When a visit-a-zoo-on-a-bad-weather-day championship would exist I probably will make it to the finals easily. Even today, already mid-March, I have to cope with freezing weather, strong cold easterly wind and some snow. In other words, don’t rely on me when making a bet. It is remarkable, by the way, how many people are visiting the Zoo today, despite the weather condition.
My main objectives of today’s visit are Tiger Territory, which I saw when it was still under construction two months before opening in March 2013, and Land of the Lions (opened on 17 March 2016), but while I am here it’s about time to visit the Aquarium and the Reptile House as well. Both exhibits near the entrance I skipped on all other occasions I visited this historic zoo. The Aquarium was the largest aquarium in Britain when it was built in 1924. It runs for 150 metres under the Mappin Terraces and has about 3,000 specimens of roughly 300 species on display. It consists of three halls divided in a hall for rivers, lakes and swamps; a hall for coral reef; and a hall dedicated to the Amazon, although you will find fish species from Madagascar and Mexico too. A wealth of information is provided about threats to marine species and conservation efforts, including the conservation status of all of the fish species on display, which I haven’t seen anywhere else to this extent. In the hall addressing lakes, there’s a tank with , all classified as not yet threatened, from Lake Malawi.
In the Reptile House numerous vivaria with a large variety of species from different continents are available to view. Unfortunately, quite a few enclosures are being refurbished currently. A lot of attention is paid to the IUCN Red List, but the info is minimal and lacks graphics which is a common universal language used nowadays to inform the public. For instance, the distribution of the species is given by written info only and is not depicted on a map. In addition to explaining the efforts of zoological institutions about nature conservation, there’s a panel with clear instructions on how visitors can contribute to conservation in general and amphibian protection in particular — get a pond in your garden ?.with focus on amphibian species, frogs in particular. The information panels at the exhibits give the species’ conservation status according the
To be well-prepared for the adjacent Tiger Territory I have a quick lunch first, but then it’s tiger-time. Tiger Territory, with its typical entrance, supposed to be a journey through Indonesian habitat, but the time of the year ruins the experience. Not only is it colder than it will ever be on the island of Sumatra, additionally, the carefully selected vegetation is not able to mimic the lush tropical foliage. That is what winter does to deciduous trees and other non-hardy greenery in countries such as the United Kingdom. Due to the weather it is not strange that the tigers want to stay comfy in their indoor enclosure, called tiger’s den. Situated right after the entrance, all four Critically Endangered Sumatran tigers, two of them born on 27 June 2016, are enjoying their warm den. Five times the size of the previous tiger enclosure, the new exhibit (2,500m2) has been designed to ensure that it suits the tigers’ needs. Both the outdoor enclosures have a wire mesh roof covering the large areas, featuring tall natural trees for the cats to climb or use as scratching pole and high feeding poles to encourage their natural predatory behaviour. As tigers like water, one of the outdoor enclosures has a large pond. Unfortunately, the tigers have access to only one high level observation post. It’s just because this vantage point is so close to the visitor’s viewing deck that I start to realise that the tigers are very exposed in this exhibit, especially during the winter period. Showing a bit more consideration for the tigers and less for the public in this € 4m enclosure would have done the tigers more justice in my opinion. After all, when serving the tigers’ needs, it should be possible for them to retreat and hide from the inquisitive public when they feel like it.
The Tiger Territory is also home to the northern white-cheeked gibbon (Nomascus leucogenys), another species of Asian origin. From the upper viewing deck the sights on the gibbon tree house are good (see ). Although the tree house is not very high, it provides opportunity for the gibbons to brachiate using the numerous ropes and trunks. Showing their natural behaviour, as they do swinging in the rainforest canopy. From the viewing deck I go downstairs again and follow an elevated boardwalk in a corridor between the gibbon tree house and the tiger pond enclosure. When outside the boardwalk leads to the exit of Tiger Territory and to the path along the Komodo dragon exhibit, back to the Aquarium and Reptile House again.
The Gorilla Kingdom is next on my tour schedule and more or less opposite the main entrance of the Tiger Territory. When the Gorilla Kingdom project materialised and the exhibit was unveiled in 2007 it was viewed by the Zoological Society of London as the most significant re-structuring of London Zoo for forty years. It soon attracted many visitors, but unfortunately the keeping staff and resident animal behaviourist began to identify reasonably common undesirable stress related behaviour, expressed by the captive western lowland gorillas in their new and unfamiliar environment. The new exhibit was constructed according the wider Zoo strategy of providing enlarged and enhanced animal enclosures and removing (where possible) bars, cages and the visually obtrusive barriers separating animals from visitors. Such enclosure design allows ‘face to face’ encounters with the animals in captivity, which is one of the objectives. In this case it led to stress related behaviour of the gorillas. Apparently the stress was caused by excessive and undesirable visitor behaviour, such as banging on the glass and using flash photography. The Zoo has explored the introduction of digital devices to engage and attract young visitors’ attention with entertaining information leading to a reduction of the interaction of the resident gorillas with Zoo visitors1. Today’s visit makes me conclude that it was decided that such devices weren’t the solution, because I don’t see them and apparently they introduced two other physical measures. One that effectively prevent visitors to get close to the glass windows of the enclosure by introducing an additional barrier — an additional glass fence of about 1.25 metres high at considerable distance from the window panes of the exhibit. While the other measure, a subtle green leaf-shaped glass window vinyl that reduces exposure, improves the gorilla’s privacy. It was said that after only a few hours of the vinyl’s being up, there was a noticeable improvement in general mood and demeanour of the gorillas.
To meet my targets today, I now move on to the Land of the Lions. This impressive new exhibit for Asian lions was opened on 17 March 2016 by HM Queen Elizabeth II. Here for the first time, as far as I know, geographical depiction of the species distribution range is delivered on the information panels. Three species are on display, Asian lion, Hanuman langur and Rüppell’s vulture. Land of The Lions is a re-creation of an authentic Gir village, with its smells and sounds, street food vendors, and even a railway station. In other words, the visitor is taken on a journey through the streets and surroundings, including a temple ruin, of a small village in the Gir National Forest, Gujarat, India. Probably due to the time of the year (and the weather) the Zoo doesn’t expect a lot of visitors, so, the streets are empty and quiet, while the smell of food is lacking because the street vendors are wise and at home near the fireplace. This, on the one hand, makes the journey less exciting of course, but on the other hand the whole package could be overkill and distract the visitor from the message London Zoo wants to get across. The Gir National Park is the last stronghold of Asian lions, that once roamed across Greece, the Middle East, North Africa and India, but are reduced to a small population of about 500 in the wild. The far too small Gir National Park causes several threats to the remaining lion population, such as inbreeding, a parasitic disease (Babesia) and close contact with humans, domestic livestock and dogs. Hence, lion-man conflicts are always lurking, while recently a canine distemper virus outbreak has been recognised among the lion population2. Additionally, forest fires and habitat destruction can further increase the pressure on the lion population. To secure the genetic diversity, and species viability, of Asian lions coordinated captive breeding is helpful. London Zoo is involved in such , but even more important is by identifying and preserving other suitable habitats for the lions, in India or elsewhere.
What inspired Land of the Lions?:
(Source: ZSL — Zoological Society of London YouTube channel)
The old outdoor enclosure of the Asian lions still exists, but it is extended with other outdoor exhibits and incorporated in this brand new setting, a real landscape immersion exhibit. Three walkways cover the 2,500m2 exhibit that besides the fantasy village comprises a forest guard hut as well, and a ruined fort which houses the Hanuman langurs. The visitor’s experience of this extraordinary surroundings can be enhanced by spending the night in one of the nine lodge cabins within roaring distance of the lions.
As a grand finale of my tour around the premises I decide to visit the Rainforest Life exhibit, which I think is a great semi-walk-through mixed-species exhibit. More importantly, I know for sure it will be warm inside. Rainforest Life is an excellent exhibition of South-American wildlife, kept in different types of enclosures. The hall in the centre of the building with its balcony for visitors to walk around is a small piece of South-American rainforest in London. The species, such as southern tamandua, two-toed sloth, golden-headed lion tamarin, emperor tamarin, red titi monkey and sunbittern, are free to roam the area. The animals may decide to use the balcony even when there are visitors around, but it is up to them and visitors are warned not to touch the animals. After about thirty minutes nothing much is happening any more in the rainforest, and I’m feeling warm again. That cannot be said of the red-faced black spider monkeys (Ateles paniscus paniscus) which are cuddling together in their outdoor enclosure.
1 — The Amelioration of the ‘Visitor Effect’ using Persuasive Technology: an Interaction Design, May 2008, Project Brief (PDE4210), Interaction Design Centre, School of Computing Science, Middlesex, The Burroughs, London, Dean Meadows.
2 — Infectious outbreaks threaten the last Asiatic lions — Parasites and dog disease in India sweep through the cats’ only home, triggering fears for the species’ survival, Scientific American, 10.12.2018