London Zoo’s exhibit, Land of the Lions, enables visitors to get closer than ever to India’s majestic Asiatic lions.
We spoke to zookeeper Teague Stubbington to learn about the exhibit, the zoo’s conservation efforts for Asiatic lions in the wild, and what working with these majestic animals is like.
Evan Evans: What can people expect to experience at Land of the Lions?
Teague Stubbington: “Land of the Lions is designed to give visitors the opportunity to experience how people in India’s Gir Forest live side-by-side with Asiatic lions and hanuman langur monkeys and how their pride for the animals helps ensure their survival. The exhibit was created entirely with the big cats in mind, with lots of vantage points for them to use, scratching posts and even heated rocks to snooze on. It also features exciting experiences for visitors, including a 360-degree Lion Temple for close-up views of the lions.”
What is the lions’ natural environment like, and how does London Zoo mimic it?
“The last stronghold for the Asiatic lion can be found in the Gir Forest, where they live very closely alongside people of the surrounding villages. At Land of the Lions, we tell the story of this amazing place and invite our visitors to become a part of it too, with the bustling high street of Sasan Gir, the local train station, rugged Girnar hills, and the Gir Forest itself, all recreated in the exhibit. Our designers visited the Gir Forest for inspiration and bought lots of the products and furniture you see in the new exhibit there too.”
What is ZSL doing to help Asiatic lions in the wild?
“ZSL has been working for wildlife for almost 200 years, and we’re able to share our expertise and knowledge to help protect animals worldwide. We work with the Gujarat Forest Department and the Wildlife Institute of India to help safeguard Asiatic lions in the Gir Forest in India. ZSL’s SMART technology enables forest guards to develop monitoring of the wild big cats, vets from ZSL have been working with vets in India to strengthen their capacity to help rescued big cats, and we’re working with Sakkarbaug Zoo and local rescue centres by sharing advice on how to care for Asiatic lions. A big part of the conservation effort is raising awareness of how to help these big cats.”
What is your experience of working with the lions?
“I started working with Asiatic lions in 1997, and I’ve been a keeper with many different animals since. Throughout a zookeeping career, I feel you can have a closer relationship with some animals, and I think I’ve always felt closest to the lions.”
What do you do on a daily basis to take care of them?
“As well as caring for the needs of the animals, we provide them with ‘enrichment’, recreating situations that encourage their natural behaviour. This could mean presenting their food to them differently each mealtime, encouraging them to hunt or forage. The sense of smell is extremely important in wild lions as they use scent to mark out their territories. We provide lots of scent enrichment for our lions, spraying different smells on objects around the enclosure. Our girls love the smell of ginger, lavender and cumin.
We work very closely with the lions to train them in various behaviours to help us care for them. For example, lions need the same vaccinations as domestic cats do in the UK, so every day, we get them to stand up against their enclosure for one of their favourite treats so that we can check their paws and stomachs. And should they ever need a visit from the vets, they think nothing of letting us give them an injection, as they’re really comfortable with the scenario.”
Have there been any especially memorable moments with the lions?
“Lions are the only truly social big cats; if they accept you, they will form a very special bond with you. Nothing beats being greeted by your favourite lion first thing in the morning. I really enjoy just watching the lions and having fun. I remember when our girls were cubs and saw snow for the first time; watching them play in it was one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen.”
How many lions will be in the Land of the Lions? Are there any personalities that stand out?
“Unlike African lions, Asiatic lions live in smaller prides. Our exhibit will initially be home to four lions, a male named Bhanu and three females called Rubi, Indi and Heidi. Each of the lions has their own personality. Some lions are bold and easier to bond with, while others are wary. Rubi is the most confident of our three females and has led the other lionesses in exploring their new home. Lions, being such social animals, have really interesting interactions with one another, and I find it fascinating to watch them together.”
What do you like most about being a keeper for London Zoo?
“ZSL is a fantastic place to work. I’ve been here for 19 years and love coming in daily. Not only do I get to work with some of the world’s most beautiful animals, but ZSL also works directly to conserve endangered species in the wild. I truly feel like my work contributes to the greater good of wildlife and humans. There are more big cats in the wild today than there would have been without the work of zoos so far, and that makes me very proud.”
Visit ZSL London Zoo and be among the first to experience the Land of the Lions and see the big cats up close.