Kabul Zoo sits in a dusty park to the west of the city centre, in the shadow of the jutting antennas of TV Mountain. The idea for a zoo here developed out of the public’s interest in a collection of animals kept for research at Kabul University’s Faculty of Science. Founded in 1967 by Prince Nader Shah, the zoo once housed a prize snow leopard, donated by the King from his royal breeding stock. The early seventies was something of a golden era with many curious Kabulis and their families coming to see the 417 animals on show. In 1972, the zoo boasted 150,000 visitors.
Kabul zoo is quieter these days with a much depleted stock, but it remains one of several places in the city for a family day out. Children clutch balloons as they are held up to peer into cages by their parents, keeping the zoo’s resident photographer busy. Most of the animals are native to Afghanistan, apart from the country’s only pig, which was donated by China in 2002 and now has a slight limp. In the first enclosure, a huge bird paddles alone in the boggy shallows, it’s breed a mystery due to the lack of information label. The creature’s neighbours are two turkeys; turkey is fil murgh in Dari, which translates as elephant chicken. For a foreigner and a non-Dari speaker, a trip to the zoo is a revealing lesson in the logical nature of the Afghan language. Next door are a couple of ostriches chittor murgh (camel chicken) moving fluidly around their cage. Several cages away a flock of lazy looking griffon vultures, cal murgh (bald chicken), lounge in the sun.
Looking at caged animals is rarely a happy experience and in the context of Afghanistan and it’s turbulent past, one might not expect very much from Kabul zoo. Sadly, there is a surrounding air of neglect. Wolves pace round their alarmingly small enclosure and other animals are in need of more space. However, efforts are being made to improve conditions. Monkeys sit hunched on a rock while a zookeeper diligently fishes plastic bottles out of their moat. A portly Brown bear inhabits a newly painted cage and next door roam three more bears in a spacious enclosure. A highlight is the rare Pallas cat, a lone figure on a branch that twitches its mouth and tail simultaneously. Sleepy porcupines bask in the sun while a small herd of Goitered gazelle graze happily nearby. Shrieks of delight come from the zoo’s focal point, a newly painted Ferris wheel.
The zoo’s most famous resident was Marjan the lion, a gift from Cologne zoo in 1978. Marjan gained notoriety after mauling a soldier that dared to venture into his cage. In revenge, the dead man’s brother threw a grenade at Marjan, blinding him. He died in 2002, but his skinny frame lies immortalized in bronze at the entrance. The zoo is close to Darulaman Road, an area that suffered greatly during the civil war. This pockmarked neighbourhood is full of unintentional memorials to this history, but there is something hopeful about the statue of Marjan, the lion who witnessed Kabul’s recent past from the frontline, and who is now quietly relaxing in the sun.