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Visiting a zoo in winter time is normally not as nice as in other seasons, except when the zoo is located close to the equator of course. Many animals will be kept indoors during winter, because of the low temperatures. Nevertheless, it seems that it is becoming one of my personal traditions to visit a zoo during a spell of freezing or snowy weather in winter. This time I went to Hanover Zoo in Germany.

At Hanover Zoo they are not afraid to have their animals on display in outdoor enclosures when it is cold. Carl Hagenbeck and Gerald Durrell already said that most animals can adapt to different weather conditions, and therefore animals from the rainforest could be kept outdoors for instance in the United Kingdom and Germany. Nevertheless in some cases measures are taken in Hanover to provide their animals, that originate from warmer regions, a dry and warm place outdoors. Like the Barbary lions which have heated panels in the artificial rocks to comfort them. A few other species are simply kept indoors, such as the giraffes, the primates and the rhinoceroses. Another reason to keep animals in their indoor enclosure is the fear of injuries when the ground is slippery due to ice or snow. Fortunately, many animals that are not exhibited in their outdoor enclosure have an indoor enclosure open to the public.

When they last refurbished the Zoo, or perhaps the word rebuilt is more adequate to what happened, they created so called Theme Worlds. They followed the novel way of zoo design called landscape immersion, but took it to another level which you may call geographic immersion. The aim is to have, on the one hand, animals in their natural habitat, and on the other hand visitors experiencing this habitat also. As if they are walking in the jungle for instance. At Hanover Zoo they try to make you forget you are in Germany with the restaurants and bars erected in local style too, and even the toilets remind you of the geographic region you are visiting. They have gone to great lengths to turn the environment into a copy of the geographic region the species originate from. They took care of every detail. Like the toilets in the Zambezi Theme World, with the sinks as if they are made from recycled oil drums. But all of this with modern and sophisticated equipment to make it sustainable, such as 'old-fashioned' taps with motion sensors. And the same counts for the facilities in Yukon Bay and other Theme Worlds.

The Zoo is built according the following themes: Zambezi (Africa), Gorilla Mountain (primates), Yukon Bay (North America), Jungle Palace (Asia), Outback (Australia) and Meyers Hof (German). In addition, there is the inevitable petting or children's zoo, called Mullewap. Except for Gorilla Mountain and the Outback all Theme Worlds have their own gastronomic and shopping facilities. This is not the only feature in which these sections differ from the others.

On Gorilla mountain the animals are grouped species-wise, with enclosures that houses only primates from Africa (chimpanzee, gorilla and drill) and Asia (orangutan and gibbon). This stands out among the other themes where the animals are grouped geographically. The Outback is different in another way because it houses only four species (emu, kangaroo, wombat and parakeets), which is a bit meager compared to the other Theme Worlds. As if it was necessary to have species from the Australian continent on display, even just a few. This could explain the other inconsistency to be found more or less around the corner of the Outback. There you can find the South American species nandu, mara, vicuña and capybara. The latter three housed together in a mixed-species exhibit. This section is not mentioned as a Theme World, probably because no specific attention has been paid to the enclosures to create a South American 'feel' about it. Perhaps this is a future endeavour.

Most striking of the few inconsistencies to be discovered in the grouping of the Hanover Zoo animal collection is the odd black-footed penguin (from Southern hemisphere) combined with the polar bears (from Northern hemisphere) at Yukon Bay. This should be avoided, of course, for educational purposes.

More critical remarks can be made, but that would not do justice to the great experience you have while walking from enclosure to enclosure and from theme to theme. There is only one shameful enclosure that I have to mention, but I come back to that later.

When entering the Zoo the most obvious route is to follow the signs to the Zambezi, where you enter Africa. Part of this 4,9 hectare Theme World can be seen from the waterside by boat, except in winter. But even in winter, as soon as you leave the entrance area you feel you enter a different continent. Lots of plants and trees are evergreen, which is an excellent choice by the botanists of the Zoo. The lush green during winter makes you want to experience the site when all trees are green.

information panelThe clay huts you pass on your way to the first mixed-species exhibit, creates the African atmosphere which will stay until you enter Yukon Bay. The exhibit as such was empty because of the slippery icy floor, but normally it would have been occupied by North African ostrich (Struthio camelus camelus), common eland, Thomson's gazelle and Grant's zebra. Here I saw my first of the Zoo's information panels at the enclosures, a rustic design of metal engraved plates on wood. These panels provide little, yet functional information about the species on display.

A spectacle I had never seen before was the walk-through exhibit with pelicans (Pelecanus onocrotalus). These pelicans can be touched and petted, although a sign read that entering was at your own risk. The pelican pond was very small, which made it a bit of a shame, together with the petting service they provided. As you might expect, the public was enthusiastic about this exhibit, and the pelicans seemed at ease though.

hippo poolNext were the hippopotamuses that sheltered for the cold in their indoors pool. Hidden from the main walking path you approached the pool's viewing windows via a gorge-like side-path. The pools are rather small, when compared for instance with the hippodome in Cologne Zoo, but the water is surprisingly clear. The pool in the outdoor enclosure is much larger, but during the cold period the hippos have to cope with the indoor situation.

The oldest buildings and enclosures, as far as I could tell, were found behind the Zambezi show arena where several times a day entertainment shows are held starring species such as birds of prey, parrots, reptiles and coatis. The old enclosures do not really fit in the ambiance of the Zambezi Theme World, and the outdoor paddocks are small for the species they keep, Kirk's dik-dik, lowland nyala and Roan antelope. The size of these paddocks is absolutely not fit for purpose considering the standards nowadays. The old giraffe house can also be found here, which houses five giraffes – two females both with a young and a single bull in a separate cage. May the giraffe house be old-fashioned, the outdoors enclosure is magnificent. A mixed species exhibit with Rothschild's giraffe, blesbok, springbok and Hartmann's mountain zebra. The view from the slightly elevated roofed viewing platform on the paddock is grand. And because part of the paddock is sloping towards the platform, the public will be in eye contact with the giraffes when they approach the platform to eat from the high level baskets there.

The Barbary lions appreciate what has been created for them, because in spite of the cold they were relaxing on the ledge of heated rocks. The outdoors enclosure of the lions is on three sides surrounded by rocky walls with a few viewing windows. On one side there is an open viewing area built according the Hagenbeck principle with a moat to separate public from the animals.

The jungle house ('Urwaldhaus') at the foot of Gorilla Mountain houses most primate species of Hanover Zoo. Inside this concrete building there is an undulating footpath that guides the visitor to the different enclosures. With tropical plants and high temperatures they have tried to create a jungle-like atmosphere, but unlike many other similar jungle or rainforest houses in other zoos this one lacks humidity. So, the landscape immersion failed a bit here. The enclosures contain a lot of artificial enrichment. In addition the Sumatran orangutan enclosure has partly wire mesh walls and roofing. There is also an exhibit with common marmoset, St. Vincent agouti and Linné's two-toed sloth. Furthermore, Western lowland gorilla can be seen. The gorillas live in a group of ten, and the track record of the Zoo's breeding results seems to be good. Unfortunately the chimpanzees were not on display.

In May this year Toto, one of the chimpanzees, showed that he was able to cross the moats that separate the animals from the public. And in July Maxi, Maleika, Chunya, Schika and Toto created a makeshift ladder out of branches to break out of the outdoors enclosure during opening hours. This caused some panic among the visitors as you may expect. Therefore, the old chimpanzee enclosure is now being rebuilt to ensure safety for the chimps as well as the visitors. In the meantime the chimps are not on display.

gibbon islandOutside the jungle house where the 'ascent' to the mountain top starts the gibbon island is situated. The animals were indoors, so I do not know how many the Zoo keeps, but regardless of the number of animals this island is far too small. And not only is it too small, it does not provide what a gibbon needs, a canopy. To express natural behaviour a gibbon requires tree tops in which he can swing from one to another. Well, this shameful gibbon island provides a few trees not higher than several metres, and that's it.

The contrast with the outdoors gorilla enclosure couldn't be bigger. When you arrive on top of the mountain, there is an undulating hillside which is quite enclosed and provides a perfect hidden area for the gorillas to eat, to lie and to stroll without much disturbance by the visitors.

From Gorilla Mountain I walked to the Yukon Bay area which you enter via a mine shaft. It is a rough country where the first animals you encounter are the Mackenzie Valley wolves (Canis lupus occidentalis). These predators are housed in an elongated enclosure along the 'Yukon river', adjacent to the large undulating terrain of the caribou. At several points in these enclosures eye contact between predator and prey is possible, which will increase the stress level for the caribou I suppose. Nevertheless, it does not have great impact on the caribou breeding as the herd comprises several calves.

Via an interesting mixed-species exhibit with sandhill crane (Grus canadensis), wood bison, cackling Canada goose, wood duck, wild turkey and hooded merganser, and via the Yukon gastronomic area the highlight of Hannover Zoo appears. The Yukon Queen is a cargo ship that has been reconstructed and immersed in the Yukon Bay, which took almost two years. From its deck you can view the two playful polar bear brothers (see the video) in their enclosure that consists of both a large pool and a large rocky area. On deck of the vessel the misplaced black-footed penguins from South Africa are housed. Below deck in the submerged part of the vessel the visitor can watch the polar bears play above and under water as well.This part of Yukon Bay is a real entertainment area, including the Yukon stadium where performances are held with Californian sea lions, grey seals, Northern fur seal and white-tailed eagle.

langur enclosureEntertainment is something that is also provided by the five young Asian elephants who compare their strength (see video) on the slippery snowy grounds of the large and varied pachyderm enclosure of the Jungle Palace. This Jungle Palace Theme World is another meticulously constructed area with eye for details, that immerses the visitor in the world of an ancient Indian Maharajah. The different palace gardens are used to house the elephants, Hanuman langur, Amur tiger, Persian leopard and there is an exhibit with red panda together with Reeves' muntjac (Muntiacus reevesi). Of these species only the elephant and the langur are native to India. But when you think of the Jungle Palace representing Asia as a whole all species fit within the context. The Amur tiger as well as the Persian leopard are kept outdoors in 'demolished' parts of the palace with plenty of hiding places and several high level observation posts. They are fully adapted to the cold so the snow is not bothering them. The visitors can watch the animals in their rather small enclosures from a dark room inside the palace which gives you the feeling of being a voyeur. The Hanuman langur family occupy a palace room that consists of bare stone and concrete with straw bedding and ample enrichment in the form of chandeliers, chains, rubber ropes, tree trunks and the stairs with its banisters.

Though I object to keep birds in confined areas, because this hardly ever provide enough space for the animals to express their natural behaviour – flying, I was impressed by the large aviary for the Andean condor and the Griffon vulture further down the walkway.

So, to conclude I would say: this is a zoo that you have to experience instead of just go see the animals. And when you visit this zoo during winter, do not forget to bring your ice skates, because the Winter-Zoo provides manyfold entertainment, including a small skating rink.

Goal: 7000 tigers in the wild

Tiger range countries map


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


about zoos and their mission regarding breeding endangered species, nature conservation, biodiversity and education, which of course relates to the evolution of species.
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