Ghana Life: Ghana’s Zoos in the 1970s

When one thinks of Africa one immediately calls to mind its spectacular wildlife, especially its large mammals. While the big five are mostly associated with eastern and central Africa some of them still roam in the less densely populated areas of forest and grassland of the West. The Cote d’Ivoire could not have got its name without elephants and these largest of all land animals feature prominently in the traditional oral literature of Ghana. Thus it was with some excitement that while resident in Kumasi in the 1970s one looked forward to visits to the zoos in Kumasi and in the capital, Accra.

The visit to Kumasi Zoo took place early in 1971 when Ghana was still relatively prosperous. Of course, people at that time complained about widespread poverty and a corrupt administration, but compared to what lay in store a few years later these were halcyon days under the democratic rule of Prime Minister Dr Kofi Busia. At least they could still afford to feed the animals. There were not too many to feed and what was there seemed to have been donated by zoos in other countries. Hurrying to the elephant enclosure one expected to see magnificent creatures from the African plains. The one lone specimen on display was magnificent enough but its ears were too small. It hailed from India, a gift of the Indian government.

Eager to find some local animals, a search began for something that came from Africa, and especially from Ghana. Memory has faded over more than forty years but the crocodiles are well remembered. Although they were described as of the variety associated with the River Nile, they were said to have been pulled from the waters of the Volta. The rather small specimens crowded into a congested pond were not nearly as impressive as the supposedly tame monsters that entertain tourists by emerging from the sacred pond at Paga on a call and the lure of a chicken. No doubt crocodiles are also partial to pigs, and the one truly local animal remembered from the visit to Kumasi Zoo in 1971 was a wild pig or boar said to be indigenous to the forests of Ashanti. In summary, Kumasi Zoo at that time could be described as a brave attempt to run a small provincial zoo on a limited budget in a young developing country.

The visit to Accra Zoo was made several years later when the economy had suffered the ravages of kalebule under the Acheampong military regime. The effect of the economic decline was such as to present a situation that left few people unmoved and filled animal lovers with despair. Perhaps the least said the better, but the mind cannot dispel the pitiable spectacles of a dead giraffe spread full length across its restricted enclosure and a male lion barely able to stand with large pleading eyes and skeletal frame. It was clear that at a time when every human being was hungry there was nothing to spare for the animals. If any resources were being allocated to the zoo, they were probably going to feed the keepers and their families. It was astonishing that the zoo remained open to the public in that condition.

Hopefully, the zoos of Ghana have improved since the 1970s. However, the modern visitor intent on a study of the local fauna is advised to head north to the Mole National Park where the wildlife has been protected over a wide area for several decades and there are reasonable prospects of seeing elephant and baboon free in their natural habitat. For those in search of a special thrill there is always the opportunity to travel to Ghana’s extreme northern border and stroke the last of the dinosaurs on the banks of the sacred pond at Paga.

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