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Gaza zoos rally to save newborn cubs

In the past, cubs have been eaten by starving lionesses.
Employees present three newborn lion cubs at Nama Zoo in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, Aug. 12, 2022.

The owners of Nama Zoo in the north of Gaza City, home to wild animals and predatory birds, are deploying unremitting efforts to protect and keep alive three cubs that a lioness gave birth to Aug. 12.

The latest efforts come in the wake of several successful attempts to protect cubs in the past, amid the owners’ lack of expertise in handling such cases. Also, lionesses in captivity are starving amid the difficulty of securing food in the besieged enclave, which is leading lionesses to devour their cubs shortly after giving birth to them.

The owners of the zoo are showing particular interest in preserving the three newborn cubs, because the introduction of new wild predatory animals into Gaza is banned. They are also seeking to develop the zoo in order for it to serve as an outlet for Gazans, who are eager to see wild animals such as lions and tigers.

Lions and predatory birds, among other animals, have been brought into Gaza in the past after being smuggled through underground tunnels along the Egyptian border.

Out of six parks that closed due to bankruptcy and difficulty of breeding animals, only two wild animal parks are still open in the Gaza Strip — Rafah Zoo in southern Gaza and Nama Zoo in the Saftawi district of Gaza City. These parks are suffering from difficult conditions in the coastal enclave and exorbitant financial costs. Meanwhile, lions are the most prominent types of animals that visitors come to see.

The Israeli siege imposed on Gaza for nearly 15 years has cast a shadow over the conditions plaguing animals in Gaza, as many of them are dying because of lack of food and medicine

Rafah Zoo, for instance, was labeled as one of the worst zoos in the world in light of the poor psychological and health conditions that animals there suffer from. This prompted the animal welfare organization Four Paws International to transfer 47 animals from the zoo out of Gaza in 2019, leading to the closure of Rafah Zoo. 

Meanwhile, Abdel Hadi Hammouda, owner of Nama Zoo, told Al-Monitor that the animal park has been struggling to preserve its animals and predatory birds for more than 10 years.

He said that the zoo has been relying on the animals’ reproduction due to the difficulty of introducing new wild animals and predatory birds through the crossings with Israel.

“The park is home to a limited number of predators. Visitors mainly come to see our lion, lioness, three monkeys and several birds. The park has lost more than 80 cubs in the past, as a result of the difficult conditions and poor nutrition prompting the lionesses to devour their cubs upon their birth,” he noted.

Hammouda said that the lioness that gave birth to cubs Aug. 12 was regularly monitored during its pregnancy, and as soon as it gave birth both the cubs and the lioness were placed in separate cages in order to avoid losing more cubs. “When the newborn cubs are hungry, we place them close to the lioness cage and make sure they are not at risk. This way we hope to increase the number of lions in the zoo,” he added.

He pointed out that the zoo faces a number of obstacles preventing its development, as it has been destroyed several times during the Israeli wars on Gaza.

Also, he added, it is very costly to keep the animals alive and secure food and treatment for them, let alone secure workers’ wages. The cost is increasing every day as less people visit zoos amid the difficult economic conditions plaguing Gaza.

Asked about the food provided to the animals, which are mostly carnivorous, Hammouda said, “We buy cheap frozen meat and offer it to them twice a week. We also slaughter horses and animals that are injured in road accidents and others. While these animals constitute a great source of meat, they are unfortunately not always available.”

Ashraf Hamdan, a veterinarian who worked with international missions to rescue and treat animals in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “Breeding wild predatory animals inside recreational parks in Gaza is very bad due to the lack of space in the coastal enclave and the inappropriate environment in which the animals, especially the lions, reside. Add to this the lack of necessary medicines for diseases that affect animals and threaten their life.”

He said that the food provided to predators is neither suitable nor sufficient. He said that feeding wild animals is very expensive and cannot be covered by the financial income generated by the zoos. Some zoo owners, he said, provide unhealthy meals that animals reject and other foods that expose them to diseases, which is a major reason behind the death of animals in zoos.

Hamdan concluded, “Gaza lacks wild animals due to the lack of sufficient space and high population density. The border fence that Israel established along its border with Gaza several years ago has prevented wild animals from reaching Gaza. Israel also refuses to allow the import of wild animals, hence the need to preserve the remaining few animals inside Gaza and rely on their reproduction.”

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