Page last updated at 10:49 GMT, Wednesday, 9 September 2009 11:49 UK

Doubts over Cairo's historic zoo

An Egyptian zookeeper feeds a Nile crocodile at Giza zoo in Cairo 14 August 2007
The zoo offers close-up entertainment, but hundreds of animals have disappeared

Cairo's Giza Zoo, once one of the world's foremost zoological gardens, has long since fallen into disrepair. It remains popular with Egyptian families, but the BBC's Yolande Knell reports on challenges to its survival - from property developers, mismanagement and animal welfare advocates.

In the lion house at Giza Zoo, a crowd of children shriek excitedly as the big cats snarl behind iron bars and dig their teeth into slabs of raw meat.

"I like all the animals but the lions are best," giggles four-year-old Zeinab Abdul Hamid.

"We bring our little kids here to show them all the different creatures," says her father, Ashraf.

"Usually we come at least twice a year during the holidays. I used to come when I was a child."

The whole approach is rooted in the 1950s. It needs a change of direction
Will Travers, Born Free Foundation

At just one Egyptian pound (less than $0.20, £0.10) for an entrance ticket, the zoo is seen as a fun and affordable day out, particularly by low-income families.

Recent rumours that it could be moved from central Cairo, where it has been since 1891, to a new site on the outskirts of the city have caused a public outcry.

"It's better if it stays where it is," Mr Abdul Hamid insists.

"It would not be good to move because this is a beautiful, old place," adds Atef Ramzi, who is visiting with two daughters. "Everyone knows it and it's easy to access."

Despite denials by the Ministry of Agriculture, which oversees the zoo, reports persist that a development company wants to buy the valuable real estate.

The zoo is located in 40 hectares (100 acres) of gardens near the west bank of the Nile in a high-class neighbourhood opposite the luxury Four Seasons hotel.

Dubious practices

Lion's cage at Giza Zoo
Zoo keepers get tips by feeding animals kept in cell-like cages

Culture Minister Farouk Hosny has weighed into the controversy declaring that some 19th Century features should be protected as antiquities.

"The zoo just needs more care and maintenance," he says. "If it were to be given due attention it could truly become one of the most famous in the world."

Animal rights campaigners have long called for improvements at Giza Zoo.

They complain about the cell-like cages used for lions and bears, and the methods by which keepers seek tips to supplement their small salaries.

Visitors are allowed to feed the animals, including the hippopotamus who gobbles down handfuls of clover.

Children can have their photographs taken with a lion cub or baby chimpanzee - or even with their heads inside the mouth of an elephant kept on a short chain.

"The whole approach is rooted in the 1950s," says Will Travers of the London-based Born Free Foundation, which monitors zoo conditions. "It needs a change of direction."

I wish they could restore it as it once was... and I wish all the animals were happy as well as the children
Zoo visiter

"We have recommended more training of staff, better conditions and rationalising the collection so there are fewer animals."

A series of scandals has focused attention on bad practices at the zoo.

In 2007, two camels were butchered by a worker who sold the meat.

Police said more than 400 animals - including a giraffe and black panther - had disappeared between 2005 and 2008. It is thought many were sold as pets.

World class dream

Zoo managers insist they are making changes as they seek readmission to the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). They oppose moving the zoo.

Zoo visiters
An affordable and fun day out for Cairo's animal lovers

"We have many projects for the animals. We make advances every day of every month according to our master plan," says chairman Nabil Sedky.

He points to the air-conditioning units recently installed in the bear enclosure. "Now they enjoy the summer days," he says.

Will Travers agrees the zoo could be modernised on its current site.

"There's a lot you can do with 100 acres," he comments, "but you need political will."

"The government must say, 'Let's create a world-class facility', and give proper investment because at the moment this is something they should be ashamed of."

For many Egyptians, the zoo is a reminder of the faded glory of Cairo. It was established at a time when the city was seen as the Paris of the Middle East.

The zoo's bridges, including one designed by Gustave Eiffel, streams and mosaic-lined pathways are still in place, although not well-maintained.

"I wish they could restore it as it once was," says one father who says he comes regularly with his three-year-old son.

"And I wish all the animals were happy as well as the children."

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