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Travel: A night at the London Zoo

In a bid to increase meaningful participation, the zoo offers accommodation at its in-house lodges as well as access to curated private tours

The Gir Lion Lodges at the zoo. (Photographs courtesy ZSL London Zoo)

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It is a balmy summer evening. Tired after a long day spent walking, my husband and I are sipping a cup of masala tea on the cheery yellow porch while our six-year-old son mills about, playing an imaginary game. Jaunty prayer flags adorn the eaves of the roof and sturdy oak trees line the gardens that connect the lodges.

Our moment of calm is interrupted by a macaw’s loud screech. It sets off a flurry of sounds—the trill of a magpie, the distant hooting of a monkey, and then the low, unmistakable rumble of a lion’s roar, quite close to us. We return to our refreshments, unfazed. After all, this is not a nature reserve, where a lion’s proximity signals danger. It is the ZSL London Zoo Lodges, located in the very heart of the city in Regent’s Park, and though we are sharing their ample enclosure, the Asiatic lions are safely ensconced in another part of it.

When the Gujarat-themed Land Of The Lions exhibit was inaugurated here in 2016, the ZSL London Zoo Lodges were opened alongside it. The exhibit itself happened by chance. The London Zoo already had four female Asiatic lions and sourced a male lion from a zoo in Canada about two years ago. The ladies didn’t take to him and were shipped off to other zoos; another female was brought in last year.

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The lodges now offer accommodation for an overnight stay to guests “within roaring distance of the zoo’s Asiatic lions”, as the zoo literature puts it. Today the main charm of a stay at the Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL’s) Lodge is the three tours, 45-60 minutes each, offered as part of the package. These take place when the zoo is closed to the public—two at night and one in the morning, before it opens. They allow guests to enjoy a near-private viewing of select animals, guided by enthusiastic zookeepers, aka hosts, who readily share information. You even get to feed some of the animals.

Since the tours account for a change in seasons—some animals could be hibernating or mating, for instance—no one knows which animals they will get to see. A welcome drink and meals are included in the price of the ticket: £345-435 (around 33,120-41,760) for families, depending on the number of people. Guests also get two full days’ access to the zoo, with the added option of free entry to the ZSL Whipsnade Zoo—a two-hour train ride from London—which has more animals.

At the ‘Land Of The Lions’, at the ZSL London Zoo.
At the ‘Land Of The Lions’, at the ZSL London Zoo.

Since its opening in 1826, the ZSL has attempted to study and help preserve wildlife. Through scientific research, on-field conservation efforts around the world and the attempt to engage through its two zoos in the UK, it hopes to address the challenges facing wildlife, such as habitat loss, illegal wildlife trade and pollution. The ZSL London Zoo Lodge experience is one such activity, geared to raising both awareness and funds.

PACKED DAYS

The ZSL London Zoo had been high on our list of things to do during our recent vacation. So when we discovered the overnight stay experience on their website, we jumped at the chance. Though everything was initially sold out, a slot opened up eventually owing to a cancellation.

To make the most of our time, we arrived right after the zoo opened. This allowed us to pay leisurely visits to my son’s favourite animals, many of whom we had read about but never seen, such as zebras, giraffes, meerkats, lemurs, gorillas, as well as a variety of reptiles, insects and nocturnal creatures. The spacious environs and strategically-placed food and activity counters ensured there was plenty to keep us occupied through the day.

By the time we checked into one of the nine lodges on site, we were tired but excited about what lay ahead. The lodges were a bit cramped, but comfortable and clean. We were tickled by the décor, inspired by traditional Gujarati homes, marketplaces and temples, with each lodge themed to match different animals—Parakeet Lodge, Leopard Lodge— from the Gir forest. Since ours was a cancellation booking, we made do with a twin bed with a pull-out sofa option, though other lodges offer double beds. Each one comes with a bathroom.

An Asiatic Lion at the ZSL London Zoo.
An Asiatic Lion at the ZSL London Zoo.

Soon, our party of about 25 adults and children was ready for the first tour. As the adults enjoyed their welcome glasses of champagne and the children their orange juice, we were introduced to our bubbly young hosts—one from the US and the other from Australia—who began their tour from the lions’ enclosure. They told us about the state-of-the-art equipment and the enrichment programmes in place to ensure the welfare of their two Asiatic lions, Bhanu and his mate Arya. From there, we moved to see stately Bactrian camels, curious alpacas and pygmy hippos.

The first tour over, we made our way to the dining hall, where we were served a pre-selected, two-course meal. Then it was time for our second tour, Peek Behind The Scenes. We were led to the industrial-sized kitchen where food is prepared for the animals. Every family was assigned a task—to prepare meals for animals and feed them. We offered a carefully-wrapped bag of nuts to porcupines, which love the challenge of foraging for their meal, and, the next morning, used balls filled with dry chickpea to lure the exotic wallabies from their caves.

The morning tour, our last, included a visit to the Penguin Pool, where we fed the adorable penguins. We met the incredible apex predator called the Komodo dragon, whose enclosure uses technology to adjust to the real-time temperatures of Komodo Island in Indonesia, and interacted with the fascinating Galapagos tortoises.

These private tours, away from the hustle-bustle, offer an unparalleled viewing of the zoo and its animals. The price is steep but the cause seems worth the while. We certainly hope to return some day—but we will be sure to book our slot well in advance.

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TIPS FOR A VISIT

STAY OPTIONS: ZSL London Zoo Lodges are open all year round. However, the number of nights offering the experience per week changes with the season. (around five nights a week in summer and two nights a week in winter).

HOW TO BOOK: Bookings can be made on their website: https://www.zsl.org/zsl-london-zoo/london-zoo-lodge

Noor Anand Chawla writes on lifestyle.

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