Why three lion cubs died at Karachi Zoo and other tales of incompetence

Officials charged with taking care of animals seem indifferent to their needs.

Dr A A Qureshi August 29, 2011


The death of three lion cubs at the Karachi Zoo, and the disappearance of a fourth, highlights the dearth of professionals trained in the care of animals, and an apparent indifference on the part of senior officials charged with overseeing the upkeep of the country’s zoological gardens.

The lion cubs were the latest in a long line of animal victims of human negligence and incompetence.

I was once asked by the Punjab government to determine why several of their most expensive and rare birds kept dying in the enclosures built for them. Upon examination, I discovered that the enclosures had been designed by an engineer with no knowledge of the habits of those birds.

At the same zoo, the reptile enclosure had no heating arrangements despite the city’s cold winters. Many of the reptiles died of hypothermia. When I asked why there was no heating for a cold-blooded animal, I was told that the low-powered bulb, hanging about 13 feet above the animals, had been deemed to be a sufficient source of heat for animals most commonly found on desert sands.

Similarly, the giraffe enclosure was very poorly designed. The architect who designed it seemed to overestimate the height of the animal and made the food basket too high for the poor giraffe to reach, resulting in the animal starving for not being tall enough.

Poorly designed enclosures seem to be a running theme across zoos in Pakistan. At one zoo, an elephant broke its leg when it slipped into a moat that had been meant to keep the animal in its cage. The elephant eventually had to be euthanised.

On some occasions, the thought process of zoo managements could have been described as comical, were it not quite so tragic.

For instance, when an elephant caretaker in Islamabad retired, the government was unable to find a qualified replacement. So zoo officials decided to hire a buffalo herdsman instead. Their logic: an elephant and a buffalo are both large, dark-skinned animals, therefore the caretaking methods of both animals should be interchangeable.

Two buffalo herdsman were employed, who then proceeded to treat the female Asian elephant exactly like they would treat a buffalo from Sahiwal: spraying it with water, feeding it out of a trough and goading it to walk by beating its hindquarters with a stick.

For some time, the elephant quietly tolerated this insult to its species, but finally lost her temper when the herdsmen started eating the sugar cane meant for her. She ambushed the two herdsmen while they were in a shed and crushed them to death.

This tragedy occurred not because of any fault of the animal or the herdsmen, but the indifference and incompetence of the zoo management.

The only personnel who should be charged with supervising the care of animals should be trained veterinarians who are comfortable around animals and not afraid of them. Zoologists or other professionals from supposedly related fields are unlikely to have the technical expertise required to manage a facility that takes care of animals.

Even veterinarians have a steep learning curve. Dr Masud, who has spent 15 years at the Bahawalpur Zoo, says, “It took me at least 10 years to really understand this zoo.”

Suspending the director of the Karachi Zoo for the lion cubs’ incident is not going to change the fact that he is not qualified for the job in the first place. It is the Karachi government that is responsible for having selected a zoologist for a job that should be done by a veterinarian.

Dr Quraishy served as the Zoological Gardens director for 30 years. He is a senior environmentalist and a leading expert in animal behaviour and environmental problems.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 30th, 2011.