The love of the Pakistani elite for the exotic fauna
KARACHI: Bilal Mansoor Khawaja smiles as he runs his palms over one's ivory coat, one of thousands of exotic animals in his personal zoo in Karachi, where a thriving wildlife trade caters to Pakistan's golden elite.
These are ... (some) of the rarest animals I have, presumes the 29-year-old industrialist of his lion tied.
Pakistani laws facilitate the importation of exotic animals, but once inside the country, regulation is almost non-existent.
This has led to an incalculable number of such creatures, especially the big cats, seen as symbols of wealth and power, to be imported or bred throughout Pakistan in recent years, to the horror of defenseless wildlife officials.
The social networks are full of videos of rich karachiitas that cross with lions sitting in the front seats of luxury sport utility vehicles, while newspapers have published reports of arrests of residents who shamelessly took their big cats to walk and drive.
Khawaja estimates that there are up to 300 lions only within the city limits of Karachi, kept in gardens, inside cages on the roof and in country houses across the sun-kissed metropolis of about 20 million, notorious for its Frosted traffic, crumbling infrastructure and lack of green spaces.
Khawaja calls his handful of lions and a tiger the crown jewels of a larger collection of more than 4,000 animals that he has accumulated in recent years.
He insists that his collection, composed of some 800 different species, is not about status or prestige, but simply a manifestation of his love for pets.
We Pakistanis have a problem: where our heart is soft, it is very soft. Where it is difficult, it is very difficult, he says sharply.
To care for his flock, he has more than 30 people working in shifts and four veterinarians on staff.
The whole operation costs a fortune, Khawaja admits, although he refuses to provide an estimate of how much he paid for his personal zoo.
But the cost and series of minor injuries he has accumulated over the years at the hands of his prized pets are worth it, he says.
With each injury my love for these animals ... grows more, smiles.
His nine-acre property, where part of his animals, including zebras, flamingos and horses, resides, is right in the middle of a dense neighborhood in the megacity.
Exotic animal seller Aleem Paracha, who claims to be one of the top three importers of exotic animals in Karachi, says that for 1.4 million rupees ($ 9,000) he can deliver a white lion to a client in up to 48 hours, and thus do so . entirely legal.
Certificates are issued from the countries of origin together with the permits from the authorities for any animal brought to Pakistan in accordance with an international treaty to protect endangered species.
But Paracha says there is also a network of breeders throughout Pakistan that can also provide lions at any time, including at least 30 in Karachi.
In Karachi, lion breeding goes very well, he explains.
And while unworthy species are fiercely protected in Pakistan, the same protections do not extend to imported animals.
The government has guidelines regarding the treatment and type of enclosures that must be provided to big cats and other exotic species.
But the law says nothing about reproduction, says Javed Mahar, head of the wildlife department in Sindh province.
Uzma Khan, technical advisor to the World Wildlife Fund, says there is not even an authority to oversee the zoos administered by the government, which are known for their negligence, much less for the private sector.
There are many private breeders and they have a lot of shade, adds Khan.
Meanwhile, owners like Khawaja may have the means and the passion to provide a good diet for their animals, but others are known to fall short.
Karachi veterinarian Isma Gheewala says that lions suffering from calcium deficiencies are common in her clinic, where she says she has treated between 100 and 150 large cats over the years.
The bones become extremely fragile, he explains.
And even if they jump like a foot down, they will injure one bone or another and then the animals will take a long time to recover.
But both Paracha and Khawaja reject claims that they are doing something harmful by removing exotic species from their natural habit and raising them in Pakistan.
Many animals, or are extinct or are about to become extinct, argues Khawaja, and adds: I do not want the next generations do not see these animals.
But conservationists like Khan in the WWF dismiss such arguments.
She explains: An animal in captivity is not what it is in nature.
What is the point of having an animal that is not hunting, that is in a cage and does not show its natural behavior?