Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 March - 2 April 2008
Issue No. 890
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A view from the top

Planners at the Giza Zoo are busy restoring the oldest zoo in the region to its former splendour, notably the caves in the newly renovated citadel hills, writes Dena Rashed

Click to view caption
Clockwise from above: Sedki with many plans ahead; the hall of the citadel hills; palms, lakes and corals all make the hills a unique refuge

The clamour of the streets surrounding the Giza Zoo in Cairo and the voices of the thousands of visitors who each day visit it disappear once one enters the historic citadel hills, also known as the royal hills, at the zoo's heart. These artificial hills, built in 1867, have now been renovated and reopened to the public, allowing a respite from the maddening noise outside. Their newly renovated condition is a sign of things to come and part of an ambitious scheme to restore the zoo's international standing after years of neglect.

The Giza Zoo, originally opened to the public in 1891, developed over the later decades of the 19th century from being the gardens of the Khedive Ismail to a major public park and attraction for Egyptians of all classes. The uniqueness of the zoo lay not only in its possession of rare animal species and plants, but also in its lay-out and design. Gustave Eiffel, the engineer behind the Eiffel Tower in Paris, built a metal suspension bridge in the grounds that allows visitors a view of the animals from the top of artificial hills. The old fences, pathways, lakes and many of the original animal houses also reflect the dedication put into the original design of the zoo.

Built of brick, the citadel hills, the most striking remaining feature of the khedive's original design, were cleverly covered with corals, petrified wood and stone from the Egyptian desert in order to create picturesque artificial hills like those pioneered in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont in Paris. The narrow entrance to the caves in the hills manages to hide their artificial design and setting, and a path decorated with coloured mosaics and surrounded with large palm trees and cactuses leads to a plateau near their top, from where paths twist upwards to allow a grand view from the top itself.

In the caves inside, water flows among the corals and leads to a small artificial waterfall. The place is decorated with statues of reptiles, birds and the extinct Egyptian Fayoum rhinoceros.

After years of closure, the citadel hills have now been reopened to the public, though at the comparatively high entrance fee of LE30. Before their renovation, "trees had grown to cover the hills, weeds had covered the rare plants, and even the pipes feeding the streams were old and leaking," Nabil Sedki, superintendent of the Cairo Zoological Gardens, a department of the Ministry of Agriculture, told the Weekly.

He also announced that the renovation of the hills had been financed from the limited resources of the zoo. "We depended on our own workers and gardeners to bring back this gem, and we succeeded in doing this in just four months," he says.

The reception given to the renovated hills has been just as enthusiastic from members of the public and from Cairo's civil society organisations. For Mahi Noureddin of the Egyptian Association for Serving Society and the Environment, for example, the reopening of the citadel hills reinforces the idea that the zoo is not just about animals. Instead, "it is also a cultural centre comprising some amazing gardens. It is a piece of our heritage that needs preservation."

For architect Salah Zaki of the Friends of Historical and Public Gardens Society, 90 per cent of the renovation work carried out on the hills has met the original standards. While white marble should not have been used in the renovation work, since it is not part of the original design, "most of the restoration has been carried out to a very high standard," he says.

Despite being a perfect place to share secrets, due to the surrounding quiet and the cool, airy design, the caves were also designed to magnify the voices of people inside, so on a recent visit it was not difficult to hear people sharing memories of visiting the caves years, or even decades, ago. Some felt that the place had revived their youth, while others remembered scenes from films that had used the caves and the hills above them as sets.

However, the new entrance fee probably will not allow many young people living on limited resources to live out the kind of moments that their parents or grandparents enjoyed.

The fee has been set comparatively high because the caves need to be protected from being swamped by visitors. Thousands of families visit the zoo every day, sometimes as many as 10,000 visitors per day, and as a result preserving the caves, the hills above them, and the many rare plants these host from too many tramping feet has become one of the zoo's priorities.

Schoolgirls interviewed by the Weekly on a recent visit were astonished to find that the zoo hosted the caves in the first place. This was their first visit to the zoo, and the group already had plans for further visits. "We would really like to know more about the heritage of the zoo," said Maha Sabri, 16, while her friend, Iman Allam, hoped that more information on the animals could be given. "A guide who could tour the zoo with us would also be great," she said.

The zoo is particularly popular among schoolchildren, who gather round the cages of the animals in excitement. Groups of boys walk around with stereos or drums, sometimes disturbing visitors and animals. Indeed, according to Mahi Noureddin raising visitors' awareness of the animals is essential if young people are to learn more about their heritage, and this means learning to respect the animals' needs.

Yet, there are also other problems that need to be solved if the zoo is to flourish, some of them raised last August in an interview with Nabil Sedki in the Weekly, during which he candidly discussed the zoo's problems. One of his main tasks, he explained, was to reactivate Egypt's membership of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) and of the African Association of Zoos and Aquaria (PAAZAB), which had somehow been allowed to lapse.

WAZA aims to provide technical support for the world's zoos and aquariums as part of its mission to ensure animal welfare, while PAAZAB promotes similar values on the regional level. Reactivating Egyptian membership in both associations would mean that the Giza Zoo could connect more easily with other zoos all over the world, as well as in Africa.

Sedki told the Weekly that WAZA had inspected the Giza Zoo in 2003 and had drawn up a list of 14 main recommendations for improvements, bringing the zoo up to international standards. Declining standards at the zoo had meant that WAZA had been reluctant to endorse the facility, but another reason why the zoo had lost its membership was due to the fact that membership payments had not been made. As a result the Giza Zoo, once highly ranked internationally, had lost its connections with regional and international zoo bodies.

Sedki, accompanied by his team and by a number of Egyptian animal-rights groups, has dedicated efforts to restoring the zoo to its former standards, and thus to regaining its pre-eminent regional position. "They know that we are serious and that we are trying to develop the zoo, and we have received good responses from both associations," Sedki said.

Meeting Sedki again eight months later in the gardens of his office at the zoo after he has shown guests and ministry officials around the newly restored citadel hills, he explains that the zoo is now meeting with representatives of Egyptian animal rights groups to discuss future plans.

The zoo has recently opened a new IT section as part of its renovation plans. It had not previously had such a facility, but, supervised by Mona Sadek, this is essential if the animals are to be properly recorded to international standards, giving each its own identification, history and medical record.

"This system will allow the zoo to build coherent statistics of the animals, allowing it to plan for future needs," Sadek says. Although Sedki is pleased at the opening of the new section, he is anxious that the media will be critical and "say that the zoo has been happy to introduce IT, but has somehow forgotten about the problems of the animals."

These problems came to a head last year when the animals made the headlines after two Moroccan camels were slaughtered and a number of other animals also died, among them the single remaining giraffe. The slaughter of the camels was particularly traumatic, and the incident reflected wider problems at the zoo, as well as the facility's lack of security, and drew public attention to animal welfare at the zoo.

While the renovation of the citadel hills and the introduction of a new IT system are encouraging steps, as are the willingness of the charitable sector to get more involved in management issues and the zoo's own determination to rejoin the international zoo associations, the institution's difficulties are intertwined and they may take time to remedy. While entry has been increased from PT25 to LE1, the zoo still needs increased funds to function properly, and there are pressing problems crying out for solutions.

Despite the insistance of Sedki that WAZA and PAAZAB are both aware of the plans in the zoo, Silivia Geser of WAZA executive office in Switzerland told the Weekly that they don't have knowledge of any improvements made since the zoo left the association and don't know of any future cooperation between Giza Zoo and other organisations and NGOs. "The fact is that we hardly had any contact with Giza Zoo in the last few years and that we don't know how the situation is at the moment and/or if something has been made to improve the condition in the zoo," said Geser.

On the other hand Dave Morgan, the director of PAAZAB also told the Weekly that "no Egyptian zoo has ever applied for membership to the association. Consequent to this PAAZAB personnel have not conducted site inspections or visitations to any Egyptian zoo at this time."

According to Dina Zulficar, coordinator of the Animal Welfare Awareness Research group (AWAR), "people have been asking for a new giraffe for the zoo, but first there are more serious problems concerning the upgrading of the living conditions of the animals." The Giza Zoo currently hosts more than 2,000 mammals, 4,000 birds and almost 800 reptiles, yet many of these are not well-housed, and Zulficar believes that building a new house for the chimps is an emergency.

"Their living conditions are very poor, even placing their lives at risk, and we are doing our best to coordinate efforts to get them better accommodation," she says.

AWAR represents six civil society organisations that have joined together to form a consortium to help the zoo, and this has been joined by individuals who support animal rights and care about revitalising the zoo. The group has addressed issues such as the rising numbers of animals at the zoo, even though the space available is not increasing. When animals are confiscated from smugglers, for example, they are often sent to begin new lives at the Giza Zoo, but this can pose problems because many of the houses are not designed for such large numbers.

Commenting on the situation, Zulficar says that AWAR's next plan is to organise a fund-raising event to benefit the zoo and to establish an endowment for it. "Egypt has many millionaires, even billionaires, and there are businessmen who would definitely be interested in helping to finance the zoo," she says. "For example, an IT business tycoon has agreed to finance the zoo's forthcoming website."

She explains that the association plans to ask donors not so much to donate money that will then be added to the zoo's general funds, but rather to encourage them to fund a particular project.

Amira El-Abiad, who is also concerned about the condition of the animals, believes that many of them, like the chimps, are under stress due to the small spaces allocated to them and the noise and harassment coming from some members of the public. Zulficar also points out that the polar bears need special attention because of the increasingly hot weather.

The animals require better housing, El-Abiad says, "yet we should also try to ensure that the zoo meets international standards and maintains its membership in international groups, allowing it to broaden its horizons."

However, meeting international standards, after years of falling behind, may be a tough job. "While the government is calling on civil society and NGOs to play a role in the development of society in general, I believe that it should also encourage individuals to take action," Zulficar says. "This could start with appointing the right people in the right places, which has only been recently implemented at the zoo."

Both Zulficar and El-Abiad are pleased that Sedki, representing officialdom, has been open to their suggestions. Both stress that in order to upgrade the zoo and preserve the lives of the animals, there is a need to restore the zoo's international standing.

As for Sedki, his plate is very full, since in addition to his work at the Giza Zoo he also has workshops to plan for the veterinaries of the zoo, coordination to become a member of WAZA and PAAZAB, and involvement in the fight against the illegal smuggling of animals.

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