Cuba zoo gets ready for Namibian wild animals

Sarah Rainsford takes a look around Havana's Zoological Park

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The National Zoological Park in Cuba's capital, Havana, is busy preparing for a delivery that it hopes will transform its fortunes: 146 wild animals, donated by the government of Namibia.

The operation is so large it has been dubbed Noah's Ark II.

The vast majority of the animals, which include lions, leopards and buffalo, will be flown from Africa at the end of September, followed several months later by 10 baby rhinos and five elephants.

Feeding time at the zoo in Havana Staff say the zoo is able to look after all the animals well

South Africa's National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA) has expressed "disgust" at the move involving a "long and stressful flight" and questioned the facilities and standards of care in Cuba.

The NSPCA said it was sad that the animals were being "taken out of their natural habitats" and would be "totally dependent on humans for their daily needs".

But Namibia's gift has prompted Cuba's communist government to invest $15m (£9.5m) to make major improvements to the once-neglected park, which is currently home to some 870 animals.

"There was a point when pessimists thought this place would close but this has enabled us to get the money we need to repair our facilities and create new ones," says development director Israel Fernandez.

He admits the park has struggled in the past - especially in the "Special Period" of the 1990s after huge Soviet subsidies to Cuba disappeared - but sees what is happening now as a '"rebirth".

"Now we're out of a hole and we can think of the future and even dream of expanding," Mr Fernandez says.

Repairs

Preparations to receive "Noah's Ark" have been under way for more than two years and there are signs of change throughout the 342-hectare (845-acre) park.

So far, $1.5m has been spent replacing dilapidated fences, resurfacing paths and repairing run-down enclosures.

There is also a new quarantine facility: Cuba last received animals from Africa 32 years ago and the original building had fallen to ruin.

The animals from Namibia will spend up to 40 days in isolation on arrival. They will be sent with food and medicine for that initial period, as well as a ventilation unit to help ease their transition to the tropical heat.

Then, it is all down to Cuba.

Elephants in Namibia Elephants can roam freely in Namibia's game parks

The zoo's transformation has been made easier by recent reforms on the communist-run island, where state control has been relaxed over parts of the economy to cut costs and improve productivity.

Managers have been able to contract out the repair work to brigades of "cuenta-propistas" as Cuba's self-employed are known. They are significantly cheaper and more efficient than state employees.

Giraffe in the African Plains section of Cuba's zoo  The African Plains section is enclosed by a concrete fence

The park has also begun offering rental plots to private businesses in an attempt to improve services and pull in more visitors.

One rents out mini-scooters and buggies for children to whizz around the grounds.

"It was hard before with all the problems the country had, but things have improved a lot here," says Reinaldo Coto, after completing a lap with his children.

"The animals are fatter now, you can see it!" says a young girl as she feeds fistfuls of grass to a zebra.

New blood

Visitor numbers are already up 30% on last year, with some 2,000 a day in high season. The park eventually wants to attract more foreign tourists and their hard currency.

The crocodile and flamingo pools could still do with a cleanout, but at the lion enclosure the keepers say ensuring the animals are well-nourished is no longer the struggle it was.

"There were a few problems in the Special Period, but you can see that the animals are fit now," says keeper Alexis Leon as he sorts through huge chunks of horse meat for grunting lions that are pawing their cages.

They devour between seven and 10kg (15-22lb) of meat each, every day, which still has to be bought from the state.

But the park recently switched to a private supplier for the herbivores which is 25% cheaper than the state co-operative. The ultimate goal is to grow much of the feed on site.

Visitors on a bus as they travel around the zoological park The zoo is hoping the promise of new animals will attract more visitors

Staff argue that the introduction of the animals from Africa is vital.

"We need them to refresh the gene pool," says Mr Leon. "It's been years since we had new animals here and the lions are not as tall now, their manes are less full. There's a lot of in-breeding and we need new blood."

Four lions are being sent on "Noah's Ark", to add to the 40 already in Havana. The area where they are currently released to roam is small and not due for extension until 2016.

But all the hoofed animals are destined for what is called the African Plain, although its 45 hectares are a tiny fraction of the vast Waterberg Plateau they are used to in Namibia.

Touring the area on a rusty old bus donated by Spain long ago, children peer out as the guide tells them that Ada, Cuba's only elephant, will soon have five young companions.

"I think it will make the park much nicer and bring more visitors," says one of the visitors, Daribel, as the bus passes huge hippos sinking into a pond.

"We'll definitely come back."

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