Spotlight Libya: Despite the scars of battle, Tripoli Zoo's wildlife begins to recover

Report filed by Michael Booth currently in Tripoli, Libya deployed with the International Fund for Animal Weflare's (IFAW) Animal Rescue team working at the Tripoli Zoo.

UPDATED: 12.27.11 with this video report produced by Michael Booth on the ground in Tripoli.


A lion now recovering at the Tripoli Zoo in Libya. IFAW/M. BoothA year ago today, the self-immolation of a fruit vendor in Tunisia by the name of Mohamed Boazizi ignited a revolution that would change the region forever.

The wave of popular dissent across the region spread quickly in the Arab world and ultimately led to the fall of long-standing autocrats like Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt and Gaddafi in Libya. This last liberation, involved a bloody war lasting 6 months, culminating in the take-over of the capital city of Tripoli.

On the 23rd of August, after several days of NATO airstrikes, rebels launched their offensive straight into the heart of the city, Gaddafi's compound of Bab-al-Aziziya.

Bombs and other gunfire blasted through the city center, residents fled from incoming fire but just a few meters away with nowhere to go, wild lions, tigers, bears, and other wildlife, totaling close to 900 animals were left merciless inside a largely abandoned zoo.

"It was a nightmare, we had no electricity, no water, no way of getting food and we were stuck the middle of the war," said Dr. Husni, Tripoli Zoo Director.

At the height of the conflict the zoo, which used to employ around 200 workers ended up with four brave human souls and a driver making daily trips to the Tunisian border 200km away in search for food.

There are still some visible signs of that tense period. A bullet-shattered glass has rendered a viewing area into the baboon enclosure useless and there's a big whole on the roof of the structure housing the three resident hippos left by a stray bomb. Luckily it detonated high above the animals so caused no physical injury but left other types of scars.

"Before the war we would feed the hippos almost by hand, they were very approachable, now they've completely changed, their stress is such that they frantically run and dive into their pool with any abrupt sound," added Dr. Husni.

One of the tigers is clearly still shaken by the whole ordeal. During the battle for Tripoli, he bit deeply into his own tail and the injury was such that it had to be amputated.

IFAW had been monitoring the incidents in Libya since the get-go. Earlier that year, we assisted the Tunis Zoo, we also provided funds to groups in Egypt and we knew the incredible challenges and danger the animals were facing at the Tripoli Zoo. This is not the first time IFAW has dealt with a situation like this. In 2003, an animals rescue team was rushed to the Baghdad Zoo in Iraq. Again, this time we understood that the animals were in a life-threatening situation and we were the first to act.

Thirteen days after Gaddafi's regime was overthrown, IFAW managed to get funds to the zoo that enabled the staff to purchase food. Around the same time, the city's water supply resumed which was a huge relief to all involved. Later on, we sourced and shipped much-needed medicines, not available in-country, from neighboring Tunisia.

Thanks to our generous supporters around the world, the animals at the zoo have received aid for three months now and they are all in remarkably good shape.

Since we arrived in country we've been learning about their stories and background which provide an interesting glimpse into the Gaddafi family who basically considered the zoo their own personal playground. Saadi, one of Muammar Gaddafi's sons visited his collection of lions almost daily.

Incredibly, there are now even more animals than there used to be before the war broke out. A range of wildlife shifted to the zoo from Gaddafi's compound and other family retreats. Among them, a cluster of camels that once roamed outside Gaddafi's famed Bedouin tent at Bab-al-Aziziya which was used to impress visiting foreign dignitaries.

There are long-time residents like Bosco, an aging chimpanzee which was a gift from former Congolese president Mobutu Sese Seko, and newborns that survived the revolution inside their mother's womb like a rare Oryx calf named 'Hurriyah' which means 'Freedom' in Arabic.

The evidence of war in Tripoli is still all around but more so is the optimism in the people, the feeling that better days lie ahead. Murals exclaiming 'Libya Free at Last' adorn the city and the red, black, and green of the reinstated Libyan flag are splashed on everything everywhere.

All we hope is that the worst has passed for the animals at the zoo and that they never have to re-live those tail-biting days, Insha'Allah.

Stay tuned for new video of the animals at the Tripoli Zoo coming very soon.


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