Battle royal rages over the future of St Petersburg zoo

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A furious dispute over the future of St Petersburg's Tsarist era zoo has thrown a pall over plans to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the city's foundation in 1703 and an unwelcome spotlight on its reputation as Russia's crime capital.

A furious dispute over the future of St Petersburg's Tsarist era zoo has thrown a pall over plans to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the city's foundation in 1703 and an unwelcome spotlight on its reputation as Russia's crime capital.

The storm arose after the city governor's wife attempted to fire the zoo's director, transfer most of its animals to the outskirts of the city and develop the valuable site for commercial use.

The zoo, founded 165 years ago, is located in the Alexander Garden in the heart of St Petersburg on the banks of the Neva river, close to the historic Peter-Paul fortress, where many tsars are buried.

The battle started five years ago when Alexander Yakovlev, governor of St Petersburg, signed an order setting up a foundation called Zoosad to draw up a plan for its future. The supervisory head was his wife, Irina Yakovleva.

When the foundation's plan was published, specialists at the zoo were astonished. It envisaged building an entirely new zoo at Primorsky on the city's outskirts. Almost all the animals would be moved to the new site. Only a few animals would remain at the old zoo, which would largely be converted to commercial use.

Dr Ivan Korneyev, the zoo's director for 11 years, said the real purpose of those behind the scheme was to gain control of the zoo's valuable real estate. "They wanted somebody to head the zoo who would sign a document saying the zoo does not need the land and rent it out to them for 49 years."

Dr Korneyev objected. He says there were four attempts to sack him, "and the manner in which they tried to fire me was quite outrageous – it was not the governor who tried to do so, but his wife".

The dispute was brought to a head on 15 May when Dr Korneyev announced a plan to open an elephant park at the old zoo to mark the city's tercentenary. The last elephant at the zoo, called Syun, had died in 1982. "A whole generation of children has grown up since which has never seen a live elephant," he said.

The appeal for funds to pay for an elephant park met an enthusiastic response, and people started raising money. The weekly Moscow News wrote: "The city authorities must have realised Dr Korneyev stood a good chance of raising enough money to build an elephant park. If he did, it would be difficult to convert the land used by the zoo to other purposes."

Dr Korneyev says a week after he had produced his plan to introduce elephants to St Petersburg the city's cultural committee told him he should stand down or be fired. He refused to do so. An audit committee then met to draw up grounds for his dismissal, which included such failings as lack of regulations in the zoo library and misbehaviour by zoo otters.

The zoo now appears to have two directors, both of whom were answering their phones. In addition to Dr Korneyev, who is theoretically on sick leave, the city authorities have appointed an acting director called Sergei Yegorov, a former military officer.

Mr Yegorov has become an object of derision in St Petersburg after his first meeting with zoo staff, which they leaked to the press. He is reported to have said: "I have a dog, a cat, a canary and a rooster at home. That is the end of my knowledge of zoology."

He added that ants definitely liked him because he had once sat on an ant-hill and the ants had not bitten him.Mr Yegorov refused to disclose even his military rank, saying: "That is all in my past life."

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