The fate of a teenage zoo elephant in Pakistan was tragic — and a symbol of much more
KARACHI – Noor Jehan, the African bush elephant, should have been in her prime. She was just a teenager, about 17. But a mysterious incident left her painfully dragging about on her two front legs. The zoo neglected to help her until animal rights activists raised the alarm on social media. Then, in mid-April, she fell into a concrete pool in her dusty enclosure. She had to be winched out with a crane and could no longer stand independently. Zookeepers laid Noor Jehan on a mound of sand beneath the only tree in her enclosure.
"We are all absolutely heartbroken," said Mahera Omar, cofounder of the Pakistan Animal Welfare Society, which dispatched volunteers and local vets to bolster Noor Jehan's care, overseen by the Austrian-based animal charity, Four Paws International. "We are trying to do our best to keep her comfortable." Volunteer Jude Allen urged the elephant to eat stalks of sugar cane. "Good girl," he crooned, "You can do it."
Noor Jehan's tragedy captivated Pakistan, with journalists delivering rapid-fire updates. In her enclosure – roughly the size of four tennis courts, a section was lopped off with rope to accommodate the some dozen television news cameras that trained on her for days.
And for some, the elephant's plight became something more. "Noor Jehan has become a symbol for the state of our own country" says Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a conservationist with an outsize profile as the grandson and nephew of two of Pakistan's most beloved prime ministers. He was volunteering to bathe and feed Noor Jehan on a recent day. "She has been caged, starved, abused, exploited. And this is the state of Pakistan."
Despite the last-ditch efforts to save her, the elephant died on April 22.
Poached from the wild, popular in Pakistan
Noor Jehan was always big news.
When she first arrived at the zoo as a plump toddler, nearly 15 years ago, Pakistanis flocked to see her. To add to her allure, zoo officials named her after the beloved Pakistani diva Noor Jehan.
But activists say her life has been anything but glamorous. She arrived to Karachi after a Pakistani poacher captured her from her herd in Tanzania, along with three other baby elephants. Her new home was an enclosure at the crumbling Karachi Zoo, near a busy road.
Elephants live in matriarchal herds, and in the wild, female elephants stay close to their mothers their whole lives. But Noor Jehan's only company has been a fellow captive female elephant, Madhubala.
Omar, of the Pakistan Animal Welfare Society, gestured to the concrete shed where the two used to sleep. For years, they were shackled while they slept – it's unclear why, Omar said. "I don't know how one can sleep if you know your three legs are chained – two in the front, one in the back."
It's not just the elephants that suffer at the zoo. On a recent spring day, boys chipped off cobblestones to hurl at a crocodile huddled in a concrete pool. Others threw chips and chocolate at baboons in a tiny enclosure, gleefully watching them gobble them up. A gorilla sat quietly in another cage, entirely alone.
The zoo's current director, Kanwar Ayub, told NPR he couldn't comment on Noor Jehan's neglect, her living conditions or even that of other zoo animals, as he had only been appointed to manage the institution in early April. Since then, he told NPR, he was dealing with Noor Jehan's decline. Local media reported he was appointed in the wake of the previous director's dismissal for negligence after several zoo animals died and Noor Jehan's mysterious injuries went untreated.
A discussion of animal — and human — neglect
"I regret to say this, but I think Noor Jehan can only find peace when she dies," said Pakistani singer Natasha Baig in an Instagram story republished in the Pakistani daily, The Express Tribune. "Pakistan is truly incapable of showing mercy to animals," she continued. "Noor Jehan's story also raises the question of whether countries like Pakistan are even capable of operating zoos," wrote local publication, Global Village Space.
Activists hope the conversation will continue, because they say, the situation is dire for Pakistan's animals.
"What I have seen in Pakistan as far as animal abuse goes, I have never seen in any other country," says Ayesha Chundrigar, founder of the Pakistani charity, ACF Animal Rescue, which rescues about 20 animals a day, ranging from tortured stray cats and dogs, a donkey forced to swallow acid and a monkey whose arm flesh was burnt off, leaving only a bone.
Chundrigar spoke to NPR on a recent day in the working-class district of Korangi, where she was overseeing a medical camp for donkeys who cart heavy loads, like scrap metal across the city. It is the only welfare check available for Pakistan's thousands of work donkeys. "There's this notion that violence toward vulnerable living beings in Pakistan is considered to be" — the former psychotherapist fished for the word — "asserting dominance."
Others have made a connection between animal abuse and the broader plight of Pakistan's downtrodden. "Time and time again this country fails the vulnerable," wrote Alia Chughtai, a journalist and social commentator in Karachi, on Twitter. "You could be a woman, child or animal. No one cares enough. But please carry on fighting on TV shows," she tweeted, referring to political deadlock in Pakistan which has unraveled the economy and pushed food prices into hyper-inflationary territory, sending millions into hunger.
Chughtai is not the only one who has been reflecting on the parallels.
Back in Noor Jehan's enclosure, the conservationist, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, tells NPR that he can't stop thinking about an incident in March where hundreds of people, just a few miles from the Karachi Zoo, rushed into a factory complex where managers were distributing free food. As they jostled, 16 women and children were killed in a stampede. "The animals in this zoo are part of this system. It's an interconnected system," he says. "I think as a nation, we need to understand that if animals are not living a dignified life, it translates into also how we see other human beings."
Days after I visited Noor Jehan, on April 22, she developed a raging fever and died.
Her demise has put pressure on zoo officials, who promised to speedily shift her enclosure mate, the elephant Madhubala, to the nearby Karachi Safari Park, where she will have more space to roam. The provincial government ordered an investigation into zoo conditions.
Calls for kindness toward animals
There have been other recent measures to reform animal welfare.
Last June, Pakistan's federal government banned live animal testing in the capital Islamabad, and included animal rights in the school curriculum, said Salman Sufi, the head of the strategic reforms unit at the prime minister's office.
"I am a strong believer of having no zoos at all," said Sufi, a prominent progressive. But he said it needed to be an incremental process.
International attention has helped move things along in the past – like when the entertainer Cher advocated for the release of a lonely elephant who lived in the Islamabad Zoo. A local lawyer took up the case on behalf of the international welfare group Four Paws. In the end, the Islamabad High Court ordered the elephant, Kaarvan, to be shifted to a sanctuary — and the zoo to shutter.
Sufi said international attention on Pakistan following Noor Jehan's plight certainly added pressure. "But mostly, this is being down for our own conscience," Sufi said. "If our generation has not done what it should have, at least our future generation can be kinder toward animals than we were."
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