Egyptian zoo revision plan raises fears for animal welfare

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The Giza Zoo is a popular attraction, but has been criticized for being substandard

A delighted Egyptian girl throws a handful of fish at the hungry sea lions after her father discreetly hands over a few coins to a keeper at the Giza Zoo.

Nearby, visitors can also feed sweet potatoes to a camel or hay to zebras, or have keepers poke a caged lion for a selfie.

The historic zoo was the first in the region and was once a symbol of Egypt’s modernity. But the practices – which according to experts are rooted in the 1950s – and the principles are in urgent need of renewal.

Yet a recent government announcement that the doors will be closed for a year to make improvements has been met with skepticism from both the public and animal welfare groups.

“My kids love the zoo. We come here on weekends and holidays,” says Ahmed Ibrahim, a father of four, as he sits on a rug by the pelican pond with his family.

Lion enclosure at the Giza Zoo

Enclosures need to be updated and enlarged

Chimpanzee and zookeeper

Chimpanzee and zookeeper

The factory worker, who earns just under $100 (£82) a month, has little money left over for leisure activities and fears the zoo will now become unaffordable. Like millions of Egyptians, he has been hit by skyrocketing prices and the latest currency devaluation.

“At the moment the ticket costs five [Egyptian] pounds ($0.20; £0.16) and the kids go free. How much will it be after the new development?” Ahmed wonders.

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Bad conditions

For the renovation, Egypt’s agriculture ministry is handing over responsibility for the 80-acre zoo and gardens to a military-run company and United Arab Emirates-based consultancy.

In return, they get the right to the profits made over the next 25 years.

Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi says the project will “develop the zoo to become comparable to its world-class peers.”

He has previously complained about the site, saying it represents “the level of negligence and shortcomings” in the country.

A stay at the Giza Zoo

The zoo is outdated compared to more modern types

Bad conditions — including elephants tied to short chains, a giraffe so depressed he killed himself, and monkeys wooed by children — have drawn negative attention in recent years. The zoo has long since lost membership in the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (Waza).

Nowadays goalkeepers still have no training and are poorly paid. Many withhold animal food until visitors pay for it and will harass caged creatures to make them roar or perform tricks in exchange for tips.

‘Lack of transparency’

One of the many reforms promised is to replace the Victorian-style cell-like cages for lions and bears with open spaces.

Animal rights advocates are concerned, however. They complain that plans for the zoo are not transparent and do not prioritize the welfare of the animals kept there, including some endangered species.

“The zoo is too small to build open spaces,” says veteran activist Dina Zulfikar. “Officials talk about the zoo as an entertainment center rather than a zoo. The real goals of modern zoos are completely overlooked.”

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Ms. Zulfikar has previously successfully campaigned for zoo improvements such as fans and a cooling system for the bear exhibit.

Geese at the Giza Zoo

It is not known if and how the animals will be moved during the construction work

Deer in enclosure

Deer in enclosure

Now it is not clear how many animals will be kept or even how they will be transferred to new enclosures.

“Starting construction on site while the animals are still in cages is a kind of terrorism for the approximately 3,000 animals kept at the zoo,” said Ms. Zulfikar. She thinks they should be moved to a new location with more spacious quarters.

First class real estate

Giza Zoo was first opened in 1891 by the then ruler of Egypt, Ismail Pasha, who once said that he aspired to make his country part of Europe, as well as Africa.

It had exotic plants and rare animals, as well as prized architectural features, such as a mini-suspension bridge by Gustave Eiffel, designed ten years before the construction of his famous Eiffel Tower.

Now one of Greater Cairo’s few green areas, it is also valuable real estate in an expensive neighborhood, opposite a luxury hotel and shopping mall and close to the west bank of the Nile.

It has long been rumored that Egypt’s cash-strapped government wanted to sell the zoo to foreign investors, particularly from the UAE.

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Over the past year, Gulf buyers, including sovereign wealth funds, have acquired many Egyptian state assets in deals worth billions of US dollars. But the government denied these rumors as “baseless”.

Construction near the Giza Zoo

Building on green spaces in Cairo has made them scarce

A number of recent redevelopments have also seen green spaces leveled and trees uprooted in favor of the construction of cafes and restaurants. That has led some to question whether the zoo’s modernization will protect the environment.

The Egyptian government has reacted angrily to such media criticism, with officials insisting that “not a single tree will be cut down” in this case.

Shadow of his past

During Egyptian holidays, the Giza Zoo is often teeming with so many people that they can easily be 10 times larger than the animals.

But on a recent day, the zoo’s well-trodden paths were already eerily quiet, with some areas already closed off to visitors.

A despondent zookeeper – who did not give his name but said he had worked at the site for 18 years – told the TBEN it was not clear whether he and his colleagues would keep their jobs.

“The animals are my friends,” he said. “I will be so sad not to work with them anymore if they decide to lay off the staff.”

For generations, the Giza Zoo has been regarded as a place of wonders. But it also evokes more and more horror and becomes a prominent symbol of past glory.

While many have longed for an expensive modernization, there are fears that the new plans will overlook the poorer Egyptians and the huge variety of animals – from big cats to gerbils – in desperate need of better care.