In 2001, as the Taliban government collapsed, the Kabul Zoo had been almost destroyed by years of war and neglect. Exhibits were bombed out, and many of the animals had been maimed, been eaten by hungry Afghans or died of hunger.
That’s when the North Carolina Zoo stepped in with more than $400,000 it had collected in donations. Other foreign groups pitched in, and the donations eventually reached nearly $2 million.
The result: Despite being no larger than a suburban U.S. high school campus, the zoo has become one of the most popular leisure attractions in Afghanistan – so popular, in fact, that ticket sales generate more money than it costs to operate the attraction.
Now Kabul’s mayor wants to make the zoo more than five times larger – with more animals, more space and more crowd-pleasing species from places such as Africa.
Those who helped revive the zoo say that might be a big mistake.
"Getting them to understand what they can do that will be sustainable, given their resources and the climate there, is difficult," said David Jones, the director of the state-owned North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, which covers 150 times more land than its counterpart in Kabul.
Jones, who’s long been involved in helping zoos in the developing world, said the idea of a sprawling zoo with more species from more places raised a host of issues, including simply the cost of heating and cooling animals’ housing in Afghanistan’s climate, which is known for its big swings in daily and seasonal temperatures.
Jon Coe, one of the world’s best-known zoo designers, was hired in 2011 as part of a $120 million aid package to improve the city from the U.S. Agency for International Development. His design for the zoo emphasized native species, education, conservation, the health of the animals and sustainability over flash. The area for animals would grow only moderately. The emphasis would be on species native to Afghanistan. Land across the Kabul River that’s been earmarked for expansion would become a conservation-minded river park tied in with the zoo.
The idea was a zoo that Kabul could afford to run properly even if the foreign funding that now fuels the city’s budget dries up, Coe said in an email from his home in Australia.
His design, though, has failed to satisfy the mayor, Mohammed Younas Nawandish, a short, mustachioed, wildly popular buzzsaw of a man dubbed "The Builder of Kabul."
For one, Nawandish says, the animal enclosures must expand across the river, where Coe had foreseen a family-friendly park.
"The condition of the zoo is very good, but unfortunately we don’t have a lot of animals," Nawandish said in an interview. "We will change that. It will be an excellent park, and at the same time a zoo, and it will be very nice."
Nawandish, a civil engineer by training, is famed for 17-hour workdays and striding the streets of the city day and night, looking for things to improve. Backed with Western aid money, he’s paved miles of dirt roads, built dozens of parks and playgrounds, installed streetlights and planted thousands of trees. He has huge plans to construct entire new neighborhoods.
As for the zoo, he wants animals that will amaze.
"I want elephants,” he said.
Tales of what happened to the animals during the nation’s civil war and the period of Taliban control are part of the zoo’s lore: A handful of unpaid zookeepers dodged bullets to get supplies to the animals. Taliban soldiers slept in the zoo, eating the rabbits and deer, and shooting other animals for fun.
The aquarium was damaged in the fighting and shelling destroyed a parrot enclosure. Most famously, Marjan the Lion lost an eye, his hearing and his teeth to a grenade. He died in 2002, but he remains a symbol of the zoo.
As the zoo’s plight became known, the N.C. Zoo Society, the North Carolina Zoo’s private fundraising arm, hoped to get about $30,000. Instead, more than $430,000 poured in. The money helped rebuild exhibits, pay staff and buy animal feed. The North Carolina Zoo also helped with animal care, staff training and a business strategy.
The zoo today is clean, and the modest enclosures and animals appear to be in good condition. There’s a food stand, a Ferris wheel, security cameras, more than 100 species of animals and insects, and 40 employees. Officials claim that attendance was 600,000 last year.
The zoo now has an education center that 30,000 students visited last year, and it’s been allowed to join international zoo groups, including the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which will give it access to high-quality training for the staff.
The zoo is popular in part because it’s a safe, peaceful refuge, particularly for women and children, in a city that has few.
On a recent Friday, despite snow on the ground and near-freezing temperatures, hundreds turned out. Several of them liked the mayor’s plan.
Abdul Aziz, 45, a taxi driver, had eight members of his family in tow.
"You’re always coming into the zoo and seeing the same animals each time," he said. "This is my third visit this winter, but the animals are the same. We certainly want more animals. Expansion of the zoo gives us the opportunity to come every week, maybe, and get familiar with different kinds of animals."
The mayor says the bigger zoo will pay its way by attracting more people. Jones is skeptical, though, because the market size won’t change. It’s unlikely that many people would travel from outside Kabul to go to the zoo, he said.
There are plenty of Afghan animals that could form the heart of a terrific zoo along the lines Coe suggested, Jones said. Among them are one of the world’s most diverse groups of cats, including snow leopards and Asiatic lions. Other exciting species include the Markhor, a massive mountain goat with bizarre spiraling horns.
"They’ve got a lot that is really interesting, and well-designed exhibits for their own animals would satisfy a lot of people and be more sustainable," Jones said.
Aziz Gul Saqib, the Kabul Zoo’s director, says it will use Coe’s design as a guide, and hopes to consult with him more. It will need to work with international advisers and donors to carry out the expansion.
The mayor, meanwhile, is moving ahead. He’s hoping that the land acquisition can start soon. He’s already begun the search for elephants.
"I have asked the ambassador of India for help," he said.
McClatchy special correspondent Rezwan Natiq in Kabul contributed to this story.