She was like my own child, cried Faiz Mohammad who took care of Saheli since she was one. The 22-year-old elephant died at Marghazar Zoo on Tuesday morning.
Saheli came to the zoo in 1991, a gift from the Sri Lankan government. She was brought to partner with Kaavan, a male elephant who has been here for 27 years.
Mohammad, who has worked at the zoo for 35 years, wiped his tears, “I have been taking care of her ever since she was brought here; she was just one-year-old.”
According to Mohammad, Saheli was injured a few days ago and was in a lot of pain. Her movement slowed down and she began limping on occasion. “When we noticed she was hurt, we immediately had the doctors come to examine her.”
Two doctors have been coming to check and treat her for the past two days. “I do not think there was any mistake made in her treatment, but I still don’t know the cause of her death,” he said, taking breaks to compose himself.
Mohammad stood next to Saheli’s body, where flies circled above. Lying on the ground with a small sheet covering all but hear head and feet, Saheli, even in death, remained the centre of attention for visitors who had come to spend Labour Day with the animals. Other zookeepers kept checking on the body, occasionally splashing antiseptic water around it to keep the surrounding as clean as possible. The elephant compound was covered with sheets to detract visitors from crowding around it.
Zoo authorities had sent Saheli’s samples for testing when she was sick and sent a second set of samples after her death. “We are waiting for the results to figure out what went wrong,” said Marghazar Zoo and Wildlife Director Sajjad Hussain Shah.
The doctor checked her the night before and she was reportedly fine. She ate this morning and then just passed out after a while, said Shah.
National Veterinary Laboratories officials who had come to the zoo to take samples also said the cause of death will not be clear until the lab results are in.
Sri Lankan elephants are a sub-species of the Asian elephant and live anywhere between 60 and 75 years. Saheli was 22.
Mohammad said, “She was very playful. I would call her name as soon as I entered the zoo gate every morning and she would trumpet in response. When I entered their cage she would come running to me. Now I can sense the tension in Kaavan’s behaviour. He has been so impatient and anxious ever since she fell ill.”
According to Director Shah, Saheli was given first aid on Sunday morning and seemed to be getting better. “She was eating and was moving towards recovery, but at night she fell on one side and could not stand straight. A crane and human force had to be used to switch her side. On Tuesday, she ate at around 10:00am. After a while she collapsed again and slowly stopped breathing.
Dr Saleem Sulheri, a vetenarian at the zoo, added, “We feared she was about to die when she fell because she stopped moving her head, only occasionally trying to moving her feet.”
Sulheri said that the animals at the zoo were seasonally examined. Saheli could have had some internal problem but these blanks can only be filled when the lab results come out in the next two or three days, he added. The body will be buried and the skeleton will be extracted for preservation at the Natural Historical Museum at Shakarparian, he said.
“This is the first time such an incident has taken place at the zoo and we are extremely saddened by it,” said Director Shah. “However we do need another elephant to pair with the remaining one and hope the authorities will [procure one] soon.”
Capital Development Authority (CDA) Chairperson Engineer Farkhand Iqbal has directed an inquiry into the incident. The team will be headed by CDA Member Administration Shoukat Ali Mohmand.
Mohammad and another caretaker, Bilal, have also been suspended.
The chairperson said that strict action would be taken if someone’s negligence was found responsible for the incident.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 2nd, 2012.