UAE authorities have offered to temporarily evacuate animals that are starving in a Yemeni zoo less than a mile from the frontline of the civil war in the southern city of Taiz.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s foremost authority on safeguarding wildlife and nature, has been attempting on behalf of UAE zoos to persuade the Yemeni authorities to allow the animals to be relocated, a senior wildlife official told 7DAYS.
Among the 265 animals are 26 critically-endangered Arabian leopards, of which there are believed to be only 80 in the world.
Taiz is among the cities at the centre of the conflict between the ousted government and its allies the Houthi rebels.
The rebel group expanded from its northern enclave in 2014 and took the capital, Sana’a, and much of northern Yemen.
President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s forces and a Saudi-led coalition, which the UAE is part of, are currently fighting them back.
The Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife in Sharjah, together with Al Ain Zoo, issued a proposal through a group of international donors to transfer all 265 animals from the besieged Taiz zoo to the UAE.
But officials said they have so far been unable to convince the Yemeni government to agree to the deal, even though the UAE would pay the $500,000-$750,000 for the operation.
“We have space together with Al Ain, to accommodate all the animals until the situation is clear and afterwards the animals could return,” an official from the Sharjah centre said.
“The Yemen authorities answered that the animals are well cared for and said ‘we don’t need your assistance’.
“The offer was formally made through the government. We want to help. Tell us what you need. Worst-case scenario, we will help to relocate the animals, all the things that come with it, and we can keep your animals safe.”
Chantal Jonkergouw, founder of SOS Zoo and Bear Rescue in Yemen, which has been fund-raising, said it costs at least $4,000 per week to maintain the zoo and to purchase a weekly quota of donkeys to slaughter to feed the zoo’s inhabitants.
Visitor revenues have predictably collapsed due to the conflict.
Jonkergouw said: “I’ve raised $125,000 so far but I can’t continue to do that.
“Depending on where they are going, the transfer would cost around half a million to $750,000, for the transport, logistics, export papers and crates to keep the animals in.” Among the difficulties would be the security operation involved.
“They would also need a fully armed escort in an out of the city,” Jonkergouw added.
Two Arabian leopard cubs born in October are among the collection of rare leopards, of which only 80 remain in the world.
She said: “We know for sure that if we don’t evacuate them soon these animals will die, especially the highly-critically endangered Arabian Leopard we have at the zoo, which would be a major loss for Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula.”
Zoo worker Bassam Al Hakimi, 25, walks every day to the zoo to care for the animals.
He painted a bleak picture of conditions inside the facility, explaining that the animals are desperate under the strain of critical food shortages.
“I have a picture of a lion eating his brother (out of hunger), imagine living and dying in such a small space,” he said.