London Zoo had Royal visitors yesterday, as The Queen opened the Land of the Lions exhibition, accompanied by The Duke of Edinburgh.
The Land of the Lions is a new 5,200 sqm enclosure, inspired by the Gir Forest in India, with rickshaws, bicycles, to transport the visitor to the east as they view the four endangered Asiatic lions of the zoo.
The Royal couple spoke with zoo keepers and members of a conservation group in front of the enclosure, before unveiling a plaque to commemorate the official opening; the public will be allowed to see the exhibition from next Friday.
ZSL hopes to play a “vital role” in the European breeding programme for the endangered species. There are just 500 Asiatic lions in the wild.
Philip seemed to be on good form with his jokes, asking: “You’ve still got your hands, arms and legs?”
He recalled a visit to the Gir Forest, which he was frustrated by. “We drove around all day but didn’t see a single lion,” the Duke told one zoo official.
The Queen and Prince Philip opened the lion terraces at ZSL London Zoo in 1976, and Elizabeth also visited the zoo as a child in 1938, accompanied by her sister Princess Margaret.
Her Majesty commented on her visit to the zoo as a child: “I don’t remember much about it 40 years ago but of course it was lovely.
“It was a beautiful ceremony and it’s wonderful that she’s here and looking so fantastic. And the lions are free now, which is rather wonderful.”
Visitors will enter Land of the Lions through a grand stone archway, pick up a ‘park pass’ at the Gir Tourist Information centre and explore Sasan Gir Train Station – where the odd lion might be spotted snoozing on the tracks – before being awed by the exhibit’s incredible centrepiece, a 360° Temple Clearing where the big cats will roam just metres away, separated only by fine wires.
As Her Majesty and the Duke listened to speeches from Zoological Society of London president Sir John Beddington and director Ralph Armond, lions prowled metres behind them in search of meat, and a small fight broke out between two of the cats.
Professor David Field, zoological director at ZSL explained it was Heidi and Indi who fought and got The Queen’s attention: Heidi’s growl “could have been a comment on the president’s speech” but was more likely “an expression of delight at having The Queen and Philip back again”.
He said: “The Queen kept taking a look at what the lions were doing behind them – especially when the lions were growling.
“And that’s the beauty of it, because you’re so intimate and so close with the lions you just don’t quite know how close they are to you.”
Philip was given a reproduction of a painting by Edward Lear circa 1835 of an Asian lion to accompany the publication, The Maneless Lion Of Gujarat.