The Zoo’s 3.5 hectares is located in 70 hectares of park and woodland of the famous Citadelle, the fortress which is a beautiful example of 17th century military architecture, designed by Vauban.
They say about one million people visit Lille Zoo every year. That probably is a wild guess, because there is no entry fee to be paid. This makes counting visitor numbers less precise I would say. And the day that will compensate for the low numbers during my visit today will be an extremely crowded 3.5 hectares. Visitor numbers are way below average today. Although the temperature is good they predict rain showers. In fact it just stopped raining when I arrive at the entrance, and rain is a showstopper for zoo visits of course. So, if they reach an attendance of 200 today it will be much.
The first exhibit is the red panda residence. It is more or less circular shaped and partly surrounded by a low wall, partly by wooden palisades with a few viewing windows. The enclosure is lusciously vegetated with grass, shrubs and other kinds of leafy plants including wild strawberry, next to a small stream. It comprises two enormously large trees that offer great perspective for pandas with big plans. Trunks between the two trees help the pandas to move horizontally above ground. A small paradise for red pandas in captivity, although there is no bamboo, their favourite food, available in the enclosure itself.
According to the Zoo they have grouped their animals in six thematic zones, Aviary Alley, Tropical House, Isle of Madagascar, Monkey Valley, Land of America and Land of Africa. But these themes are not mutual exclusive, because it is a mixture of grouping by taxonomic origin, geographical origin, and habitat. For educational purpose it is best to avoid confusion, but many people will accept the ‘trick’ of these six zones, although the Zoo has messed up things in the Aviary Alley as you will soon find out.
After the modern red panda exhibit I walk towards the Aviary Alley. The first half comprises a row of old-fashioned aviaries inhabited mainly by parrots, of which there is an impressive collection coming from different geographical regions. For instance there are red-and-green macaw, burrowing parakeet, orange-winged parrot, blue-crowned conure (pict), yellow-crowned amazon and mealy amazon from South America; Timneh parrot, African grey parrot and Senegal parrot from Africa; Port Lincoln ringneck from Australia and the monk parakeet from North America.
But other birds are kept also in this section, such as snowy owls, Mandarin duck, the ferruginous pochard (which requires a trained eye — not mine - to distinguish from the somewhat similar tufted duck), and the kookaburra from Down Under. For both the snowy owls and the kookaburras they have connected two or more of the original aviaries to increase the size. Regarding the design of the aviaries in general I would say, too damn small and too little vegetation. But I rarely see fit-for-purpose enclosure when it comes to flying animals. The kookaburras with their chicks (born 05.03.2014) however enjoy the feature of a very small waterfall and stream in addition to their extended aviary.
Besides the aviaries I find, to my surprise, two enclosures for mammal species in this section, one for the brown capuchin and one for the binturong. Disrupting the idea of having an alley of only aviaries to show to the visitors. It could be that this is only temporary. If so, my remark about these enclosures being pitiable small and not providing decent enrichment should be disregarded.
As far as I could discover they keep at least two individuals of all the bird species. Whether these are male and female is difficult to say, because even experts need to perform additional testing such as laparoscopy to see the difference. Especially with parrots it is hard or impossible to distinguish their sex just by their exterior appearance.
The second half of the Aviary Alley has certainly lost its focus on birds. There’s an odd mixture of species on display considering their taxonomic and geographic origin. There are several duck species, ring-tailed coati, Indian crested porcupine, yellow mongoose and the inevitable meerkat. Next-door to the meerkat the white-faced saki can be found. Although its enclosure is a transformed old-fashioned aviary and therefore not very high, it has a dense vegetation. This little jungle gives the five white-face saki specimens (including two youngsters) the opportunity to express some of their natural behaviour. In fact in this part of the Aviary Alley more exhibits resemble the species’ original habitat. But I don’t think that the recently deceased (10.06.2014) fishing cat would have agreed to this remark. Although a typical felid enclosure with vegetation (bamboo) and trunks for climbing and resting, it is still nothing more than a large cage.
At the Aviary Alley the enclosures with animals dangerous to man have fences that are either made of glass or at sufficient distance from the visitors.
A few steps uphill and behind the Aviary Alley the lemur island looks to be a building of more recent date. It is not actually an island, but an indoor and outdoor exhibit for three lemur species, ring-tailed lemur, red-ruffed and black-and-white ruffed lemur. Both ruffed lemur species latter take part in the European Endangered species Programme (EEP). The outdoors is a nice exhibit with a variety of enrichment — trunks, ropes, rope nets and rope ladders. The entire surface is covered with underbrush while there are some large rocks for the lemurs to sit on. And there’s a pool surrounded by reed.
After retracing my steps I move on to the Tropical House. This building focussed on species from tropical habitat has not only soil as bedding material in all of the enclosures but as a visitor you walk on a surface with soil as well. It is not a walk-through close encounter tropical exhibit like you see in all modern zoos nowadays. It’s a regular exhibit with the enclosures positioned along the walls of the building without a high temperature and high moist atmosphere for the visitor. The enclosures for the mammals have murals featuring the jungle, and ample climbing enrichment. The species you can watch here are kinkajou, pygmy slow lori, Lyle’s flying fox, red-bellied tamarin, white-headed marmoset, emperor tamarin, common green iguana, lesser mouse deer (with calf born 25.12.2013) and the Aldabra tortoise, which has its indoors connected to the outdoors facility. Furthermore, occupy some ridiculously small ancient vivariums. The boa constrictor however has a large modern vivarium at its disposal.
Following the footpath towards the Monkey Valley or ‘Vallee des singes’ three islands in an elongated lake appear. Two of them are inhabited by gibbon species, white-handed gibbon and siamang respectively, which seem at ease in their environment (see ). The lack of very large trees for the gibbons to brachiate is overcome by huge trunks connected by ropes. The only real difference between both gibbon islands is the extremely rich undergrowth at the white-handed gibbon island. The third island is assigned to the brown capuchins, but they are temporarily housed in one of the aviary exhibit, because there’s work in progress on their island at the moment.
Then there is a large mixed-species exhibit with South American species, alpaca, mara, capybara, Brazilian tapir and scarlet macaw. It is a large paddock that has been dug out until about half a metre deep, which allows for excellent viewing from the surrounding footpath. The tapir has its own private quarters in this area to prevent trouble amongst the captives I assume. There’s a pond for the capybara and some other enrichment features. I am not sure about the situation of the macaws. They are located near the barn in the centre of the paddock, and they are allowed to fly around, but can they? Have they been pinioned? I can’t tell from their behaviour, but I don’t see them flying, not even flapping their wings.
Just a little bit further along the footpath the African Valley is situated with three species, common eland, plains zebra (Equus guagga) and white rhinoceros (half-brothers both born in Knowsley Safari Park UK in 2008). The rhino brothers will stay in Lille until they will be sexually mature, which is about to happen soon at the age of 6. Then they will move on to other zoos to contribute their share in the captive breeding of this endangered species (EEP). The African Valley is a magnificent enclosure which allows the animals to roam and explore the environment. Because the animals are walking down in the valley and with the vegetation along the footpath I think the animals will hardly ever notice the public.
While walking towards the exit I realise that there is neither a children’s playground nor a restaurant available on the premises. There are benches where you can sit and drink or eat whatever you brought with you, but all available space is dedicated to the animals. And let’s be honest, most people can cover a zoo of 3.5 hectares in a few hours or less, so why waste space on playgrounds and restaurants. It isn’t even necessary because right outside the Zoo close to the entrance there’s a whole fairground, with a merry-go-round and a ‘Brasserie du Zoo’. Furthermore there is no petting zoo area, but probably there’s one somewhere else in town.
Lille Zoo is an unexpected small gem in the world of zoological institutions, at least to me. I didn’t know what to expect, but most of what I saw is according modern zookeeping standards, although the Aviary Alley really need some upgrading. Perhaps they can turn this section into a large walk-through aviary that serves both animal and man — space for the birds and the possibility of close encounters for the visitor. That they have only 3.5 hectares available didn’t make them decide to cut down on enclosure size and keep more species. On the contrary, they dedicated large areas to only a few species, which is one of the consequences of creating modern facilities such as mixed-species exhibits and primate islands. And of the few species they keep, compared to much larger zoos, about 75% are classified as endangered — Near Threatened or worse according the IUCN Red List classification.
Besides contributing to several captive breeding programmes (see ) the Zoo is involved in in-situ conservation as well. For instance they work together with the International Rhino Foundation in rhino projects in Africa; they participate in Brazilian tapir projects in South America of the Kwata Association; and they participate in safeguarding the wild environment of gibbons together with the Kalaweit organisation.
And all of this, including the information and education is supplied for free, thanks to the City Council.