Pakistan is in the midst of an acute economic crisis, struggling with external debts amounting to over $115 billion (€105 billion), soaring inflation and sluggish growth prospects, among an array of other problems.
The turmoil has taken a toll not only on people, but also on animals.
Reports of food shortages for the animals at a zoo in Pakistan's biggest city, Karachi, have triggered an outcry on social media platforms and among animal rights activists.
A team from the international animal welfare organization FOUR PAWS is in the South Asian country examining two elephants — named Madhu and Noor Jehan — at the Karachi Zoo.
The local English daily newspaper Express Tribune reported last weekend that the zoo animals were malnourished and noted the poor state of animal welfare in Pakistan.
"The appalling living conditions of these animals — which include malnutrition, unclean water and cramped enclosures — are leading to their deteriorating health and well-being and constitute grave violations," the paper said. "This is unacceptable and must be addressed urgently."
Zoo struggles with resource shortages
The zoo, established during British colonial rule, covers 43 acres of land and has 750 animals and birds kept across 117 different cages. Animal rescuer Tipu Sharif, who has visited Karachi zoo several times for his work, slammed the zoo habitat as "unsatisfactory."
"They are malnourished. The management does not have adequate resources to feed them and the food that is supplied to the animals is of not excellent quality. The animals don't have the right kind of space for the type of animals that they are," Sharif told DW.
Zain Mustafa, president of the Society for the Protection of Animal Rights, said it's not the first time food suppliers have encountered a problem with the zoo administration.
"Such situations also arose in the past," he told DW. "The staff and keepers of the zoo are excellent people but it is the lack of resources that is creating problems, including the issue of quality food for animals."
Scores of zoo staff posts remain vacant
Mehmood Baig, a senior official at Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC), denied reports that the zoo animals were starving, but admitted that the KMC was facing its worst financial crisis due to withholding of funds.
"The administration owes dues of over 30 million rupees and the animal food supplier has threatened to stop food supply," he said.
Baig added that the KMC has been facing a liability of over 10 billion Pakistani rupees due to the shortfall in revenues and non-release of funds from the Sindh government.
The zoo also appears to be facing a staff shortage. A zoo employee told DW on the condition of anonymity that the zoo has only 14 keepers to feed animals, take care of them and clean cages. "The zoo has not recruited additional workforce since 1997 because of a ban on recruitment by the Sindh government," the employee said.
The employee revealed that 93 available positions have remained vacant for years. The positions for 20 keepers, 33 security guards, 37 financers and four sweepers are available but authorities have not bothered to fill them, the employee said.
Karachi governing body faces financial turmoil
Faisal Edhi, an aid worker and head of the social services Edhi Foundation, says KMC's financial crisis is crippling the zoo, which falls under its jurisdiction.
A shortage of funds is affecting animals' well-being, including the supply of food, he told DW, adding that that the administration is not interested in taking care of the animals properly. The administration could sort out the food shortage problem by seeking the help of non-governmental organizations, he suggested.
"In the past, we would supply two goats daily weighing 15 to 20 kilograms," he said. "But after somebody reported to the media that the Edhi Foundation supplies goats to the zoo to feed lions, they stopped taking food from us which was free."
Edhi said the shipbreaking industry dumps tons of meat every year. "This is frozen meat and not bad for animal health," he said. "The zoo could also contact them, requesting them to supply that food to animals."
Mustafa from the Society for the Protection of Animal Rights, meanwhile, stressed that if the budget is increased to give the zoo adequate resources, "every issue can be sorted out, including the supply of sufficient quality foods."
But animal rescuer Sharif said he believes more drastic action is needed.
"I think we should abolish all zoos," he said. "They (the animals) do not deserve to be underfed."
Authorities have denied reports of malnourishment at Karachi Zoo.
Provincial minister Syed Nasir Hussain Shah and zoo director Khalid Hashmi rejected claims that the animals were underfed. Hashmi told DW the reports were "false propaganda," and that there was no shortage of food for the animals at Karachi Zoo.
KMC Commissioner Syed Saif ur Rehman also told DW the allegations were baseless and false.