Sunday, January 15, 2012

A day at the zoo

South Sudan’s only zoo is in Wau, in the vicinity of its biggest national park. The zoo shares a sprawling compound by the river with the state’s anti-poaching guards, a force perhaps a thousand strong. Why, I wondered, did the zoo exist, and for whom?

After passing through the rhino-painted gates, I approached a group of milling officers, nearly all of whom sported uniforms with South Sudan Wildlife Service epaulettes. I squeezed as much as I could out of my year of classical Arabic study in my attempt to communicate my interests. Eventually they ushered me to the base commander, who sat in a large office adorned only with a portrait of President Salva Kiir and a vase of plastic and nylon flowers. I explained -- now in English, for someone had located a translator -- that though I had long studied conservation in Central Africa never had I come across a facility like a zoo, and that I was curious to see how it was done.

The commander summoned a uniformed young woman, Theresa, to show me around. South Sudan boasts one of the largest armed wildlife service in the world, with some 14 - 18,000 guards (because they work on a sliding scale of formality, and because they are organized on a state-by-state, rather than a federal, basis, overall tallies of their ranks are imprecise). Shunting the less-experienced SPLA fighters into the wildlife services was one way for the new army to unburden its rosters of those ill-equipped for a military life, or those higher-ups would rather push out of the way. I suspect this is why I saw so many women on the wildlife service bases, though I didn’t manage to corroborate this hypothesis. Some state governors use the wildlife forces as a kind of home guard, that is, as a rural police force. In other places, the guards are more left to their own devices. These are dynamics I hope to explore further in my upcoming research projects.

By the time we’d reached the animal cages, a distance of some 50m, Theresa and I had picked up an entourage of three men: a boy of about eight, a young man who looked eager to overhear some English, and a stooped-yet-spry older man. We stopped at the crocodile pit. I saw nothing lifelike inside the concrete kiddie pool that the creatures had been forced to call home. Eventually one lifted its head enough that a few warty patches were visible above the mucky water.

Next up were the monkey cages. As we crossed the compound, a herd of pigs of all sizes cantered past us. Pigs filled the tree-dotted yards. Some lay in the dirt and mud, and others sauntered in search of a patch of grass or scraps of food left behind by the women selling tea and fried cakes. I asked, in Arabic, who of our group would eat a pig. Theresa shook her head no and seemed to give an involuntary shudder of revulsion. The older man nodded an emphatic yes. The other two watched the responses of their compatriots but stayed silent themselves.

The first monkey flung himself around the perimeter of the wire mesh cube that penned him in with an intensity unmatched by even the most energetic hamster on a wheel. Who would eat that? I asked, pointing at the frenzied creature. Theresa again offered an immediate “No, no!” The older man said yes and began licking is lips. The hands are the best part, he said. “You slice them” -- he indicated slash marks on one palm -- “and grill them with onion and oil.” The recipe recitation called to his mien a reverential satisfaction familiar to me from countless excursions with New York foodies. By this point Theresa had already reached the furthest monkey cage, where a calm grey fellow with shaggy fur greeted her by sticking his arm through the wire mesh. Theresa began stroking him, her fingers working through the fur in a combination massage/nit-picking session. The little boy moved to touch the monkey, but the jerky thwap he struck out with met a reciprocal bop from Theresa. She yelled at the boy to leave.

Next up were the hyenas. The zoo houses two, each in its own cage not much larger than the average professor’s office. The first we met was pacing back and forth manically. Theresa walked up to the wire mesh and began speaking in soothing tones. The hyena stopped near her and pushed its snout through a hole in the grille. Theresa stroked the animal’s nose as one might greet a horse. The hyena occasionally pulled back and bared its impressive mouthful of teeth and then returned for more petting. The two men still present seemed to be debating whether to offer their rubs as well but thought better of it upon sight of the teeth.

The conditions at the Wau Zoo could only be wished on non-sentient creatures, as cramped and devoid of stimulation or natural elements as they were. But in Theresa I saw a glimmer of interest in communicating with the inmates, and as I left the zoo a surprising lightened, heartened feeling accompanied the pit-of-the-stomach soul-wrenching I’d prepared myself for. Of course, I still had no idea why such a zoo should exist. But I’m glad Theresa was there to watch over.