“The Kings of peace” is how Saeed Daoud, director of the Qalqilya Zoo, describes the three lions, Jafer, Jaras and Naboko who have recently settled into their new home in the West Bank along with two zebras and a deer.
On September 5, the animals were moved from the Ramat Gan Safari Park just outside Tel Aviv to Qalqilya after the Israeli safari park announced plans to help rebuild Qalqilya Zoo by providing it with a number of animals. The zoo has been ravaged by four years of Intifada, with several animals dying and a dramatic drop in the number visitors.
The zoo, the only one of its kind in the West Bank, was built in 1986 and is currently home to almost 170 animals. During the Intifada, however, it suffered a number of setbacks. Repeated Israeli incursions have left animals dead and traumatized. In March, 2003, a zebra died after inhaling teargas, and a giraffe, scared into a frenzy following an Israeli missile attack, slammed its head into a wall, causing itself fatal injury.
“In the last four years, the animals gradually began disappearing from their cages and showing up in the [natural history] museum, as exhibits,” said the zoo’s head veterinarian Sami Khader, referring to the animals that died during Israeli raids. Khader stays away from the museum. He says he can’t bear to see his former charges on display.
The zoo is considered the foremost tourist attraction in Qalqilya. Before the Israeli military closure on the Palestinian territories was imposed, a closure especially draconian in Qalqilya where an eight-meter high wall now completely encircles this northern West Bank town, an average of 3,000 people would visit the zoo every year. According to Qalqilya mayor, Maarouf Zahran, the zoo was developing so quickly that the municipality had to expand its area to accommodate the increasing flow of visitors. The additions then included a children’s playground and the natural history museum. The numbers have since dropped by the hundreds, which has had an extremely negative impact on the zoo, according to Daoud.
Nevertheless, Daoud emphasized the importance of developing the zoo in spite of the difficult conditions. This was the reason behind bringing in new animals. The zoo, said Daoud, must remain a center for culture, capable of attracting visitors.
“Every zoo needs a king,” said Khader. “The three lions will be the main attraction. They are the kings of any zoo.” Qalqilya Zoo’s first lion died of old age about a year ago and since then the zoo has remained without.
Israeli veterinarian Motki Levison, who oversaw the animals’ transfer from Ramat Gan told Reuters that, in addition to the more obvious purpose of rehabilitating the zoo, he hoped the interaction could help “increase understanding between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.”
Levison also added, something Khader endorsed, that the love of animals can help the two warring peoples build bridges of peace even at a time of hostile relations, and would go some way to compensate for the losses resulting from the Israeli incursions.
The relationship between the two zoos goes back years. Khader would often visit the Ramat Gan Safari just as Levison would visit Qalqilya. The Intifada and the Israeli military closures put a stop to such exchanges, and cooperation now is limited mainly to phone conversations.
The Israeli park has also pledged to send another two shipments of animals including a male giraffe in place of the one killed during the Israeli incursion. However, Levison indicated that the zoo is planning to first ensure that the animals that were transferred would adapt to their new environment before a second shipment is sent out.
“We really want peace and coexistence, but politics don’t have a place in this,” said Sagit Horowitz, spokesperson for the safari park. “It is important to us that Palestinians know these species and love animals too.”
The new arrivals have already attracted curiosity. One visitor, Ammar Shalaldeh, said he and his family came to the zoo for a change of scenery but especially to see the lions.
“My seven-year-old daughter was so excited. She was skipping from cage to cage, happy and scared at the same time, especially when she came to the lions’ cage. This is the first time she has ever seen lions and she was surprised at how big they were.”
Zahran, does not underestimate the importance of the zoo to the town and its population. “The zoo has cultural and educational dimensions in addition to its tourist and entertainment dimensions.” He said, in spite of the current difficult circumstances, one of the municipality’s priorities is to maintain, develop and expand the zoo given its importance to the status of the city and its relationship with other Palestinian cities and the world.
Zahran added that in addition to the zoo’s cultural and entertainment value, in the past it used to bring in a steady and reasonable income for the treasury of the municipality, which owns the animal park. He was nevertheless aware of the irony.
“Our zoo is a small prison within a larger prison,” says Khader. “The large prison has only one purpose, which is to increase the distance and hatred between the two peoples. We are neighbors today and will be neighbors tomorrow. This wall can never build good relationships between us and our neighbors.”
The only other Palestinian zoo, in Rafah in the Gaza Strip, was completely destroyed in May during the Israeli “Operation Rainbow” there. Israeli bulldozers leveled the zoo, killing a number of animals, which were buried under its ruins in the Brazil Camp neighborhood. A few of the animals, including a snake and a kangaroo escaped and have not been located since.