Perhaps the fifth missile of the afternoon arcs over the top of the enclosure. Again a miss, but they are getting closer. This one hits the wooden platform upon which the magnificent white lion is dozing in the warm sunshine.
‘Hey!’ shouts the stone thrower at the lion. Then to his companions: ‘Is he sleeping? Is he alive? Is he even real?’
Two aspects of this scene strike one as unusual if not shocking in the context of a 21st century zoological gardens. The first is that the helpless lion is being pelted by visitors. The second is that the visiting public are wandering about the zoo armed to the teeth with assault rifles, and even belt-fed light machine guns.
Most of the victorious Taliban foot soldiers who swept into Kabul last month hail from rural provinces, often hundreds of miles away. They have never been to the capital, nor any other city, before. And so, in their downtime – like the soldiers of any other conquering army down the centuries – they have been taking in the sights. Some soliders have already been pictured enjoying dodgems and pedalos.
Relaxing Taliban fighters, still carrying their weapons, join families and children at Kabul Zoo to see some of the star attractions: a White lion, an Afghan leopard, wolves, ducks, pelicans and the ever popular bunny rabbit
And this weekend Mail photographer Jamie Wiseman and I spent two days observing and mingling with the Taliban at Kabul zoo.
It was a surreal and sometimes disturbing experience. It also yielded these extraordinary photographs as the fighters eagerly consented to pose as if schoolboys on a day trip. Some would have been schoolboys if in Britain, so young were they. Here, they had American M4s and M16 rifles rather than lunch boxes slung over their shoulders.
The group we came across were from Uruzgan, a largely tribal, opium-poppy-growing province next to Helmand in the country’s south.
Daily Mail feature writer Richard Pendlebury pictured in a shop in Kabul, where he was offered what were claimed to be the pelts of an Afghan leopard and cubs
The legendary mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud had been known as the ‘Lion of Panjshir’. But a real African lion – or any kind of lion – is as foreign to the experience of these Uruzgan backwoodsmen as a blue whale or a kangaroo.
The wolves trotting anxiously round and round in a nearby enclosure seemed to elicit greater respect from them. They knew from experience or by family legend what such creatures can do to livestock or a lonely traveller. There are still about 1,000 roaming wild in Afghanistan.
The lion, on the other hand, was a mystery. And a mystery that wasn’t providing value for money.
King of Kabul: The unnamed white lion is the zoo’s star attraction
Behind the fighters crowded along the fence surrounding its enclosure a zoo official was hopping anxiously from foot to foot. He asked the stone throwers to stop, but was ignored.
‘What can we do?’ he appealed to me. ‘We cannot make them stop. Look at them.’
He meant ‘look at their guns and general demeanour’. He was an educated Afghan with Western sensibilities, they were insurgents from the mountains and backwoods who had been fighting for years. This was their time, not his. At least the height of the fence meant that stones could only be lobbed rather than hurled with force.
The lion chose to ignore them. Kabul Zoo has had a chequered history since it opened in 1967. At its height, it displayed more than 400 animals. But the infrastructure – and staff – were devastated in the civil war of the 1990s.
Most of the animals were killed and the plight of those that were left brought international notoriety. The worst cases of that era came to mind while watching the lion endure the stone throwers this weekend.
A Taliban fighter, foreground, and a group of Afghan men attend Friday prayers in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Friday
An Asiatic black bear called Donatella once had part of her nose sliced off by a Taliban soldier, in revenge for her having scratched him. But the most infamous episode of animal cruelty involved Marjan the lion.
He had been donated by Cologne Zoo in 1978. During the Russian occupation and later civil war he became a symbol of the suffering and defiance of the Afghan people.
An all too realistic symbol of their suffering. In 1995, a soldier climbed into Marjan’s enclosure to show off to comrades, only to be attacked and killed by the lion. The next day, in retaliation, the dead man’s brother tossed a hand grenade at Marjan. The explosion blinded the lion, also rendering him deaf and toothless.
He became a cause celebre and soldiered on in a pitiful state until the Taliban fell in 2001 and international medical aid was more readily available to him. But by then old age and his injuries had taken too great a toll and he died a few months later. Today, a bronze statue of Marjan greets visitors just inside the zoo entrance. Admittance is 100 Afghanis (less than £1). We also had to show our Taliban press accreditation.
On a lovely weekend afternoon the zoo was busy – a mix of civilian Kabuli with young children, armed Taliban fighters and groups of stern-faced mullahs in black turbans.
An Afghan rides a bicycle as young Taliban fighters patrol the streets of Kabul in the back of a pick-up truck
The Taliban leadership has warned foot soldiers to stop taking selfies at such landmarks, particularly with senior officials, as it poses a security risk. This did not stop them when we were there – stared at as two of the few Westerners left in the city.
The zoo is shaded from the sun by mature trees. The animals seemed well-fed, and the infrastructure has been rebuilt with foreign help. Yet the enclosures are small and spartan compared with those in the West.
We saw camels, ostriches, flamingos, pelicans and a crested porcupine. A Taliban fighter giggled in disbelief when I said of the red fox that such creatures climbed my garden wall in London. Two beautiful leopards were asleep on the corrugated roof of a shelter in their shabby enclosure. Earlier in the day in Chicken Street – Kabul’s famed souvenir shopping drag, now empty of customers – we had been offered a ‘tiger’ pelt for $800 (£680). In fact it was a leopard skin. They look so much better on the live animal.
But the star of the zoo was the six-year-old male white lion (which does not have a name). Today there are only a dozen or so examples of this rare type at large in the wild. As a result, they are in great demand with unscrupulous private ‘collectors’.
A Taliban patrol in Kabul, Afghanistan, on September 23
This lion was one of six adolescents seized by Afghan authorities at the border with Pakistan in 2017. They were found hidden under crates of fruits, being held in ‘deplorable conditions,’ before being smuggled to Pakistan. Now he is fully grown and handsome, treating the gawkers with disdain.
Feeding time was at 4pm: a hunk of red meat swiftly devoured. The Talib fighters were enthralled. One began to climb the fence, to get a better view or even join in, but stopped just short of the razor wire which lines the top. One was reminded of the incident which led to the maiming of Marjan. Will this lion suffer a similar fate?
On the second afternoon we were there, the lion was once more harassed with stones by a group of Taliban fighters from distant Farah, on the Iranian border. Such behaviour seems born out of ignorance rather than malice. The same fighters then gleefully arranged themselves for Jamie, posing with their weaponry before the zoo’s ornamental fountain.
Their delight was clear. The Taliban are in town and no outsider – or animal welfare do-gooder – is going to tell them what to do.