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Kabul Zoo lion dies of old age

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Marjan the lion, who reigned regally at the Kabul Zoo during 23 years of war and cruelty, knew only a few weeks of peace and kindness before being found dead in his cage Saturday morning.

He lost an eye to a grenade and lost weight in the deprivation of the war years, but never lost his aura of dignity. His death tore at people for whom he had come to symbolize Afghanistan's sufferings and aspirations.

"I consider myself a pretty rough guy, but I cried," said John Walsh, international projects director of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, which is leading an international drive to bring aid to the wrecked zoo's remaining animals.

Walsh said he and zoo director Sheragha Omar found Marjan dead in his cage when the zoo opened on Saturday. They had last seen him alive the night before when they carried him into his den from the outside portion of his cage.

He hadn't moved from the place where they laid him, Walsh said.

Marjan, whose name refers to a precious stone beloved by Afghans, was 25 to 29 years old, Walsh said. The cause of death apparently was kidney and liver failure connected with old age, he said.

The lion had a hard life. In the 1990s, an Afghan guerrilla showing off for his friends jumped over the guardrail into Marjan's den, and the lion killed him. The next day, the dead man's vengeful brother threw a grenade into the cage, and the explosion took out Marjan's eye.

By the time of his death, Marjan was believed to be completely blind.

Last week, representatives of the WSPA toured the shabby zoo to assess the most urgent needs in a rehabilitation effort the group is coordinating.

Part of the effort included providing Marjan with better food and heat and a padded sleeping mat in his cage. But it became clear that Marjan was failing; in his last days he was barely able to move and relied on humans to position him in his favorite spots.

"He likes to lie in the sun," Walsh said, lapsing into the present tense for a moment before talking about the hopes he and his colleagues had held for Marjan.

"We had a lot of plans of rehabilitation, just to keep him ticking over, he was so symbolic" of Afghanistan, Walsh said. "Even though blind, he was a tough, brave old guy."

With Afghanistan torn by successive conflicts, the zoo had been in desperate straits for years even before the Taliban took power. After the Islamic militia fled, though, the miserable conditions at the zoo were widely reported.

Fund-raising efforts for its rescue began in many countries. Zoos around the world have raised about $400,000 for the construction of a new zoo.

The WSPA also is working on alleviating the misery of other of the zoo's few remaining animals, including a small black bear whose nose was cut by children teasing her with sticks and who has aggravated the wound by rubbing her nose against the bars in frustration.

Walsh said the Afghan government was discussing whether to hold a remembrance for Marjan and he suggested a campaign be started to build a statue to the lion.