Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1169, (24 - 30 October 2013)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1169, (24 - 30 October 2013)

Ahram Weekly

All change at the zoo?

How have the animals in Cairo’s Giza Zoo been coping with the country’s changing circumstances, asks Mai Samih

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Al-Ahram Weekly

For more than a century now families have been visiting the Giza Zoo in Cairo, but the history of zoos in Egypt dates back to the ancient Egyptians and the reign of Queen Hatshepsut of the 18th Dynasty who sent a hunting crew to Somalia that came back with a number of monkeys, reptiles and giraffes and established a public garden for people to visit.
Fatma Tamam, today the manager of the country’s zoos, tells the story of the Giza Zoo. “In 1867, the Khedive Ismail decided to establish a zoo in Cairo, at first in Zamalek and then at what was then the Giza Palace, its current location, in Cairo. The resulting zoo was then opened to the public in 1891 by Ismail’s son the Khedive Tawfik.”
“Today, the zoo is famous for the Gabalaya Al-Alaa, a resthouse made of coral in which singer Abdel-Halim Hafez once sang, and the Geziret Al-Shay, or Tea Island, which has featured in many films. There is also the hanging bridge, built in 1901. The Zoo is 83 feddans in area, and it has some 166 species of animals, including some 70 species of mammals, 56 species of birds and 27 species of reptiles. The overall number of animals in the zoo is 5,295 — 2,913 birds, 1,616 reptiles and 736 mammals,” she said.
The zoo also contains species that are threatened in their native countries, such as Californian sea lions and rare trees like the Indian Bengali Fig and the American Mahogany. It became a member of the African Zoo Union in November 2008, and is now considered to be the largest zoo in the Middle East.  
Mohamed Fahim, a visitor to the zoo who had decided to spend the day with his wife and children there, expressed his dismay at some features of the facility, however. “I’m not happy because the water in the ponds is not clean, although there are fountains to avoid this, and there are some places in the zoo that are closed to visitors. You have to pay LE10 to see some parts of the zoo, which is too much as I’m here with my family, and if I use a camera I have to pay an additional LE30. There are also no cafés to sit in as a family,” he said.
Abeer Salah, who enjoys a trip to the zoo every once in a while, also had reservations. “There are hardly any signs to tell you where the animals are, so you barely know your way around. There should also be more attention paid to cleanliness, and some parts of the zoo have not been weeded,” she said.  
The main problem facing the zoo administration is Law 89 that only allows it to buy objects, not living animals, and prohibits it from buying or selling the ones that are there. In July 2012, animal rights groups also called for better living conditions for the animals in the zoo, though in November 2012 the Ministry of Agriculture, which has overall responsibility for the facility, decided to close the zoo to the public every Tuesday in order to help the workers to maintain it.
Amina Abaza, founding chair of the Society for the Protection of Animal Rights in Egypt (SPARE), said that many of the animals in the zoo were not well cared for. “The state of the animals in the zoo is catastrophic, and it has been like this for the last 13 years at least, ever since we founded the animal rights movement in Egypt. The animals are often hungry and are fed leftovers by visitors to the zoo, and some of the visitors even mistreat the animals, throwing things at them or poking at them with sticks.”
“There is very little proper hygiene, and there have been cases of renting some of the property out as rest houses and private institutions or the like. Where does all that money go that is supposed to pay for the upkeep of the zoo? These animals are government property and we should be told how public money is being spent.”
“However, the main concern must be the welfare of the animals. The Prophet Mohamed (pbuh) told us in his teachings that animals should be treated properly, almost like human beings. I believe that if things at the zoo do not improve soon, it will be better to close the zoo down altogether. After all, children can now watch animals anytime they like online, though this is not quite the same as seeing real animals in a zoo.”
Abaza also said that in her view some of the animals should be rehabilitated and released back into the wild. At the very least, the facility should be properly funded in order to cover the needs of the animals. “There have been incidents of damage to the zoo, when rare species of tree were cut down and replaced by potted plants, for example. There needs to be a reshuffle of the staff working in the zoo, with the current ones being replaced by experts. Looking after animals is a highly skilled job, and the current staff needs training.”
“We do not want to see any more cases of guards hitting the lions with sticks to make them roar, for example. Our society has gone to the zoo authorities on multiple occasions, offering them grants and the assistance of experts from other countries like the UK and India, both of which have offered to help us. However, in each case the authorities have refused,” Abaza said.
Nevertheless, Tamam argues against what she calls the “rumours” that have been circulating concerning the management of the zoo. “We have around 45 lions, for example, which is a very large number, and they cost a lot of money to feed and take care of properly. We have acted to stop them reproducing, so their number has now stabilised, but we still have an obligation to take in homeless animals from outside.”
“In recent months, Egypt’s borders have been open, especially the western ones, and as a result there has been an influx of animals. It can be difficult to tell where the animals come from. When we receive a report that someone has an animal that is not allowed to be kept in homes, like a lion, we immediately send experts from the zoo with the environmental department of the police force to examine the case,” she said, if necessary taking the animal into custody at the zoo.
Clearly, this can give rise to additional problems of space, as the zoo has very little room in which to house more animals.
There have also been rumours about security at the zoo, with the newspapers reporting in June 2012 that bombs had been found left on a bench at the facility. Tamam denied these rumours and said that the stories about the bombs were quite untrue. “The guards search those entering the zoo and those leaving it. We have rules that prohibit fireworks in the zoo. We also hired a security company a few months ago to take care of the zoo by day and throughout the night. In addition, we have set up extra fences around cages to prevent children from coming near the animals.”
Tamam also said that because of employment contracts at the zoo, the keepers had every incentive to take good care of their charges. “Some of the keepers pay more attention to the animals then they do to their own homes, as they are aware that if the animals die there will be no source of income for them. The government also gives us some LE7 million to feed the animals, so why should we starve them? People do not always recognise the good or bad condition of an animal, and the general public is sometimes not in the best position to judge.”
Tamam also said that the zoo had its own veterinary centre that was devoted to treating the animals.
However, the existence of such facilities has not stopped the spread of rumours, some of them quite outlandish. There was a rumour recently, for example, that three bears at the zoo had been given hypnotic drugs, had fallen into the water, and had drowned. “This is nonsense,” Tamam commented. “Why would anyone want to drug the bears? If we needed to transfer the bears or operate on them, we would put them to sleep one by one, not all three at once. Why should someone who has been working with the bears for 20 years suddenly want to kill them?”
“Such stories don’t make sense. Like I said, these bears are a source of income, and our job is to keep them alive and well. It seems that the origin of this rumour was when the bears died as a result of a fight. We are still investigating this incident, and a report will be issued to find out the reasons for their deaths.”
Tamam also denied the zoo’s responsibility for the cutting down of the trees outside. “These trees are the responsibility of the governorate. Of course, we were affected by them, as they were used by birds to build their nests. I was absolutely against cutting down the trees, as they were a source of oxygen and shade, among other things,” she said.
The zoo also employs many experts, and its staff is by no means made up of amateurs, Tamam said. “In 2010, six African Zoo Union trainers came to the zoo to train the keepers. We also attend the annual meeting of the union and at least two of our staff go to train at the union at least once a year. This year we also sent two keepers. Most of the employees here either have a MA degree or a certificate. In addition to this, the Ministry of Agriculture also trains the staff here in many fields, including in animal care and veterinary medicine.”
Tamam acknowledged that there had been some losses at the zoo during the closure of the Nahda sit-in nearby. “Some birds and tortoises died due to the tear gas that was used to disperse the protesters. We have also been making an annual loss of some LE1.5 million due to the decrease in the number of visitors. After the 25 January Revolution, the number of visitors slightly decreased because there were demonstrations in the area, especially on Fridays, and this also happened during the Rabaa Al-Adaweya and the Nahda sit-ins.”
“The animals were affected by the noise made by the nearby Nahda sit-in, and some of them suffered nervous shivering, like the chimpanzees and the elephants. The presence of people at night and the loud noises in the area disturbed the animals.”
To tackle some of these problems, Tamam has founded an environmental awareness centre at the zoo where booklets are distributed to raise the awareness of visitors and especially children on how to take care of the animals. “I always tell the visitors that this is your zoo, like your home, so do not destroy it,” she comments.
“The zoo was facing a lot of problems back in 2007, and when the new administration took over in 2008 we set out a plan for 2008 to 2013 and a large percentage of this was carried out. For example, the zoological museum was completed after this had been stopped in 1996 due to a problem with the companies carrying out the project. We have now finished the first phase, and we intend the building to be a natural history museum within the grounds. We have also managed to meet some of the more general needs of the zoo, like building a preparation room for the animals’ meals, and we have recently acquired three giraffes,” Tamam said.
Tamam acknowledged that times were difficult on the financial level for many people, though she defended the current ticket price at the zoo of LE5, describing this as comparing very favourably to what was charged in other countries. “Everything is expensive now, as the price of the dollar is high and we need to buy in the food needed for the animals, at a cost of some LE6.5 million per year. We have many expenses, such as for maintenance and feeding costs, and many members of our staff depend on the zoo’s revenues for their salaries.”
Tamam puts the solution to many of the facility’s problems in a nutshell. “We need a law to monitor the companies providing food for the zoo, because if they come late, or do not send the food, we are not allowed to buy in the food ourselves, sometimes at a cost of LE60,000 per day,” she said.

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