At Chester Zoo, where conservation rules
and breeding programmes thrive, there are three
Asiatic lions – two females
and a male, without progeny as yet –
in the old African lion compound,
one of Zoo’s first fairly spacious
enclosures. There is sand, grass, mature trees –
reflecting the creature’s historical range
from the Euphrates to the Indus,
from the Levant to the Bay of Bengal.
They have been hunted almost to death,
and are teetering on extinction’s edge
confined to a forest in Gujarat.
This trio, who have known nothing but zoos
and probably consider themselves human,
basks where most of their visitors gather.
A clang of the feeding station’s gate and their names
bring them instantly to their pristine power –
the deep growl, the agility, the heft –
as they grab and gnaw their share of carcass.
The kings of Nineveh kept them for hunting,
in the desert wastes of Northern Iraq,
a royal sport to impress their subjects,
and had their power immortalised by chance
in impeccable bas-reliefs of such
stylised realism. Who would have thought
that lions might outlast kings!
Note: The poem was written in 2017. Chester Zoo, this year, has created a new enclosure for the lions – https://www.chesterzoo.org/whats-here/asiatic-lions-habitat/ – @chesterzoo. The bas-reliefs are currently on display at the British Museum – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lion_Hunt_of_Ashurbanipal.