Kazak Zoo Scandal Highlights Animal Rights

The plight of a female tiger has caught public attention and raised hopes for change.

Kazak Zoo Scandal Highlights Animal Rights

The plight of a female tiger has caught public attention and raised hopes for change.

 Almaty Zoo is a popular destination for locals. (Photo: Aktan Rysaliev)
Almaty Zoo is a popular destination for locals. (Photo: Aktan Rysaliev)

A series of deaths among rare animals in one of Kazakstan’s largest zoos have highlighted the country’s lack of legislation to protect animal welfare.

According to Kazak news website Tengrinews, a total of 570 animals died in Almaty’s municipal zoo over the past five years. This amounts to some 10 per cent of all its animals.

The most recent and high profile case involved a female tiger named Kuralay, whose plight caught national attention and sparked a public campaign.

Zoo workers leaked photos on social media of the ailing animal in a pitiful, near-skeletal condition in April.

Former Almaty Zoo employee Ghani Shokotaev told private Kazak TV channel KTK that the management had invited traditional shamanic healers in to treat the tiger rather than vets.

“They are treating the tiger using folk methods such as enchanted water to make sure her heart keeps going and to prevent the tigress dying while Karimov is in charge,” he said.

Nurtas Adambay, a famous Kazak comedian and film director, then launched a Facebook and Twitter campaign with the hashtag #soskuralay.

He also teamed up with activists and journalists to doorstep Almaty zoo director Kanat Karimov.

Filmed by dozens of TV cameras, they demanded immediate action be taken to either ensure the animal’s welfare or close down the entire establishment.

A public meeting was also arranged with Rayimbek Batalov, the head of Almaty Zoo’s supervisory board, which ended with him promising to ensure that more competent staff would be hired.

Nonetheless, Kuralay died the following month of pneumonia and general neglect.

Zoo spokesman Mikhail Sorokumov insisted that the tiger had received appropriate treatment. A vet had been summoned from Moscow to examine her, he added.

But Adambay said that the zoo had failed in their duty of care for the animal.

“Kuralay suffered in vain for about half a year because of [the zoo administration’s] negligence, indifference and heartlessness,” Adambay told IWPR. “Back at the beginning of 2016, Moscow vets advised [staff] to put her out of her misery and put her to sleep. But all of the [zoo administration] let things slide.”

“To my regret, the case of the tigress Kuralay is just one of many,” Adambay continued “In reality many more animals in Almaty zoo are in need of help. The current zoo administration does not accept its full responsibility for animals in captivity.”

Neither Karimov nor his deputy Agybay Azhibaev was available for comment when contacted by IWPR.

The zoo, previously managed by Almaty City Hall, was in June brought under the jurisdiction of the department of agriculture following the outcry.

Following the public outcry, Almaty mayor Bauyrzhan Baibek told the local news agency Bnews.kz that it was unrealistic to expect major improvements without find private funding to cover at least 40 per cent of maintenance costs.

Apart from promises to raise zoo workers’ salaries by up to 70 per cent, officials have yet to clarify how the change in management will affect animal welfare.

But Adambay said that it was still an achievement that a public campaign had highlighted serious issues.

Several thousand people had joined his #soskuralay campaign on Facebook and Twitter, and the Nur Otan party had also joined the debate, promising to monitor zoo developments on a monthly basis.

“We’ve managed to reach out to many Kazakstanis who expressed compassion for the tigress,” Adambay continued. “The public demonstrated they are not indifferent to animal rights.”


Vera Voronova, chief executive of the Kazak Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity, a Kazak environmental protection NGO, said that the entire animal care sector was under-resourced.

“In Kazakstan there is a severe lack of personnel,” she told IWPR. “I’m speaking from my own experience; we were looking for staff ourselves. It’s not that easy to find biologists, ecologists with a good command of the English and Kazak languages, who are familiar with research methods, data analysis and fieldwork skills.

“Kazak universities prepare specialists who often can’t distinguish types of birds from each other,” Voronova said.

There is also very little legislation surrounding animal welfare.

Animal mistreatment and breach of veterinary practice are both regarded as administrative offences, subject to fine of up to 210,000 tenge (623 dollars). 

Poaching is subject to up to five years of imprisonment, according to the Kazak penal code.    

“There is a nature conservation department at the Kazak interior ministry. They catch poachers [from time to time], but the system doesn’t work very well,” Voronova said.

“Insufficient attention is paid towards preserving the rare animal population,” she went on. “Apart from that, the punishment procedure is not followed [in practice]. It’s rare that a case of poaching or cruel treatment of animals receives a reasonable penalty.”

Moreover, according to the Kazakstan Animal Rescue and Education (KARE) Foundation, there is no special legislation regulating animal rights or zoo maintenance.

KARE has been campaigning for years for this to be adopted, arguing that this unregulated situation is precisely what leads to large-scale neglect.

“From an animal protection point of view, Kazakstan is…at the very beginning of its development. There is no law on animal protection in Kazakstan, there isn’t even a clear classification of [endangered] animal species or regulations on their treatment,” KARE head Yuliya Kovalenko told IWPR.

Introducing legislation was a priority, she said, adding, “There has to be a legal base first in order to raise social awareness of these issues and educate the general public.”

Aktan Rysaliev is the pseudonym of an Almaty-based journalist. 

This publication was produced under IWPR project Strengthening Capacities, Bridging Divides in Central Asia, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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