ZSL's animal experts visit India's Sakkarbaug Zoo

The Zoological Society of London is working with local partners Gujarat Forest Department and the Wildlife Institute of India to support Asiatic lion conservation in the Gir and surrounding areas, where 500 Asiatic lions live. 

In November 2015 some of ZSL’s animal experts visited Sasan Gir Rescue centre and Sakkarbaug Zoo in Junagadh to work with and help train their staff in best practices in animal care and breeding. 

Jim Mackie is an Animal Behaviour and Training Officer at the Zoological Society of London.

Asiatic lions in Sasan Gir

On our first day at Sakkarbaug Zoo myself, Graeme Williamson (senior keeper) and Malcolm Fitzpatrick (senior curator of mammals), were introduced to a pair of nine year old female lions who had been born at the Zoo.  We were told that the lions were most often fed in their resting dens with flesh cut off the bone.  

Upon meeting with the Zoo Director, Mr Pandit, we agreed to introduce meat on the bone to the lionesses and to try and feed them outside. We showed Mr Pandit and keepers at Sakkarbaug Zoo videos taken at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo and ZSL London Zoo to show him much the lions enjoy this.

Ahead of the food delivery that afternoon, we decided to attempt some other enrichment. One technique we wanted to share with our colleagues at Sakkarbaug Zoo was a ‘zip-line’ enrichment device which we used with great success when our Asiatic lions were at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo. Basically we tie the meat to a wire, which is designed to allow greater movement of the meat than if it were just hung up, replicating the movement of prey. It means the lions have to use all of their muscles and hunting skills and love when they finally stop it moving and 'kill' their dinner. The device can also be used with non-food items such as scented sacks or boomer balls.

Lioness using zip line enrichment at Sakkarbaug ZooWe demonstrated to the zookeepers how to install the zip line and also some different devices that could be tried out in the future, like scent enrichment – hiding smelly objects in an enclosure or leaving scent trails for animals to follow – it really puts their noses to the test!

This type of enrichment was really new for the lions, and so at first they were slightly wary of the novel items and they were not sure how to interact with them. However, we know how much lions love  scents - especially fresh ginger - so we rubbed and sprayed scents on to trees, and the lions immediately showed off their natural scent marking behaviours  including neck rubbing, scratching, rolling and bark chewing.

The meat arrived in the afternoon and the food enrichment could begin. We watched Sakkarbaug Zoo’s lion keepers recall the two lions in to a den by calling them over (we call this an audio cue).The fact that no food was on show at any point meant that the lions were choosing to come inside of their own accord, which allowed keepers to call the animals in at any time of the day without using food. This was very useful as it meant we were then able to use their entire food allowance for enrichment.

We hung the food on the zip line, and the lions went back outside - at first they showed no interest at all in the suspended leg or ribs, most likely due to the fact they had never encountered meat in this way. We them saw them recognise the smell of a trail of some blood from the meat – one of the lions’ favourite smells! -  and this took the lions towards the zip line but they only began to investigate the meat when they thought we couldn’t see.

Sakkarbuag Zoo keepers found the leg stripped to the bone the next day although unfortunately the ribs were left untouched. It was fascinating to watch the footage as the lions’ confidence grew from pawing at the leg to gradually biting and chasing after it as the zip line elicited their instinctive and incredible hunting skills.  

The new enrichment we introduced was a great success, for the animals, keepers and visitors to Sakkarbaug Zoo who can learn so much more about the lions by seeing them in action. Not only were the lions seen displaying natural hunting and feeding activities, but it also led to the lions ‘socialising’ with lions housed in nearby enclosures; including vocalisations like roaring to each other; physical activity and scent marking to claim their territory.

Marmoset enrichment installed at Sakkarbaug ZooWhile at the Zoo, we also worked with a pair of common marmosets (very small primates) housed in a relatively new enclosure. The keepers asked us to help with some enrichment for them too. We introduced lots of different things to their environment to keep the cheeky monkeys busy, including branches for them to climb and leap from over, and elevated feeding platforms – these monkeys like to keep watch on their habitat during meal times.

At the quarantine area at Sakkarbaug Zoo a team worked on providing a leopard with a more complex environment, with climbing and resting areas at different heights. This project became especially important as it was designed to be a template for improved facilities both at Sakkarbaug Zoo and beyond, in the various facilities that house rescued wild leopards that may have come into conflict with humans, like those looked after at the rescue centre at Sasan Gir.

The work at Sakkarbaug Zoo was just one element of the trip to India. We also had the opportunity to observe lions in the wild, learn how they co-exist with the human populations and begin to understand the environmental and social conditions which surround this relationship.

The collaborative effort between ZSL, the Wildlife Institute of India and the Gujarat Forest Department has contributed to a cultural shift at Sakkarbaug Zoo, where keepers are continuing to innovate and progress.

The time ZSL shared with the dedicated and knowledgeable zoo keepers and all the other personnel working to preserve the habitats and wildlife in the Gir National Park and beyond during this workshop is unforgettable and will inspire us as we strive to provide the best welfare to the animals in our care and continue our own conservation breeding programmes in our two Zoos. This conservation breeding and husbandry workshop is just one element of the Memorandum Of Understanding between Wildlife Institute of India and Gujarat Forest Department and will  include training events here in the UK and hopefully further opportunities for ZSL keepers to share their behavioural management knowledge and experience with our Indian colleagues.

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