Wed, Jul 03, 2019 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: Lax rules indulge Pakistani elite’s love of exotic animals

AFP, KARACHI, Pakistan

Bilal Mansoor Khawaja, left, a private zoo owner, looks at his white lion in Karachi, Pakistan, on May 20.

Photo: AFP

Bilal Mansoor Khawaja beams as he runs his palms over the ivory coat of a white lion, one of thousands of exotic animals at his personal “zoo” in Karachi, where a thriving wildlife trade caters to Pakistan’s gilded elite.

“These are ... [some] of the rarest animals I own,” the 29-year-old industrialist boasts of his leashed lion.

Pakistani laws make it easy to import exotic animals, but once inside the country regulation is almost non-existent.

This has led to an untold number of such creatures — especially big cats, seen as symbols of wealth and power — being imported or bred across Pakistan in recent years, much to the horror of helpless wildlife officials.

Social media is littered with videos of wealthy Karachiites cruising with lions sitting in the front seats of luxury SUVs, while newspapers have featured reports of arrests of residents brazenly taking their big cats out for strolls and drives.

Khawaja estimates there are up to 300 lions within Karachi’s city limits alone, kept in gardens, inside rooftop cages and at farm houses across the sun-baked metropolis of about 20 million — notorious for its grinding traffic, crumbling infrastructure and lack of greenspaces.

Khawaja calls his handful of lions and a tiger the “crown jewels” of a larger collection of more than 4,000 animals he has amassed in recent years.

He said his collection — made up of about 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’s very soft. Where it’s hard, it’s very hard,” he said.

To care for his flock, he has more than 30 people working in shifts and four vets on staff.

The entire operation costs a fortune, Khawaja said, declining to provide an estimate of just how much he shelled out for his personal zoo.

However, the cost and the series of minor injuries he has accrued over the years at the hands of his pets are well worth it, he said.

“With every injury my love for these animals ... grows more,” he said, smiling.

His 3.6-hectare property where a portion of his animals, including zebras, flamingos and horses, reside is smack in the middle of a dense neighborhood in the megacity.

Exotic animal dealer Aleem Paracha, who claims to be one of the top three importers of exotic animals in Karachi, says that for 1.4 million rupees (US$9,000) he can deliver a white lion to a client in up to 48 hours — and do so entirely legally.

Certificates from the countries of origin along with permits from authorities are provided for any animal brought into Pakistan in accordance with an international treaty to protect endangered species.

However, Paracha said there is also a network of breeders across Pakistan that can also provide lions at a moment’s notice, including at least 30 in Karachi.

“In Karachi, lion farming is going very well,” he said.

While indigneous species are fiercely protected in Pakistan, the same protections are not extended to imported animals.

The government has guidelines regarding the treatment and type of enclosures big cats and other exotic species should be provided with.

But “the law is silent” on breeding, said Javed Mahar, head of Sindh Province’s wildlife department.

WWF technical adviser Uzma Khan said there is not even an authority monitoring government-run zoos, which are notorious for neglect, let alone the private sector.

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