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Rethinking the Islamabad zoo

Globally the anti-zoo lobby is almost as strong today as the advocates for zoos. The anti-zoo sentiment has grown because, while there are several excellent zoos across the world (with many of these being in the capital cities), there are also quite a lot of really bad zoos around, including the Islamabad Zoo.

For years, it has been heavily censured for poor design, incompetent and uncaring management, cruelty to animals, total lack of knowledge about modern captive wildlife management, and even a lack of empathy for wildlife, which is a fundamental and mandatory requirement for zoo-keeping.

The Islamabad zoo came up almost without any master plan and almost by accident at least 30 or more years ago, when we were gifted some animals by foreign governments and these had to be housed somewhere. Over this same period, and at various different times, the matter of renovating the zoo and making it a ‘modern’ zoo was brought up and discussed.

In the mid-90s, an honorary Citizens Advisory Committee was set up, with this writer also a member. The Committee gave time and effort to define a direction, but to no avail. Now and then an ad-hoc ‘improvement’ was made, but all these were random and ad-hoc and not a part of a Master Plan (does one even exist?), and basically tick-in-the-box actions for pure optics and to maintain the status quo.

And whenever the pressure reached a pitch, the CDA responded that the zoo was only a ‘temporary’ one, and a very large, modern zoo would be built at a huge site already allocated for the purpose somewhere in the Chak Shahzad or Bara Kahu area. Why this has never happened is a mystery, and the ‘temporary’ zoo survives decades later with little having changed – an ignominious blot in Islamabad, the country’s federal capital.

This writer belongs to the global zoos-should-exist group, provided these are of the highest standards without any compromise and meet several mandatory conditions. These cannot be discussed fully in one article. But just for some more clarity, some of these mandatory conditions include: The principal objective of the zoo should be to support international, scientific, wildlife conservation efforts and work, in one or several ways. Just by way of example, this can be scientific captive breeding of endangered species as an integral part of an international programme. Or the support can be in the form of scientific behavioral studies of the different species kept. There are other ways too. The bottom line is that no zoo should exist if it does not have wildlife conservation as the principal reason for existing.

The second and related priority reason for a zoo’s existence is that it should be a center for learning, and for public education and awareness raising about the critical need for wildlife and nature conservation.

When the first zoos were established in various countries over a hundred years ago, most often the only objective was to provide entertainment to the public. Any zoo today with this as the only or even the primary objective needs to be closed down. There is no denying that viewing wild animals is a great source of entertainment for the public. But if a zoo is conceptualized, designed, established and operated based on the two mandatory conditions of wildlife conservation and education, then it will automatically provide entertainment for visitors, of a quality far superior to what bad zoos provide or attempt to provide.

Every zoo must have a professionally prepared Master Plan for its establishment, or for its total make-over if the zoo already exists.

All animals kept in the zoo should be captive born and raised, acquired from other zoos, rescue centers and other collections from anywhere in the world. No animal should be acquired which is wild-caught, whether purchased or gifted.

Before the acquisition of animals is done, the collection should first be carefully decided upon, based on the collection directly supporting the zoo’s objectives and other relevant factors. Selection of species based on the whims of decision-makers (who invariably propose mega-fauna species like elephants, tigers, lions, giraffes, rhinos, hippos, chimpanzees, and so on) should strictly not be the way forward.

Emphasis should be on display of national wildlife species, and not just mammal species, but also birds, reptiles, amphibians, etc.

For every species targeted to be kept, its customized, simulated natural habitat enclosure or housing should first be fully ready for occupancy, before the animals are acquired and brought to the zoo.

There are other, equally critical pre-conditions that a modern, responsible zoo today must meet, and these can be elaborated at a later time as required.

This writer is a wildlife conservation advocate, with hands-on experience of once establishing a privately-owned, modern, responsible zoo, with ticketed entry for the general public. This zoo, the Jungle Kingdom, was established inside Ayub Park Rawalpindi. It had a limited collection of wildlife species, but all were housed in simulated natural habitat enclosures, custom-built to suit the physical, psychological and behavioural needs of the species kept.

Modern, responsible and well-respected zoos exist in countries all over the world, with most countries having a national zoo in their capital cities. A national zoo in the federal capital city is a major symbol of pride for the country. It is a national asset which conveys vitally important messages to both national and international audiences about the country’s commitment to wildlife and nature conservation, and of the existence of wide public awareness of critical environmental issues. It contributes directly to the conservation of national species, many of which are endangered.

It is apparent that neither the CDA nor the Ministry of Climate Change has the knowledge or even the passionate commitment required to establish and operate a zoo in the Capital we all can be proud of. This much has also been recognized by the Islamabad High Court during its recent hearings on the poor treatment of Islamabad zoo animals. The way forward proposed therefore is to transfer the zoo completely to an NGO to be established for the purpose of completely redesigning, master planning, establishing and operating the Islamabad zoo. The government must of course provide the funds needed for this purpose, at least to the point of establishing the zoo.

Once a knowledge-based master plan has been formulated, the collection (species to be kept) decided and the enclosures made ready, the acquisition of the species can be started off, following the mandatory rules earlier stated. There are many ways by which the animals can be obtained through donations and sponsorships. Similarly, there are different ways in which operational costs can be met; through corporate sponsorships for example, which are fairly common across the world, and there is no reason why one should not be able to secure corporate support for the Islamabad zoo as well, provided a high-quality facility is established.

Can we hope someone in the government will consider all this, and take the right decisions for the future of the Islamabad zoo? Or is this hoping for too much?

Zohare Ali Shariff, "Rethinking the Islamabad zoo," The News. 2020-09-29.
Keywords: Behavioral sciences , Climate change , Islamabad zoo , Wildlife management , Advisory committee , Global zoos , Behavioral studies , Decision making , Public awareness , wildlife species , Psychological needs , National asset