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Gen­eral History

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 His­tory of Goma).

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, in-​situ and ex-​situ. 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)

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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