By Hira Jaleel
On August 10, 2023, Parliament passed the Islamabad Nature Conservation and Wildlife Management Act, 2023. Replacing the Islamabad Wildlife (Protection, Preservation, Conservation, and Management) Ordinance 1979, the law aims to strengthen wildlife and environmental protections in the federal capital. When announcing the law’s passage on Twitter, Mr. Salman Sufi, Head of the Prime Minister’s Strategic Reforms Unit claimed that the bill “ensures no wildlife can be kept privately as pets, abused in Islamabad.”
A closer examination of the text of the law indicates that the devil is in the details, and the federal government has a difficult road ahead if it is serious about abolishing private wild animal ownership in Islamabad.
The Leopard Incident
Earlier this year, a leopard was caught on video running around Islamabad’s DHA Phase II neighborhood. It took the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board and the Capital Development Authority more than five hours to capture the big cat, during which three people were injured. While there was mass conjecture that the leopard was privately owned by a citizen, the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board claimed that the animal was a wild leopard who had strayed into a residential area. The idea that the leopard may have been privately owned was unsurprising to many, given the increasing trend of keeping big cats as pets in Pakistan.
Pakistan has a big cat crisis. According to the CITES Trade Database, between the years 2005-2020, the Federal Government issued permits for the import of 241 African lions, of which 38 were imported to be bred in captivity, 88 were imported for zoos and 77 were imported for ‘commercial’ purposes. These figures do not include other exotic big cats that may have been imported, such as tigers or hybrids. Furthermore, news reports indicate that in 2019, 300 lions were being kept as pets in the city of Karachi alone. Over the past few years, there have been repeated reports of lion cubs being walked on the streets, lions being brought into veterinary offices and people driving around densely populated cities with big cats in the backseat.
Private ownership of big cats gives rise to serious human safety and animal welfare concerns. In 2019, a man set his pet lion on an electrician who was demanding wages for his work. In 2021, a pet lion attacked and injured a 10-year-old boy in Karachi’s Gulberg area. These incidents are not one-off cases but are emblematic of an ever-growing trend of keeping big cats such as lions, tigers, and leopards as pets, often in residential areas.
These animals are frequently kept chained or tethered in backyards or in cages inadequate to meet their physical and social needs. Because of the danger they pose, big cats are sometimes perpetually drugged or sedated, or may even have their claws and teeth extracted. Animal abuse is also a problem. In May 2021, a video depicting a man violently beating a lion cub went viral on social media. It is unclear if the man was ever prosecuted for the abuse.
New Law Still Allows Owning Wild Animals
The new Islamabad Wildlife Act purportedly attempts to address this problem, at least in Islamabad. However, the law is vaguely worded and weakly framed. It prohibits any person from keeping a wild animal in captivity unless allowed by law. This is not an absolute bar or prohibition on possessing wild exotic animals, because the law, rules, or regulations made under it could still allow such possession. Indeed, the law itself arguably allows imported wild animals to be kept captive, as discussed below.
The Act also requires that within three months of the law coming into force, any person possessing a wild animal has to surrender the animal to the Board for Nature Conservation and Wildlife Management, failing which the Board can forcefully seize the animal. Since it is highly unlikely that people will voluntarily surrender their exotic pets under this Act, the law will only be successful in its intent to remove captive wild animals from private possession if the Board is actively enforcing this provision and seizing exotic wild animals. Furthermore, it is unclear what the Board intends to do with the animals surrendered or seized, considering that the number of exotic pets in private possession in Pakistan likely far outweighs the Board’s capacity to house them. Zoos in Pakistan have also been running out of space to house certain species of exotic animals, especially big cats. The Board will need a comprehensive plan to house these animals before it seizes them.
The Act also prohibits the establishment of any breeding facility for wild animals by the private sector. However, it allows and regulates the establishment of public sector facilities for the breeding of wild animals, including exotic animals. This begs the question of what interest the Federal Government has in breeding exotic animals, and what such facilities can do with those animals under the law. The Act also allows “licensed facilities” to use certain species for “research and development”, a term that the law leaves undefined. Effective implementation of the legislation will only be possible with strict enforcement and clear subordinate legislation.
Allows Importing Exotic Wild Animals
In terms of importing wild animals from abroad, unfortunately, the law does not prohibit the import of exotic wild animals but instead requires that before importing a living wild animal, the requisite permits be obtained from the Board and country of export.
Firstly, the requirement to obtain appropriate permits before importing exotic wildlife is already present under existing legislation: the Pakistan Trade Control of Fauna and Flora Act 2012, which applies to Islamabad. Secondly, this provision creates confusion within the law because it does not specify whether the import of live animals is only allowed for specific reasons, nor does it state that only licensed facilities can import live wild animals. As a result, the law appears to imply that as long as one has the requisite import and export permits, any person can import a live exotic animal to be kept in captivity.
No Measures to Protect Wild Animals in Facilities
Lastly, the new law is woefully silent on any animal welfare measures to be taken by licensed facilities housing wild animals. While the Act makes it an offense to “injure” wild animals, it completely fails to address the myriad of harms that befall captive wild animals, including lack of sufficient housing and space, failure to provide species-specific food, water, and psychological enrichment, lack of access to veterinary care and leaving the animals’ behavioral, social and physiological needs unmet.
Animals are complex social and emotional creatures, and a simple provision prohibiting injury is not sufficient to address the needs of wild animals in captivity. Admittedly, the federal government claims to have been working on a new Federal Animal Welfare Bill catering to animal welfare. However, that bill has not been made public and so it is unclear if it would even apply to wild animals, captive or otherwise.
Given the nationwide commercial industry growing around big cat import, sale, and purchase for private possession, there is no room for incremental regulation in this sphere. Federal legislation needs to address and completely ban the import, export, inter-provincial transport, sale, purchase, breeding, and possession of exotic animals, especially big cats.
Enforcing New Law is Key
Instead of a strong law cracking down on this insidious industry, the Islamabad Wildlife Act offers vaguely worded provisions that seem unlikely to change the status quo. However, with any law, enforcement is a key piece of the puzzle that helps the legislation sink or swim. Looking ahead, it remains to be seen how this law will be enforced within Islamabad.
Wild animals are majestic creatures who remind us of the wonder and power of the natural world. Keeping them confined and allowing them to suffer is not only our moral failure but is also a very real public safety hazard. Failure to act on this front has already resulted in a burgeoning big cat population in Pakistan. The legislature and executive need to act in tandem to prevent further harm to animals and people.
About The Author
Hira Jaleel is a Teaching Fellow and Adjunct Professor at the Center for Animal Law Studies. She has also extensively litigated on behalf of animals in Pakistan. Hira was co-counsel in a case before the Lahore High Court against indiscriminate culling of street dogs by state authorities. The case resulted in the formulation of a provincial dog birth control policy, which ended the barbaric practice of culling dogs and replaced it with a Trap Neuter Vaccinate Release program.