Institutional incompetence, abuse, and neglect; animals at Islamabad’s Marghazar Zoo have paid the price for lack of political ownership
The gates of Marghazar Zoo are bolted and its ticket cabins are vacant. Inside the zoo, the empty cages tell you tales of torture, illegal trade, killings and politics.
“Why shouldn’t those responsible for deaths of animals be put in the cages where animals were put?” asked Islamabad High Court on August 7 during a hearing of the case of animal deaths at Marghazar Zoo.
The court remarks followed watching of footage of fire set inside a cage of a pair of lions and poking them with sticks to scare them into moving to another cage. The footage went viral and attracted international criticism. The lion and lioness were being shifted to Khalid Mohyuddin Khan Private Wildlife Breeding Farm in Kasur, near Lahore.
However, this is just the tip of the iceberg as up to 513 animals and birds have gone missing from the zoo. The zoo had a total of 917 animals and birds.
Dr Anisur Rehman, the chairman of the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB), which is now responsible for looking after the zoo, tells The News on Sunday (TNS) that he is responsible for the wellbeing of only the animals and birds handed over to his Board.
“We were handed over only 385 animals from Municipal Corporation Islamabad (MCI); so far, we’ve transferred 95 percent of them to safe places. It was a decision of the court to protect these animals as long as livable conditions are ensured for them at Marghazar Zoo,” he says.
He confirms that the lioness had died after being shifted to Kasur and the lion died a day later. He also confirms that four cubs of this ill-fated couple had died in the zoo in 2017. The reported cause of their death is feeding them powder milk.
Dr Rehman clarified that the lion and lioness, according to their autopsy report, were “emaciated.” He says the abuse and neglect had been going on long before the fire lit in the cages.
Kohsar police had registered a case against those responsible for the death of the lions. According to law, the penalty for killing an animal is six months of jail and a Rs 200 fine, if the crime is proved.
In addition to the lioness and the lion, 10 other animals have died while being shifted to safer locations. However, no police case has been registered for these deaths.
Dr Rehman says that Shiekh Ansar Aziz, the mayor of Islamabad, will inform the court that the Capital Development Authority (CDA) has not issued him funds required to build sanctuaries for animals.
The CDA had been looking after the zoo since it was built but in 2015; when Islamabad got its first local government and the zoo was transferred to the MCI.
“We were handed over only 385 animals from MCI; and so far, we’ve transferred 95 percent of them to safe places. It was a decision of the court to protect these animals as long as livable conditions are ensured for them at Marghazar Zoo,” says Dr Anisur Rehman.
From 2015 to 2019, many animals died and the mayor was accused of corruption and was investigated by the NAB.
In February 2019, Zartaj Gul, the state minister for climate change, told the concerned Senate standing committee that the IWMB had “qualified individuals” and the zoo should be handed over to them.
In September last year, when the cabinet approved transfer of the zoo to the IWMB, she told this scribe in an interview that there will be a visible change soon, adding further that the MCI staff had been cooking some of the meat meant for the lions [for human consumption].
“There is a capacity problem, be it the MCI, the CDA or the IWMB. We lack experts in wildlife and biodiversity,” says Ovais, a lawyer with an interest in the zoo and the IWMB.
“As per the court order, the IWMB is responsible for the zoo. After the 18th Amendment, the subject was devolved to provinces, where zoo committees function now. As per law, the IWMB has the mandate to look after National Park area at Margalla Hills and Marghazar Zoo. This zoo was built in 1979 and the Board was made functional just now. The board is very young in comparison with the zoo, the CDA, the MCI or the Ministry of Climate Change (MOCC),” he says.
As per the spirit of the law, the Board should be autonomous but that is not the case. “The IWMB should’ve comprised wildlife experts but there is extensive involvement of the MOCC in its affairs,” he says.
“World Bank has issued funds for redesigning and restructuring of the zoo. At present only three wolves, 12 monkeys, Kaavan, the elephant, and some other animals await shifting. A team of experts with international experience has also come to carry out this task. A change will soon be visible,” he says.
The IHC has issued contempt notices to Prime Minister’s Special Assistant on Climate Change Amin Aslam, Zartaj Gul and many others. Some of them are also members of the IWMB. The next hearing is on September 25. The court has remarked that those on the board are reluctant to take responsibility. The zoo falls in the constituency of Asad Umer. Umer is very vocal about the things that go wrong in Sindh but seldom do we hear him say anything about the destruction of zoos in his own constituency.
The writer studies and teaches media. He can be reached on Twitter at @furraat