What's Killing the Animals at Ukraine's Biggest Zoo?

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Boy the elephant is given a cleaning by his keepers in this 2009 photo

Samka the rhino looks sad. When her longtime companion Boy the elephant died in April, she watched over his body for an entire day until it was taken away. Today the elephant's pen sits empty. Boy is just one of several animals at Kiev Zoo — including a camel, a bison and a zebra — that have died in recent months, some under mysterious circumstances. As the city carries out an official investigation, the deaths have prompted outrage and denial, with activists accusing the zoo of negligence and corruption and authorities pointing to an anonymous killer as the culprit.

Boy's death has brought fresh attention to a scandal that has been running for months. Serhiy Hryhoryev, a former zoo worker who runs a site campaigning for the rights of the zoo's animals, says the Indian elephant was underfed, kept in poor conditions and stressed by constant changes to the staff of handlers. "By the end, you could see his ribs," says Hryhoryev.

According to animal-rights activists, the number of animals at Kiev Zoo has almost halved in the past two years; they accuse the zoo's authorities of shoddy management, corruption and neglect. The claims stretch into city hall, with critics charging city officials of carrying out shady schemes to privatize the land on which the zoo is located in the center of the capital. The zoo's management denies the allegations, as do city officials.

Many of the complaints focus on zoo director Svitlana Berzina. Critics accuse her and her associates of taking kickbacks and leaving the animals uncared for. Andriy Kapustin, head of the Expert Council, a civic organization chronicling animal-welfare violations at Kiev Zoo, described it as a "concentration camp" in a May 26 article he wrote for the weekly Levy Bereg. Berzina denies all accusations of corruption and says she has been exonerated by numerous investigations.

When questioned by TIME about the mysterious deaths at the zoo, Berzina claimed that some of the animals could have been poisoned by "opponents" battling for control of the zoo. Boiled eggs, which were not part of Boy's diet but were found in the elephant's enclosure after his death, could have been used to deliver poison, she says, as could a potato found with the camels. She even has a suspect: a man in his 40s with an earring. The Kiev police say they have no evidence of poisoning in Boy's case.

The zoo's troubles reach back to before Berzina took over in 2008. The previous year, the zoo — once the largest and one of the best regarded in the Soviet Union — was thrown out of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria because of concerns over animal welfare. A visit earlier this month reveals a zoo that has barely moved on from Soviet times, with its creaky old rides and small, run-down pens and buildings. For years, Hryhoryev says, the zoo has drained huge sums of money from the city budget, "enough to build several zoos." But improvements have been thin and incomplete.

In May, city authorities finally responded to activists' calls for action, suspending Berzina and forming an investigative committee to look into the mysterious zoo deaths. Meanwhile, city hall has already washed its hands of any wrongdoing. In a statement, Mayor Leonid Chernovetskiy appealed to "anyone involved in the animals' deaths in any way" to stop using "our innocent little brothers" as "a stake in your cruel games."

But activists and opposition politicians say the mayor — who appointed Berzina to run the zoo — is a big part of the problem. In his Levy Bereg article, Kapustin suggests the animal's deaths may be a ploy by city authorities, in cahoots with the zoo's management, to reduce the zoo's animal stock and provide an excuse to move the zoo from the "gold mine" that is the 84 acres of land it sits on. Opponents have long accused Chernovetskiy and his team of giving away tracts of land to family and associates in sweetheart deals. The council offices were raided in early July by the state security service as part of an investigation into irregular land deals. City hall declined to comment to TIME regarding the claims, although officials have publicly denied allegations of improper land privatizations.

Opposition lawmaker Kyrylo Kulykov says an investigative committee in Ukraine's parliament has been set up to look into the broader problem of land corruption in Kiev, but it hasn't started working yet because of "political games." "We are fighting with the whole state apparatus," says Hryhoryev, the activist. "None of this would have happened if there had been some kind of financial control [over zoo management]." Only when the rule of law is firmly established in Ukraine will the zoo's troubles end, he adds.

Until then, Ukrainians can only hope that the animals stop dying. On a sunny day in early July, a young boy visiting the zoo runs off toward Boy's enclosure, shouting, "The elephant's this way!" But when he gets there, all he sees is Samka the rhino, lying still and lonely in the neighboring pen.