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His­tory

When, just before WWII, the Dutch mer­chant Ger­ard van den Brink bought the man­sion, includ­ing the estate ‘Ten Rhijn’, in the small town of Alphen aan den Rijn, located close to the river ‘Oude Rijn’ in the province Zuid-​Holland, nobody could have expected that this would lead to the cre­ation of the first zoo in the Nether­lands ded­i­cated to birds only. Ger­ard van den Brink was a suc­cess­ful entre­pre­neur in the millinery busi­ness, who owned sev­eral shops. His son, Ger­ard junior, would even­tu­ally fol­low his father’s foot­steps, but being a bird lover he kept some birds as a hobby.

In 1942, how­ever, dur­ing WWII the fam­ily had to leave the man­sion and the estate by order of the Ger­man occu­piers. When they returned after the war only three trees of the orig­i­nal wooded park had sur­vived the dev­as­tat­ing period. These three trees still exist to date.

Ger­ard jr took up his for­mer hobby after they returned to their estate in 1945, start­ing with a few aviaries at the edge of the park. The first birds in the col­lec­tion were exotic white wood­peck­ers (Melan­er­pes can­didus) that might have orig­i­nated from Suri­name – at the time still part of the King­dom of the Nether­lands. Ger­ard sr liked the birds very much and joined his son’s hobby by invest­ing in fea­tures such as a rose gar­den, ponds and bridges to intro­duce char­ac­ter­is­tics of a park on the rather bare estate. Father and son were pas­sion­ate about their pri­vate endeav­our, which was absolutely not intended to turn into a pub­lic bird park.

Nev­er­the­less, while the fam­ily increased their bird col­lec­tions, includ­ing exotic species, the sounds of those birds made the cit­i­zens of Alphen aan den Rijn curi­ous. To sat­isfy this curios­ity and at the same time give the peo­ple of this Chris­t­ian munic­i­pal­ity an alter­na­tive to their Sun­day stroll, the mayor asked Van den Brink for once to open the estate to the vil­lagers, in August 1949. In large num­bers they came to explore the park and gar­dens, and their enthu­si­asm even­tu­ally led to a sec­ond pub­lic open­ing. Being a gen­uine busi­ness­man, Van den Brink realised that he could make some money when ask­ing an entrance fee. Thus it was decided to make the estate an offi­cial bird park and Avi­fauna, the world’s first bird park ever opened its gate to the pub­lic on 17 May 1950.

The first year turn­stile num­bers were as high as 500,000, but already a few years later the Van den Brink fam­ily wasn’t able to main­tain the park any more, on the verge of bank­ruptcy. The hobby of Ger­ard van den Brink got out of hand, lit­er­ally. So Avi­fauna Bird Park was about to be closed. For­tu­nately, the town coun­cil of Alphen aan den Rijn stepped in, but wasn’t able to make the park prof­itable too. With a loss of 200,000 Dutch guilders they started to look for a new owner. The town coun­cil wanted the bird park to be a visitor’s attrac­tion again, bring­ing tourists to the town, but fore­most they didn’t want to lose any more money.

How it started
Footage of the early days of the bird park, includ­ing Ger­ard van den Brink jr rem­i­nisc­ing about how it all began … (in Dutch)

For­tu­nately, already in 1956 a new fam­ily, a fam­ily busi­ness to be cor­rect, was found will­ing to invest in the enter­prise and take over own­er­ship and man­age­ment. This Van der Valk fam­ily – well-​known for the many hotels and motor­way restau­rants they ran in the Nether­lands and beyond – bought the bird park on lease­hold from the munic­i­pal­ity with a sym­bolic annual fee of 1 Dutch guilder.

Appar­ently the Van der Valk fam­ily was one of nature lovers and were pre­pared to invest in the bird park. They even decided to adopt the toco tou­can (Ram­phastos toco) that was used to adorn the posters of the ini­tial open­ing of the park in 1950 as a logo for their fam­ily busi­ness. A logo that has iden­ti­fied the Van der Valk hotels and restau­rants ever since, and is there­fore famil­iar to every Dutchman.

snekerpoortThe Van der Valk fam­ily extended the park and its children’s play­ground, while they added a hotel and a restau­rant as well for obvi­ous rea­sons. Fur­ther to this sev­eral repli­cas of well-​known Dutch build­ings were intro­duced on the premises, such as the ‘water­poort’ of Sneek in Fries­land, a province in the north. Van der Valk together with some masons trav­elled to Sneek to see the ‘water­poort’ for them­selves and take pic­tures. Con­struc­tion draw­ings were requested, bricks were bought from old farms, and they even baked bricks in Avi­fauna them­selves, to build the replica on scale. The ‘water­poort’ of Sneek is still an eye-​catching build­ing right after the entrance to date. Later, an indoors fam­ily enter­tain­ment cen­tre was added and a ship­ping com­pany was founded (Red­erij Avi­fauna) that offered boat trips on the river, canals and lakes near Alphen aan den Rijn.

In the early days the bird col­lec­tion com­prised the usual sus­pects that were specif­i­cally attrac­tive to the gen­eral pub­lic – colour­ful species that didn’t require too com­pli­cated care and man­age­ment. In the 1960s they started breed­ing endan­gered bird species. The first was the white stork (Cico­nia cico­nia) – at the time just about 12 white stork breed­ing pairs exist in the wild in the Nether­lands. Other cap­tive breed­ing suc­cesses fol­lowed, such as with sev­eral crane species, Double-​wattled cas­sowary (Casuar­ius casuar­ius), Great white pel­i­can (Pele­canus onocro­talus), and horn­bills (Bucerotidae).

One of the high­lights within the range of new build­ings that were estab­lished in the 60s and 70s was the ‘Mar­t­i­nushal’, a trop­i­cal hall that enabled the pos­si­bil­ity to keep trop­i­cal bird species in the cold cli­mate of the Netherlands.

After the 70s there was a stand­still in the park’s devel­op­ment, no new species were added to the col­lec­tion and Avi­fauna wasn’t a real bird park any more – pri­mates, lamas, kan­ga­roos, zebras and other mam­malian species were found to be part of the col­lec­tion in those days. There­fore, in the 1990s, it was decided that birds should be the main attrac­tion again as to hon­our the name of the park.

A mas­ter­plan was devel­oped which had its offi­cial start on 17 May 2000 when Avi­fauna cel­e­brated its 50th anniver­sary. Old-​fashioned small aviaries were turned into large and mod­ern enclo­sures hold­ing species in a more nat­ural envi­ron­ment with spe­cific biotopes and habi­tats in walk-​through exhibits such as the Lori Land­ing, Trop­i­cal Hall and Mada­gas­car Area. Fur­ther­more, the size of many groups of birds was expanded. With a new mas­ter­plan pre­sented to the town coun­cil in 2012 the Avi­fauna man­age­ment showed they needed and wanted to con­tin­u­ously change and improve their park. Not only to pro­vide the ani­mals with the best con­di­tions accord­ing the newest insights on keep­ing ani­mals in cap­tiv­ity, but also to increase the vis­i­tor num­bers. The envis­aged future of the park con­tains an enor­mous hall (16,000 m2) to attract vis­i­tors dur­ing all sea­sons and all types of weather. But it has to be said, again mam­malian species have been intro­duced to pro­vide a more diverse expe­ri­ence with red panda, var­i­ous lemur species and small New World mon­keys. The lat­ter have been rein­tro­duced in 2014 and are now on dis­play in the new Nuboso exhibit that opened in 2016. Fur­ther intro­duc­tions of other mam­mal species are envis­aged for the future. In a still to develop Aus­tralian biotope Avi­fauna wants to keep koala, as the first zoo in the Nether­lands. Addi­tion­ally, there are ideas to have giant otter and giant anteater on dis­play in a South Amer­i­can area that is planned. These species should dou­ble the num­ber of vis­i­tors. So, Avi­fauna is not just a bird park any more, and will become more of a reg­u­lar zoo focussed on bird species.

Like any mod­ern self-​respecting zoo Avi­fauna is engaged in breed­ing pro­grammes for endan­gered species, con­ser­va­tion activ­i­ties in the wild and edu­ca­tion pro­grammes for school chil­dren, while offer­ing enter­tain­ment and edu­ca­tion via for instance free flight demon­stra­tions. The efforts of Avi­fauna try­ing to pro­tect bird species from going extinct is inter alia caused by peo­ple who source these species from the wild for mak­ing med­i­c­i­nal prod­ucts (of which the effect is non-​existent) or sell­ing them to igno­rant per­sons that just want to pos­sess rare and expen­sive birds. Thirty of exactly such species were stolen from the premises on the night of 16 Sep­tem­ber 2014.

Until 2012 Avi­fauna was owned by the Van der Valk fam­ily. But in 2012 it became offi­cially a not-​for-​profit foun­da­tion which ensures that all rev­enues will ben­e­fit the birds in the park and in the wild. One objec­tive of the foun­da­tion is to pre­vent fur­ther extinc­tion of bird species world­wide. Van der Valk still pro­vides the cater­ing though, through­out the park and is the main spon­sor of Avifauna.

alacarte restaurantThe for­mer man­sion where the Van den Brink fam­ily lived in still exists, although now it fea­tures the a-​la-​carte-​restaurant of the bird park. A few other char­ac­ter­is­tics of the orig­i­nal park have remained – the line of trees near the entrance, the pond at the park restau­rant and there are still a few pel­i­cans around that swam in the park ponds on open­ing day.

(Source: web­site Avi­fauna; web­site Van der Valk Avi­fauna; web­site tivi pro­duc­ties; web­site Van der Valk; Wikipedia; web­site news­pa­per Alge­meen Dag­blad)

Goal: 7000 tigers in the wild

Tiger range countries map

Tiger map” (CC BY 2.5) by Sander­son et al., 2006.

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