La Barben Zoo, or Zoo de La Barben, is located in the Provence between La Barben and Pélissane on the grounds next to Château de La Barben. This 11th century Château de La Barben is a fortress built on a rocky outcrop. The castle, “castrum of Barbentum” in Latin, was referred to in 1064 for the first time, in a property register that could be read at the Abbaye de Saint Victor in Marseilles who used to be the owner of the lands around La Barben. The ownership of the property changed many times before it came into the hands of the Marquis de Forbin in 1474. Due to the relationship of the Forbin family with French royalty they were able to have their magnificent gardens designed by Le Nôtre, Louis XIV’s famous gardener. The Forbin family will own the castle over five centuries.
In 1963, the Marquis de Forbin sold the property to a friend, Mr. André Pons. The Pons family lived in the castle and, probably for financial reasons, opened its doors to the public. Nonetheless, the castle, a jewel of Provençal heritage, was respectfully revived due to the warm and welcoming atmosphere that was created by the Pons family.
André Pons was an agricultural engineer and passionate about animals. So, in 19691 he founded La Barben Zoo on the castle’s adjacent grounds. The castle can still be visited and currently it is the children of Mr. Pons who live there and organize the visits. A vivarium is located in the former barn while the main Zoo grounds are located on thirty hectares of Mediterranean vegetation.
In January 1988, André Pons sold his business to a that took over the management of the Zoo. The new management decided to modernise the facilities including the exhibit designs. Within the Zoo’s new mission they are going beyond mere animal representation, taking species conservation and public education seriously. The Zoo engages in particular species conservation programmes, uses new sophisticated computer screens for educating the public, and participates in scientific research programmes. The zoo is entirely privately run and does not receive any subsidy.
1 According a dossier of Zoo de La Barben
The entrance of La Barben Zoo is rather special, or to make it less exciting, the ticket office location is special. It is found across from the main entrance in one of the old barns of the original estate belonging to Château de La Barben, where there’s also the Zoo shop and the building with vivaria comprising crocodiles, snakes and lizards.
When coming from the ticket office there’s a natural rock face that needs to be climbed to reach the tableland where the main part of the Zoo is situated. So, for those who have reduced mobility or would like to skip this challenge, awill bring you from the station at the entrance to the station on the plateau. Fortunately, while waiting for the train to leave you can check out several enclosures and aviaries at this level. All the animal species kept near the entrance are considered Least Concern or Near Threatened according the Red List of Threatened Species. The birds in the medium-sized aviaries with natural vegetation belong to the true parrots (the Psittacidae family) represented by African grey parrots, and from South America. While the South American parrots share their quarters with species they will never meet in real life – red-eared slider, a popular pet turtle originally from southern United States, and Hermann’s tortoise from Europe – the grey parrots in the enclosure built against the rock face opposite the other aviaries have African crested porcupines as room mates.
Another enclosure built against the rock face holds a big cat from the Americas, the puma or mountain lion (Puma concolor). The rock face allows the cats to climb the wall and seek high level observation posts or shelter from the sun. The latter is much needed during summer in the South of France. At the visitor’s side the wire mesh fence is mostly covered by vegetation, while two viewing windows provide a peek at the lowest part of the enclosure with its vegetation, waterfall, stream and small pond.
The footpath along the puma exhibit leads to the stairway guiding the visitors to the main part of the Zoo. Although it’s around 30 degrees Celsius with a cloudless sky I walk the (about) 100 steps. Two rewards are waiting for me, a most refreshing sip from my water bottle and a wow-effect when reaching the tableland. The view on the beautiful mixed-species savannah paddock that appears to me at the top of the stairs is something that you miss when taking the train and worth the small effort. The large paddock, of at least 2 hectares I guess, is beautifully situated at the northwestern edge of the tableland with great views of the hinterland. It is home to the Zoo’s white rhinos, (Oryx beisa), springbok and . The elongated enclosure with its sandy substrate is like a large crater surrounded by a footpath from which you have a good view on the animals. Some trees provide the necessary shade for the animals and boulders protect the trees from being damaged by the rhinos.
At the far end of the savannah area a long row of enclosures begins at the outer rim of the Zoo grounds. First on display are the ostriches. They are kept in an enclosure with a corridor between the public and the fenced off area. The paddock allows the birds to walk out of sight not only because of the enclosure’s size but due to the vegetation (shrubs) as well. Strangely enough the size of the wire mesh is so large that the birds can stick their head and neck through the fence, which could lead to injuries I assume. Next door the Australian cassowary enclosure contains even more vegetation. I’ve seen only one specimen but it could well be that one was hiding between the trees or shrubs. From here I follow the footpath along the enclosures at the edge of the Zoo grounds.
The African lions have a flat grassy paddock at their disposal that lacks any elevated area whatsoever. It also lacks shaded areas, especially at summertime when the sun is high in the sky for many hours a day. There are just a few trees inside the enclosure and a row of trees alongside the fences. So, the small pride of one male and two females has not many options to shelter from the summer heat nor to observe the surroundings from an elevation.
The neighbours from Africa, the two hippopotamuses made a wise decision. They both are submerged in their pool. It is a small pool considering the size of the total enclosure and that’s a pity I must say. Being hippos live to bath and now their bathing activity is limited to just a small square pool.
Across the footpath from the hippo enclosure the zebra plain is situated. Dry soil and many trees provide the common zebra (Equus burchelli) with a similar habitat as in their native geographical region. It is a small herd of only four individuals including one foal born 28 February 2014.
Next enclosure at the edge is a large area with two domesticated species, lama and karakul sheep, from South America and Asia respectively. It is just a bare area with a feeding rack in the middle. These animals are supposed to be ‘tame’, so physical contact with the animals is possible when you reach over the fence. If the animals come close to the fence of course. Another domesticated species, Watusi cattle from Africa, is just a few steps away and kept in one of the least appealing enclosure of the Zoo.
Opposite of the domesticated species a nice mixed-species aviary has sacred ibis, Demoiselle crane and(Testudo graeca) on display. Unfortunately the size of the aviary doesn’t allow the birds to do some serious flying.
Extinct in the wild
Then an enclosure appears with two species that require special attention due to their conservation status. For one of them captive breeding is the last resort because they are considered extinct in the wild. Zoos have played a special role in returning scimitar-horned oryx (Oryx dammah) to the wild and the individuals at La Barben Zoo take part in the . The other species, the Somali wild ass (Equus africanus somaliensis) is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™. I assume that their captive environment here at La Barben resembles both species’ original dry habitat, though in different parts of Africa.
Farthest from the entrance, still following the route along the outer rim of the grounds, American bison are housed in a large but simple and straightforward paddock that does not provide lots of shade. Which is quite different from the shady exhibit for red deer (Cervus elaphus) that is situated on slightly sloping grounds closest to the main road from Saint-Cannat to Salon. Apparently the red deer flourish here, as 6 calves have been born in May and June this year.
Across from the red deer a mixed-species exhibit makes an impressive sight with the herds of fallow deer, blackbuck and nilgai roaming this huge Asian plain enclosure. From geographic perspective it is a bit opportunistic to keep the fallow deer together with the species from Asian origin, because fallow deer are native to Europe and Turkey only. But this doesn’t alter the fact that the sheer size of this enclosure is impressive, though it could do with some enrichment, for instance a pool. All three species prefer grassy areas with shrubs or forest, so the dry plain provided at the Zoo is far from optimal.
At two levels predators can be seen when following the route back to the entrance. Along the upper path there is first a very exposed animal in its exhibit without substantial vegetation – the grey wolf. The only vegetation is near the fence in this very dull enclosure with just a few rocks to create variation. Next door, the leopard (Panthera pardus) is also quite exposed to the public with viewing windows on two sides of the enclosure. Nevertheless the vegetation with some very dense bushes provides hiding opportunities. I cannot discover a high level resting post because the only available tree that would allow the leopards to show their normal behaviour (climbing and lying in trees) is protected from scratching and climbing. The neighbours, the have a flat grassy area with some trees at their disposal. Although again rather exposed, due to wire mesh fences and viewing windows, the vegetation in the enclosure offers shade and shelter.
When walking downhill a most interesting exhibit appears on the left, finally. Situated against a natural rock face below the footpath along the grey wolf, leopard, lynx and camel enclosures, the elongated enclosure for brown bears comprises tree trunks, lots of trees and other vegetation, a waterfall and a well-used pool (see ). A small drawback here could be the exposure to the public along the long side of the rectangular exhibit. The rock face rear wall is about 8 – 10 metres high, parts of it can be climbed, and there is a cave which is accessible for the bears.
The tigers have a similar enclosure at their disposal as the bears do, only a bit smaller. La Barben Zoo tigers take part in the EEP, although the particular subspecies is not specified at the information panel near the enclosure. The website helps out: they are Amur tigers, two brothers. They have a pool as well, where underwater viewing is possible.
An interesting experience is the walk-through vulture aviary with griffon vulture and white-backed vulture. As far as I can remember this is the first walk-through aviary with such large birds of prey I have encountered. As it is adjacent to the tiger exhibit it also has a natural rear wall which this time consists of sloping uphill grounds.
Then it’s time to have a decent break at the only snack bar of the Zoo. This snack bar is located near the upper level zoo train station and near the stairway I climbed this morning, and no food and drinks are sold at the far end of the Zoo. So I am thirsty, very thirsty. After walking around for two hours in the burning sun I already emptied my water bottle and had to rely on the water taps found spread over the place. Besides the single food court there are several large picnic areas with benches under the omnipresent oak trees, but you have to bring your own food and drinks as there is no catering service apart from the one mentioned.
After I have revitalised myself I continue my visit from here. The first enclosure is a rectangular large cage-like construction with wire mesh fences and roof top. The chimpanzees on display here have for enrichment a large climbing rack with ropes and an artificial termite hill. Besides the latter there are other feeding enrichment tools available to entice the chimps showing their exploratory behaviour. I see only two chimps, which seems to be a very poor number considering the social groups these primates form in nature.
Not all of the primate enclosures received the same level of attention while designing them. Some of them barely seem to meet the modern standards and look like upgraded aviaries, such as those for Goeldi’s monkeys (Callimico goeldii), for De Brazza monkey and for the vervet, grivet and green monkeys. Especially for the latter group this is a pity, because they were confiscated by the authorities from private owners. Coming from the pet trade you wish they get the best there is available.
The primate enclosure that is more fit for purpose is the brown capuchin (Sapajus apella) exhibit. A diversity of substrate is provided, including many shrubs, although it lacks trees. Instead climbing enrichment with small tree trunks and ropes is added to the facility.
Back at the stairway close to the entrance I walk around the large children’s playground to see another example of haphazard display of the Zoo’s animal collection (see also ). A row of enclosures with meerkat, fennec fox, Bolivian squirrel monkey, binturong, coati and lowland tapir together with capybara. Considering the enclosure which holds the capybara and the lowland tapir I would say that this is not fit for purpose. Though large, it lacks a decent pool for the world’s largest rodent – the capybara – to show its natural behaviour, swimming.
Elephant and giraffes
While continuing my stroll around the children’s playground to the elephant enclosure I pass the large shady area where the maned wolves are on display and their next door neighbour the striped hyena, predators from South America and Africa/Asia respectively. The Zoo has only one female Asian elephant on display still, since the other female elephant died in the winter of 2013 from a returning digestive problem. The enclosure cannot hold a herd of elephants that’s for sure, but as this single pachyderm is visually impaired; very attached to the zookeepers; and shows some signs of stress in the presence of its conspecifics it was decided not to acquire other elephants for the moment. The nearly blind elephant probably lives in a small world and will not see a lot of her environment, let alone see her neighbours the giraffes. This herd of six giraffes is housed in an elongated paddock with enough space to wander around while having a superb view on the surrounding landscape.
The final enclosure that attracted my attention while making my way down to the exit, is the lemur exhibit. It holds black-and-white ruffed lemur together with ring-tailed lemur in a large uphill situated circular fenced off area. It is one of the few enclosures that is rich on vegetation, and has several wooden platforms and ropes for enrichment.
Unfortunately and by mistake I missed the giant anteater which is part of the Zoo’s animal collection. But I didn’t miss the children’s zoo, because there is none, which is remarkable nowadays. Close encounters with animals are limited anyway. It is possible to lean over the fence of the lama and karakul sheep enclosure, but that’s about it. The vultures will not interact with the public in the walk-through aviary I presume. So, for this kind of entertainment La Barben Zoo is not the place to be, and zoo management should be applauded for this. Besides zookeeper talks the single entertainment provided is the raptors spectacle, a demonstration of the agility with with these birds of prey can fly.
Brown bears at La Barben Zoo like apples, that’s for sure
An apple a day keeps the doctor away. This advice doesn’t fall on deaf brown bear ears at La Barben Zoo. On the contrary, the more the better they seem to think. To keep the bears busy the zookeepers just throw the apples into the pool.
The hot savannah
The Beisa oryx, wildebeest and white rhino seeking shelter from the hot sun in Southern France.
This giraffe definitely knows where the good food is
The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. For everybody, also for this giraffe at La Barben Zoo.
Zoo Animal Collection
At La Barben Zoo the way they grouped their animal collection is not very consistent. In other words it appears as a confusing combination of exotic species from different geographical regions, while even the domesticated species can be found in between the ‘wild’ exotic species.
There is a haphazard display of the Zoo’s animal collection with rows of enclosures representing species from various habitats and geographic regions with different taxonomic origins and feeding behaviours. This shows how the animal collection is grouped here at La Barben Zoo – opportunistically. In general this does not do them justice, because they have created some absolutely superb exhibits according modern zoo standards and many visitors probably are not interested in the grouping of the species collection at all.
Nonetheless, I think when zoos take education seriously they should pay attention to the way they present their collection to the general public. There should be some logic behind the resulting exhibition. On the other hand the panels at the exhibits provide great info on the species on display including virtual habitat plotting and their (IUCN) conservation status. Both in French and English.
Although several species are mentioned as being threatened on the information panels, La Barben Zoo does not keep many species that are listed as such by the . A lot of species are classified as Least Concern by the IUCN. But the excellent Zoo website, both in French and English, makes up for this little flaw, where concise fact sheets provide correct information on all species kept at La Barben.
directions to La Barben Zoo, Parc zoologique de La Barben
Although public transport is not guaranteed all year long, the Zoo is encouraging their visitors to get to the Zoo by bus during the holiday seasons, when there is bus service available. To be practical as well as eco-friendly you could either take the bus or share a car.
Route du Château
There is a bus service to the Zoo during French summer, November and spring school holidays only, Line 9 from Salon de Provence and Pélissanne. You can get to Salon de Provence by train (check out the SNCF website). Both Line 9 and Line 14 can get you to La Barben Town Hall all year long, from where it is a 2 km walk to the Zoo, via the Route du Château (D22A).
More information and details of stops on Line 9 and 14 here, unfortunately in French only, but with easy to understand and downloadable timetables.
As far as I can tell there isn’t a camping-site close to La Barben Zoo. So, you should either bring your bicycle on the train to Salon de Provence or stay in a hotel or hostel in the immediate vicinity to have a reasonable cycle distance from the Zoo. I was staying on a camp-site in Aix-en-Provence, so I took the car .
When using navsat equipment please set the coordinates to: 43° 37’ 29’’ north /5° 12’ 18’’ east.
Heading towards Marseille, take the A54 towards Arles/Barcelona, then exit 15 ‘Salon Pélissanne’ and follow signs to Pélissanne.
Heading towards Lyon, take exit 15 ‘Salon centre’ and follow signs to Pélissanne.
Take exit 14 ‘Salon Pélissanne’ and follow signs to Pélissanne.
A large free car park with about 500 spaces is available at the zoo entrance.
Download the zoo map here.