With spring in the air and summer at our doorstep, the outdoors have a charm all of their own. Among the most popular outing for Cairenes is the famous Giza Zoo which has been recently undergoing much-needed changes
The Zoological Garden in Giza, known to everyone as the Giza Zoo, is the largest and oldest zoo in Egypt and the Middle East. The brainchild of Khedive Ismail who ruled Egypt from 1863 to 1879, the zoo was nevertheless built during the reign of his successor Khedive Tewfik and opened on 1 March 1891. The 80-feddan zoo is located on the west bank of the Nile in Giza, southwest Cairo and includes many rare trees and plants, streams, ponds and bridges, including a one-of-a-kind suspended bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel. It also contains a five-mound gabalaya—literally a hilly, rocky terrain—planted with cacti to simulate the habitat of some of the zoo animals.
In 1900 the running costs of the zoo were recorded as EGP1,600. Its first director was Captain Stanley S. Flower, who held this post until 1924. Today the zoo is a research facility where animal behaviour is studied and where breeding programmes for endangered species are conducted.
The Giza Zoo attracts a huge, growing number of visitors every year. In 1899, the number of visitors amounted to 43,000; in 2007 that number reached 3.4 million; on Monday 17 April 2017, the spring feast of Shamm al-Nessim, the zoo hosted some 73,000 visitors.
Sadly, many of the African species for whom the Giza Zoo is home are now either endangered or near-extinction; these include Barbary sheep, Nubian ibex, Egyptian gazelles and herons. It was thus with pride and joy that the zoo posted two pictures in December 2016 of newborn Egyptian gazelles, a female and a male. Several other births have also taken place and continue to come, even though some species have ceased to breed at the zoo.
Watani visited the Giza Zoo and met Muhammad Ragaii, Under-Secretary of State and Head of the Central Zoos and Wildlife Conservation Authority. Dr Ragaii courteously guided us through a tour of the zoo, and told us about the renovations recently made to the facility.
There is talk that the Giza Zoo will move to a remote location. Is this true?
No, it is not; the Giza Zoo will remain where it is. It was built in 1891 and is now a historical and heritage landmark. Many of the zoo buildings are listed as historical monuments. These include the administrative building, the royal ‘grotto’, the marble ‘grotto’, the tea island, the Japanese pagoda and a set of columns known as Haramlek Palace, as well as the main entrance and the garden’s fencing wall.
If so, should not the zoo be supervised by the Ministry of Antiquities?
The zoo garden with its trees and plants is affiliated to the Ministry of Agriculture; the animals, the veterinary staff and the keepers are affiliated to the Ministry’s General Authority for Veterinary Services. Because the zoo includes historical buildings there is constant cooperation with the Ministry of Antiquities. When we renovated the main entrance it was the Ministry of Antiquities that determined the paint and colours to be used. But anything that concerns the garden and the animals is the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture.
Does the zoo respect the environment?
This is a very important issue because we have huge amounts of waste resulting from slaughter of prey, tree and animal waste, and garbage amounting to 10 tons a day. We have a special incinerator working daily; the 700-degree temperature burns all kinds of waste to ashes, even animal carcasses. It has an exhaust system which makes it harmless to the environment. We have also restored the garden’s green grass after several patches of the lawn died, planted more trees and paved the walkways with mosaics and coloured pebbles. The streams and ponds have been cleaned, and we added a touch of beauty by installing water fountains inside the streams. After the waterways were cleaned, we allowed all the water birds to wander freely on the water, which made the visit to the zoo more enjoyable. We hired a private cleaning company to take care of the garden after it had fallen into an unprecedented state of neglect and uncleanliness.
People have often complained that the animals in the zoo were not kept clean. Did you do anything about this?
We now pay special attention to the issue of animal health and welfare; animal hygiene, feeding, healthcare and the cleanliness of the enclosures are now our priority. Any shortfall in cleanliness or hygiene reflects badly on the health of the animals and the zoo visitors. A large portion of the zoo budget goes to the feeding of the animals to guarantee they are properly nourished and enjoy good health.
How are you solving the problem of the loss of some animal species?
After several animals died for which we couldn’t find any replacements, we adopted a breeding system for endangered species. There are other animals which had completely stopped reproducing such as the White Stork and the Egyptian Gazelle. The zoo’s veterinarians conducted extensive research on the matter; we now have two baby Egyptian gazelles. We have succeeded in breeding expensive animals which we can exchange with other zoos to get other animals which we need. The breeding centre is one of the accomplishments of the zoo.
What is lacking in the zoo now?
One of the main problems that we are facing is that we currently have only one female elephant and one rhinoceros. These are endangered species and trading in such species is prohibited according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Egypt is a signatory of this agreement along with 174 other countries, and therefore it is very difficult to find replacements for these animals. The animals are also very old and therefore breeding is not an option. We are now negotiating with zoos and organisations worldwide to arrange for an exchange of animals or to find someone who might be willing to offer an elephant or a rhino to the zoo.
Does the Giza zoo make use of modern-age technology?
Our IT section was established in 2008 to link the Giza Zoo to all the zoos around the world. Communicating with other zoos is important to get support when needed, seek advice about animal treatment and care options, and exchange animals.
Why does the zoo keep its old animal display methods such as cages and enclosures? Why not shift to an open zoo concept?
We are about to be sponsored by a major bank to develop the display methods and overhaul the entire zoo and give it a new modern look. This is what we have just accomplished with the Animal Museum which has been closed for almost 18 years; it was renovated by the Armed Forces and recently re-opened. The museum was established in the first decade of the 20th century, and contains skeletons of many wild animals, birds and reptiles as well as stuffed animals. It underwent renovations in 1962 and 1988 in which panoramas were added displaying wild animals and birds native to Egypt. It closed in the late 1990s and reopened in 2015 after renovations that brought it to modern museological standards.
Dr Suzanne Kamel is the current curator of the Animal Museum.
How does the zoo ensure the security of its guests?
The first goal I was keen on achieving when I was appointed head of the zoo authority in 2015 was to tighten security at the zoo to put an end to sexual harassment and petty theft. Last August, we contracted a private security company for the job, a first in the history of the zoo. We also have an agreement with the Ministry of Interior to provide extra security for the zoo during peak seasons such as official holidays. During the last Eid al-Adha holiday, the number of visitors reached 70,000 and not a single incident of harassment, thuggery or theft was recorded.
As to rumours that wild animals might escape from the zoo, I would like to reassure the public that there has never been any record of animals escaping since the zoo first opened. Animal enclosures are built according to international standards and all the keepers are highly skilled and trained in the care of captive animal populations.
Are we anywhere close to meeting international zoo standards? Do we even have an international ranking?
Unfortunately, the Giza Zoo lost its international ranking and membership of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) in 2004. We are now members of the Pan African Association of Zoos and Aquaria (PAAZA) and are working on regaining our membership in the WAZA.
What advice would you give zoo visitors?
There are three important recommendations I should like to make to the zoo visitors. First, I would like them to care for the animals because they are creatures with feelings and emotions just as human beings. Although they are beautiful to watch, most of them are originally wild and can turn aggressive if provoked or irritated. That’s why my second advice is that visitors abide by the instructions written on the boards next to the animals’ enclosures or those given by the keepers. Any provocative behaviour by visitors could lead to unpleasant consequences, sometimes even to the death of animals. Last but not least, visitors must keep the garden clean, and must also refrain from damaging the historical buildings.
General Dr Muhammad Ragaii
19 April 2017