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Crumbling Zoo Mirrors Chaos in Ivory Coast

One-third of the Abidjan facility's animals died during the 2002 civil war; the rest live in filthy conditions with little food.

June 13, 2004|Pauline Bax | Associated Press Writer

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Shivering monkeys huddle on a bare cement floor behind rusty bars. Elephants, whose tusks provided the name for this war-divided nation, struggle in thick mud.

A safety grating covering the alligator pond is peeling back, opening a gap that looks wide enough for the beasts' wide jaws to pass through.

"Imagine what could happen to a child" who got too near, said Ayekoe Yapo, director of the crumbling Abidjan Zoo.

Since civil war broke out in September 2002, conditions at the zoo, one of West Africa's largest, have mirrored the slide of this once cocoa-rich nation into chaos and poverty.

Before the fighting largely ended a year ago, more than 3,000 people were killed and at least 1 million driven from their homes. At the Abidjan Zoo, one-third of the animals died during the war and the rest fared little better.

Schoolchildren once flocked to the zoo, gaping at the apes, snakes and other wildlife that is dwindling in the African wilderness. Few can now afford a trip to the zoo, which is all but empty during the week, Yapo says. About 100 visitors come on the weekend -- barely enough to cover the ticket taker's salary, he says.

The zoo was once subsidized by the state, but with rebels still holding Ivory Coast's north despite a January 2003 peace deal, the southern-based government is spending its money on guns and ammunition for its soldiers, not food and supplies for caged animals.

So the zoo must get by on the paltry ticket sales -- and it shows. Just over 200 animals remain alive, existing in squalor.

The elephant pens haven't been mucked out properly, and Yapo had to move some of the monkeys to a shaded part of the zoo, where they tremble from the cold.

"Their own cages are falling apart, so we had to put them here. It's too dark and they get sick and lose their appetite," Yapo said. "We human beings don't want to live in filthy homes, so why would we expect our animals to live like this?"

During the 2002-2003 fighting, a months-long, dusk-to-dawn curfew curtailed business in Abidjan, the commercial capital.

"Because of the curfew, our employees couldn't come to feed the animals, so dozens of them starved to death," Yapo said.

The zoo now has only one truck, which workers drive to the lush countryside to cut 990 pounds of grass for feed each day. But the truck, which also carries meat for the hyenas, birds of prey and six lions, breaks down "every 48 hours," Yapo said.

Like many in Ivory Coast, Yapo is pinning his hopes on foreign intervention into a crisis that is increasingly viewed as intractable.

About 4,000 French soldiers patrol front lines, and the United Nations is building toward a 6,000-strong peacekeeping force.

In recent weeks, rebel and opposition ministers quit a national-unity government arranged under the peace deal between President Laurent Gbagbo and his foes. The accord had been brokered by France, which was Ivory Coast's colonial master until 1960 and the builder of the Abidjan Zoo.

The United Nations and leaders from other West African nations are working to restart the peace process, and Yapo is not shy about suggesting that the international community should help his beleaguered menagerie too.

"All I can do now is tell the world how bad the situation is so that help will come before it's too late," he said.

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