Pakistan 'horror zoo' is reborn as rehabilitation centre

The zoo found international notoriety in 2016 when the singer Cher launched a campaign to remove its shackled Asian elephant Kaavan

By AFP

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A wildlife ranger (L) takes care of a rescued leopard cub at the Margallah Wildlife rescue centre, formerly a zoological park, in Islamabad. Photo: AFP
A wildlife ranger (L) takes care of a rescued leopard cub at the Margallah Wildlife rescue centre, formerly a zoological park, in Islamabad. Photo: AFP

Published: Thu 25 Apr 2024, 11:41 AM

Last updated: Thu 25 Apr 2024, 1:31 PM

Before it was forced to close over its "intolerable" treatment of animals, the Islamabad Zoo was home to neglected elephants and underfed lions pacing back and forth behind the bars of their enclosures.

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Now, four years later, it is a rehabilitation centre for Pakistani wildlife, providing a refuge for motherless leopard cubs, tigers seized from owners who kept them as status symbols, and bears forced to dance -- or fight -- for the amusement of crowds.

"The whole energy of the place has changed ever since the zoo was emptied... The care shows, look around," Rina Saeed, the head of Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB), told AFP.


The zoo found international notoriety in 2016, when the singer Cher launched a campaign to remove its shackled Asian elephant Kaavan, the last in the country and dubbed the world's loneliest elephant.

A wildlife ranger takes care of rescued Asina black bears at the Margallah Wildlife rescue centre, formerly a zoological park, in Islamabad.
A wildlife ranger takes care of rescued Asina black bears at the Margallah Wildlife rescue centre, formerly a zoological park, in Islamabad.

But Kaavan's treatment wasn't an isolated incident -- two lions died at the facility when zookeepers attempted to force them from their pen by setting fire to piles of hay. And over the years, hundreds of animals listed on the zoo's inventory simply vanished.

Pakistan's climate change ministry said it was "seriously concerned" about the "intolerable and inhumane" treatment of animals at the zoo in 2020 -- the same year the courts ordered it shut and Kaavan was moved to Cambodia.

Within months of its closure, a small rescue centre began to take root at the facility, and now evidence of its past as a tourist attraction is fading -- silence hangs over the empty, overgrown parking lot and the shabby ticket stand sits idle next to a swing set.

"Now it is a proper rehabilitation centre with over 50 animals," Saeed said, adding that the team had rescued more than 380 animals.

The IWMB team rescues animals from across the country, recently taking in two indigenous leopard cubs poached from their mother, bears once forced to fight dogs in underground competitions and monkeys made to dance for tips.

Amir Khalil, a veterinarian who directs the global animal welfare organisation Four Paws, which oversaw Kaavan's relocation, recently made an emotional return to the zoo, saying it "now holds hope".

In this picture taken on April 5, 2024, members of Four Paws International sit on a vehicle to transport a female bear ‘Anila’ for a surgery at the Margallah Wildlife rescue centre, formerly a zoological park, in Islamabad.
In this picture taken on April 5, 2024, members of Four Paws International sit on a vehicle to transport a female bear ‘Anila’ for a surgery at the Margallah Wildlife rescue centre, formerly a zoological park, in Islamabad.

Vets from the Austria-based NGO had come to the centre to see after three black bears whose claws had been removed by their previous owners, treating them in the shadow of an abandoned Ferris wheel in the zoo's former cafe -- now a makeshift clinic.

"This place is unrecognisable," Khalil told AFP while inspecting one of the animals, an overweight former dancing bear called Anila.

Anila was also suffering from a nose infection from a ring pierced through her snout to help keep her under control.

"We hope this place turns out to be a place for animals with a better future," Khalil said.

Last year the IWMB seized a tiger cub with broken bones from a vet clinic in an upscale neighbourhood in the capital, later relocating the animal to South Africa.

Owning a wild cat is a symbol of wealth in Pakistan even though it is illegal in some parts of the country.

"We think animals are toys," said Ali Sakhawat, deputy director of research and planning at the IWMB.

The animals brought to the centre are not only physically injured but also mentally traumatised.

"We keep them occupied to help them erase the memories of the trauma inflicted by poachers," Aneis Hussan, a wildlife ranger, told AFP as he played with Daboo, one of the rescued black bears.

"The bears you've observed here exhibit signs of joy -- roaming freely, climbing trees -- a stark contrast to the captivity that deprived them of happiness," Hussan added.

Wildlife authorities are pushing for new laws targeting poachers and bear baiters who regularly trap and traffic wild animals.

A new Islamabad Nature and Wildlife Management Act would strengthen animal protections, but Saeed says it still "needs the president's signature".

The last presidential order on animal welfare -- restricting bear baiting -- was passed over 20 years ago by President Pervez Musharraf.

"No one in the government listens, I have gotten old trying to make them understand how important this is," Safwan Ahmad, vice chairman of the non-profit Pakistan Wildlife Foundation, told AFP.

IWMB wants to establish a permanent sanctuary at the site of the rehabilitation centre, but the local authority that owns the land intends to reopen the facility as a public zoo.

"There is one (zoo) in almost every city worldwide," said Irfan Khan Niazi of the environmental department of the Capital Development Authority, which oversees planning and development in Islamabad.

"Just because rules were not followed once does not mean it would happen again", he added.

"No matter how many zoos we make for kids, this won't teach them that animals are to be taken care of," said IWMB's Sakhawat.

"Wild animals are to be kept in the wild, not cages", he added.

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