Wrack and ruin at Côte d'Ivoire zoo

Shivering monkeys huddle on a bare cement floor behind rust-scarred bars. Elephants, whose tusks lend civil-war divided Côte d’Ivoire its name, struggle in thick mud.

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

“Imagine what could happen to a child”, 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 a million driven from their homes.

At the Abidjan Zoo, one-third of the animals died during the war and the rest have fared little better.

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

The zoo was once subsidised by the state, but with rebels still holding Côte d’Ivoire’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 survive on paltry ticket sales—and it shows.

Just over 200 animals remain alive, existing in newfound 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,” said Yapo.

“We human beings don’t want to live in filthy homes, so why would we expect our animals to live like this?”

Côte d’Ivoire’s rebellion stemmed from an unsuccessful attempt to oust President Laurent Gbagbo. While Gbagbo’s forces managed to hold most of the western region’s rich cocoa fields, the insurgents took the north.

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,” said Yapo.

The zoo now has only one truck, which drives workers to the lush countryside to cut 450kg 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 Côte d’Ivoire, Yapo is pinning his hopes on foreign intervention into a crisis that is increasingly viewed as intractable.

About 4 000 French troops patrol front lines, and the United Nations is building toward a 6 000-strong force. There hasn’t been widespread fighting for over a year.

In recent weeks, rebel and opposition ministers quit a national-unity government arranged under the peace deal brokered by France—Côte d’Ivoire’s colonial master until 1960 and builder of the Abidjan Zoo.

The United Nations and leaders from other west African nations are working to jump-start 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,” he said. “So that help will come before it’s too late.” - Sapa-AP

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