JERUSALEM — Aharon Shulov was a man of faith who knew his Scriptures by heart. Especially the passage in which Isaiah promises a new heaven: “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.”
When Shulov opened the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem in 1940, he took the prophet’s words literally and placed a wolf and sheep in the same enclosure. Well, the sheep had to regularly be replaced. But Shulov’s faith was not shaken. The Ukrainian immigrant had decided to gather together all 130 animals mentioned in the Jewish scriptures, beginning with jackals, hyenas, a wolf and a series of sheep. Now his zoo on the outskirts of Jerusalem is home to more than 3,000 animals.
The zoo is no longer limited to animals mentioned in the Scriptures: Israel’s most popular tourist attraction could not maintain its position without the crowd-pleasing elephants and giraffes. This year the zoo welcomed around 770,000 visitors, mostly locals.
This is the world’s only "biblical zoo", but its importance goes far beyond that. For Jerusalem, the divided city where Jews avoid the Eastern quarters and Arabs steer clear of the orthodox neighborhoods, the zoo is the only place where people of all backgrounds and religions come together. Fathers with kippahs stand next to mothers in headscarves while their children watch the sleeping lions. Around a third of the zoo’s visitors are orthodox Jews. For them, cinemas and cafes are outlawed, so the zoo is one of the few places where they can go out to enjoy themselves. The staff are a mix of Jews and Arabs and tours are offered in Hebrew, Arabic and English.
Politics is left at the entrance, says the zoo’s management.
Animals in the line of fire
However, the zoo has not always been an oasis of calm in this conflict-ridden country. When Shulov first moved a handful of animals into the center of Jerusalem in 1940, his zoo was quickly overrun by visitors who had little opportunity to escape from the persecution and war that dominated Jerusalem under British rule.
Shulov’s dream also ran into complications as many of the 130 species mentioned in the Scriptures were extinct in the wild. The Asian lion, the emblem of Jerusalem, had disappeared by the time of the Crusades. The Mesopotamian fallow deer was not only a delicacy at King Solomon’s palace; there was no trace of it in the region by the end of World War I.
History had not been kind to the land: the Osmans cut down entire forests for their railroads and the British continued construction projects, destroying more natural habitats. Shulov had to ask for animals from foreign zoos, and deal with neighbor’s complaints about the hyena’s cries and worries that dangerous predators would escape from their improvised enclosures. His only option was to move up to Mount Scopus, where he soon found himself on the front line of the First Arab-Israeli War.
When Arab troops besieged Jerusalem in 1948, Shulov had to dodge flying bullets to feed his animals. Israel held Mount Scopus but the routes to it were given to Jordan as part of the ceasefire agreement. The UN had to intervene to ensure that supplies could reach the animals, and both sides eventually agreed to evacuate the zoo into the Israeli quarter of the town.
By this point Shulov’s animals had been significantly reduced, but he was able to rebuild the zoo thanks to international help. During the Six Days War in 1967, however, more than 100 animals were killed by errant bullets and shrapnel.
A modern Noah’s Ark
Until Shulov retired in the 1980s, the zoo remained a ramshackle affair, with enclosures built by the director himself. Things changed when Teddy Kollek, Jerusalem’s long-serving mayor, recognized the zoo’s potential. “In a complicated city with a complex society, Jerusalem Zoo builds bridges between people,” he said, and called for investment. In 1993 the zoo was moved to its current premises with impressive new enclosures.
The current zoo looks like a modern-day Noah’s Ark. In the belly of a giant wooden ship visitors discover that the zoo gathered together around a third of all animals mentioned in the Scriptures. Eleven of those that had disappeared from the region, including the Mesopotamian fallow deer, have been reintroduced into nature reserves in the north of Israel.
At first glance, the place looks like a normal zoo, but when you look closer you can see the rituals that are only to be found in Israel. The animals eat kosher food. Every morning keepers bring tons of fruit, grains, fish and meat from the market, which they are given for free: according to Jewish religious law, a tenth of the harvest is given to clergy and their animals. On Passover, the animals eat only unleavened bread or rice, and on the Sabbath the small train that takes visitors to the high-up enclosures doesn’t run.
Visitors still walk the two kilometers, as at the top they can find the zoo’s secret attraction. Jewish and Arab children both grimace in front of the cage. “Urgh, a pig,” one boy calls out and loses his kippah as he runs away.
He should have taken the time to read the sign outside the enclosure. It is the only one that is also written in Yiddish, so that fundamentalist orthodox Jews, who reject Hebrew as a spoken language, can understand. The sign says that the animal is a peccary and adds: “This is not a pig!” The zoo’s management explains that without the sign, the animal would be in danger of being stoned by outraged visitors.
Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?
BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.
The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.
This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.
Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.
"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.
Can you trust environmental officials?
For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.
This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.
It could have sunk because of the rain.
After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.
The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.
"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.
"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.
Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water
A questionable claim
That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.
"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.
He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."
Living in pollution
The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.
"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.
He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.
The mining work should have been stopped long ago
Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.
The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.
In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.
The mine has affected the landscape around the villages
Resisting lignite mining
The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.
The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.
They were dependent on others' land for work.
Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.
In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.
The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.
"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.