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Kabul's Lion Symbolizes Afghan Hardships

A survivor of coups, invasions, and civil wars, Kabul's only lion has become a symbol of the Afghan hardships and the resilience of its people.

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Marjan the lion, was once the king of the jungle

In 1973 the German government presented the Afghan king Zahir Shah with the most regal of animals, a lion. It was a symbol of the strong bond between the two countries, and the king of the beasts quickly became the focal point of the newly established Kabul zoo.

For nearly three decades the lion, dubbed Marjan, has resided over Afghanistan's only zoo. He's witnessed the fall of the king, the invasion of the Soviets, the bitter fighting between the rival Mujahideen factions, the oppression of the Taliban, and most recently US air attacks.

The war veteran is still alive, but barely.

According to legend, when the Soviets withdrew from Kabul in 1992, the zoo was caught on the frontline between the Mujahideen and government troops. Fighters frequently ran through the zoo, wielding rifles and shooting at whatever moved.

One young Afghan fighter entered Marjan's cage to taunt the frightened animal. In self-defense Marjan bit off his arm. The next day the soldier's brother returned to take revenge on the lion. He threw a grenade directly at Marjan's face, leaving the animal blind and with only half a jaw.

The early 1990s were the hardest times for the zoo - the Mujahideen ate the deer, goats, rabbits, and other small animals in the petting zoo. The sole elephant was torn to pieces by a rocket in 1994, and a year later the only tiger was killed by grenade shrapnel.

When the Taliban came to power, the fighting stopped, but the animals suffered from hunger and neglect.

Staff beg for food

Strapped for funds, the Taliban cut off food and money to the zoo. In order to feed the animals, the staff of 11 was forced to beg for food from local markets. Marjan, who needs 12 kg of meat a day, often has to go days on end without any food.

The zoo director Shir Aqa is overwhelmed by the situation. "We used to receive money from the Kabul municipality, but now we're not sure... We need money to feed the animals, we need to repair the cages and give them medical attention."

The Kabul zoo is in a sorry state. A decade ago there were 40 different species, now there are only 19. Most of the animals have all died or been eaten. Apart from Marjan there are seven monkeys, 2 wolves, a lame black bear and a few dozen birds.

Desperate and worried that the few remaining animals will die, the zookeeper has written to international organizations asking help. "We have suffered years of war, but we would like to rebuild this zoo and get some more animals."

Help is on the way

On Thursday the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) launched a fund raising drive to support the battered zoo. The goal is to collect $35,000 to keep the zoo running for the next half year.

"We got a lot of calls from the public. Now that there is a chance to get to Kabul and provide help, we thought we would do something, although Kabul zoo is not a member of our association," WAZA director Peter Dollinger said.

The Cologne zoo in Germany and the Federation of Zoos in London are heading up the collection fund in Europe. Germany feels a special obligation to the Kabul zoo, as it organized and financed the original animal park back in 1967.

As for Marjan, if British Member of Parliament Tony Banks gets his way, the lion may be enjoying the rest of his days in British comfort. The Labor party representative announced that it was the responsibility of the British government to rescue Marjan and "all other innocent creatures suffering under the Afghan conflict."

Banks wants to send a team of veterinarians to Kabul as soon as possible. He is also organizing international animal rights activists to collect food and money to send to Kabul. In his eyes Marjan is a majestic beast, a survivor of the Afghan hardships.

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