Sleeping lions at London Zoo

The city’s latest overnight stay comes with unusual neighbours — big cats

Financial Times, Travel
27 May 2016

London at night has many familiar noises: the percussion of a police helicopter overhead, the distended whine of an ambulance, drunken singing, arguments, laughter and the yowling of frisky foxes in the garden. But last Sunday, as I settled in for the night, there was something else: the throaty, rumbling roar of a pride of lions.

I was at London Zoo, where the final part of a £5.2m exhibit, Land of the Lions, opened last week: nine colourful and well-appointed lodges where visitors can stay the night. Each can accommodate two adults and — at a pinch — two children sharing the sofa bed. There are tea-making facilities, a shower, a veranda and, within earshot (but safely enclosed), three Asiatic lionesses — Rubi, Heidi and Indi — and their new mate Bhanu, recently arrived from a zoo in Winnipeg, Canada.

The exhibit is modelled on the village of Sasan Gir in Gujarat, India, where the Gir Forest National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary is home to the only remaining wild population of Asiatic lions (there are about 500 left, up from a low of 20 a century ago). Wandering through the mocked-up village, with stalls selling (plastic) fruit, Bollywood-style posters, autorickshaws, bicycles, and even a disused rail station, the area feels very different to the rest of the zoo. Here, the intention is for a more immersive experience and, at intervals during the day, actors playing rangers and vets simulate what conservation teams do in Gujarat, even staging the rescue of a sick lion (with the help of a lifelike model).

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