SAYEED Rassool vividly remembers the day in 2012 when Hashmat Khalil Karzai, a cousin of former Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai, first showed him the lion cub.
The then 34-year-old native of Karz village in Kandahar was stunned but intrigued.
At only three months, the cub resembled a stronger, more mature kitten or puppy — animals he had ample experience in raising. Rassool had spent the previous years training dogs and birds, but he knew a lion, a wild animal, and an invasive species at that, would be different.
Still, he had a job to do.
Once again, Rassool relied on the trust he had forged with his boss, an influential figure in the southern province who had also earned a reputation as an avid animal enthusiast. In fact, Karzai invoked that trust when he commandeered Rassool’s help in training the cub he had imported from India.
“He told me I had to be the one to take care of the lion,” Rassool said.
With that, he took to caring for the cub.
At the time, Shira, as the lion came to be called, was quite small.
“Just like you would give a baby a bottle, so I gave him one,” Rassool explained while perched on a small bench just beyond the cages that housed the birds he had taken care of.
But he would slowly come to see that trying to train a wild animal was very different from domesticating a canine and looking after flocks of birds. There were some questions he just didn’t know how to answer.
For that, Rassool and Karzai relied on the teamwork and creativity their years-long bond had been built on. Karzai, who had spent decades in the United States before returning to Kandahar in 2008, began to research tips for the care of lion cubs online. The resulting tradition of Karzai translating the English-language instructions into Pashto led to them being dubbed the lion’s father, Karzai, and mother, Rassool.
The latter laughs off the maternal analogy as endearing; but evidence of the bond, for all practical purposes a parental one, is evident. Asked if he had ever feared an animal known as the king of the jungle, Rassool said he has unparalleled trust in Shira: “I trained it. I raised it. I can honestly say, I don’t have as much faith in any human as I do in Shira,” he remarked as he entered the enclosed cage where the lion resides during the hot summer afternoons. To prove the trust between trainer and lion, Rassool playfully stuck his hand in Shira’s mouth, full of razor-sharp teeth.
The bond between Rassool and Shira has even left his wife and children in disbelief.
“They still can’t imagine I actually take care of a lion,” he laughed. “They keep saying they want to meet him and see our interactions in person.”
Rassool feels so connected to the animal that he alone wants to be the one to take care of Shira when he is ill. He refuses to let any doctor treat him. “I examine his moods, if he is still and quiet when I come around, I know something is wrong,” he said. From there, he begins to play amateur veterinarian: “If I know he’s sick I will look at his droppings and urine for clues, then whatever ailment he has, I give the human treatment equivalent.”
Rassool’s mistrust of veterinarians began two and a half years ago, when a lioness, brought to keep Shira company, fell ill. “The doctor came and gave her a vaccine in her neck,” he explained. “After that she had a permanent crook in her neck and died. I vowed never to let another doctor near them after that.”
Rassool said he takes pride in his accomplishments and the bond he’s built with Shira. “I just did what anyone would do,” he said of overcoming any initial trepidation that came with caring for a wild animal without proper guidance or training. He laughed off other people’s fears of the animal he speaks of like most people would of a child. “When he roars at night, people in the neighbourhood say, ‘the balah [monster] is yelling again’,” he told me.
Most importantly, though, Rassool says he will never forget the relationship between Shira and Karzai, who was killed by a suicide bomber last summer: “For four days he wouldn’t eat. He just wandered around roaring, looking for Hashmat.”
Rassool sums up the love between the lion and the men who would come to be known as his mother and father in a saying of Karzai’s: “Whenever anyone would ask how he wasn’t afraid to enter a lion’s territory, even climb into its cage, Hashmat would say, ‘Fear the jackal, for he attacks you from behind. A lion will always strike from the front’.”
Published in Dawn, August 11th, 2015