The felines of the Taiz Zoo, in Yemen, haven’t eaten since December 16. And the herbivores can only count on a few fruits and vegetables. Despite the efforts of SOS Zoo to organize an evacuation, Yemeni authorities stubbornly refuse to compromise.
For the past two years, Yemen has been in the middle of a civil war between the Shiite Houthis rebels and the forces loyal to the ex-president in power Ali Abdallah Saleh, supported by Saudi Arabia. Since the beginning of 2016, the government has lost control of the city of Taiz, cultural capital of the country, and the population fled the war zone.
For the animals in the Taiz Zoo, the situation turned critical in February, the period where Yemeni officials stopped paying the salaries of zoo employees who were forced to leave. The 265 animals residing there have since become collateral damage to the conflict.
11 lions and six leopards starved to death
It was at this moment that Chantal Jonkergouw, a Swedish animal defense activist, created the organization SOS Zoo and Bear Rescue. In coordination with a small group of volunteers on the ground, she launched a campaign to finance the aid of the zoo animals and demand their evacuation from Yemeni authorities.
Sadly, before the association could intervene, 11 lions and six Arabian leopards died from lack of food. The images of a leopard devouring one of his fallen cage mates to survive made the rounds on various news sites at the beginning of the year.
In six months, close to 130,000 was collected by SOS Zoo, permitting the other animals to survive thanks to the regular distribution of food, which costs about 4000 dollars per week.
Among the 265 animals at the zoo, there are lions and leopards, but also hyenas, birds, monkeys, and small mammals. And a number of them suffer from diverse infections and are showing advanced signs of psychological distress, like this feline who is expressing typical behavior, the repetitive motions from boredom and depression.
Stopping the distribution of food to put pressure on the government
On November 30, Chantal Jonkergouw make the decision to stop feeding the animals to put pressure on the Yemeni government. The founder explained:
We have recently ceased our support to Taiz zoo until Yemen authorities give us permits for evacuating the animals to safety. We have two offers on the table, from UAE and Jordan, to host the animals for the duration of the war.
The felines in the zoo have not been fed since December 16 and the other animals survive with what’s left of the food they have collected. Two member of the organization continue to brave danger – Taiz is currently occupied by Houthi rebels – to distribute water.
28 of the last 80 Arabian leopards in the world are in the Taiz Zoo
For the moment, authorities have refused to proceed with the evacuation. For Chantal Jonkergouw, this decision has notably been influenced by the presence of 28 Arabian leopards in the zoo. These felines are some of the plus rare in the world: there are only 80 left on the planet, and they represent a point of pride for the Yemeni government, who don’t want to risk moving them outside of their borders, even temporarily.
But the presence of these leopards is also a source of hope. Jonkergouw hopes that the prospect of seeing the leopards die of starvation one after the other will convince the government to let them be evacuated. “Several leopards will probably die before they realize it is necessary to evacuate them,” she admitted, regrettably.
An uncertain future for the animals
The president of SOS Zoo indicated that she was counting on redistributing food as soon as Yemen accepts the transfer of the animals to Jordan or the United Arab Emirates, or any other option which would permit them to leave this war zone where they have been condemned.
In the worst scenario, she would prefer that the animals be euthanized rather than suffer from famine. Jonkergouw doubts however that the zoo officials will allow this step. “I don’t think the zoo would accept euthanasia,” she stated.
In the last published message on the campaign finance page, Chantal Jonkergouw launched a last appeal for help:
The SOS fund is nearly empty and can’t continue to cover the $3300-4000/week expense. Also, I believe that we have given Yemen lots of time to sort this out and we are also presenting them with two good options. It is their responsibility now to make the right choice. We can’t be expected to take ongoing responsibility for their problems when they are not cooperative towards our proposed solutions.
To follow along with this tragic situation and its uncertain future, you can follow the SOS Zoo Facebook page. You can also donate to help support their cause here.