I had been looking forward to visit Paignton Zoo as part of my South England tour, because it is supposed to be one of the UK’s top zoos — and I was not disappointed.
Paignton Zoo is laid out in habitat zones, which is unique for the United Kingdom as stated in the Zoo’s 2011 guide book. So, the animals are grouped according the habitat where you will find them in the wild independent of their geographical origin. The Zoo’s grounds present a wetland, forest, tropical forest, desert and savannah habitat. Nevertheless, the division between these habitats is not as clear cut as they want you to believe in the guide book. The forest habitat is very large and comprises many species, especially primate species. Some of these primates are housed in a separate section, Monkey Heights, at some distance from the main forest habitat. And some savannah species can be found in the forest.
In addition, the Zoo’s history is being respected with an area called Primley, the oldest part of the Zoo and where it all started. It is named after the original estate that was the home of Paignton Zoo’s founder, Herbert Whitley. Here you will find various species from a range of habitats, as in the old days, such as parrots, red pandas, baboons, crocodiles and Barbary sheep.
Though the grouping of the animal collection is not as consistent as suggested, and sometimes confusing, the map provided in the superb guide book shows exactly where these small aberrations are located. Moreover, such deviations are hard to avoid in a more than 75 years old zoo that has gone through several renovations and alterations.
Forest and Wetland habitat
When you keep right after the entrance you enter Brook-side Aviary. It is a huge aviary, but not as huge as you think at first. Nets are used for the fences and the roof, the latter at a height of about 20 meters. These nets are cleverly hidden and the dense vegetation (shrubs, bushes, trees) is a perfect cover for all, including the birds. It includes a stream and the focus is on waterfowl (ducks, black-necked swans, egrets), but you’ll find forest birds as well (pigeons and azure winged magpie). The red soil of Devon, which you see in the countryside can be noticed here too, and it gives the water a red-brownish colour.
After leaving the aviary the Asian lion enclosure appears on the left hand side.
Its grassy sloping grounds of considerable size with lots of trees contains a small pond. Most, but not all, of the trees are protected from a behavioural feature of big and small cats, scratching. The enclosure further comprises a few observation/resting platforms of about 1.5 meters high, below which the lions can shelter. The enclosure is fenced off with old-fashioned wire mesh that together with the vegetation in front obstructs the visitor’s view, but is very effective to keep the animals inside and make sure the animals are not too much exposed. However, to facilitate better viewing a few window panes are installed.
The outdoor enclosure of the Sumatran tiger has similar features, including a sack filled with straw to exercise the cat’s jaw muscles and jumping abilities. The male and female tiger are kept separate because they have bred 2 litters of cubs already. A new female will arrive soon to introduce fresh blood for breeding purpose.
This part of the Zoo is beautifully set in a park with ample space inside and outside the enclosures, as if you’re walking in a forest. The southern cassowary’s paddock, across the footpath along the tiger exhibit, allows this Australian representative of the flightless birds and the world’s third tallest and second heaviest living bird, to roam around at considerable distance from the visitor.
An important place in the Zoo, situated close to the gorilla island, is the Avian Breeding Centre (see ). Just steps away from the Avian Breeding Centre is the gorilla island, an outdoor exhibit with a slightly undulating terrain and diverse vegetation that gives it a rough appearance. I assume that the gorillas like to navigate the bushy part or climb the wooden construction in the centre of the island which replaces the lack of trees. Allen’s swamp monkeys (Allenopithecus nigroviridis) are occupying one corner of the gorilla island which is turned into a swamp, indeed. The two swamp monkeys I have spotted have a small indoor enclosure at their disposal.
Adjacent to the gorilla island, the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) island looks absolutely marvellous and jungle-like with the large trees, ropes and rough vegetation. I can imagine it resembles the orangutan’s original environment on Borneo, the largest island and the geographic centre of maritime southeast Asia. Next door, the lemur walk-through is as green as all the other enclosures in the forest habitat. It’s a large exhibit which provides plenty of opportunities for the lemurs (red-fronted and red-ruffed) to retreat and hide from the visitors or their fellow inmates. Unfortunately, the suspension bridge in the enclosure is counterproductive considering the effect it creates (children that are running and shouting) and what is required from the visitor (just the opposite: no running and shouting).
After the lemurs the footpath leads to the Ape Centre that consists of the indoor enclosures of the Bornean orangutan and the western lowland gorilla. The indoor constructions are similar, with red painted concrete, multi-level platforms for the primates to rest or sit, some wood shavings, ropes and steel poles. While the public can watch the primates when they are inside through the viewing windows, the animals have their own windows to oversee the outside enclosure.
From the Ape Centre you have to walk along the Education Centre and the Amphibian Ark to reach Monkey Heights, where the other primate species from the forest habitat can be found. All these primate species have their environment enriched differently. The outdoor enclosure for the Diana monkey is crammed with climbing enrichment features, such as ropes, poles, rope bridges, tree trunks and platforms on various levels. This is very inviting for the animals to play or otherwise be active (see ). The king colobus monkey (Colobus polykomos) have a natural tree in their outdoor enclosure that is off-limits for them. Fortunately, the monkeys are offered alternative climbing facilities. The cherry-crowned mangabeys (Cercocebus torquatus) have got large rubber band slings to entertain themselves. The emperor tamarin have a nice enclosure, with nets all around to keep them inside. This obstructs the view a bit, but the little rascals have a great large outdoor enclosure with lots of vegetation and rope bridges. And my personal opinion has always been, that enclosures should be fit for purpose for the specific species, and if this is at the expense of the viewing pleasure of the visitor — so be it!
The indoor facilities for the Diana monkey, king colobus monkey, cherry-crowned mangabey and Sulawesi crested macaque, all have concrete coated floors with no bedding materials whatsoever.
I visited, probably, the best enclosure of the forest habitat on my way out. The pileated gibbon (Hylobates pileatus) island is an absolute delight for these primates. The densely forested island could easily be mistaken for a forest jungle in Asia, except for the different plant and tree species of course. The primates can swing and sing in the trees to their heart’s content, while the visitor will have a hard time locating the animals.
As you may expect the amount of vegetation in the savannah area is less than in other parts of the Zoo, but still it is rather green. Every enclosure, as a matter of fact the complete Paignton Zoo, is built on the slightly sloping terrain of the small valley in the forested hills of this seaside resort.
The black rhinos have an excellent outside enclosure — partly grass and partly sand. The indoor enclosure is rather small, which becomes even smaller when the male and the female rhino are separated. The cheetah enclosure is more or less similar to the lion’s and tiger’s enclosure, but a bit more secluded. The long sides of the exhibit are fenced off with a wooden fence, with along the public footpath three windows for viewing.
Also on display in this area are two species that live in the South American equivalent of the savannah habitat, the pampa. The Darwin or lesser rhea must feel lucky to have such a grand enclosure located uphill. Unfortunately, the exhibit has public viewing on both sides and as a consequence the animals are very exposed. This counts also for the maned wolves which have access to a rectangular grassy paddock with a few trees. And when I say grass, I mean grass, including all kinds of other plants and weeds. As expected the shy wolves did not show themselves.
The lowland anoa (Bubalus depressicornis) is out of place in the savannah area, because this species is to be found in dense swampy forest in southeast Asia. An even stranger outlier here is the exhibit with indigenous species, native to the Devon woodlands, such as red fox, badger and rabbit.
The Elephant & Giraffe House is a straightforward simple construction, without fancy design but nevertheless purposeful. Situated in the far southwest corner of the Zoo grounds it has got a nice viewing platform on the uphill part overseeing the outdoor elephant enclosure. On the other side of the House, more downhill, the outdoor giraffe enclosure is situated. The elephant enclosure has got one rocky wall, while the rest of the enclosure is fenced off with a typical electric (rubber banded) fence. The enrichment consists of a a small pool and a ball that is used for feeding enrichment and fitness exercise for the elephant’s trunk. The keepers put feed in the ball, after which the feed falls out when the ball is swung around by the elephant. The elephant plays with the empty ball as well, just for fun. The indoor enclosure for the elephant is small, and not fit for keeping the animal inside for days in a row.
Since 1977 there had been two elephants in Paignton Zoo, an African and an Asian elephant — both female. In 2010 the Asian female had to be put down. Her African friend will stay by herself until she dies, because she is familiar with the site, she is blind in one eye, and introducing another elephant will be too stressful for her.
In the same southwest corner close to the Elephant & Giraffe House two hoofed species are kept, the takin and the Barbary sheep. Their habitat is absolutely not savannah related, but they are part of the animal collection that belong to the Primley habitat group that can be found in many areas of the Zoo. As their enclosure is built in the small dell at the back of the Zoo the Barbary sheep have a rocky terrain in their enclosure which allows them to express their natural behaviour, being surefooted climbers home to the Atlas mountains in Morocco.
In Primley, the oldest part of the Zoo, named after the home of the Zoo’s founder, Herbert Whitley, you will find, besides the takin and Barbary sheep rock, Baboon Rock and Crocodile Swamp. The Hamadryas baboon rock is scheduled to be redeveloped, by the way.
Other species that belong to the Primley list of species are red panda, Rodrigues fruit bat, brown spider monkey and many more. The red panda enclosure consists of a large outdoor exhibit including indoor shelters. Several large trees enables the small pandas to express their natural behaviour. It appears that the breeding track record is good, because they had cubs in 2010, and newborns had arrived just recently before my visit in 2011.
The Rodrigues fruit bats have an indoor enclosure as well as an outdoor enclosure at their disposal. Both enclosures they have to share with other species, in the nocturnal house with the two-toed sloth and in the outdoor exhibit with the Azara agouti. Why the brown spider monkey (Ateles hybridus) is not grouped as part of the tropical forest habitat is a complete mystery to me.
Desert and Tropical Forest habitat
But this can be said also about the gibbon, the black howler monkey and most other primates, of course. Because many of these primate species’ habitats can be found in tropical forests or rainforests, and not forest habitat as such. Nevertheless, that is the decision they made at Paignton Zoo, where they dedicated one of the greenhouses as the tropical forest habitat. In this greenhouse you find, amongst others, snakes, caiman, tortoise, tree frogs and tropical birds. The next door hot and dry greenhouse comprises desert birds and desert reptiles to represent the desert habitat.
Strikingly, Paignton Zoo only has, or at least has on display, few specimens of each species in their animal collection. As a consequence there is lots of space available for the Zoo’s animals. Or you may say the Zoo has a good space/animal ratio. Moreover, the park’s spacious environment adds to the feeling that you are walking in a forest or nature reserve. Even on a busy day you’ve still got some quiet moments to enjoy all by yourself — which is remarkable.
With respect to the state-of-the-art of Paignton Zoo’s enclosures it must be said that it has just a few mixed species exhibits. These kind of exhibits, together with landscape immersion exhibits, are becoming more common in modern zoos nowadays. At Paignton several aviaries contain various species, and there is the enclosure with the Hartmann mountain zebra and Ostrich. But with zebra and other ungulates that live in herds in the wild, you see that most zoos try and keep the animals in large groups that resemble the natural situation. At Paignton they have three specimens of Hartmann mountain zebra on the date of my visit, which you can hardly call a herd.
Many species at Paignton Zoo are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as more or less endangered which makes the effort of a zoological institution like Paignton worthwhile in the perspective of ex-situ species conservation. Additionally, the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust (which comprises Paignton Zoo, Newquay Zoo and Torquay’s Living Coasts) is involved in various in-situ species conservation projects in the UK, Africa and southeast Asia.