Tunis zoo taking additional measures to keep animals safe

Sunday 12/03/2017
Wonders of the world’s fauna. Students look on at a couple of lions at the Belvedere Zoo in the capital Tunis. (Fondation Bouebdelli)

Tunis - The Belvedere Zoo in Tunis has been closed for main­tenance since the release of photographs of a blood­ied, dead crocodile there, with a paving stone and a rock next to its head.
The municipality of Tunis, which posted the photographs on Face­book, said the reptile died from internal haemorrhage after having been hit with stones.
“A group of visitors threw stones at the head of a crocodile,” the mu­nicipality said in the post.
Dr Mahmoud Latiri, a veterinar­ian and head of the zoo’s sub-man­agement department, said: “The killing of the crocodile is an appall­ing act of aggression. Yet it remains to be determined if it was an acci­dent or a premeditated act.”
“As we consider the general be­haviour of the zoo visitors, we per­ceive that there is a tendency to excite the animals with the aim of provoking some sort of reaction. It is clear that the curious visitor is looking for a spectacle,” he said.
Authorities promised to create an environmental police force that was supposed to start work in January but has not done so.
Dozens of Tunisians gathered outside the Belvedere Zoo to de­mand an explanation, seemingly unconvinced by the official state­ments and promises of mainte­nance and renovation.
They called for the respect of in­ternational norms at the zoo, the renovation of the park without re­course to private management, the protection of the Belvedere as a public property and the implemen­tation of the law against vandals and animal abusers.
“Renovations will be undertaken to ensure the animals’ safety and other needed maintenance meas­ures will be implemented. The temporary closure is meant to raise awareness about the significance of the site and the essential need to re­spect animals,” Latiri said.
He said the zoo was to be reo­pened in late March “as soon as the required works on the general as­pect of the site” are completed.
“For the duration of the closure, we will be attempting to implement a number of urgent measures… Fences will be put up to secure the site and prevent the motorists from parking their cars near the main entrance,” he said. “There are also some measures to prevent street vendors from accessing the zoo premises.”
The zoo has had as many as 17,000 visitors on weekends, which makes it “almost impossible to properly manage the high flux”, Latiri said.
“We have four guards and we need to hire at least 15 more… We are speaking of 12 hectares of land that should be properly guarded. This task is palpably overwhelming. At present, we have more than 20 security cameras and we are plan­ning to improve surveillance in the coming weeks.”
Torturing an animal can result in a prison sentence of 15 days and a fine of 4,500 dinars — about $1,950. However, the law is never enforced. The killing of the crocodile was not the first incident of animal abuse at the zoo.
“A video that shows some young people riding on the back of a rhi­noceros dates back to few months before the killing of the crocodile,” Latiri said.
“There are signs all over the site to remind our visitors that it is strictly forbidden to feed the animals, climb over the security fences and come near the enclosures. “To prevent future abuse, we have been working on providing further security at the enclosures by raising the fences to up to 2 metres.”
Latiri said: “We need to focus on education and awareness cam­paigns. The ablution basin used to host a centre for environmental education. We are planning to reo­pen this facility so as to provide our visitors with essential information and promote the values of environ­mental protection and respect of nature.”
The zoo is but a small part of Bel­vedere Park, which “is a cultural and historic site,” said Emna Charfi, secretary-general of the Association of the Friends of Belvedere.
“The Belvedere was conceived as a green area where vegetation oc­cupies most of the space to evoke a philosophy of freedom and liberty.
“The Belvedere boasts typical and exceptional species. Inside the park, there are also a number of monuments, including Al Kobba (the dome), the royal ablution ba­sin… and the Casino. An exceptional building, the Casino is infused with an Arab-Moorish design and used to serve as a recreation centre before being transformed into a military club.”
Charfi pointed to problems per­taining to urbanisation and park governance.
“Our association was created in 1989 after the announcement of a development plan for the con­struction of a four-lane highway that would divide the park into two parts. Fortunately, we managed to block that arrangement,” she said.
“At present, we believe that con­sultations are needed to protect the park but we have not been con­sulted when the temporary closure was announced and we were not involved in discussions that took on maintenance and management.
“For more than ten years, the members of our association have been militating to obtain the regis­tration of the park as a site of cultur­al and natural heritage. Regardless of all impediments, we remain op­timistic and we continue our work towards the preservation of the Bel­vedere.”