Issue 4, 2016. August-September

   

REBUILDING THE ZOO

Over a year has passed since Tbilisi's deadly flood. The Tbilisi Zoo is slowly rebuilding, despite lingering questions about the fate of donations.

Nino Bakradze


On the night of June 13-14, 2015, tragedy struck Tbilisi. Vere River, normally a small tributary of the Mtkvari River, flooded, water rushing into the Tbilisi Zoo and the surrounding neighborhoods. At least 20 people were killed and the zoo was destroyed. The outpouring of public support, from home and abroad, raised over $38 million, according to statistics from the mayor's office, as reported by EurasiaNet. org. Today , a year later, signs of the damage are still visible, even as the zoo and families affected by the flooding rebuild. Questions remain, however, over how the donations for flood victims, particularly the zoo, have been used.

Building on Tragedy

The zoo is focused on rebuilding, according to its director, Zurab Gurielidze.

It has already started to receive new animals from partner zoos across the Europe.

The zoo is also trying to create a better future out of the tragedy, Gurielidze said. One example is the decision to create modern, more animal-friendly cages after the Soviet-era facilities were destroyed by the flood.

"After the flood, we needed to build several new open-air cages for animals, so we invited a Dutch architect who is a specialist on zoo architecture and planned new spaces according to modern standards. At the same time, during the planning process, we took into consideration our previous experience and designed cages in a safer way," he said.

Besides renovating the zoo's current territory, the administration has another, bigger goal: finally moving the entire park to the Tbilisi Sea territory, a suburb of the capital.

While the plan for a new, 48-hectare zoo has been discussed for years, the lack of funding was always an obstacle.

Now, it appears to be slowly moving forward: the construction of couple of cages has already started. According to Gurielidze, they are building 12,000-square-meter cages in the forest for wolves and bears right now, with plans to finish the cages by August.

As soon as the cages are ready to host new residents, animals will be moved to near the Tbilisi Sea. The new zoo on the Tbilisi Sea will soon host large mammals, as well. Their cages, a comparable size to those wolves' and bears' cages, will also be finished by September.

A Question of Funding

The German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) provided financing for the Zoo to build new cages at the Tbilisi Sea. The plans for the new Zoo will make it bigger than Wroclaw's Zoo in Poland, one of the best developed zoos in Europe, Gurielidze said.

Despite a public outpouring of support for the Zoo following the flood, paying for the project is still a problem.

Following the flood, Georgians started funds to help both the city and the Zoo recover. A couple of different foundations opened bank accounts and asked people to donate money. But, Gurielidze says, they didn't get a single lari from any outside foundation. "A legitimate question has arisen among people about the money they donated to different accounts. Tbilisi Zoo opened its own bank account and established its own foundation; we raised some money there, but not too much. We use this fund to partly sponsor animals' transportation, since it is a very expensive process. Otherwise, we have not gotten financial aid from foundations created after the flood. Such foundations should have to answer how they spent money donated from people across the world," Gurielidze told Investor.ge.

The Tbilisi Hippo Fund was among the foundations established after the flood. Bidzina Kumiashvili, the Fund's Director of Operations, said the foundation's preliminary goal was to support the Zoo and help all the victims of the flood. "We did not raise as much money as we expected; the PR was much better than the actual help. We had some suggestions for the Zoo administration on how to raise funds, but we did not receive proper feedback from them. After that, we decided to spend our funds on other victims, for instance the Elizbar Elizbarashvili Dog Shelter and on taxi drivers who lost their cars and only source of income. We were like a middleman between companies willing to donate money and the victims who needed our help. We only once gave a 300 GEL salary to one of our staff members because of extreme need," says Kumiashvili.

He noted that the fund has since changed its focus and, for the past six months, it has been working on education programs.

Kumiashvili added that the Tbilisi Hippo Fund is planning on releasing details on its financial activities in the near future and will answer all questions regarding the Fund's spending.

Maka Meshveliani put a fund-raising announcement on www.indiegogo.com on June 15, 2016 and managed to raise $80,020 in just a few days to help Tbilisi recover from the disaster. She told Investor.ge that the fund ended up with $74,365.60 after Indiegogo fees, and $54,381 was spent on combating potential Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in children and adolescents affected by the floods. "Given that all other relief efforts had been or would have been directed toward material compensation and no stakeholder had mentioned mental health, the campaign team made a decision to allocate the Indiegogo funds toward an area where no one was looking. During our research and meetings, we came across a group of [volunteer] psychologists and social workers who had provided the very first help to kids of the affected families by organizing a summer school, and ad hoc art therapy sessions...The group united under the local organization FELIX and became the recipient of our campaign funds. However, $19,984.6 has yet to be allocated," Meshveliani said.

A New Swimming Pool for Begi

Gurielidze noted that the Zoo only received financial help from Tbilisi City Hall: 95,000 GEL to build a new swimming pool for the Zoo's well-known hippo, named Begi, and 1.5 million GEL to build a wall around the park's territory. In total, Tbilisi City Hall received over 9.6 million GEL in donations from business and members of the community after the flood.

Article 42, a human rights watchdog, has been monitoring how City Hall has been spending the donations. Rusudan Mchedlishvili, an Article 42 lawyer, told Investor.ge that the donations were transferred to the city's central budget, which makes the monitoring process very difficult.

"Now, we cannot provide detailed information about how this money was spent, since Tbilisi City Hall did not share very detailed information with us," she said.

"Documents given by the Mayor's office are incomplete and do not show precisely how the money was spent."

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