Zoo animals in war-torn Congo caught up in own conflict

KINSHASA, Congo (AP) - Young children squeal with delight as a chimpanzee pirouettes in its cage. Others peer nervously at a leopard lolling on the concrete floor of its enclosure.

Familiar childhood moments - but extraordinary in war-torn Congo, where even the zoo animals are caught up in the conflict.

This is no neatly laid out modern zoo; there are no teams of well-trained staff caring for the animals.

When the chimpanzee has performed its tricks, it points urgently at its open mouth; the leopard appears too malnourished to move as it stares wild-eyed from its filthy enclosure, reeking of dung and urine.

In a country devastated by a civil war that has drawn in six countries, the animals in Kinshasa's zoo - an odd assortment including crocodiles, pythons and goats - are at risk.

Animal welfare activists say more than two-thirds have died of starvation and disease in the past year and the remainder should be evacuated. Zoo officials have refused, saying they want to save a decades-old institution that is one of the few diversions left in the impoverished capital, Kinshasa.

Monkeys, parrots and other species have been kept at the site since the 1930s, when Congo was ruled by Belgium and animals destined for export to Europe were quarantined there.

Visiting the animals became a popular diversion for the colonial rulers, and the site evolved into a zoological garden run by the private Congolese Zoology and Botany Society. With independence in 1960, the institution was taken over by the state.

At its height during the 1960s and 1970s, there were more than 3,000 animals.

''Lots of people came here,'' said Francois Embele, a zoo maintenance worker since 1965. ''Everything was easy, money came in, everything worked well.''

But like the rest of the country, the zoo was left in ruins by dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who became one of the world's richest men by plundering the Central African nation, then known as Zaire. Conditions have not improved under President Laurent Kabila, who seized power in 1997 only to face a rebellion a year later.

It's been years since the government has done more than pay the 76 staff members' measly salaries, now about $10 a month. And Congo's already desperate poverty means fewer visitors can afford the entrance fee, even at 4 cents.

Just over 130 animals are left. The rusting cages are painfully small, with gaping holes in the bare concrete floors. Many pens haven't been cleaned in months.

But the garden is still an oasis of calm and greenery in a vast, crumbling city of shouting hawkers, careering vehicles and overflowing slums, where many people struggle to eat every day. Families bring children on weekends; homeless kids come to escape the streets and school groups make educational visits.

''For that short period of time, the children aren't thinking about the problems at home, about being hungry,'' zoo director Bantu Wa Tumba said. ''It would be inhuman to take it from them.''

Wa Tumba concedes the zoo's infrastructure is falling apart, but insists no animals have starved. He claims their numbers have dwindled only because the institution no longer has the means to replace animals when they die of natural causes.

In addition to the food bought with the paltry earnings at the gate, leftovers are collected from major hotels and a bread-making factory, Wa Tumba said.

He says he would welcome foreign help, but doesn't understand why the animals must be taken away. Activists say it isn't safe to keep the animals at the zoo.

A cease-fire was signed July 10 by Kabila and his allies - Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia - and by Rwanda and Uganda, who are backing the rebels. The main rebel factions signed on in the weeks that followed.

But fighting persists in the north, and outside countries have made no move to withdraw.

Fears that the fighting could reach Kinshasa raise ''the possibility that the remaining animals will either be killed by gunfire or be slaughtered for food,'' Sarah Scarth, spokeswoman for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said in Johannesburg, South Africa.

With the South African government's help, the group is trying to secure permission from Congolese authorities for the animals to be moved to Zambia and South Africa.

The Congolese government has so far refused, but has invited the organization to send experts to assist the zoo, activist Karen Matthews said by telephone from Cape Town, South Africa. The group is also donating food.

Matthews still thinks there should be an evacuation, but she noted, ''The animals are looking far better, and the immediate threat of starvation has diminished.''

In a country as devastated as Congo, that's good news.


On the Net: International Fund for Animal Welfare, http://www.ifaw.org


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