A visitor taking a selfie next to the elephant Kaavan at the Marghazar Zoo. PHOTO: AFP

Deaths, lies and videotape: The true story of what happened at Islamabad Zoo

The basic purpose of relocating the animals was to improve their well-being – that does not seem to have been achieved

Rina Saeed Khan August 17, 2020

Perhaps if that horrifying video of the two lions being poked and tortured in their cages with lit fires, in order to scare them into a waiting vehicle for transportation out of Islamabad zoo had not been filmed just before Eid, we might never have found out the true story of what happened to the animals at Marghazar Zoo. The video went viral and the resulting outrage after the death of the two lions led to the judge in charge of the case, Athar Minallah, to order a fact-finding committee to investigate the welfare of the animals at the zoo. As a member of the fact-finding committee I took part in this mission and the resulting report was submitted to the Islamabad High Court (IHC) this weekend.

I hadn’t set foot in Islamabad zoo for years, choosing to stay away from all the politics it had been mired in since the plight of the 38-year old Asian elephant named Kaavan had hit the international news circuit. Kaavan, who had been chained for many years at the zoo and had become lonely after losing his mate Saheli in 2012, had become a global celebrity after a #SaveKavaan campaign had started trending on social media. Super star Cher had also endorsed the campaign and asked the Government of Pakistan to set the elephant free. Kaavan’s case had come before the IHC, clubbed together with another case against the shooting of stray dogs in Islamabad and the case of a confiscated Black Bear who was being kept in poor conditions at the zoo.

Kaavan the Asian elephant who attracted all the international attention to Islamabad zoo.

Kaavan the Asian elephant who attracted all the international attention to Islamabad zoo.

All the experts we interviewed for the report agreed that Marghazar Zoo, founded on 28-acres of land on the foothills of the Margalla Hills in 1978, had fallen prey to institutional wrangling in recent years. The turf war between the various institutions, from 2016-2020, led to the neglect of the animals. As a consequence, on May 21, 2020, the IHC ordered that the animals be shifted to “sanctuaries” within the next 60 days. Rab Nawaz, senior director of biodiversity at the WWF-Pakistan, described this as “an impossible task in an impossible time frame”. The hurried manner in which the animals of the zoo were shifted in the hot and humid months of June and July resulted in 12 deaths, including the deaths of the 2 African lions after transportation to Kasur on July 28/29, 2020.

The tussle over the ownership of the zoo first started when it was passed from the Capital Development Authority (CDA) which had been in charge since it was founded, to the Metropolitan Corporation of Islamabad (MCI) after the local government was formed in 2015. Later in July 2019 the ownership was handed over to the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB) under the Ministry of Climate Change. According to Dr Anis ur Rahman, the chairman of IWMB, “institutional decay” over the years led to the neglect and suffering of the zoo’s animals and birds.

Under the MCI, the deaths of more than two dozen animals and birds from 2016 onwards including an ostrich, lion cubs and deer, had all been widely reported in the media. The zoo had been criticised for the insufficient or bad quality of food given to the animals and their rat infested and inadequate enclosures. According to IWMB member Vaqar Zakaria, over the years there has been a lack of professional standards in the management of the zoo “where animals were generally not kept in good health and conditions, as demonstrated by routine deaths of animals over the last so many years”. Marghazar is an old zoo with few upgrades over the years.

The two African lions who died after being transported to Kasur in hot and humid month of July.

In February 2019, Minister of State for Climate Change Zartaj Gul told a Senate committee that she had requested the government to hand over “the control and care of the animals to the IWMB that has qualified individuals”. The IWMB was set up in 2015 by the order of the IHC under Section 4 of the Islamabad Wildlife Ordinance 1979 and reports to Ministry of Climate Change (MOCC). The board members included conservationists like ZB Mirza and Rab Nawaz (who has since resigned).

Dr Anis ur Rahman, the head of the IWMB noted that, “The Federal Cabinet decided to hand over management of the zoo to IWMB, without the management capacity and budget head of account. The zoo even today is staffed and paid by the MCI”. However, the MOCC clarified that the Islamabad Zoo was only properly transferred from MCI to IWMB, vide Cabinet Division’s Notification dated July 22, 2020, so how could they have organised the finances of the zoo and the hiring of staff in such a short time? In their view, the IWMB did not have the capacity to carry out the court’s orders of May 21, 2020 and they should have asked for a review.

The court order of May 21st asked for all the animals to be shifted since Marghazar Zoo “does not have the facilities or resources to meet the behavioral, social and psychological needs of the animals kept in captivity under inappropriate and illegal conditions”. The animals are to be returned once a reputable international agency has certified that the facilities have been upgraded sufficiently. The order specified that the animals be “relocated to their specific sanctuaries within 60 days”. Kaavan was to be immediately relocated to an elephant sanctuary “in or outside the country”.

Rab Nawaz has pointed out that aside from the Balkasar Bear Sanctuary that was established in 2010 in the Salt Range there are no proper animal sanctuaries in Pakistan. He said it was a complicated task to find adequate facilities for the zoo animals. Nevertheless, Dr Anis went ahead and relocated 363 animals of its 404 animals. Most of the birds were shifted nearby to Bird Park, Lake View, Islamabad. He said that they had to shift the animals in the stipulated time period or else the IWMB board members would have been served with contempt of court. Today only around 30 animals including Kaavan and the two Brown Bears remain at the zoo as further shifting of animals has been suspended due to the deaths of the lions.

Several zoo animals, including Nilgais have been to Khalid Mohyuddin Private Breeding Farm in Kasur.

The lions were sent to a private farm called Khalid Mohyuddin Khan Private Wildlife Breeding Farm in Kasur since both Punjab and KPK Wildlife Departments had turned down requests to keep the lions according to Dr Anis. The Khalid Mohyuddin farm owners sent their staff to transport the two lions to Kasur. According to the zoo’s vet Dr Bilal, who is still employed by MCI, they are the ones who set the fires, one that lasted seven minutes, while trying to shift the animals on July 28th. He said the lions were still alive at that point and around 10.30 pm their staff lit a second fire using hay which he immediately put out.

According to Vaqar Zakaria, “Appropriate supervision of the relocation process inclusive of shifting of animals to transportation enclosures and attending to health of animals before, during, and after relocation was not arranged by the Expert Committee” set up by the IWMB. Dr Anis said: “During the shifting of animals, there was near zero support from the zoo staff, and in my opinion the entire fire incident was filmed by these very staff, whom the Islamabad Police is trying to uncover”.

Dr Bilal said that the two lions were finally snared by ropes and loaded at 1.30 am onto a vehicle and sent to Kasur. The two animals arrived around noon. The lioness died shortly after arrival and the lion died a day later. Dr Bilal believed the cause of death was heatstroke. Clearly, no technical support/veterinary support was provided during the transportation of the lions between Islamabad to Kasur.

Dr Anis said the independently conducted necropsy report reveals that both animals were “emaciated” and worm infested which shows that they had been neglected for months. He admitted, however, that: “I couldn’t convince court that the timeline was too short”. He blamed himself for not convincing the IHC of the capacity weakness of IWMB, MOCC and Wildlife Departments in the country. Only Sindh Wildlife Department had agreed to take the crocodile, mud turtles and land tortoises of the zoo to be kept at Sufi Anwer Shah Safari Park near Ghotki. Even the Balkasar bear sanctuary refused to take the 2 remaining Brown Bears of Islamabad zoo. He said IWMB and MOCC could not convince the provincial wildlife departments to support the shifting of animals so private parties had to be hired.

Around 500 birds have gone missing from zoo since last year when MCI was running Islamabad Zoo. A probe has been ordered.

The MOCC on the other hand said the modus operandi for shifting the zoo animals was never discussed with them. They said that at no point was the MOCC informed that the animals were being shifted to private animal breeding farms within the country.

Sadly, most of the animals that have been shifted are now living in far worse conditions as compared to Marghazar Zoo. The basic purpose of relocating the animals was to improve their well-being – that does not seem to have been achieved. During the investigation it was also found that as compared to 919 animals in the zoo in July 2019, the number handed over to IWMB on July 17, 2020 was only 404. It appears that 495 animals, largely birds, have gone missing. An urgent probe is now underway.

The way forward out of this mess is that in order to uphold the judgment and its basic premises the court ought to get at least those animals back which have been sent from private farms with proper protocols and in cooler weather. The MOCC says that a new vision should be developed for Islamabad zoo based on largely indigenous species and no caging. The zoo can easily be extended to 80 acres and turned into a safari park with proper management. All this, however, will take time and patience.

PHOTO CREDIT: Islamabad Zoo Facebook page and HWO Animal Rescue

Rina Saeed Khan

The writer is the new Chair of the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB). She is an award-winning environmental journalist based in Pakistan. She holds an MA in Environment and Development from SOAS in London as a Chevening Scholar and received the Earth Journalism Award in Copenhagen in 2009 for her climate change reporting.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Jehanzeb | 1 year ago | Reply

Sad state of animal and human rights in the country. Very sad.

Khawar Ikram | 11 months ago

People of Islamabad are saddened, heart-broken and shocked at the sudden closure of Islamabad zoo.Indeed it's a matter of extreme inefficiency, mismanagement and corruption of our successive govts including the present govt.The torture and murder of two lions by zoo staff in July 2020 got viral, and goes down in history.The torture of lonely elephant (Kaavan) for years tied in chain is also shocking.We hope that sanity will prevail, and the zoo will be restored soon in accordance with international norms and standards.

Amir | 1 year ago | Reply

The sad fact is that the government and its functionary involved in this are roaming free. We should free all animals and put these so called guardians of the zoo inside those empty cages.

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