The Dvůr Králové Zoo which is known for its valiant efforts to try to save the Northern White Rhino, has a new attraction. This month it opened a lion safari – the only one of its kind in Central and Eastern Europe. Just days after the opening I spoke to the zoo’s Jan Stejskal about the new undertaking and began by asking how the idea to establish a lion safari in central Europe emerged.
“Actually, the idea came from Josef Vágner – the former founder and director of the Dvůr Králové Zoo who served in the years from 1965 to 1983. He conducted eight large expeditions to Africa and brought a lot of African mammals to Europe. And it was his dream to build a safari in the area where the Dvůr Králové Zoo is now located.”
When was this? How long did it take to make his dream come true?
“To be honest I do not know when he first articulated this dream, but I think it was in the 1970s.”
How big is the lion safari and what can visitors expect?
“The lion safari is about four acres large and is an extension of our original safari. I should say that in 1989 we opened a safari for ungulates and birds, so already there was a long stretch where visitors could see free-ranging herds of antelopes. The original safari stretched over four and a half kilometers and now when visitors drive through this safari they can turn into the newly-built park that is the lion safari. There you have to pass through two gates and when you get inside you have a circle that is about 700 meters and in that area you can come across a pack of lions.”
“Yes, people can use their own cars, but they must keep the windows closed, the doors locked and they are not allowed to have any pets with them. Another way of visiting the lion safari is in our special truck which is constructed so as to be protected against a possible attack from the lions.”
But in the event of an attack there is someone on hand to help?
“Yes, absolutely, there are guards at the gates and then inside the lion enclosure there is a car with trained staff and they have special equipment to deter such an attack.”
“Not really, but over that time we tried to bring two packs of lions together and we hoped to achieve that prior to the opening. You see we have a pack of three castrated males and a pack of four females and we had hoped to be able to bring them together in time for the opening. In the end that did not succeed and we still have to work on it over the summer. So now the two packs take turns inside the lion safari, so if you visit you will see either four females of three males.”
“Well, it really depends on them. If you go with the truck it usually takes three or four minutes but the circle in the whole of the safari area takes about an hour –so it depends on how long you want to stay inside the lions’ enclosure. If you like it, you can make a second circle. But I would say that usually people spend about 5 to 10 minutes, after watching the lions for ten minutes they are generally ready to move on.”
"The lions we obtained had already lived in a safari, so I would say that they were bigger professionals than we were".
And how have the animals reacted to the increased commotion, to the presence of cars in their enclosure?
“Well, at the outset we decided to obtain lions that are used to cars. So we brought a pack of three brothers from Woburn in Great Britain. They had already lived in a safari, so I would say that they were bigger professionals than we were in the beginning.”
So you are not afraid of potential attacks?
“No, we are not. It is true that we have two young lions (Barbary lions) and when we took them into the lion safari with our staff we saw that they wanted to play with the cars. So we decided they could not be there during regular opening hours. We only let them in in the evenings when there are no visitors. And we will train them to accept the cars in the same way as the grown lions from Woburn and the pack that we brought from the Netherlands do.”
I understand that you have also installed the wreckage of an aircraft on the premises?
“Yes, actually that’s true. We call it Mandrill Airlines and have used a fake logo that evokes the face of a Mandrill – a well-known monkey breed from Africa –but this is just for fun, for visitors to have something to see that would be evocative of a place in Africa where some aircraft crashed….”
You opened the lion safari on July 12th, a lot of publicity preceded the opening -what was the response of the public like?
“The general response is that people are excited and eager to see the lion safari. When we look at the discussions of Facebook there are entries like “Wow! We are coming to visit in a week’s time and we can’t wait!” So this is the typical reaction. There are a few people who say that it is not really nice to let cars among the animals, but I am afraid that these people have never seen how it looks in Africa where this is completely natural. From my point of view this is a unique situation that we could call “win-win” because by creating a lion safari we gave our animals a much larger enclosure than we could offer them in the past and, on the other hand, we can now offer our visitors something that they will not find in any reasonable distance from Dvůr Králové Zoo.”
Do they respect the safety regulations?
"Our dream is that in a few years' time visitors will be able to see the lions with their cubs"".
“Most of them do and when they occasionally try to roll down a window our staff immediately warns them not to break the rules.”
And what are your plans for the future –for this safari? Do you have plans to extend it or introduce other animals?
“Regarding the lion safari this is the first season and we just want to see how it works and learn from that, to see if there is anything we could improve. I would expect that when we manage to get together a mixed pack of lions –including a male Barbary lion and a female Barbary lion –which could happen maybe next year or the year after, then in a few years’ time we hope that visitors will be able to see the lions with their cubs. It is not something I can promise but it is something that we really would like to offer our visitors in a few years’ time.”
Obviously you are hoping this will increase the number of visitors to the Dvůr Králové Zoo. We have already said that this is the only Lion Safari in Central and Eastern Europe. Are you hoping to attract visitors from other countries as well?
“Well, due to our location we mainly target visitors from Poland. We ran campaigns in Poland in which we introduced the lion safari to the public and from their response we can see that they are as excited as our Czech visitors.”