When Basel zoo opened its gates to the public, on 18 July 1874, there were 94 mammals (of 35 species) and 416 birds (of 83 species) to see on 4.3 hectares. Only animals native to the local geographical region at display, such as waders and waterfowls, owls, wild boar, deer, wolf, lynx, badger, marten, fox and wildcat. Especially the predator species got a lot of attention. But, because of the high mortality of the animals and the request of visitors to enjoy more exotic animals, they soon had to reconsider the set-up of the zoological garden.
In 1884 a first enlargement was achieved and exotic people together with their exotic animals were exhibited. These kind of exhibitions were popular with the public until the first part of the 20th century. Several donations made it possible to acquire the first exotic animals. And in 1886 a young Asian elephant, miss Kumbuk, was imported, which soon became well-known in Basel. The first pair of lions arrived in 1890, and already in 1891 the first lion cubs were born.
In 1901 a generous gift of Basel citizen Johannes Beck initiated the establishment of the Johannes Beck foundation, and provided a solid financial basis for the zoo. Until today this is celebrated with a special day during which visitors are admitted free of charge.
In 1910 the antelope house was erected and still exist to date. And in 1912 two male giraffes were bought. Unfortunately, in 1917 miss Kumbuk the Asian elephant died. Due to WWI elephants had become a rarity in Europe, so in 1919 it was decided that a new elephant, miss Jenny, was purchased from circus Krone.
Shortly after the end of World War I the association for the promotion of the zoological garden, today the Friends of the Zoo of Basel, was founded to financially support the zoo.
In the meantime a new standard on zoo design was created by Carl Hagenbeck. And it was time to implement his ideas by showing animals in open enclosures without fences. This commenced in 1921 with the construction of the marmot rock and the popular sea lion basin by the well-known sculptor Urs Eggenschwyler. Several changes were made in this period, while modernising the zoo. Additionally there was a steady increase of animal species until two catastrophes hit the zoo. The first was an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, and the second was WWII. Both were a severe setback to the number of animals in the garden. Nevertheless, the gap that still existed in the zoo's livestock situation was filled when in 1942 at christmas a small aquarium was opened.
Immediately after the war ended the zoo acquired new animals and extended the park with a second entrance and a large meadow for the giraffes. In 1951 the first rhinoceros arrived, a male, who was provided female companionship only a year later. These two animals, Gadadhar and Joymothi, were the ancestors of the famous Basel rhinoceros breeding successes, with the world's first zoo-born in 1956. Basel was also the first zoo with a breeding pair of gorillas, which delivered Goma – Europe's first zoo-born gorilla on 23 September 1959 (see also ).
Had Heini Hediger introduced modern husbandry based on a biological way of thinking when he became Zoo director in 1944, his successor, the veterinarian Ernst Lang revolutionised the animal nourishment based on state of the art scientific knowledge. Together with the establishment of species specific group composition Basel Zoo became renowned worldwide for its breeding successes.
An important role in the zoo's modern animal husbandry played the new predator house. After its opening in 1956, people saw tigers, for the first time, behind a thin mesh screen and a lion in an outside enclosure without a roof. The big cat house has been a role model for many other zoos and brought impressive breeding successes, right from the start.
Further changes were made to the zoo design and plan, continuously. Like the long-awaited Vivarium opened its doors in Easter 1972. Its architectural design brought a new feature, for the 350 meter long corridor leads the visitor beneath the surface of the pond from water to land while following the path of evolution. Even today, the Basel vivarium excites visitors and professionals from around the world. The next revival in zoo design, like in a lot of reputable zoos, was the establishment of extended enclosures. Designing it according the idea of a nature reserve. Trying to lose the feeling the animals are kept in captivity such as in the African savannah mixed-species exhibit where ostriches are kept together with zebra and hippopotamuses. Next phase was to group fauna and flora following a continental focus.
In March 2001 the Etosha house was opened. This unique facility resembles and illustrates the food chain in the African savannah. The house is also built to be energy friendly. The two feet thick mud walls, mashed by hand, contribute greatly to the energy behaviour of the building. A 30 cm thick layer of foam beads made of recycled glass prevents heat loss to the soil. The energy of the warm exhaust air is passed through heat exchangers to the injected fresh air, and thus the precious heat stays in the house.
Trying to improve the life of animals living in captivity the construction of the "new worlds of experience for great apes" in the Basel Zoo commenced early summer 2010. It was a thorough renovation and expansion of the 1960s monkey house that brought stress upon the primates, especially the gorillas, because they had to leave their quarters for a year. During this period all the primates were taken care of by the Zoo’s animal keepers outside the Zoo premises. When the monkey house was refurbished and complied with modern zoo standards new outside enclosures were created for the gorillas and other great apes (orangutans and chimpanzees). The enclosures for crab-eating macaque, ring-tailed lemur and bear had to be torn down to enable this improvement of the great ape outdoor enclosures.
A new elephant exhibit called ‘Tembea’ is currently [written in September 2016] under construction. It focuses on the latest findings for good elephant keeping and provides the animals with about 5,000 m2, over twice the size as before. A new house and an outdoor area with enrichment features such as wallowing pools, various feeding sites, different soil substrates, rocks and patches of trees keep the elephants busy and on the move. The new animal keeping procedures will no longer involve any direct contact with humans so that the animals can live as naturally as possible in their own social structures. It will be a mixed-species exhibit as besides the elephants, guinea fowl and white stork will occupy the outdoor area. Indoors there are plans to house a community of harvester ants and brown rats. While on the top floor of the house and on the walls nesting opportunities will be created for swallows and swifts as well as roosting areas for bats. The work commenced in 2013 and the opening of the entire complex is scheduled for March 2017. During reconstruction, the female elephants stay on the plant but the bull has moved to Sweden.
Conservation and Science
Basel Zoo is and has been involved in several conservation programmes for many years, and . With the Zoo’s involvement in nature conservation projects worldwide, the zoo contributes to protecting and maintaining natural habitats, animals and plant species. To enhance their financial contribution possibilities the Zoo introduced nature conservation contributions on 01 July 2016. For every annual season ticket sold, a contribution of CHF 1.50 goes to nature conservation projects, and there will be a voluntary contribution of CHF 1.00 added to all admission tickets. The way Basel Zoo contributes to projects ranges from selling products of which the revenues support a project (Snow Leopard Trust); to support of individual researchers (African wild dogs in Botswana); to direct financial contribution (mountain gorillas in Cameroon); while the white stork migration project is perhaps the most close to home project, with the white stork that frequent the Zoo being part of the stork population that is provided with a transmitter to document their migratory behaviour.
Furthermore, Basel Zoo is actively involved in over 40 international conservation breeding programmes for endangered species and coordinates breeding programmes for fives species itself.
By appointing a biologist (Heini Hediger, 1944) and a veterinarian (Ernst Lang, 1953) as director science was introduced at Basel Zoo. Great improvements were achieved under their supervision regarding husbandry systems and breeding of endangered species. For instance, the greater flamingo colony at Basel has been subject of scientific study longer than almost any other species at the Zoo – with the first flamingo ever to hatch in an European zoo in 1958. Perhaps one of the most notable achievements was that clipping of the flamingo wings could be stopped because (a) plants are obstructing what would be their watery ‘take-off strips’ and (b) the birds have no reason to fly away; they have the sense of belonging together as a flock; they get their food all year round; and they are used to the winter shelter.
(Source: Basel Zoo website; Zoo Basel, 1999, Herausgeber Zoologischer Garten Basel, Bilder Jörg Hess)