Revamping the zoos

July 19, 2020

Backed by political will, the recent intervention by the Islamabad High Court urging adherence to international practices for zoo management could herald significant changes in Pakistan’s zoos

Kaavan – the only elephant in the capital city zoo – has been quite alone in his enclosure for the past several weeks, waiting for his fate to be decided after Islamabad High Court ordered his shifting to a proper sanctuary either within or outside Pakistan. 

The Marghazar Zoo of Islamabad – closed in the wake of coronavirus spread for the past few months – has now been ordered by the court to evacuate all animals and birds until it can make a zoo management plan in line with international standards and best practices.

This May, while deciding a couple of petitions regarding the deplorable conditions of animals in the zoo and demanding their relocation to safe and proper places and sanctuaries, Justice Athar Minallah, the Islamabad High Court chief justice, ordered arrangements be made for all animals to be sent to sanctuaries and asked that a plan to be formulated with the help of international experts for the development of a new zoo in the city.

Kaavan, a 36-year-old extinct-breed Asiatic elephant came to the zoo as a gift from Sri Lankan government in 1985 at the age of one. He has been in captivity in poor conditions. These days, he is alone in his enclosure with a small dirty pond, eating sugarcane and waiting for his visitors. Since his arrival, his abode has been this enclosure in the zoo, where he has also been kept in chains. Kaavan has grew lonelier after his female companion, Saheli, died at the age of 22 some eight years ago.

The IHC, in its landmark judgment, observed that the conditions in which the animals of the zoo are being kept is “definitely causing distress and pain to them. There is a lack of will on the part of the federal government, the Metropolitan Corporation Islamabad (MCI) and the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB) to take care of foreign species of animals at the zoo.

Separate petitions were filed for relocating Kaavan and handing over the zoo’s Himalayan brown bear to the IWMB for medical treatment.

“We filed the petition seeing bad conditions of animals, especially, Kaavan,” Owais Awan, counsel of petitioner Nadeem Omar, anthropologist and executive director at the Centre for Culture and Development, says. “We urge the respective governments to relocate animals in all zoos and reshape zoos as per international practices.” He says captivity of animals – especially foreign species – has been put to an end in developed world which has transformed zoos entirely. He says the London zoo now has only a statue of an elephant.

The IHC has given two months to the authorities to shift animals and start working on the next plan. The court has warned the authorities of criminal proceedings for delaying the release of the animals in the zoo in unnecessary pain, under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1890 of the country and in violation of the Universal Declaration of Animal Rights of 1978. Pursuant to the order, the IWMB notified a committee of experts to draw up a plan for the relocation of animals.

“The climate change ministry is already working on a plan to reshape the zoo as per international practices and standards, and we are for not keeping any exotic animals in the new zoo,” says Dr Anisurrehman.

The Islamabad zoo was established in 1978 in the foothills of the Margalla Hills National Park in an area spread over 25 acres of land. Presently, the zoo has 878 animals including 89 mammals of 15 species, 769 birds of 38 species and 20 reptiles belonging to three distinct species. The expert report, sought by the court highlights the “extremely disturbing conditions” in which the animals have been kept in complete disregard to their respective natural habitats. The report notes that animals have been kept in small cages and enclosures without basic and necessary facilities required. The report mentions that Kaavan – the lone elephant – exhibits behaviour symptomatic of distress and may have also developed neurological problems. Subjecting animals to unnecessary pain and suffering is a violation of the provisions of the Act of 1890 and the Wildlife Ordinance of 1979. According to Islamabad Wildlife (Protection, Preservation, Conservation and Management) Rules 1983, the IWMB “can take all policy decisions, draw plans, programmes and execute them with regard to protections, preservations, conservation and management of wildlife, including the zoos situated within Islamabad Capital Territory.”

The IHC has ordered that the IWMB shall not keep any new animals in the zoo until a reputable international agency/organisation, specialising in matters relating to zoological gardens, has certified that facilities and resources are available to provide for the behavioural, social and physiological needs of the species.

“The climate change ministry is already working on a plan to reshape the zoo as per international practices and standards, and we are for not keeping any exotic animals in the new zoo,” says Dr Anisurrehman, chairman of the IWMB. “There are plans to shift Kaavan somewhere in Pakistan (which is difficult) or send him back to Sri Lanka or shift him to Cambodia,” he says, adding, “Kaavan is still young and in a proper environment, the average age of a male Asiatic elephant is 60-70 years.”

The IHC judgment on the zoo has also encouraged rights activists to move courts to highlight plight of captive animals and endangered species in other zoos of the country. Recently, some citizens of Peshawar have approached the Peshawar High Court urging the court to observe conditions of animals and investigate deaths of various animals.

A couple of weeks back the last surviving giraffe, out of a total of three brought from Africa to Peshawar died. In the past, there have been reports of deaths of various foreign and local species kept in the zoos in Lahore and Karachi. Rights activists say that the recent intervention by the IHC, once backed by political will, can lead to significant changes in the country’s zoos.


The author is a staff reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

Revamping the zoos