PRAGUE – More than a decade after many of its animals drowned, the Prague Zoo is counting the cost of yet another devastating flood. In 2002, more than 100 animals died — among them, Kadir, a male elephant that became stranded up to his ears in floodwaters and had to be euthanized — when the zoo was inundated by the worst flooding in centuries. In June, nature has again taken its toll, with major flooding that has ravaged parts of Central Europe, again submerging the entire lower parts of the park again. This time, only a handful of animals were swept away and an army of volunteers are making sure the hundreds that have been evacuated return home as soon as possible. Meanwhile, plans are underway on how to minimize the impact of future floods.
THEN AND NOW
Zookeepers were caught off guard by rising waters in 2002 and were unable to save all those creatures in their care. In the frantic rescue effort, about 1,000 animals were dragged, carried, led, put on trucks and even lifted from the water by cranes. About 135 animals died, some by drowning, others from trauma, injuries or stress after the move.
The zoo’s losses included an elephant, two hippos, a bear, a lion and dozens of birds.
Following 2002, the keepers worked out a detailed evacuation plan.
In this year’s flooding, the zoo decided to start the rescue operation even before they received warnings from authorities. As a result, “the losses are minimal even though the water was rising fast,” zoo director Miroslav Bobek said. They include two Lapwing birds, and a young caracal wildcat.
Cleanup is underway and there have been offers from about 10,000 volunteers who want to help. In recent days, almost 100 volunteers join employees a day to work long hours for the zoo.
“There’s huge solidarity among the Czech public,” Bobek said.
Karel Reznicek was one of them.
“Right now, in these aviaries for birds, we’re cleaning up the mud from the floor and the fences,” Reznicek, a project manager at the Ceska Pojistovna insurance company, said as he was dealing with the omnipresent stinking mud with some of his colleagues Tuesday.
“There’s one nest that I took out and it is unbelievable what kind of mess is there. We are simply doing what is needed.”
A charity concert for the zoo is planned in Prague for Wednesday and contributions from the public will help renovate the park.
The most popular animals in the zoo, the group of seven gorillas has been saved. The keepers lured them with food to a part of their pavilion known as the “flood tower,” which is the top story of their white building, and they remain there for now.
Only Richard, a conservative male, wasn’t impressed and headed for his sleeping quarters, where he had to be tranquilized and placed with the others, the zoo said.
When the water was high, the keepers used a boat to bring them food.
Employees now work hard to clean up the pavilion quickly to prevent them from further stress and make it possible to return to their familiar environment and avoid a complicated transfer to another zoo.
Three members of the group, females Kamba, Shinda and Kijivou, had been so severely traumatized in 2002 that it took them a year before they were ready to return to Prague from another zoo in the country.
In good news for the gorillas, city hall has approved a zoo request to build a brand new pavilion for them on higher ground.
“We don’t want them to undergo such a stressful experience anymore,” Bobek said.
Besides the gorillas, hundreds of other animals were moved to higher ground when rising floodwaters submerged about a third of the zoo grounds on the low-lying outskirts of Prague and they mostly have been placed in other zoos in the Czech Republic.
Among the heaviest tasks was to carry out big turtles and six tigers, which were tranquilized.
Penguins were among those who stayed. They were placed together with otters and on Tuesday, they were looking unharmed as they quietly stood by a pool of water in the shade of trees.
“It’s a tough experience for the animals and we don’t wish them to experience that again,” Bobek said.
“I dare say that when we’re done in a short time, it will be for them like coming home. They won’t have to get used to new places and they will return to a familiar environment, which would be a huge relief for them.”
Cleanup work is expected to be completed in the next few weeks.
PRICE TO PAY
The 83-year-old zoo has been severely damaged again because it has only limited protection against flooding, a decision made by city hall following the 2002 floods. The politicians argued that any major barriers, such as those that protect most of the city, would endanger downtown Prague. Following the 2002 cost of about $11.5 million, the zoo initially estimated this year’s damage at $8 million. But because of a quick evacuation of animals and equipment, the overall cost might be significantly lower, Bobek said.
He challenged the status quo, saying the zoo would be repeatedly submerged by major floods in the future if nothing changes.
“I’m sure that it would be possible for the zoo to be protected against high water in a better way without endangering downtown (Prague) and the towns further down the river,” Bobek said.
Bobek said city hall agreed to evaluate all possible options to increase protection.
To prevent excessive damage in the future, the zoo plans to build in low-lying areas only structures that could survive any flooding or use light wooden buildings that would be easily replaceable.