Although famous for just a short time, Marjan will go down in history as one of the great lions of all time, joining the ranks of such famous lions as Elsa. John Walsh echoed this sentiment at the memorial service. He said (And I paraphrase) "Marjan was probably the most famous lion in the world. His fame was comparable to the lions from the film 'Born free' except that they were born in the wild and lived a life of freedom. Marjan, on the other hand, was born in captivity and lived a life on the front line. Marjan symbolized the people of Afghanistan. He was old, like the country going through a difficult period, but as proud as the people of Afghanistan themselves."
The story of Marjan the One-Eyed Lion, made headlines around the world recently when the great lion died at the age of 26 at Kabul's decrepit zoo on January 25, 2002. His funeral service on January 28th was attended by hundreds. His skin was removed for display and will be placed in an honorary place at the local museum and a statue of the great beast will be placed at the entrance to the zoo.
You might wonder what is so special about this lion and what made him so internationally renowned. Truth is, Marjan the lion didn't do anything fantastic or admirable. He didn't save any lives, he didn't perform any great tasks or wonderful tricks. What Marjan did do, however, is survive at a time and in a place where survival was nothing short of a miracle.
Marjan was given to the Kabul Zoo in 1978 by donors from the zoo in Cologne, Germany. His name means coral or precious jewel. At the time, Kabul was relatively prosperous and Marjan's new home was a good one. He was 2 years old at the time. In 1979 Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviet Union and conditions in the nation became anything but ideal. Luckily, the capital city was spared and the Zoo left unharmed. Through these years, Marjan was relatively well kept and fed.
In 1992, however, with the eruption of civil war, his life was thrown into turmoil. The Zoo was regularity hit by gun fire and rockets. The zoo keeper at the time, Aga Akbar, was not able to give medicine to injured animals because the zoo's medical facilities were destroyed. When the fighting and intense shelling of Kabul ended 18 months later, Akbar did what he could to restore the zoo and help the animals.
In 1995, a Taliban soldier, fortified by his need to prove his strength and bravery, jumped into Marjan's enclosure. He began to taunt Marjan's lioness and the male lion retaliated by mauling the man. He died shortly thereafter. The family of the dead soldier sought revenge by throwing Marjan a grenade. Marjan, believing it to be food, jumped at it with glee.
The explosion rendered the lion deaf. One eye had to be removed and shrapnel from the grenade severely mutilated his face. Luckily for the lion, his great mane protected the rest of his body from harm. Marjan survived the explosion, but lost many of his teeth. He had to be hand fed soft meat by his keepers.
Why did Marjan survive this injury? The answer may lie in Marjan's relationship with his keepers. Marjan was loved by the people who took care of him, and Marjan showed his love for them in return. Lions are very spiritual creatures, and are capable of forming the deepest bond with humans. Love can give new strength to someone who is weak; Marjan's relationship with his human friends surely strengthened his will to live.
In 1996, things once again became horrific at the zoo. The Taliban took over the nation and much of the population was driven from the city. Taliban soldiers regularity tormented the animals in the zoo and Marjan was badly stoned by Taliban officials. The leaders wanted to have all the animals killed, but it was pointed out that Mohammed greatly loved animals and kept pets himself.
Marjan's lioness companion of many years died in 2000 and he did not eat for several weeks afterwards.
In October 2001, the American bombings of the Afghanistan further worsened life at the zoo. Many of zoo keepers went unpaid and there was no money to feed the animals. A local butcher, however, made sure that Marjan received enough meat to survive.
When Kabul was freed in November 2001 from the Taliban, news of the condition of the city's zoo brought the attention of international animals rights agencies like The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and Great Cats in Crisis. The organizations originally hoped to transfer the zoo's remaining animals to zoos in Pakistan and India, but the Kabul municipality refused, hoping instead to rebuild the zoo to its pre-1979 glory.
Juan Carlos Murillo of the WSPA became Marjan's official caretaker. His examination of the lion showed that although he was weak and thin, he was in relatively good health otherwise. Murillo administered daily doses of vitamins and Marjan appeared to improve. A week before his death, however, the great lion began to deteriorate rapidly. A special ramp was built for him into his den since he appeared to have trouble climbing into it. On the night of January 25, Marjan was so weak that he had to be carried into his den on a mattress. He was found dead the next morning.
But, why did Marjan die to begin with when he had been reasonably healthy a few weeks earlier? I think Marjan died of happiness. This old lion had led a tough, stress-filled life for most of his years. In typical leoine fashion, his body rose to the occasion and went into high gear. This, and the deep relationship he had with his keepers gave him the ability to ward off most any kind of condition. But, now the war was finally over. Marjan had become the center of attention. He was well-fed and cared for. He was loved more than ever by those around him. Marjan was able to let down his stress defense and relax for the first time in many years. But, nothing could be done to reverse Marjan's advanced age. His systems, now not under stress maintenance, simply stopped working. So, Marjan, who had survived many tough times, simply gave in to old age.
Marjan lived through a king, a coup, Soviet occupation, communist rule, internecine mujahideen battles, the Taliban and a U.S. bombing campaign. He is truly a great beast and stands a symbol of hope and perseverance in a nation so recently and so heavily scarred.