Baghdad Zoo Recovering From War Destruction

Posted Dec 6, 2009 by Steven Z.K. Nickels
The Baghdad Zoo, devastated in the early days of the Iraq war, is making an amazing comeback and is now being enjoyed by millions of Iraqi visitors.
U.S. Army soldiers admire one of the cats at the Baghdad Zoo.
U.S. Army soldiers admire one of the cats at the Baghdad Zoo.
U.S. Army
The Baghdad Zoo, which occupies 200 acres of Al Zawraa Park in central Baghdad, Iraq, once contained 600 animals and was the largest zoo in the Middle East. When the Iraq War began in April, 2003, and United States forces arrived in Baghdad, Fedayeen troops loyal to Saddam Hussein took up defensive positions around the zoo. After the initial fighting in Baghdad, only 12 of the 600 animals were left at the zoo, according to the North Carolina (NC) Zoo Society which donated 100,000 U.S. dollars to the Zoo in 2003 to begin assisting in the rebuilding efforts. Hundreds of animals escaped, were stolen, died of thirst and hunger or were killed in the chaos which took hold in Baghdad.
Lawrence Anthony, a noted conservationist in South Africa, knew that the animals at the zoo would need help so he immediately left his Thula Thula Game Reserve home in Zululand, South Africa, to try to get into Baghdad. According to Anthony's website, "Once there, Lawrence somehow wrangled his way into becoming the first civilian [media excepted] to gain military access to Iraq and then quite unbelievably, simply hired a car and drove unarmed and unescorted 500 miles through the biggest war zone since Vietnam, right into the violent heart of Baghdad itself to bring relief to the animals." Anthony's story of the war's destruction at the Zoo and the initial rescue and rebuilding efforts are given in his 2007 book, Babylon's Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo.
Today, the Baghdad Zoo has made an amazing comeback and has almost 1,070 animals. It has become a very popular destination for families from all parts of Iraq. With the decline in overall violence over the last 18 months and the withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces from the city centers in June of this year, some normalcy has returned to the city and the zoo. Animals at the zoo now include lions, tigers, monkeys, ostriches and an elephant and giraffe are expected to arrive shortly. Visitors to the zoo pay a small fee equal to 40 American cents and "vendors sell beverages and snacks such as nuts, cotton candy and sweets," according to the NC Zoo Society website. They also point out that "visitors are drawn to the park because it offers a safe, peaceful location for gathering with families and friends." The risk of bombings, however, is still a security concern and visitors are frisked for weapons before entry. Government security guards check bags and picnic baskets for explosives and patrol the zoo grounds.
Salah Abu al-Lail, the director general of Baghdad parks and gardens, said that visitors to the zoo have increased dramatically. In 2005, he said, 200,000 visitors came to the 400 acre Al Zawraa Park, which contains the zoo, during the four day Eid holiday. This year, there were three million visitors during the holiday in early October. Abu al-Lail also expects eight million to have visited from all over Iraq by this year's end. (Attempts to verify the visitor numbers he gave were unsuccessful.) The zoo, and the Al Zawraa Park, is now so popular that officials have asked for the return of 350 acres that were originally part of the Park and are now included in the "Green Zone," the governmental area fortified as a base for U.S. forces after the fall of Baghdad but now controlled by the Iraqi government. That portion of land contains a theatre, a cinema and an aircraft museum.