A dead elephant in the room
Updated Wednesday May 03 2023
Noor Jehan, a 17-year-old African elephant, breathed her last on April 22 in Karachi Zoo — though after fighting a mammoth battle against some grievous health complications, which is a fact, some say she was murdered, courtesy of apathy, inhumanity, and corruption.
And both zookeepers and zoogoers are equally guilty of it. Reflect.
She remained under observation since her tusk infection last year and later when the post-surgery complications started.
This giant mammal was a different case for journalists who cover zoos because every time there is an animal in severe circumstances, veterinarians, administration, and media jump in and weigh in on the different aspects of the issue.
But keeping Noor Jehan's condition in consideration, it was clear that the Karachi Zoo’s administration was responsible for it. International organisation Four Paws did everything it could with its expertise and equipment to save the African elephant, but hope was lost long ago. Noor Jehan fought hard for her life and somehow managed to survive for many months with the worst pain, hematoma, internal injuries, and trauma.
She lost her life, but the zoo continues with its business. The show must go on. Should it?
The young elephant was neither the first animal to die in the Karachi Zoo nor will she be the last. Some months ago a rare golden tabby tiger named Alfied also died a painful death here. The loss of this rare breed of big cats stunned everyone. Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) announced an inquiry against the ex-senior director of Karachi Zoo and Safari Khalid Hashmi after administrative negligence was detected. The government entity had to probe the case following the media’s pressure.
Hashmi was once contacted by Geo.tv regarding the tabby tiger’s death. “Why you are in pain if he (the tiger) has died, everyone who is born has to die someday,” he said responding to this scribe.
His comment left us shocked as we wondered what a heartless person one could be to respond this way. When Noor Jehan’s ill health hit the limelight some months ago, particularly after her video went viral on the internet in which she could be seen barely walking. Her limbs at the back were weak and her belly was fat. Nobody understood what was happening to her, but the administration kept saying that she is “just fine”.
Weeks passed by and no one from the zoo tried to do anything, except give her painkillers for temporary relief. When all this was going on, another story about the corruption scandal of the then-senior director Hashmi broke. The said person was already being probed for the rare tiger’s death. He was accused of taking bribes from the contractors, who were responsible for feeding the zoo animals.
The case went on and he was suspended, after which a new director took charge. Noor Jehan’s health did not improve under Hashmi’s supervision and she collapsed by mid-April. The ill-fated fall led to her tragic death.
After these back-to-back incidents, the debate about the existence of zoos and their treatment of animals began. Karachi Zoo which was built in the colonial era during the mid-1800s was once a garden aimed at housing flora and fauna, which could thrive in a protective environment. But unfortunately, zoos in our times are fundamentally responsible for leaving animals fighting for survival in miserable conditions.
“Conditions of zoos in Pakistan are not good. Zoos are not meeting international standards here and many a valuable wildlife has died in captivity in the last five years,” said Fahad Malik, a wildlife activist associated with Mission Awareness Foundation (MAF), an organisation that raises awareness on wildlife.
However, Malik supports the existence of zoos. He spoke against their closure and suggested they serve as a guide for research and learning with better facilities. Government officials have also defended the concept of zoos as a medium of learning and breeding rare and even endangered species.
When asked what purpose a zoo serves and what will happen if the establishment is shut down, Safari Park Director Kanwar Ayub said: “Zoos serve a big purpose in cities, especially for the children who will never be able to go into the wild”.
“The rationale of the zoo is to breed rare species in a protected environment. Many countries have abolished the concept of zoos, but have introduced wild safaris as an alternative. Our zoos have to upgrade their scale of administration. Our vets need training from abroad and shutting down zoos is not the solution, but a problem in itself,” he maintained.
However, many activists and experts believe that zoos should be banned because it is a case of animal rights abuse. Meanwhile, polarised viewpoints exist within this faction on whether zoos should be operated or not. The debate garnered traction when Noor Jehan’s case was all over conventional and social media. Twitter was flooded with overwhelming responses from the general public urging the closure of zoos altogether.
“I think the best way to secure animals is putting them in a sanctuary, not in a zoo. If children are taken to zoos for educational purposes, what are they learning by teasing sleeping animals with sticks and stones? We are becoming apathetic to caged animals,” said Quatrina Hosain, a journalist and animal rights defender.
Another animal rights activist Awnil Muntazir, who is based in Islamabad and associated with the campaign Save Them All, propagated fair treatment of animals stating that this century is not just about humans and their rights.
“Animal rights are also prioritised and should be in our discourse like any other human rights issue. Caging animals and showcasing them in zoos only triggers the colonial legacy of slavery. It’s all about the power and ‘might is right’. This is not a world we want. Zoos must be shut down immediately and if someone wants to see animals they should visit safari in a cage. You can get out of the cage but animals can’t,” he said while speaking to Geo.tv.
After her tragic demise, Noor Jehan remains buried several feet under the same enclave where she spent her last few days being pampered and treated for her poor health. Her post-mortem has been completed, and everyone awaits the results.
Four Paws, whose team was tirelessly caring for and treating the elephant, have shared their concerns regarding Madhubala — another female elephant kept with Noor Jehan — who is still inside her enclosure at the Karachi Zoo. The organisation said it was not in favour of transferring Madhubala to the Safari Park, but had asked the authorities to build a sanctuary for her as well as the other two elephants — Malika and Sonia — so they could all live together.
Noor Jehan’s death has not only sparked a discussion on animal rights and protection, but has also raised questions on the validity of zoos as administrative agencies. This debate still has to evolve and pass through many phases, but one fact remains in our memories — Noor Jehan did not fail us, we failed her like we have so many other innocent creatures before her.
Waqas Alam Angaria is a Geo News reporter who covers consulates, heritage, zoos and disasters. He tweets @waqasaalam
Uneeba Zameer Shah covers climate, wildlife and zoos. She tweets @ShahUnee