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Overhaul plan for Giza Zoo stirs controversy in Egypt 

The historic zoo is in need of renovation, but critics fear that the government's announced plan may make things worse.
Giza zoo

The Giza zoo, a lush 80-acre oasis in the heart of Cairo bordered by urban sprawl and thundering traffic, is a popular attraction for millions of poor and middle-class Egyptians.

Families and couples go there to picnic or stroll under the shade of the park's towering palms and eucalyptus trees. With free entry for children and tickets selling at 5 Egyptian pounds (17 cents) for adults, the zoo is one of a handful of leisure destinations that remain affordable.

But a controversial proposal to overhaul the animal park and adjacent Orman Botanical Garden — announced by the government in December — may soon put both parks out of reach for most Egyptians.

President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi criticized in his address to an economic conference in late December the neglect that the zoo has been subjected to by authorities. "Visit the zoo to see for yourself the extent of negligence, the crumbling infrastructure, the shortcomings and the suffering," he said. The statement was a prelude to directives he gave a few days later to upgrade the zoo to international standards.

Once a symbol of Egypt's modernity, the zoological garden — Africa's oldest — is today dilapidated and in dire need of renovation.

But skeptics fear the government plan may undermine the welfare of the animals in its care. Previous state endeavors to upgrade public parks have involved uprooting of their trees to make room for parking lots and cafeterias.

And with the country's dwindling foreign reserves at record lows, many Egyptians are worried that the new development plan may be a cover-up for the sale of stakes in the historic zoo. The government in recent months has sold state assets to private investors, which has whetted the appetite of wealthy bidders from neighboring Gulf states. 

Shifting management of the zoo to the Ministry of Military Production also comes amid growing public resentment over the military's increased role in the economy.

Zookeepers meanwhile, fear that layoffs may be part of the plan and are alarmed at the prospect of losing their job and their income (which normally does not exceed Egypt's minimum wage), To make some extra cash, a few of them have resorted to questionable practices such as poking the monkeys with sticks to elicit laughter from onlookers or bringing out the lion cubs to be photographed in exchange for a small tip.

Government officials have recently reassured the public that the zoo's trees and heritage sites will remain unscathed.

In an interview on the satellite channel ONTV in December, Maged El-Serty, chairman of the National Military Production Company overseeing the renovation, said that the project would take 18 months, during which time the zoo would remain closed.

"Our aim is to improve the zoo's international ranking and restore its accreditation with the world body," he said, which would require getting rid of cages and allowing the animals to roam in natural habitats.

But critics like activist Dina Zulfikar were quick to rebuff the plan. "The authorities are treating the zoo as a recreational center, overlooking the purpose of its existence," Zulfikar told Al-Monitor. "Zoos are meant to educate the public and raise awareness about the importance of conserving wildlife; they are also there to breed rare species and ensure their continuity." 

She acknowledged that the zoo was in need of restoration, but she added, "The zoo is far too small to allow for an open-range system. Open-range zoos are at least twice the size of the Giza Zoo and are usually located outside the city, away from the hustle and bustle." 

It remains unclear who will reap the proceeds from ticket sales over the next 25 years (the duration of the contract for the deal), but El-Serty insisted that the renovation will make better care possible for the animals. He said, "It would also allow us to replace the animals we have lost over the years." While he did not elaborate, it is no secret that dozens of animals have perished as a result of negligence, underfunding and dismal conditions.

El-Serty also disclosed plans for an aerial lift linking the zoo with the nearby Orman Garden. 

Zulfikar balked at the idea. "We need an aerial lift like we need a hole in the head," she said. "Aerial lifts are for countries that have no attractions. With its Victorian-style cages and suspension bridge, the zoo is a historic gem, unrivalled anywhere in the world."

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