Gelsenkirchen is a city located in the Ruhr area which is a polycentric industrialised urban region in the west of Germany. Historically a grey industrial area with heavy industry and coal mines, its appearance has changed dramatically the last years. The change into a modern cultural metropole, makes Gelsenkirchen Zoo fit in perfectly. Although views on the industrial activity around could not be avoided completely, the experience is one of ‘close encounters’ with different cultures while walking through this zoological park.
The first impression, while entering the Zoo, is one of openness and wideness.
I suppose they had to make tough decisions when deliberating about the design of the new zoo. But they did well, as far as I am allowed to judge. Having 30 hectares at their disposal, they still decided not to have animals from all bio-geographical regions or continents on display. Starting with two regions, Africa and Alaska, they recently opened the part that shows animals from the Asian region. The design of the Zoo is a mix of the modern bar-less zoo and the safari parks which exhibit animals in a close-to-nature environment. Obviously, this means that most animals are housed in such a way that you expect them to be able to express natural behaviour. For instance, it is a delight to see several herds of hoofed animals in mixed exhibits without the enclosure looking crowded. A good balance between the number of animals, number of species and the space available provides opportunity for the animals to roam around and hide from each other if needed.
The atmosphere is very relaxed, which is probably due to the fact that most of the exhibits are large, with the animals not too much exposed to the public. In addition, there is, in most cases, quite some distance the public has to cover between the different enclosures. Not all of the grounds is occupied by enclosures, which indeed give the visitor the feeling that he is in a nature resort. Furthermore, the visitors easily disperse themselves over the park grounds without causing ‘traffic jams’. Finally, at several locations along the footpaths constructions, representing the cultural inheritance of the regions, try to enhance the experience promised by the Zoo’s management.
After the entrance there is a square where the visitors have to decide which region they want to experience first, Africa, Asia or Alaska. It is expected that you follow the suggested route per region, which is a one way direction and allows you to see all there is. This is a good solution to prevent people from getting lost and missing things, and you always return to the main square again after visiting a region.
One of the great examples of modern zoo enclosure design can be found at the African lions exhibit. Their peninsula surrounded by a moat filled with water is situated in such a way that the visitor has an excellent view on the animals, while no fence whatsoever is visible, except from some wire of the electical fence. From the footpath you first see a small ditch, then a bank of grass after which the moat filled with water separates the lions from the public. At one side of the peninsula an artifical rock face hides the indoor enclosure, which contributes to the peaceful environment which the lions inhabit. The four animals (1 male, 3 female) have plenty of room at their disposal. Although they cannot easily hide from the public’s view, there is so much distance between lion and public that eye-contact is impossible and attracting attention by vocalising is discouraged. The lion’s environment seems to resemble the African countryside, at least it looks similar to what National Geographic presents in their wildlife series. The enrichment to stimulate and invite the lions to be active in between meals is not impressive (just one burlap sack on a rope). Most striking is the panoramic view on the savannah enclosure behind the lion’s facilities. On the hillside in the distance African ungulates are visible, as you would expect on a real African safari.
The largest part of the African continent consists of savannah territory. They have divided the savannah grounds into three different biotopes:grass savannah, tree/bush savannah and moist savannah. Except from the moist savannah it is an artificial division, because there is not a big difference between the other two. But using tall tree trunks to feed the giraffes it makes sense to call this part the tree savannah. Another value, the Zoo’s mission to educate the public, justifies the artificial division, as it helps to understand that not all of the savannah animals share the same habitat. These mixed species enclosures (e.g. greater kudu, Grant’s zebra, marabu, ostrich, sable antelope (Hippotragus niger), and others in the grass savannah (see video); Rothschild’s giraffe, nyala (Tragelaphus angasi), blesbok (Damaliscus pygargus phillipsi), Abyssinian ground hornbill (Bucorvus abyssinicus), and others in the tree savannah; Anubis baboon (Papio anubis) on a separate peninsula, sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekii), flamingo, cormorant and others in the moist savannah), provide an excellent overview of life in these habitats. In addition there is a possibility to sail with the ‘African Queen’ on a bootsafari in the moist savannah. For me this is overkill, as it resembles an amusement park trait and disturbs the animals with unnecessarily close encounters.
As an extension of the moist savannah the hippopotamus enclosure is impressive. The huge pool is separated from the savannah basin by a wall, but this is hidden ingeniously, as the top of the wall is barely visible above the water surface. In cold weather the hippos can go inside, and this hippo house is a pleasant surprise. It is a greenhouse jungle with a formidable pool which has several small artificial sandbanks. The walkway through the hippo-jungle-house crosses the pool, which allows for good viewing if the hippos feels up to it of course. The roommates of the hippos are hammerkops (Scopus umbretta) which fly around freely and build their nests out of the hippo’s reach.
Directly connected to and visible from the hippo-jungle-house is the serval enclosure. Again this stresses the choices made by the Zoo’s management to display only animals which inhabit the original habitat which the Zoo mimics. This should be applauded, because it contributes to the educational values of the Zoo. Although the serval enclosure does not resemble the typical habitat of these cats, which is all types of grassland closely tied to water and its associated vegetation (Wild Cats of the Worlds by Sunquist & Sunquist, 2002).
The inside and outside enclosures of the chimpanzee colony contain lots of enrichment features which you may expect to find in any modern zoo. Personally, I liked the chimps’ peninsula the most as it was (at time of visit) very green with grass and foliage on trees and shrubs. Indoors, the animals can move from one part of the enclosure to another using the connection that exists above the heads of the visitors. From everywhere and every angle there is good viewing on the animals, although the separating window panes are not very clean.
The last African enclosure is the red ruffed lemur island, which is a walk-through enclosure with 5 relaxed lemurs used to getting close to human beings. A nice end to the African continent visit.
The Alaska region features several species in an environment that provides a completely different experience than the African region. Though again set in a beautiful environment, the Zoo has made more compromises in the ratio space/species. The lynx and elk enclosures are rather small, and the otter and beaver enclosure are straightforward pools which lack enrichment. Nevertheless, these are environments where the animals can express their natural behaviour without being disturbed by the public, because two thirds of the enclosure is surrounded by artificial rock face or glass windows.
When you are interested in bears, the species collection of Gelsenkirchen Zoo is especially worth a trip to this zoo. The different species and the way they are exhibited requires time and patience from the visitor. The large enclosure of the Kodiak bear (Ursus arctos middendorffi) provides viewing via window panes on one side of the enclosure and on the other side from the footpath. On this side you can see the bears from above if they want to go into the water. This enclosure supposed to be a mixed species exhibit, but I haven’t seen the polar foxes during my visit. The Kodiak bears can easily hide from the public, because of the elevations that exist. A bit further along the footpath the very active Kamchatka bears (Ursus arctos beringianus) entertain the public with their playful fighting (see video). Their enclosure is really beautiful with a waterfall and large stream that flows along the enclosure wall. Viewing of the animals through the windows at waterlevel shows the exceptional power of these animals when they are rough-housing close by.
When walking from the extremely large Californian sea lion pool to the polar bears a surprise is waiting for you: the tunnel beneath the sea lion pool. Unfortunately, it was a tunnel under troubled water this time, but it must be fun to watch the sea lions when the viewing is good.
The Zoo inhabits five polar bears in three separate enclosures. Antonia, 22 years old, is the star of the largest of bear species, because she is so small. She is a dwarf polar bear due to a metobolic disorder. Therefore, she does not take part in breeding programmes, but she is provided her own separate enclosure where she seems to be happy. The other polar bears are living together as two couples, both in a large exhibit with big pools but without much enrichment.
Recently a new part of the Zoo was opened, Asia. It is designed with the same criteria in mind, large enclosures dedicated to a limited number of representative species. Not finished yet, it still lacks the feel of walking in real nature, because the trees, bushes and shrubs need some time to be able to provide natural green ‘fences’. The orangutan island, together with the indoors exhibit for these great apes, is the major attraction of the Asian continent. Indoors there is still construction work ongoing, but it looks promising and when ready will be an interesting additional feature of the Zoo. Typical for the Asian continent are also the binturongs, which are not on dislpay in many zoos.
Of course, there’s room for improvement, and some things can be criticised, but all things considered this zoo delivers what it says it will: providing an experience of seeing animals in their natural environment including the culture that belongs to that particular region. A final remark could be that there is more interest in this zoo for the visitor’s experience and less for species conservation considering the number of endangered species kept in the Zoo and the Zoo’s contribution to conservation projects. And although they announce on their website that their red pandas are taking part in the EEP, no red pandas are on display yet.