Crowds Return to Kabul Zoo

A much-loved institution, whose destruction seemed to symbolise the whole country's sufferings, has taken on a new lease of life thanks to foreign aid.

Crowds Return to Kabul Zoo

A much-loved institution, whose destruction seemed to symbolise the whole country's sufferings, has taken on a new lease of life thanks to foreign aid.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

There are few more appropriate symbols of Afghanistan's losses and gains over the last six months than the zoo in the capital, Kabul.

Situated on the edge of a city that was ravaged by rocket artillery barrages in the civil war in 1991, scores of animals were killed, escaped or were simply eaten. Lack of resources, poorly trained staff, inappropriate food and the cruelty of some visitors accounted for more casualties.

When a blind and decrepit lion named Marjan - the zoo's prize surviving attraction - dropped dead of suspected liver failure in January 2002, his funeral, in which his body was wrapped in a quilt and laid in a king-sized coffin, took on the air of a state event. It was an atmosphere made complete by the contingent of international media who were present.

But the result was to draw international attention to the plight of the zoo. Now zoologists from China, Sweden, the US and Britain among others are joining forces to restore the gardens and ease the torment of some of its animals.

According to the director of the city's cultural services, Mahtabuddin Ahmadi, 80 per cent of the zoo's stock was damaged or destroyed in the years of fighting, "There used to be at least 50 species of birds and animals - today there are just 16."

The priority of the international rescue team is to get the surviving animals back to health and eating properly. Emergency aid was sent by several foreign groups and coordinated by the World Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, WSPA. An envoy from London Zoo made emergency purchases and work was begun on repairing the worst of the artillery damage to the buildings.

Zoo director Sher Agha Omar has only 14 of his original 25 staff left to care for the animals, plus a squad of soldiers for security. "We have reconnected the electricity supply with the support of the WSPA," he told IWPR. Diggers have also excavated the fractured water pipe that once supplied the zoo and reconnected it to the mains.

"They have also given us a generator and pump to supply water and heaters to warm the animals' cages, tools to help us handle them and even a pair of wheelbarrows. We even got a six-month supply of feed pellets from a zoo in California," he said.

John Walsh, Trevor Wheeler and Juan Carlos Murillo of WSPA, plus Nick Lindsay from London Zoo and John Lewis of the International Veterinary Group, oversaw the delivery of new uniforms for the zoo staff. They arranged weekly deliveries of drinking water for the animals from the UN until the water supply could be properly reconnected.

Until then, the animals had been lying on bare concrete floors during the winter nights. The WSPA team hired a carpenter to make nest boxes, swings, perches and walkways for the animals. A rare monkey, a pair of wolves, a pair of porcupines and an bear were moved into the renovated spaces, giving them the chance to move more freely in the open air.

The team identified the animal's medical needs and trained the staff to administer medicine. "Our bear was wounded on the nose and it became infected so we gave him medicines - in an apple one day, in a watermelon the next and then on bread," Sher Omar said.

Two new lions are coming from China to replace Marjan and his mate. The zoo's chief vet is supervising plans for their transport.

"This zoo is a school and a research centre as well as a place of public entertainment," he said. "Just as the international community had to help Afghanistan's schools from scratch, they are having to help us too."

The visit to zoo has once again become a part of biology studies in high schools in and around the city, and Kabul University's zoology and veterinary science study groups also turn up regularly.

The food needs of the animals require special attention. A mixed diet of raw meat, biscuits and vegetables, such as potatoes and carrots, is distributed twice a day. The visitors need watching too, as many have been cruel to the animals, says zoo staff manager Aziz Ahmed.

"Two bears and two monkeys died after visitors gave them naswar (chewing tobacco) to eat," he said. "We didn't have the means to save them. Another man climbed into the wolf's cage and attacked it with a brick. The elderly wolf was left deaf in one ear and blind in one eye."

Marjan the lion was injured in 1994 when a visitor tried to impress his friends by climbing into his den. When the animal's mate attacked and killed him, the man's brother came to the zoo the next day and threw a grenade at Marjan in revenge. The explosion blinded him, broke his jaw and destroyed seven teeth.

The zoo is still short of cash. Ali Ahmed, who has worked there for 15 years, says although he enjoys caring for the monkeys, he has not been paid for two months. The income from tickets, which cost about the same amount as a newspaper or loaf of bread, goes to the municipality, not the institution itself. It draws between 200 and 300 visitors a day and up to 1,500 at weekends. The figure is expected to rise in summer.

Women, whose visits were restricted under the Taleban, seem especially pleased by the zoo's revival. "I'm delighted to be able to come down here," said one woman. "I like to bring my children here to enjoy it."

And she said she hoped the international community would continue to help restore this symbol of the city's heritage. "The world should make this wonderful place better still," she said. "It's a great resource for all our students and should be enriched even more."

Abdul Basir Saeed is a freelance journalist in Kabul.

China, Afghanistan
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