send Kavaan to Cambodia after necessary rehabilitation, brought four experts to help the ailing Noor Jehan and save her life, as she developed serious health complications.

Talking to APP, Society for the Protection of Animal Rights Founder Zain Mustafa said all that he predicted all that is happening in the Karachi Zoo several years ago when he witnessed the animal management and caretaking by the staff in a highly unprofessional manner sans any remedy available to protect, treat and improve the animal's physical, mental and emotional health.

He had been engaged by the Sindh government in the previous tenure in 2017 to redesign the zoo with better species-appropriate natural habitat, enrichment programme-infused enclosures and trained staff that help relieve the animals’ agony and pain with a holistic improvement in their captive living environments.

Mustafa alleged that the Karachi Zoo project was shelved when the government changed and it has not been revived yet, leading to the problems being exacerbated today. While discussing the Karachi Zoo tragedy, he said there were four elephants in captivity in Karachi, who are all siblings including three females and a male.

The problem is the attitude of our system and its bureaucrats who do not bother about animals as they are considered lesser beings than humans. Their cruel exploitation for entertainment and gaining wealth is not seen as a crime, he added.

This attitude perpetuates unbridled exploitation of captive wild animals dying not only of physical, but also severe mental torture after developing complex psychological and behavioural problems, he added.

“Noor Jehan and her siblings are African elephants who are difficult to rehabilitate in captivity as compared to the Asian elephants who are docile and less aggressive. Moreover, a chimpanzee and a few monkeys are in serious depression after being poorly handled in captivity and are seen often licking their cages’ bars. They are slowly suffering due to psychological issues,” he said.

He also decried the incompetence of Karachi Zoo’s veterinarian care, which was unable to cater to the elephant’s needs as Noor Jehan’s liver got damaged and now has only a 30% chance of survival.

Zain Mustafa believed that this whole episode would have a negative impact on the minds of the juvenile who come to see wildlife at the zoo and learn about exotic animals, but end up with spectacles of dying animals in pathetic health and living conditions.

“This child will never learn about the animal, but will realise only that he can control anything if humans are able to control massive wild animals. Due to witnessing animal cruelty and assault, mental illnesses are on the rise in our society like child abduction, rape and many other heinous crimes," Zain said.

He added that behind every such crime there will be some account of animal torture or beating by that individual either male or female.

Zain also mentioned that throughout the country there was no trained vet that could provide professional services to handle wildlife properly in such instances.

Pakistan Wildlife Foundation Vice President Safwan Ahmed said it is very difficult to keep wild animals in captivity, as they were habitual of living in a free environment.

However, prolonged stay in captivity turned those animals into highly distressed creatures developing different psychological complications like monkeys shouting and aggressive behaviour in front of humans, lions or tigers strolling to and fro in the cage without any response or reaction and bears fighting each other.

He added that all these signs indicate that the animals are in poor mental health and need serious intervention by a pathologist who tries to divert the minds of mentally disturbed animals through different games and exercises that help in reliving their mental sickness.

Safwan termed it a significant component of zoo management. While listing solutions to the problem, he said it was paramount to train zoo staff to handle vertebrates as exotic animals need specific environments, caretakers and facilities to live in a better way under captivity.

He added that the government was taking panicked decisions; whereas, a proper roadmap was prepared during the redesigning of the Karachi Zoo that never got implemented.

Safwan suggested that if zoos across the country have become unmanageable for the government, then they should be privatised or turned into safari parks where the wildlife can at least live freely in a near-to-natural habitat environment.

He queried why zoo administrations across the country were not accountable to anyone? Safwan argued that it is unfortunate to see young, driven, passionate and brave people like Advocate Owais Awan fighting for animal rights alone, this must be the fight of every Pakistani as responsible human beings contributing to society in an empathetic humanitarian manner towards better future generations.

“There are many volunteers working daily with the zoo staff to follow the recommendations for Noor Jehan’s care by Dr Amir Khalil of the Four Paws team — this is the responsibility of the zoo staff who are under a professional ethical and moral obligation to use taxpayers money towards the best care of the animals in their care.

It is wonderful that civil society has stepped up to help, but the local government, Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) and Karachi Zoo's team should see that yet again a bureaucratic failure in our system of governance is being safety-netted by the common man”, he added.

Zain proposed that given the extremely poor economic condition of the country — where inflation and climate change have millions of people starving to death — and also given the lack of a budget for zoo staff's training and the facility's overall upliftment, this would be a good time to put out a global SOS to all exotic wildlife sanctuaries to adopt and rescue all animals in Pakistan's zoos including elephants, lions, tigers, as well as big cats, chimpanzees, other apes, bears and any animal which needs special technically-trained caretakers, or has been imported and is not indigenous to Pakistan.

“Thereafter, zoos across Pakistan should all be privatised and closed permanently as a unanimous agreement of all political parties. There is no reason for Noor Jehan or any other captive animal in a zoo in Pakistan continue to this exploitation and sadistic suffering any longer being abused like prisoners for entertainment," the SPAR founder said, adding that these animals deserve a life of proper care, habitat, love, respect and dignity.