Animal Writes
28 November 2001 Issue
Kabul's Lion, Still King of the Beasts But Future Uncertain for Animals at Kabul Zoo

By Kevin Sites - NBC NEWS 

KABUL, Afghanistan, Nov. 23. Though his roar is more of a yawn these days, it was not so long ago when this lion, Marjan, used to be the king of Kabul's urban jungle. A mujahedeen fighter who had survived combat with the Soviet Red Army was not so lucky when he jumped into the lion's den to tease the beast. Marjan promptly ate him.

THE NEXT DAY, says zookeeper Sheragha Omar, "A family member threw a hand grenade into the cage. When Marjan pounced on it thinking it was food, he lost one eye and 95 percent of his sight in the other."

But Marjan is not the only casualty in Afghanistan's unending wars and civil strife.

During the vicious factional power fights from 1992 to 1995, a sadistic soldier killed the Zoo's elephant with a rocket-propelled grenade. Other animals were turned into meals for hungry fighters.

An Afghan bear paces in his cage. His snout is red, raw and swollen. Zoo officials say Taliban visitors would tease the bear by holding out food, then smacked him on the nose with sticks when he reached for it.

In a place that used to have 39 species of animals. Now there are just 17. The only reason it is still open at all is because of zookeeper Omar, who like Marjan, doesn't give up very easily. When the repressive Taliban regime wanted to shut the zoo down, Omar fought back. He went to the faculty of Islamic studies at the University of Kabul.

"They wrote down everything in the Koran that referred to animals and the prophet Mohammed," says Omar. "I collected them all and presented them to the ministry of justice."

Faced with evidence that the Prophet indeed kept pets, the Taliban allowed Omar to keep the zoo open. Despite the zoo's sorry state, crumbling infrastructure and malnourished animals, attendance is up. And since the Taliban fled the capital, the number of visitors to the zoo has doubled to 200 a day.

Mohammed Rafi, an unemployed 18-year-old, comes here every week to pass the time. He says Marjan, the one-eyed lion, is still his favorite draw.

"It's stronger than any other animal in the world," says Rafi. "Yes, it's the king of animals in the world."


But this king, like the other animals here, still faces an uncertain future.

There's very little food to feed the animals, the zoo's staff of eleven haven't been paid since July, and with cold weather approaching there's no money left to prepare the animals' cages for winter.

Omar says the Northern Alliance is providing some food and medicine for the zoo, but it's not enough. Still, despite the difficulties, he loves Marjan and all the animals too much to give up now. He says he will keep up the fight as long as Marjan does, living up to the words posted on a sign outside the zoo, "God created animals. People must be good to them."

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