We once had a beautiful zoo with hundreds of different types of animals and birds. That was a long time ago. Now this is all we have left
—Sher Aqa, caretaker at the Kabul Zoo

In a country that, since 1980, has been invaded, ridden with the strife and internal conflict of ongoing civil war, been under a largely oppressive ruling regime, been the subject of the United States' "war on terrorism," and is (because of the various conflicts and a long-term drought) the site of one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the twentieth century (spilling over into the twenty-first), it is almost surreal to find a functioning zoo. And like Afghanistan, the Kabul Zoo is suffering, as well.

It was built on the Kabul River with help from the zoo at Cologne, Germany, and once housed as many as one hundred different species. According to David Jones, director of the North Carolina Zoo, it was one of the better zoos in that part of the world—not like the "grotty little menageries" like similar ones in the region (www.startribune.com).

During the infighting before the Taleban came to power, the zoo suffered a great deal of damage, being close to the "front line." Many of the animals died (some directly, other escaping when bombs and bullets "opened" the cages after which they had little chance), the administration office was hit by a rockets, cages, buildings, even trees are riddled with bullets, and rubble is all over. Power and clean water are hard to find.

One soldier, wanting to impress his friends, jumped into the cage with the zoo's lion, Marjan (a gift from Germany). The lion attacked him, tearing off his arm, the man later dying in a hospital. To exact revenge, a family member returned and threw a grenade into the cage. Thinking it food, the lion pounced on it. It blew up, injuring Marjan's leg and jaw. Stitches were required and teeth were lost. Now Marjan is blind in one eye.

[Not to keep anyone in suspense, Marjan—who as of this writing is 45 years old (I've found conflicting ages anywhere from 25 to 48—probably in his mid-twenties according to the expected lifespan)—has weathered all the circumstances that have come by. I saw footage on the late night news the other night—10 January 2002—reporting on the zoo and showing the lion. Sadly skin and bones, but still alive. Like the zoo and the Afghan people, a testament to their will to survive and overcome tremendous odds.] (Sorry, see update below.)

Not so lucky was Hathi, the zoo's elephant, who was killed by a rocket.

There was a period of concern that the zoo might be shut down after the Taleban came to power with its strict and often culturally repressive laws. The minister of justice came to the zoo and demanded a reason from Islamic law that allowed keeping animals. At a loss and facing the possible release of all the animals unless he could cite adequate scripture, zoo director Sheragha Omar, first went for help to the zoology department at University of Kabul. Finding no help, he went to the theology department. While they found no verse to satisfy the demand, they did point out the prophet Muhammad had kept house pets. The zoo was saved.

The zoo was a popular place for the citizens of Kabul. And it was of the few places that Afghan women could take their children for recreation (women who now can raise their burqas to get a better look at the zoo's creatures). Unfortunately it was also a favorite destination for Taleban soldiers, who would often tease and abuse the animals. According to the people at the zoo, "the Taliban say they are having fun and animals are government property" (rawa.fancymarketing.net).

Other visitors also torment the animals. Cages are rattled to scare them, things are thrown at them (rocks, wood chips, snowballs), they are prodded with sticks, and many have died from eating things tossed into the cages. A wolf was hit over the head with a stick, stopped eating, and died four days later. Taleban visitors hit Opel the bear (named after the car manufacturer) on the nose with a stick, leaving an ugly open sore that cannot be treated without proper care and medicine—segueing to the next major problem. (I saw footage of the bear. The nose isn't much discernible behind the flattened, fleshy wound. Sad.)

Possibly more dangerous to the animals is the lack of funds and supplies. The government since the Taleban has given almost no aid, monetary or otherwise, for the maintenance of the zoo and its staff and animals. At one point they asked the staff to be cut from nineteen to three. "We managed to keep enough people," said Omar (ocregister.com). The number was eleven in December 2001. The zoo depends on the admission fees (was 2¢ later raised to 5¢; all numbers in US dollars). The revenue is woefully inadequate. It generates well below the amount needed for simple maintenance. It costs around $6000 to operate the zoo each month and there is only about $300 coming in despite the increased number of visitors following the Taleban's loss of power—many people don't bother to pay admission and just wander in.

Marjan's food bill runs about $14 a day—most people in Kabul don't make that much in a month. They have been depending on the kindness of a butcher who trusts they will pay him back when things get better. Most, if not all, the animals are malnourished. Some animals eat some of the leaves off trees near the cages, some lucky ones receive carrots and bananas from visitors. And the staff hasn't really been paid since July 2001 (Omar only made $20 a month as it was and has seven children). They remain because they care about the zoo and care about the animals. As Omar says, "we cannot let these animals die. It is our Pashtun honor. We do not count up the cost. Our duty is to save them" (chicagotribune.com).

Since the incoming government has shown little interest in helping (granted, there are serious humanitarian issues that need to be addressed), any medical aid has been volunteered from students and teachers from the university, who can only do so much. With the onset of winter and no way to "winterize" the cages (most are empty, anyway), there is additional concern for the animals' welfare. Staff has been taking some of the birds into their living quarters at night.

The animal population that had been whittled down to thirty-seven, is, as of this writing, around nineteen. In a May 2000 story, the list was a lion, a bear, seven monkeys ("primates" and only six, a year later), 20 rabbits (from the story at www.pcpafg.org, Sher Aqa quips "fortunately, rabbits multiply no matter what"), five foxes, four wolves, two hawks, two falcons, three vultures, nine owls, a deer (which needed to be locked up at night so it wouldn't be stolen), a snake, and several pigeons. A later story mentions a wild boar that has probably been spared being eaten because of the Islamic proscription on eating pork.

Kenya has promised to donate some animals if the zoo is still around in ten years. Yes, if. Omar, like many Afghans, has little to go on but a deep belief that things will work out: "We are running on faith now. In the end, things will work out. God willing" (ocregister.com).

Perhaps his faith was warranted. At the end of November 2001, a number of zoos, aquariums, and animal advocates from North America announced that they would be campaigning to raise money to maintain the zoo and, they hoped, eventually repair and restore the zoo to its former self if not better. Originally with the modest goal of raising $30,000 to keep it going for another six months, pledges far surpassed their expectations. Within a week, $26,000 had been pledged from 150 sources. One who wished to remain anonymous pledged $10,000.

David Jones is coordinating the US-based campaign for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. Some zoos in Europe have also promised to help, including sending veterinary teams to help care for the animals, as is the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA). The response was overwhelming. Another zoo in North Carolina received over two hundred emails in three days from people asking how they could help.

As of 21 December 2001, the North Carolina Zoo Society had received more than $211,000 in donations for the Kabul Zoo Fund and $38,000 for the Afghan Animal Fund. The second fund is for pets, working and domesticated animals, and wildlife throughout Afghanistan. (The NC Zoo site—see sources—has a sad picture of some camels that had been tethered using rings in their noses. The sounds of bombs going off frightened the beasts, which bolted ripping the rings out of their flesh.)

The NC Zoo Society reported that so far (as of 9 January 2002) $8000 has already made it the zoo (something being insured by the WSPA; it noted confirmation from United Nations sources, as well). Further, $20,000 had already been transferred to the WSPA to fund a trip to Afghanistan in mid-January to observe and evaluate "animal welfare issues" (www.nczoo.com). The objectives are to determine the status of the animals, particularly Opel and Marjan; evaluate the conditions for food, water, and shelter, for the zoo and for other livestock and horses in the area; evaluate any problems stemming from stray dogs and the possibility of the spread of disease because of them. The team would be made up of people from WSPA chapters in the US, Latin America, and the United Kingdom.

Near the end of January, a second team (not WSPA, but from the "world zoo community" and headed by the Cologne Zoo) of veterinarians are to be sent to Afghanistan. Their primary objective will be repair of cages and making them suitable for winter. The coalition also hopes to help "displaced donkeys, horses, and other domestic animals" (there are an estimated one million "displaced animals").

Not a perfect solution, but a heartening one. To see people make the effort to help. To see them follow through with the promises. This may be one of those stories with a happy ending.

As of this writing (12 January 2002), donations are still being accepted. They are tax-deductible (to the extent of the law) and 100% will go for the care and maintenance of the animals and zoo (that is, rather than being eaten by administration costs). Details available at the site listed below.

On Saturday 26 January, Marjan was found dead in his cage.

His name meaing "coral" in a local language, Marjan was a symbol not only of the plight of the zoo and Afghanistan, but of their resiliance and determination to survive despite near impossible odds. Not stopped by the injuries sustained by a grenade which blinded him (it is believed that by the time of his death he had lost all his sight), harassment by visitors, and difficult conditions where food, water, and medical care were at a minimum, he died—perhaps almost fittingly—of "old age" (probably liver and kidney failure. He hadn't eaten the last couple days and had to be carried from his spot in the cage to lie in the sun (something he could still enjoy in his later years).

Funds from the great effort to help out the zoo (as of this update, around $400,000) had enabled them to pad his cage, give him heat from the cold Afghan winter, and give him a ramp to come and go as he wished. Food was finally plentiful and nutritious, he had vitamins, and was treated for parasites. But he had reached the end of his time.

John Walsh of the WSPA said that "Even though blind, he was a tough, brave old guy" and "old, ailing, but proud, like Afghanistan" (1, 3 dailynews.yahoo.com). Omar said that "He was very old. He had to go sometime" (news.bbc.co.uk). They were the ones who discovered him that morning.

It was Marjan, more than anything, that "put a face" on the conditions and needs of the zoo which resulted in the out-pouring of donations and help from the WSPA and others. Opel, whose nose has been kept from healing because the irritation makes the bear rub its nose against the bars, remains alive with the small assortment of other animals—animals that now have a chance for survival.

He was buried 28 January at the place that had been his home (actually, late the night before in a private ceremony). About a hundred people attended, many journalists (some of whom pointed out the need for such generosity to be extended to the Afghan people). Because the city wanted to preserve some of his remains, his hide was taken before burial for eventual display. There is hope that one day a statue will be erected in memory of the fallen lion.

Currently there is only a handpainted metal sign attached to a board. It says:
He was about 23. He was the most famous lion in the world

The zoo hopes to get a new lion—possibly a breeding pair—but Marjan will never be replaced.

28 January 2002

(Sources: rawa.fancymarketing.net/zoo2.htm, www.pcpafg.org/news/Afghan_News/Year2001/2001_05_14/Animals_in_misery_at_Kabul_zoo.shtml, news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/south_asia/newsid_1666000/1666987.stm, ocregister.com/news/zoocci.shtml, www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&node=&contentId=A36775-2001Nov29, www.startribune.com/stories/1551/867527.html, chicagotribune.com/features/chi-0112040010dec04.story?coll=chi-homepageleisure-utl; www.nczoo.com/kabul.html, current info on the campaign, the camel picture can be found at www.nczoo.org/Kabul/KabulZooPhotos/Image42_JPG.html)
(update sources: news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/south_asia/newsid_1783000/1783910.stm,
1 dailynews.yahoo.com/h/ap/20020126/wl/afghan_lion_dies_1.html,
2 dailynews.yahoo.com/h/ap/20020127/wl/afghanlion_burial_1.html,
3 dailynews.yahoo.com/h/ap/20020128/wl/afghan_marjan_memorial_1.html, www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4343949,00.html)

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