Struggling to Save Baghdad Zoo Animals

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Although WildAid's focus is on conservation of animals in the wild, the organization sponsors rescue centers for animals that have been saved from poachers but are injured or too young to be immediately released back into the wild. The organization also has considerable expertise working in war-torn countries.

"Wherever there are people, our policy is to work with the people as well as the animals," said Bognar. "In Cambodia where we have a rescue operation, we're training the local people to be sustainable farmers, teaching the women alternative economic endeavors. Even though this is a zoo, we still have the same system."

Bognar's first priority upon reaching Baghdad was to set up a version of WildAid's Surviving Together program.

His first move was to offer returning zookeepers a U.S. $10-a-month salary supplement.

""The biggest challenge was to provide immediate relief to these guys. In a place where teachers earn $3 a month, $10 makes a difference," said Bognar. "Within four days, 95 percent of the zookeepers had returned. We also started providing meals everyday because we weren't sure they were getting enough to eat at home."

Getting the animal enclosures cleaned and repaired, caring for the animals, trying to round up missing animals, and working with the military to fend off looters were all important tasks, but paled in comparison to the necessity of finding food.

"The biggest challenge was to secure a food supply," he said. "We'd sometimes have to travel 100 kilometers (60 miles) to secure donkeys; we needed about two donkeys a day. We could get bones in the market, and some days we found frozen meat; there was a lot of buffalo meat imported from India, but it was quite costly. It was easier and less expensive to get donkeys. Since the giraffes had been eaten, we kept the donkeys in the giraffe enclosure."

Pride of Lions

The future fate of the animals has been the focus of much discussion.

"The question of how many animals stay on site, and how many should be moved, if any, is really difficult," said David Jones, director of the North Carolina Zoo and of the Baghdad Zoo relief fund being coordinated by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA). "The case of the ancient brown bear, blinded with cataracts, is not controversial at all; she could clearly benefit from advanced medical treatment."

Arrangements are being made by Barbara Maas with Care for the Wild, an animal welfare organization based in the United Kingdom, to transfer the brown bear to Greece, where she will also get a cataract operation.

But there has been considerable discussion about the fate of the lions.

"There are 19 large cats, each of which requires over 10 pounds (about 5 kilograms) of food a day," said Bognar. "That's too large a number, too costly, for any zoo to handle. We're trying to get them foreign passports, so to speak."

A consensus seems to be forming among Iraqi officials, and members of an international coalition of animal welfare and zoo officials that has formed to provide aid to the zoo, said Jones.

"There are good arguments to take out some of those animals, and there are places already lined up to take them," he said. "Certainly let the lioness and her six cubs go, and also a couple of one-year-olds, for whom there is a home in southern Africa." (Read the story about plans to relocate the lions to a South African sanctuary.)

Rebuilding a Zoo for the 21st Century

The real question is what is the zoo's long-term future?

Despite having been remodeled, the zoo was a curious mixture of old and new.

"We can do some wonderful things, repairing and improving, but there were some inadequacies," said Bognar. "They had built a new bear enclosure that had showers and [a] cold swimming pool. But the giraffe enclosure wasn't warm enough; the animals wouldn't have survived Iraq's winter. A lot of areas are still very primitive in design: cement floors, cages that have bars, and resemble cell blocks. And the people know very little about basic animal husbandry techniques."

A relief fund established for the animals at the Baghdad zoo and animals from four other collections around the city is being coordinated by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA). So far U.S. $77,000 has been collected.

"It's really touching that so many people want to help," said Jane Ballentine, spokesperson for the AZA. "And that amount of money goes so much farther in the Middle East."

Other members of the coalition include the International Fund for Animal Welfare, WildAid, the World Society for the Protection of Animals, and Lawrence Anthony, who has been in Baghdad working alongside Bognar and is director of the Thula Thula Reserve in South Africa.

"We faced a quite similar situation in Kabul after the war in Afghanistan," said Jones. "There are typically three phases—immediate emergency, stabilization and long-term care of the surviving animals. Right now the situation has been stabilized. I think we need to give the Iraqis time to decide how they want to allocate their resources, and to what extent they want to rebuild."

Bognar remains concerned about the here and now.

"While Lawrence [Anthony] and I were there, WildAid was the only organization providing money and practical assistance," he said. "Barbara Maas with Care for the Wild came in for five days and brought food, for which we were very grateful. But the situation there is still critical. Assessments about the long term future are fine, but we also need money now."

More Iraq Stories from National Geographic News
Ancient Assyrian Treasures Believed Found in Baghdad
Lost Iraq Treasures: Rare Geographic Photos
National Geographic News: Iraq
Bird Teams Flock to Iraq to Survey War's Impact
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Iraq's Eden: Reviving the Legendary Marshes
Hunt for Stolen Iraqi Antiquities Moves to Cyberspace
Uniting Iraq's Disparate Cultures a Challenge, Experts Say
Baghdad Zoo Animals to Get Help From U.S. Zoos
Iraq: The State of the Postwar Environment
Humanitarian Crisis Looming for Iraq, Aid Workers Warn
National Geographic TV Reporter Embedded in Iraq
Dogs of War: Inside the U.S. Military's Canine Corps
Iraq Conflict: Following the "Laws of War"?
Dolphins Deployed as Undersea Agents in Iraq
Geography Shapes Nature of War in Iraq
Iraq War Threatens Ancient Treasures
Photographer Tells of Iraqi Kurds "In Agony"
Iraq Expert Predicts "Problems of Control"

More National Geographic Iraq resources:
Hot Spot: Iraq
History and Culture Guide
Maps and Geography

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