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Beasts of a Nation: Rebuilding the Kabul Zoo in a Time of War

The Kabul Zoo is an oasis of green in a dusty city still lying in rubble. It’s also challenging the international community’s perception of what carrying on with life looks like in a war zone.
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File photo of the lions in their enclosure in 2004 that were hit by heavy bombardment during the civil war.

File photo of the lions in their enclosure in 2004 that were hit by heavy bombardment during the civil war.

Nestled between two hills, the Kabul Zoo is a massive oasis of green in a war-torn city that continues to be increasingly compartmentalized into a maze of concrete blast walls and concertina wires. The zoo, once the frontline for Kabul’s bloodiest conflict, has found itself caught between deadly crossfires far too often as the Afghan civil war left most of the historic city in rubble and ruins.

Today, however, you are more likely to find idyllic young men sprawled on its lawn taking in the afternoon sun, children huddled around a merry-go-round set up in what used to be the elephant’s enclosure, and families huddled in awe and amazement around the cage of a lonely Chinese pig — believed to be the only one in the whole of Afghanistan. And if you look closely enough, you will even spot quite a few young couples, many of whom find an unusual refugee for romance among the sparse wildlife Afghanistan has to boast of.

The zoo and its tenants have a most unlikely story to tell. “What remained after years of battle was a crumbling enclosure, a few monkeys, two vultures, and one lion named Marjan, who was blinded with a hand grenade by an angry mujahideen,” says Aziz Gul Saqib, the director of the Kabul Zoo, who employees largely credit for rebuilding the zoo back to its semblance, if not former glory. “In 2001, we started with nothing. There were no systems or procedures for us to follow; we created our own systems,” he says.

Originally built in 1967 by the progressive King Zahir Shah, the Kabul Zoo was intended to be a window into the flora and fauna of Afghanistan. Designed to resemble the royal gardens of the country’s historical monarchs, it was considered to be one of the most lavish zoos in Asia, boasting over 700 animals and 92 species of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish.

“What remained after years of battle was a crumbling enclosure, a few monkeys, two vultures, and one lion named Marjan, who was blinded with a hand grenade by an angry mujahideen.”

The prolonged conflict that defined Afghanistan in the decades that followed, however, did not spare this once exquisite sanctuary for animals. “The civil war caused the most damage to the zoo,” recalls Shah Barat, a caretaker who has been working at the zoo for nearly four decades. “The region of Kabul where the zoo is frequently changed hands of several warlords, none of whom paid any attention to the animals still living there. Several animals escaped, while a large number of them were killed in the shelling and crossfire, [and others] simply starved to death,” he adds with sadness.

The two hills that cradle the zoo were controlled in turns by warring factions led by mujahideen leaders such as Abdul Ali Mazari, Ahmad Shah Masood, the recently pardoned Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and very briefly even by General Dostum, the current vice president of Afghanistan. Barat recounts how he, along with two other colleagues, continued to sneak into the zoo to feed the animals that remained between the years 1992 and 1996, and then for a few years during the Taliban regime. “We often tried to negotiate with the mujahideens to cease fire to let us feed the animals, but when they didn’t, we would enter into the zoo from a wall at the back near the Kabul River to feed the animals once a day,” he recalls.

Barat’s close friend and now-deceased colleague Aka Akbar, a caretaker at the zoo prior to the civil war, was particularly close to the one-eyed lion, Marjan. One popular legend suggests that, during the civil war from 1992 to 1996, Marjan had attacked and killed a mujahideen who had been teasing the lonely lion. “His brother, to avenge his death, threw a hand grenade into Marjan’s pit. Although he survived the attack, the poor lion was left blinded and unable to take care of himself. Akbar was the only one brave enough to approach the lion and feed him by hand. He loved that animal like his friend,” Barat says. Thanks to Akbar, Marjan lived well into the early 2000s to see the Taliban fall and the American occupation of his city. Today, a sculpture of Marjan greets visitors at the gates of the new Kabul Zoo.

When asked why he and his friends continued to take care of the animals even at the cost of their own lives, Barat responds simply: “It was my job. If we didn’t, the animals would starve.”

In 2001, Saqib, then armed with a newly acquired MBA degree and zeal to challenge the odds, had just taken over the responsibility of zoo operations. “I was born and raised in Kabul, and watched the zoo get destroyed over the years, its animals left homeless. I had to do something,” he says.

When restoration of the zoo was announced, the international community was extremely generous and donated equipment and animals. German and Chinese zoos helped Kabul repopulate its enclosures; Pakistan and India offered training and equipment. But without infrastructure or staff to manage the animals, these donations were of little use or impact. “They sometimes gave us things that we didn’t need. We needed expertise and training; we needed infrastructure. We didn’t even have offices, with most of the old building destroyed during the civil war,” he explains.

Saqib and his team started work reconstructing the zoo with their own hands. “I reached out to zoo authorities in the neighboring countries for help, who invited me to learn from their experiences,” he says. The meager Kabul Zoo staff received training in zoo management, design of enclosures, visitor management, feeding and cleaning systems, breeding system, and veterinary care from several South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation nations. The zoo authorities raised funds, around $1.3 million, from international donors to help rebuild the infrastructure and restart zoo activities.

Over the span of last 12 years, since they first started rebuilding the zoo complex in 2004, it has housed 600 animals from over 100 species from all over Afghanistan and South Asia. “We have some unique and rare animals and birds from distant parts of Afghanistan. The two-hump camels come from Maymana, capital of Faryab province, a pair of yak from Badakhshan, and several other wildlife,” Saqib says with pride. It’s the seemingly basic beasts however, a large brown bear and 13-year-old pig, both gifts of China, that continue to be major attractions in a country where few have seen pigs.

The zoo worked with several external agencies as part of the reconstruction and repopulation of its facilities. “Building the zoo is an ongoing process,” Saqib admits, “and development is still underway.”

In 2005, the Kabul Zoo was accepted into the South Asian Zoo Association for Regional Cooperation, and later was made part of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. But the team continues to face undeniable and unusual challenges of managing a facility in an active conflict zone. The location of the grounds, and its proximity to urban and political centers, several big markets, the traffic department, and border police headquarters, continue to throw the animals and their keepers into the line of fire. The horrific suicide attack on a civil protest in July 2016 that resulted in 84 deaths and left several hundred injured happened at a square not too far from the zoo, causing significant distress to the animals in the enclosures.

“Although not often, every once in a while animals do get injured due to the attacks that take place close by,” says Saqib while sharing the story of a baby camel that was hurt during an attack on the headquarters of the border police next door. A recently reconstructed and well-equipped day and night veterinary clinic now addresses the physical health and injuries of the animals around the clock.

Not all animal injuries that are brought to the attention of the zoo authorities are conflict related. The allure of exotic pets among affluent Afghans who are ill-equipped to take care of these animals brings zoo authorities in close contact with wild animals and birds that have been mistreated and poorly kept. Every once in a while, they rescue and rehabilitate animals that have been smuggled into the country to be used as pets and ornaments of home decor.

“In March 2014, Kabul Zoo received information about a pet lion kept in deplorable conditions in a house in Kabul city,” Saqib says. The lion was part of a pair of cubs that were smuggled from Pakistan. His brother currently resides in Kandahar at the family home of late Hashmat Khalil Karazi, brother of Afghanistan’s former president, Hamid Karzai.

“He had been suffering from serious malnutrition and was severely dehydrated. He couldn’t stand and was incapable of climbing even small heights,” Saqib says. “We brought him to the zoo and treated him for six months, nursed him back to health.”

While in the care of the zoo authorities, the lion’s health significantly improved; with regular physiotherapy, he was able to get back on his feet. His caretakers even taught him how to jump from small heights. He was rechristened Marjan, after the famed one-eyed lion who passed away last November. “However, Marjan had suffered from long-term damage, especially to his internal organs. His teeth and bones were extremely weak and made it difficult for him to eat properly. He was fed food with spices and garlic that isn’t suitable for animal consumption,” Saqib says. Marjan succumbed six months later and was buried in a quite corner in the zoo complex.

Kabul Zoo has come a long way since the civil war. Today it represents the contrasts that exist in the Afghan society, painting an unlikely picture of what is possible in a country many are quick to write off as war torn.

The zoo is now an island of peace in an otherwise chaotic city. It spans a small patch across the heart of Kabul, protected by concrete walls not unlike the thick blast walls that criss-cross the city. While one may spot an occasional armed guard or two in the zoo premise, they are sparse and provide for a more relaxed and secure environment for families to gather. “Why would anyone attack a zoo anyway?” wonders Ahmad, a resident of the Balkh province, visiting the zoo with his wife and his niece and nephew on a sunny afternoon.

The variety of flora is refreshingly more encouraging than the zoo’s fauna. Large green lawns and picnic areas are scattered intermittently across the area of the zoo amid animal enclosures. The enclosures themselves are a marvelous mixture of modern confinement facilities interspersed through older spaces with prominent Persian architecture. One example is the elephant enclosure; though empty for years now, it’s beautiful arches with intricate designs were lovingly restored and preserved after the war, laying in hopeful wait for a new tenant from a generous neighbor.

While still the underdog in an extremely bureaucratic system, the dedicated team at the Kabul Zoo has made great strides and continues to pleasantly surprise their community. A recent report notes that the Kabul Zoo income had increased by an impressive 40 percent in the first half of this year. In 2015, it recorded revenue of 17 million Afghani (about $255,000), earned from increasing numbers of visitors. Another 14 million Afghani (about $212,000) was acquired from renting unused grounds of the zoo, such as the elephants enclosure, to a private agency for use as an amusement park. These earnings not only cover the expenses of the zoo, but also leave a sizable profit for further development.

The figures are testament to the growth and popularity of the facility in a country where individuals have few distractions from the gloom of impending war. People from all over Afghanistan flock to the zoo, especially during holidays. “In 2015 alone, we had over 700,000 visitors; around 50,000 were educational visits from schools and university for the various programs that the zoo offers,” Saqib says.

“As of August of this year, we have already crossed the number of visitors we had last year. Fridays [the official weekly holiday in Afghanistan] are the most crowded, when the zoo sees over 8,000 visitors in a day. During Nowroz, the Persian new year, the zoo hosted over 22,000 visitors from across provinces in Afghanistan,” he adds with pride.

A short walk across the zoo complex can give deep insights to what the Afghans want — a moment of peace away from the conflict and horror. It is not just a sanctuary for the animals, but an island of tranquility for its visitors away from the stressed environment that Kabul often presents. Husbands with their wives and children, older ladies on a rare sojourn away from the drudgery of everyday life, kids and older men gawking through the cages of the wild beasts, young love cautiously stealing smiles — everyone gathered there for an afternoon of relief and calm.

“I am currently unemployed and can’t find work,” says one young man who frequently comes to the zoo. He gives grim views on Afghanistan’s failing economy while lying under the shade of a large tree close to the vultures’ enclosure. “So I come here every afternoon to relieve my stress. It’s peaceful here.”

Saqib aspires to expand the zoo within the city and in other parts of the country. Unfortunately, though, a large part of the original master plan of the zoo today is occupied by residents and internally displaced people who took over the land during and after civil war. “Nearly 30 hectares of the area that belongs to the zoo is currently occupied by locals who moved to Kabul from provinces at the end of the civil war,” says Saqib, who has been urging the Kabul Municipality to reclaim the land for an expansion of the zoo. He has plans to upgrade enclosures and to populate the facility to include more species of animals from South Asia. However, due to spike in population in Kabul it seems logistically unlikely in the near future.

Even with all its success, the future of the zoo is still tied closely to the security of Afghanistan. As conflict escalates with the withdrawal of foreign troops, an unspoken gloom has gripped the nation. Saqib and his team, though, have committed themselves to the service of the animals.

“The animals don’t know what a war is or who the enemy is,” Barat says. “They are my friends and I will continue to be here for them for as long as I can.”