08 May, 2014

Sanaa Zoo Revisited.......Yemen's Disappearing Wildlife

After five years, as much as I hate zoos, I decided to visit the animal zoo in Sana'a again. For only 100 Yemeni Riyals for each, we entered the small and only zoo in Sanaa; already there were over a hundred people, mainly children, inside. I noticed immediately that the protective cages around the animals had been increased and the layers thickened. This was good, in that it stopped the public from coming too close to the animals; and better still - it made it difficult for the public to feed the animals or throw things into the cages. But this made it, too, difficult to view and photograph the animals. The timing of my visit also didn't help - at noon, it was very inconvenient for taking photos. Still, even with the heat and the sun right overhead - I managed to take a few photos of the poor creatures confined within the zoo.

Sana'a Zoo - White-tailed Mongoose
The white-tailed mongoose (Ichneumia albicauda) is the largest of all mongooses. For this almost solitary nocturnal, very skilled hunter - to be kept in a cage like this must be very punishing. This mongoose used to be common in Yemen and other parts of the southern Arabian Peninsular; but not any more.

Sanaa Zoo - Honey Badger
Considered almost endangered by the IUCN - in Yemen, the honey badger or the ratel (Mellivora capensis) is very rare in the wild - almost non existent; I have never, ever seen any in the wild. This is a ferocious and very solitary animal that requires a wide space; it must be difficult for the keepers and the animal - for it to be kept confined in a cage like this and this small. As, after man, honey badgers are the most destructive to honeybees and as honey is very priced in Arabia, especially in Hadhramout - these creatures have been relentlessly hunted in the Arabian Peninsular.

Sanaa Zoo - the Caracal
The caracal (Caracal caracal) looks very much like the domestic cat; but, it's larger and very graceful, very fast and a formidable predator. I recall, once while in the streets of Sana'a, a man carrying a reed basket, came to me and asked me if I would be interested in buying 'some thing special'; when I asked him what the 'special thing' was - he opened the basket and inside it was a beautiful caracal; on seeing how alarmed and shocked I was, the man ran away with his basket. Conservationists have been trying hard to conserve these creatures (in the Hawf Protected Area in particular), but this is made very hard with the ongoing political/security upheavals and the economic hardships in the country - I very much hope the conservationists succeed. A few caracals are kept at the zoo.

Sana'a Zoo - the Arabian Red fox
Few wild creatures awe me as much as the very remarkable, very smart, cunning and small Arabian red fox (Vulpes vulpes arabica). A few years ago, they were very common and easily spotted in Yemen, in Hadhramout in particular. Now, they are very rare. Of all wild creatures in Yemen, it is the Arabian red fox that I have seen many more times than others; and it's the only one that I have had the luck of viewing at very close range; one evening - a red fox looking for food, allowed me to come to as close as to about two meters of it before it ran away. When I was trying to take this photo of the red fox at the Sana'a zoo, it kept running and jumping up and down the cage - it was never still; it seemed very stressed and very agitated. Confined in such a small cage, with intrusive humans gawking at it every few minutes and with the heat - I couldn't blame it at all.

Sana'a Zoo - Hamadryas Baboon
Unlike the Emir of Wady Hadhramaut and his Harem who lives a normal baboon life in the wild, the above, male, Hamadryas baboon (Papio hamadryas) is not free. Revered by the ancient Egyptians, these days, due to human encroachment and modernization, the sight of these primates is becoming very rare in Yemen. Five years ago, there were less baboons at the zoo than this time - which is good as they can be better fed. The way this male baboon kept giving me quick glances, every now and then - really depressed me.

Sanaa Zoo - Asiatic or Golden Jackal
These two Asiatic or Golden jackals (Canis aureus) above seem as stressed and agitated as the fox; they were continuously running inside the very small cage. They are nocturnal and are strictly monogamous who mate for life - which make me respect them enormously. They used to roam the wilds of southern Arabia but, today, they are very rarely seen in the wild.

Sana'a Zoo - Desert Tortoise
I am not sure what species the above tortoise, is - there are several others of the same, in this same cage; it seemed to me very much like the African spurred tortoise (Centrochelys sulcata) - which is surpassed in size only by the giant island species from Aldabra and Galapagos.

Sanaa Zoo - the Griffon Vulture
For an extremely large bird as the Griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus), to be kept in a small cage like this -  must be one of the worst things that can happen to it. Many people do not know that Yemen is rich in birds: over 400 species of birds have been recorded, with new species being added to the national list almost annually. One of the reasons for this diversity is the fact that Yemen is at the intersection of three bio-geographical regions: Africa, Asia, and the Western Pale Arctic.

Sana'a Zoo - the Lappet-Faced Vulture
Another extremely sad bad in the zoo is the scavenger and also hunter - lappet-faced vulture - several are caged in the zoo; these birds are also very large and in the zoo, are kept in very small cages. There are two subspecies of lappet-faced vulture. The African subspecies, (Torgos tracheliotus), has mostly dark brown to black feathers, which contrast starkly with the white thighs and white bar running across the leading edge of the underwing, clearly visible in flight. The north-east African subspecies, (Torgos tracheliotus negevensis), is altogether browner, including partially brown thighs,

Sanaa Zoo - Ostrich and Arabian Oryx
The largest and heaviest of all living birds, the ostrich (Struthio camelus) is instantly recognisable, with its long, bare neck, large body and long, sturdy legs. A few are kept at the Sanaa zoo. Close to the ostriches, I saw only one of the amazing Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx) which used to roam the desert, mountains and valleys of Yemen and other parts of Arabia; due to relentless hunting, they became extinct in the wild. Now, this desert antelope can once again be seen wandering the dry Arabian Peninsula - thanks to Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and his family who have done the most to save this magnificent animal; many have now been reintroduced in the wild in several countries. In June 2011, the species' threat level was downgraded from "endangered" to "vulnerable" in the red list published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature - the first time this had happened to an animal that had been declared extinct in the wild.

Sana'a Zoo - Cheetah
As I have seen and still do always see wild cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) in the wild in East Africa where they are abundant, the sight of the two in a cage at the zoo was very depressing; Yemen used to have wild cheetahs very long ago - not any more. The two in the cage are African.  The fastest land mammal in the world, the cheetah  has many adaptations that allows it to sprint across the plains. Its rangy frame supports long limbs and a deep chest cavity, and this species has a small waist and an extremely flexible spine . Unlike other cats, the cheetah has claws that are not fully retractable, enabling it to grip the ground when in a hunting sprint. The large nostrils allow greater amounts of air to enter the lungs, and the tail is particularly long to provide extra balance when cornering.

Sanaa Zoo - Arabian Leopard
Relentlessly hunted through the ages and due to fast human encroachment and loss of habitat, the Arabian leopard Arabian leopard (Panthera pardus nimr) is almost extinct in the wild today. Only a couple of hundred or so are still left in the wild (the exact population is unknown) in one location in Yemen and in Oman; in the Dhofar region of Oman, they are better protected and more secure. When I was at the leopard cage, I was very close to it, and at one point the leopard that was walking around the cage, stopped and very angrily looked at me; the look from its eyes was frightening. Why shouldn't it be? In a cage like that, even a domestic cat would get very upset.

Sana'a Zoo - Arabian Leopard
The Arabian leopard is the largest and most powerfully built of all Arabian cats, but is thought to be the smallest of the 15 leopard subspecies. Apart from its substantially smaller size, this subspecies can be distinguished from its African and Asian counterparts by its paler overall colour. Indeed, the more typical deep golden-yellow colour only exists along the animal’s back, whilst the rest of the body fades to beige or greyish-white. The body is almost entirely interspersed with widely-spaced black rosettes and spots characteristic of the species, which help to camouflage the cat in the bare, rocky terrain in which it lives. Sexes look alike, but males are generally larger than females.

Sana'a Zoo - Lion Cubs
Several lion (Panthera leo) cubs are kept in the zoo; the zoo keepers told me that they were off-springs of the descendants of lions that used to roam in the wilderness of Yemen; I doubt this. Reportedly, the lions at the zoo - were from the old Imam’s Palaces zoo; which were actually trapped from wild Yemeni lions. Evidence of lions living in the Arabian peninsula can be found in old Greek writings, but, as far as I know, there is no proof, so far, that these lions at the Sana'a zoo are descendants of those, old, wild Yemeni lions.

Sanaa Zoo - Lion Cubs
I was allowed to enter the cage and photograph the almost domesticated cubs; the zoo keepers even allowed me to handle them. Note the Arabian leopard prowling in the adjacent cage. Imagine lion cubs living next to the leopard, where they can see each other. All species of cats are enemies of each other; lions can never live with cheetahs or leopards, unless domesticated. But the leopards in the adjacent cage looked to me to be, still, wild and ferocious.

Sanaa Zoo - Lions
When I was snapping pictures of these pair of handsome male lions, I realized that the one seated (above) was intently staring at me. I stopped taking photos and for what seemed like a long time, I and it gazed at each other. In East Africa, where I have seen male lions in the wild - I have never been gazed at by these wonderful cats. Unlike the leopard, the lions gaze, wasn't scary at all.

Sana'a Zoo - Lions
After the long gaze, the lion started licking its feet. It's distressing to see lions in cages or in a zoo - however well built and provided for the cage or the zoo is. Still, these lions are where they are safest in Yemen. Generally, most Yemenis are not aware of the importance of protecting and conserving wildlife; the public should be made aware and sympathetic to protecting and saving wildlife. Both on land and in the seas. Only a few young Yemenis are beginning to realize the importance of wildlife.

Sanaa Zoo - Lions
As much as I was saddened and depressed at the sight of the animals at the zoo and at the very poor habitat in which the animals were in; I knew, too, that for some of these animals - like the caracal, the golden jackal, the leopard, the lions and most of the other animals in the zoo (except for the birds), they are much more safer and secure in there, than they would be in the wild. I also know that, at the zoo, they are being protected from poachers, habitat loss, starvation and predators. It would be very relieving and pleasing, if a time would come when descendants of these creatures within the zoo would be released in the wild again.

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