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Unbearable cruelty: Karachi zoo’s sole bear is exhausted and alone

Case filed in Sindh High Court for bear’s relocation

SAMAA | - Posted: Nov 9, 2020 | Last Updated: 4 months ago
SAMAA |
Posted: Nov 9, 2020 | Last Updated: 4 months ago

In Cage 77 at the Karachi Zoo sits a 20-year-old Syrian brown bear named Rano. The sole resident of her concrete enclosure, she gazes at the children with longing from behind its metal bars.

Last month, a number of animal rights activists from Karachi filed a petition in the Sindh High Court against keeping Rano at the zoo after a video of the animal thirsty and exhausted went viral on social media.

Rano’s enclosure is located at the far end of the zoo. To reach it, you need to climb a number of stairs, wind your way around tree trunks and piles of fallen leaves. At first sight, Rano looks like any other animal locked up. But on closer inspection, you can see her heavily panting and heaving. If you stay a little longer, you’d also see her roaming in circles, which as experts will tell you, can be a sign of distress.

According to her caretaker Ramu, Rano is fed once a day between 12pm and 1pm. Her diet comprises fruit, milk and white bread. In the winter, dates are added to her diet. After the court’s order, ice slabs and an air conditioner were placed inside the enclosure to prevent her from getting dehydrated.

In one of the hollow concrete slabs inside the cage there is water where the bear bathes herself. From behind the cage's bars, the water looks green and gives off a faint stench.

“A vet visits the enclosure every day for regular checkups and any change in her behavior is noted,” the caretaker told SAMAA Digital. He has been working at the zoo for over 20 years.

“Before joining the zoo I used to wash cars,” he said, adding that he only received basic wildlife training before he began working.

SAMAA Digital reached out to the administration of the zoo but they refused to comment on the matter as it has been taken to court.

Expert opinion

Society for the Protection of Animal Rights President Zain Mustafa pointed out that one doesn’t need to be a captive wildlife expert to observe Rano's condition. Anyone who has looked at her will agree that there’s something wrong.

“She is a sentient being like us, all alone in a small concrete pit,” he told SAMAA Digital. “That is the same as solitary confinement for serious criminals.”

But Rano, Mustafa emphasised, is innocent. “She has committed no crime. She is lonely, bored and therefore most likely depressed,” he said, adding that this is one of the reasons why she is walking in circles on a concrete floor looking at concrete walls with no stimulation.

“None of her natural instincts and needs for good quality of life are being given to her.”

Internationally, it's considered torture to put a human in solitary confinement for more than 15 days. The most restrictive form of confinement prohibits any outdoor access until after 30 days, and then only for two hours twice during a 30-day period. The United Nations considers solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days.

Rano has been kept in confinement not for days, but months.

Mustafa said that feeding the bear is equivalent to just keeping her alive.

“Being looked after requires a lot more attention to her daily activity, natural habitat, space and company.”

Rano had been previously living with a black bear who died during the coronavirus lockdown, Ramu said.

Syrian brown bears have been declared endangered and their habitats are widely protected to help rebuild their population.

Pakistan Wildlife Foundation spokesperson and wildlife expert Safwan Shahab Ahmed explained that these bears can live in the climate of the Middle East and Central Middle East. These include areas such as Syria and Jordan. The climate that best suits the bears is dry.

“The home range of Syrian bears are cold and barren lands,” he said, pointing out that the humid temperature of Karachi was not suitable for her.

The second concern Ahmed raised was that bears, as a species, are very territorial and usually mark an area between 400 and 4,000 kilometres for themselves. “Every day, the bear travels over 70 to 100 kilometres in search of food in this territory.

“Keeping a bear in a small enclosure like the one at the zoo itself is a huge brutality,” the expert emphasised. Another important factor Ahmed pointed out was that bears live in meadows, forests or grasslands. “The cage where Rano lives is just concrete floors and walls. There isn’t an inch of greenery or soil inside it,” he said.

Ahmed said that if animals are kept at zoos, the least they deserve is a home that is similar to their natural habitat. “When this does not happen, the animals are affected both physically and psychologically. This is also the case with Rano. The walking in circles is a sign that she’s mentally disturbed.”

He added that installing an air conditioner in the bear’s cage was not sufficient. “A bear has 1.5 kilogrammes of fat on its body which acts as an insulator during the winter. Do you think an air cooler will be sufficient for her?” he asked.

A history of mistreatment

In the past year, a number of incidents have taken place in Pakistan where animals have suffered at the hands of zoo managers. Two such cases are that of Kaavan and the two lions that died at Islamabad’s Marghazar Zoo.

Kaavan is a 36-year-old extinct-breed Asiatic elephant that the Sri Lankan government gifted to Pakistan in 1985. The animal is being kept at Islamabad’s Marghazar Zoo where he has been alone in his enclosure since 2012 when his female companion, Saheli, died at 22.

An online petition garnered over 200,000 signatures after it emerged he was being chained, suffering from mental illnesses, and will have a bleak future without a better habitat even if a new mate arrives.

On May 22, Islamabad High Court Chief Justice Athar Minallah ordered wildlife officials to consult Sri Lanka to find Kaavan a “suitable sanctuary”.

Later in August 2020, a pair of lions died while being transferred from the Marghazar Zoo to a farmhouse in Lahore on the May 22 orders of the Islamabad High Court. The deaths were reportedly due to the negligence of the caretakers. After repeated complaints, the court ordered that the 878 other animals at the zoo have to be relocated.

In a similar case, the court had transferred two bears to the Balkasar Bear Sanctuary in Chakwal after a petition was filed in the court regarding the deteriorating health of the bears at the zoo. The bears were later shifted to an international sanctuary.

The case

A total of 38 people signed a petition filed in the Sindh High Court by Barrister Mohsin Shahwani on October 1, 2020 against keeping Rano at the Karachi Zoo.

The petitioners said that Rano is being kept in a very small enclosure, away from her family. “The bear is not fed on time, neither are its other needs looked out for,” Shahwani said.

The petitioner demanded that the bear be sent back to Skardu where its other family members are, adding that she is not native to Karachi and the city’s climate is not suitable for it.

“The condition of the Karachi Zoo is very bad and the place has become hazardous for animals living there,” Shahwani said, pointing out that the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation doesn’t have the funds or skilled workers to take care of animals.

He demanded that a two-member committee be formed to look into the condition of the zoo and suggest improvements in it. It will also make sure that animals are kept according to their natural habitat requirements.

“It is very important that these animals are tended to carefully. Even our religion doesn’t allow us to treat animals in a bad way,” the petitioner added.

In the next hearing of the case on October 5, the court instructed the KMC to install an air cooler or air conditioner inside Rano’s enclosure at the zoo within 48 hours.

The court expressed its anger over the appointment of just one doctor for all animals and has summoned the zoo’s budget and details of employees at the next hearing. It has also issued a notice to the secretary of the wildlife department.

Taking the petitioners’ suggestion, the court also formed a committee to look into the condition of the zoo and suggest improvements. It will also make sure that animals are kept according to their natural habitat requirements.

SPAR’s Mustafa, who is also on the committee formed by the court, said the team is closely overseeing the zoo’s performance and the condition of the bear. He personally believes that the bear should be relocated.

“We will do whatever we can for the well-being of the bear, even if it’s sending it to an international sanctuary,” he promised.

Additional reporting and photos by Abeer Mahar.

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