Two South African wildlife veterinarians have completed a rehabilitation project at the national zoo in Abidjan, which has suffered from a lack of funding since a failed coup attempt in September 2002 divided the nation.
The African Association of Zoos and Aquaria is funding the two-week project to assist with veterinarian services and habitat enhancement at the Abidjan Zoo.
Veterinarian Matt Hartley says he was impressed by the condition of the zoo.
"At one time, it must have been a stunning zoo," he said. "There's some very nice enclosures that have been extremely well designed. The prime examples are the pygmy hippos and the crocodile facilities. They are both excellent facilities for breeding those particular animals.
"And the species that are in the zoo, some of them are extremely rare and there are a very few number of zoos that actually have them in captivity," continued Mr. Hartley. "So, we, as professional zoo veterinarians, we were very excited by the collection, and the main problem in the zoo is a chronic lack of repairs and maintenance."
The zoo is home to hundreds of animals, including the nearly endangered pygmy hippopotamus, West African dwarf crocodiles, several extremely rare antelopes and chimpanzees.
Dr. Hartley says one of the chimpanzees is very sick, which is why the zoo originally put out a call for international support.
"There is a sick chimpanzee, which with the resources we have at the moment we are not able to treat, but she's extremely old and sick, and she would probably be extremely sick if she were in any zoo in the world," he said. "Abidjan Zoo is probably one of the better zoos in West Africa, even with the current situation. There is a huge public support for the zoo. Some people would suggest that we shut down the zoo, but the animals in the zoo are imprinted or are used to humans. With the current bush-meat situation, they are likely to be eaten anyway."
Not very long ago, Abidjan was considered the Paris of West Africa, and there was a thriving tourist industry. But a failed coup attempt nearly two years ago plunged the world's Number One cocoa producing nation into civil war and political turmoil, and has driven out a majority of the international residents.
Admission to the zoo is less than 50 U.S. cents per person, and although there are still many local visitors, the revenues are not what they once were. But there is hope that a recently signed peace accord could resolve the political impasse and encourage a revival in tourism.
A tourist from Nigeria, Patience Chukwu, says it is her first visit to Abidjan Zoo, and she will encourage others to see it, as well.
"The snake area, I've never seen a very large live snake like that. But I've had the opportunity to see a very large live snake, the width, it's amazing," she said. "I've never seen a live elephant before. It's all right, I fed the elephant. Before I used to be scared. I didn't know the elephant can collect food from my hand. It's wonderful."
In addition to much needed veterinarian services, the South Africans also assisted with enhancements to the existing facilities. Bamboo swings were created for the monkey cages, and although the various monkeys initially approached the additions with trepidation, they soon embraced the changes.
Veterinarian Stephen van der Spuy says the additions to the habitats cost very little.
"The effect on the animals is extremely important, because watching them right at the moment, they are having a whale of a time. They're really enjoying themselves," he said. "So, just the simple enrichment that we've put in has made a large difference to them. You know, we have had a lot of exposure to how to care for, how to enrich the environments and that's become a very important term in the zoo world. And, I think now, once we've started doing it, they can see how little it costs to actually add that enrichment to the cages. They'll start doing it themselves."
He says that simple shifts in where the animals are currently located could improve the situation for the majority of the animals. Both veterinarians are hoping to return to Abidjan to assist with moving the elephants, which are the national symbol of Ivory Coast, to a new area of the zoo.