Åby Manor has a long and fascinating history. Letters preserved from 1307 show that Norway’s King Håkon Magnusson stayed here at that time. During the 1500s, the manor was owned by the Galde family. It may have been during that period that the castle-like building seen on a map from 1697 was built.
Åby Manor was bought by Margareta Hvitfeldt in 1661, and the deal included about 90 farms and cottages scattered over the whole of northern Bohus county. From Margareta’s death in 1683 until 1975, Åby was managed by Hvitfeldtska scholarship institution in accordance with her will. The manor was bought by the Swedish Rural Economy and Agricultural Society, which in 1996 sold the manor and associated 383 hectares of land to Nordens Ark Foundation of which 350 are used for the zoological park.
Full historic account to be added
Finally, after already spending seven days at the West Coast of Sweden I have arrived at Nordens Ark, a 350 ha zoological facility with an animal collection focussed on predators. My expectations of this Zoo are high, not only because it is set in the beautiful landscape of the Swedish West Coast. Perhaps even more because of the huge size of this rather new zoo and the small number of species that are on display; and because the main focus is on predators, especially my favourites — the feline species.
Close to the official entrance, which is about 100 metres from Nordens Ark hotel where the ticket office, the restaurant and zoo shop are situated, it aren’t flamingos that attract attention like in many other zoos, but European ground squirrels. A species with a limited range of distribution in Europe (Czech Republic and Slovenia) and classified as Vulnerable according the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™.
There are not many routes through the Nordens Ark mountainous forest, so following the main walkway guides you, more or less, along all enclosures. Whether you see all species depends on you, especially your patience, because many enclosures offer sufficient shelter for the inhabitants either by design or by mere size.
Before I indulge myself the pleasure of exploring the Zoo grounds I stop at the information panel after the entrance. It tells me extensively about what and how much they feed each species, including the costs it entails. That probably is the reason that they grow their own bamboo for the red panda here at Nordens Ark.
I decide to explore the zoo in a clockwise direction, which brings me first to the Amur tiger facilities and the maned wolf enclosure. The maned wolf is a rather exotic predator species for Nordens Ark, because its original habitat is on the southern hemisphere while all other predators in the park come from northern hemisphere habitats. Though not as large as expected the maned wolf enclosure looks attractive from the animal’s point of view. Although perhaps too much exposed to the shy maned wolf’s liking, I haven’t spotted a single individual in the drizzling morning, but when I return in the afternoon the sun lured them out in the open. The grassy meadows with several large trees and shrubs are connected by passages and contains three man-built shelters.
The Amur tiger exhibits located near the maned wolf enclosure are a bit disappointing, because they are not very different or larger from any tiger enclosure I have seen in any other zoo. The big cats are even more exposed than in many other zoos. But it turns out that these first few roofed enclosures that are fenced off all around by steel mesh, are merely separation areas. Probably for the tigers to wait and have their turn in the extremely large mountainous forest that is situated next door. Although as natural as possible they took measures to protect some of the native trees from the tigers’ scratching behaviour. This tiger mountain must be a delight for the tigers because a lot of their natural behaviour can be expressed in this forest, from sleeping, resting, stalking small native prey that by mistake wanders into the exhibit to scent-marking. By choice the tigers can do all of this without being watched by those curious two-legged upright walking species. To ensure that some of the action is being executed within sight of visitors feeding enrichment is provided visible from the footpath. Still, even in such a grand exhibit the tiger cannot express normal hunting behaviour because large prey is lacking, and their home range cannot be compared to their range in the wild which measures up to 440 km2 for Amur tigresses. This means that also when kept under such conditions as in Nordens Ark tigers cannot be prepared for a return in the wild. Because in the wild they have to kill their prey themselves with skills they have learned when young.
The information panels at the enclosures provide good concise information on the species in English, besides the Swedish version of course. Geographical distribution in the wild is plotted on a world map and the species’ conservation status is given according the IUCN Red List classification. The name of the species is given in six languages and its scientific name. And when you miss something, or don’t have the time to read everything, the excellent website is the place to visit to learn more about Nordens Ark, its work and its species.
In addition more detailed educational info is given on specific species, and also large panels with generic info on taxa such as ungulates, birds and felines.
When I arrive at the end of the uphill footpath along the tiger’s mountain, which is probably the highest point of the premises, I have sight on the enclosure for the Tadjik markhor (Capra falconeri heptneri). This is a fenced off part of the rocky forested area found on the peninsula, more or less similar to the markhor’s original habitat only at a lower altitude. So, the markhor are neighbours of the Amur tigers and at certain spots in their enclosure the tigers can see the markhor that could well serve as a prey species for the tiger. By the way, there’s another large enclosure for the markhor at the other end of the zoo grounds.
On the other side of the path, where both walkways around tiger mountain meet, an aviary for white-backed woodpeckers is situated. They keep white-backed woodpeckers pairs at several sites on the zoo grounds. This has been one of the things that Nordens Ark zookeepers learnt to be important for these birds to start breeding in captivity — provide them with various environments. Together with the peregrine falcons they are perfect examples of how zoos can contribute to conserving species in the wild, or better: for the wild (see also Conservation breeding).
Next door the Eurasian lynx must be feeling at ease in its natural environment. The two adjacent enclosures with a high rock face rear wall are large enough to provide a choice of hideouts besides high level resting platforms. Additionally, there’s a log hanging on a chain which suggest they use similar feeding enrichment as for the tigers.
Further along this path through the forest I pass two aviaries. The Eurasian eagle owl (Bubo bubo) aviary allows the owl to exercise its flying abilities, so I think that any mouse that enters the exhibit will be in danger of ending up in the owl’s stomach. The aviary for the peregrine falcon, which are part of the Peregrine Falcon project in Sweden (see also Conservation breeding), is large enough for the birds to fly around but they cannot climb to great heights as they do in the wild.
After these two feathery predators one of the most endangered feline species is kept, the Amur leopard. It is the only big cat exhibit that isn’t an open top enclosure, and the only cat exhibit that has a pool. Together with its next door neighbours, the snow leopards, they have a view on the bukhara urial (Ovis orientalis bocharensis) that is one of the wild sheep subspecies that can be found in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and a natural prey species of the snow leopard. These small mountain sheep have an enormous area at their disposal on the slopes of the rocky hills of Nordens Ark’s grounds.
At this point it is possible to skip the far end of the zoo grounds and take a short cut back to the entrance, but I really want to see the wolverines that can be found in this section. So, I go left and take the ‘grand tour’. The first species on display in this pine tree section is the Eurasian otter. This enclosure resembles the otter’s native riparian habitat with rivers and tributaries, forested riverbanks. Where the otters can explore, fish and eat, or relax and sunbathe on the boulders in the creek. Additionally they have some good hideouts, because I don’t see a single otter. Therefore I make my way to the wolverines and hope that they show themselves. As Nordens Ark coordinates the European Endangered species programme (EEP) for wolverine they are obliged to keep their specimens under excellent conditions if they want to set an example. At least that is what I think. And they really do I would say, because the wolverines haveaccess to three amazingly large interconnected enclosures for them to express their natural behaviour. In a mix of deciduous and pine forest the trees may be climbed (see video). In addition to these big trees the wolverines’ lives are enriched by a few small concrete pools and logs on a rope hanging down several trees. Not only the wolverines enjoy good conditions, from the elevated platform the visitors have excellent views on two of the exhibits and at the Åby fjord that borders Nordens Ark.
In contrast to the large natural surroundings of the wolverine the European wildcats are housed in enclosures that are simple fenced off and roofed areas of the original forest. Enrichment features are added, including horizontal travelling logs and high level platforms, but the cats are very exposed with only man-built shelter boxes as hiding places. In this section the aforementioned other aviaries for white-backed woodpeckers are to be found as well.
As interesting as the woodpeckers are the European forest reindeer that roam around freely in the large forested area. They take part in the European studbook (ESB) which is managed right here at Nordens Ark. Hunting made the forest reindeer disappear from Sweden’s Lapland, in the 1880s. Farmers issued hunting permits to avoid their fields to be raided by reindeer. Nowadays, the reindeer bred in captivity are released in the wild in Finland. From the reindeer forest it is just a small stroll to arrive at the wolves’ territory. The sheer size of this area requires patience and perhaps binoculars to get a chance to see them. Its a fenced off area of the native forest with raised boardwalks — they are fond of boardwalks here at Nordens Ark. In the observation hut (Wolf Lodge) you can wait conveniently for the wolves to appear or wait out a rain shower, which I do.
When I return from this far end of the zoo grounds with the wetlands area on my left hand side I head for the Pallas’s cat, for which Nordens Ark also has a good breeding track record. The litter of four cubs born earlier this year is a very active bunch of furry balls as you can see in the videos. The Pallas’s cats are housed in two interconnected large enclosures, beautifully set on the slopes of a hill with smooth and slippery material around the trees and around the fence posts to prevent outbreaks. Apparently the cats are very good climbers, but they haven’t developed big jumping abilities. As at some spots the escape distance could be easily covered by domestic cats in my opinion.
The wetlands area opposite the Pallas’s cats is a part of the zoo dedicated to specific habitats that I would consider a bit off topic. So, no feline predator species but amphibians and birds instead. In the small but nice amphibian house several frog species, including exotic poison arrow frogs on the top floor. At ground floor level they keep mostly European species. Besides amphibian species the house has also reptiles on display, such as the Critically Endangered Roti island snake-necked turtle (Chelodina mccordi) and Vietnamese pond turtle (Mauremys annamensis).
Outside there are small biotopes for European amphibians, turtles and snakes. A few enclosures are used for the green toad, Sweden’s most endangered amphibian. Nordens Ark has been involved for many years in conservation of the green toad. They have successfully reared larvae, newly metamorphosed and adult toads which were released in several region of Sweden, a total of 1,600 individuals from 2009 to 2014.
The large wetlands comprises storks, geese, and cranes (Grus japonensis, Grus vipio). I suppose these birds have been pinioned. In an aviary of substantial size built against the amphibian house Waldrapp ibis are housed. These endangered birds that take part in the EEP have many roosting and nesting sites; there’s a large pond and sufficient space for the birds to fly around. The European roller (Coracias garrulus) is housed here as well.
When I walk to the exit/entrance I pass along the large elongated paddock for Przewalski horse. I see only three specimens while they could handle a larger herd, which would better meet the needs of this wild horse that live in small family groups in the wild.
On my way out I have a look at the two rather large enclosures for red panda. In contrast to most other enclosures here at Nordens Ark, these are not particularly larger than anywhere else, while they have a similar design as all over the world in zoos nowadays — circular with small and large trees. As red pandas like to sleep on a branch high in a tree the large trees seems to be their favourites. However, the trees that could support an escape are forbidden for such endeavours. The red panda enclosures are neighbouring the Chilean pudu exhibit, which is rather strange because these species originate from very different geographical origin — the red panda from the mountainous area of Asia and the pudu from South America’s temperate rainforest.
I skip The Farm with its native breeds of livestock that is situated on the other side of the road — to be reached by a tunnel. They have developed an interesting approach for these native domestic breeds that are smaller and produce less meat or milk than today’s more developed breeds, but have helped to shape Sweden’s rural landscape. Therefore these breeds are part of Ecopark which is one of Nordens Ark’s biggest species conservation projects on native ground. This project began in January 2011 and encompasses the forest and cultural landscape surrounding the zoological park on Åby manor’s lands. One of its objectives is to benefit threatened species and biological diversity by recreating the open, species-rich countryside of the 1700s and 1800s characterised by grazing cattle. They use the native breeds to gradually transforming land use from fir-oriented forestry to traditional pastureland. Moreover, they not only use the grazing goats, cows, sheep and horses to keep the landscape of Åby Manor accessible and actively conserve the species as such, but they also educate visitors about the historic and current importance of these breeds, and last but not least: they sell offspring of these native breeds to visitors.
To finalise, I can say that Nordens Ark lives up to my expectations with most of the facilities situated in the beautiful landscape along the spacious hillside of the Åby fjord, dominated still by original native forest and rock formations. All cat enclosures have plenty of hiding places, high level platforms and trees to climb, while in addition the felids are provided with artificial enrichment for further development of natural behaviour. The decision to focus on endangered predator species together with conservation efforts on maintaining local species such as peregrine falcons, wolverine and forest reindeer turns out to be successful in my opinion. It has led to large enclosures for the limited number of species they keep in captivity with a focus and respect for the needs of the animal collection. An impressive track record of conservation projects, ex-situ as well as in-situ, contribute to my overall appreciation of what they have achieved at Nordens Ark since 1989. I therefore fully understand that the first building you see when approaching the premises is an hotel — Nordens Ark is a place worth spending more than one full day.
In addition it is well worth mentioning that the Nordens Ark website is very informative, not only in the Swedish language but in English as well .
Pallas’ cat kitten playing with dead mouse
A few hours after being fed quite a few chicks this kitten has caught a mouse that was stupid enough to enter the enclosure with four predators (Mum and her three cubs). The kitten made a kill and started playing with the natural enrichment, while a littermate wants to participate in the game or just steal the mouse. The latter option is more plausible I assume. Watch the littermate making stealthy movements to surprise the other and capture the mouse. But that is not going to happen!
Pallas’ cat feeding enrichment
The three Pallas’ cat kittens are really hungry and don’t mind to work for their lunch. By the way, the rope is being held by a visitor — under zookeeper’s supervision of course. So, as a visitor in Nordens Ark you can go ‘cat fishing’. Enrichment for the cats, entertainment for the public.
Wolverine exploring and descending a tree
In the large and absolutely great wolverine enclosures I didn’t expect to see this magnificent and ferocious, nevertheless endangered, species. But much to my surprise when I was sitting on the lookout terrace to enjoy the views, I discovered a wolverine climbing down a tree.
There is only one place in the world where the white-backed woodpecker breeds in captivity — and that is at Nordens Ark. Young woodpeckers are being released into the wild, which helps to save the species from extinction in Sweden, where it is Critically Endangered.
These two projects on breeding endangered bird species in captivity are good examples of how zoos can contribute to conserving species in the wild by ‘ex-situ’ conservation.
At the start of last century, the white-backed woodpecker (Dendrocopus leucotos) could be found in many parts of Sweden. But about 20 years ago there were only around 20 pairs, and their numbers have continued to fall. So, the white-backed woodpecker became one of Sweden’s most endangered birds. In 2014, only four breeding attempts were recorded in Värmland and in the lower Dalälv region. According to the Swedish Red List, the white-backed woodpecker is Critically Endangered. The species is not endangered globally according the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™. It is native to many European countries and quite some Asian countries as well (check the species range map here). And although the trend in the population size is decreasing many breeding pairs can be found in the entire range which justifies the species to be classified as Least Concern, still. In Europe for instance, the breeding population is estimated to number 180,000 – 550,000 breeding pairs, equating to 540,000 – 1,650,000 individuals.
The modern forestry methods in Sweden destroyed the deciduous woodland which are important for the survival of the white-backed woodpecker, especially the old, decaying trees that are home to plenty of insects. But the same type of forest environment is as important to at least 200 threatened species of plants and animals as it is to the woodpecker. In Sweden the white-backed woodpecker can be considered an umbrella species. By saving one umbrella species many other species can benefit at the same time.
Therefore, in 1990 the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation set up a project to save the white-backed woodpecker in Sweden, which included reintroducing young birds. Initially, chicks were taken from nests in Norway and Latvia, then reared at Nordens Ark and released when they were large enough to fend for themselves. But why not breed them in captivity they thought at Nordens Ark. Although it wasn’t tried before, this couldn’t stop them. Thus in 2003 a breeding facility was built and Norwegian white-backed woodpeckers were trapped and taken to Nordens Ark. It took them a few years to figure out how to provide the birds with the right environment for them to feel at home and start breeding. Nonetheless, Nordens Ark became the only one place in the world where the white-backed woodpecker breeds in captivity. Each year now, a number of young woodpeckers are being released in the wild as proof that ex-situ conservation can help save species from extinction, at least in Sweden where it concerns white-backed woodpeckers.
Between 2008 and 2011 a total of 35 young, white-backed woodpeckers from Nordens Ark have been released into nature. Still there is a long way to go before there is a stable population of white-backed woodpeckers in the wild in Sweden.
(Source: website Nordens Ark; Nordens Ark Annual Report 2014; IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™)
The natural range of the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) covers large parts of the world. In other words this falcon has successfully conquered the world. In Sweden, however, the peregrine falcon population started to decrease in the 1920s as a result of persecution by hunters and pigeon breeders. Bounties were paid for shooting many birds of prey, including the peregrine falcon. In the South of Sweden, the last few peregrine falcon nests were regularly plundered for their eggs in the 1960s. At the same time, mid-twentieth century, methylmercury and DDT were used in Sweden’s agriculture and forestry industries. Both toxins had dire consequences for Sweden’s wild birds, especially apex predators such as birds of prey. The toxins caused paralysis, affected the health of foetuses and lead to defective eggshells. Among others, the peregrine falcon became increasingly rare. In the 1970s there were only 15 breeding pairs in Sweden, and the remaining breeding falcons had to be monitored carefully to stop their eggs being stolen by egg-collectors.
Therefore to save the species, the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation began breeding falcons back in 1974. The project’s first priority was to re-establish a falcon population of 25 to 30 breeding pairs in south-west Sweden. Eggs were collected from nesting sites in Norway, Sweden and Finland. Because the breeding wasn’t that easy and progress was slow, a new breeding facility was established at the bird centre on the island of Hisingen in 1987. Almost 300 falcons had been released into the wild by 1997 and the first sign of recovery was reported in late 1990s. Next, in the year 2000, the breeding programme was moved to Nordens Ark, where on 13 June the new peregrine falcon breeding facility was opened. Since that time Nordens Ark has bred more than 200 falcon chicks, 16 hatched in 2014, and released them in the wild. In recent years the breeding at Nordens Ark has been achieved without any external funding.
Over the years, the Peregrine Falcon Project became highly successful, and the future for Sweden’s peregrine falcons looks bright. Without the efforts to breed peregrine falcons in captivity the species would probably be extinct in southern Sweden by now. Instead, its numbers are growing currently. The project data shows that 11 per cent of reintroduced youngsters survive to adulthood, while this percentage of wild-born falcon chicks is only a little higher than 15 per cent. Which shows how remarkable successful the project is.
Since the start in 1972, the species has gone from being Critically Endangered, to being listed today as Near Threatened in Sweden according to the Swedish Red List. As there is now a stable population of more than 200 breeding pairs in Sweden the need for continuous new reintroductions in the wild derived from captive breeding is less urgent. So restocking of the wild population is slowly being phased out. It means that old breeding pairs are not replaced by young individuals any more. Thus the project will as last as long as these elderly birds live and reproduce. And with the end of the Peregrine Falcon Project in sight there is an adjustment of the objective as well. Since 2014 young falcons also have been released in the city of Stockholm, because they disappeared in this area more than 50 years ago and haven’t recovered yet. It is common knowledge that the peregrine falcon is able to breed in an urban environment. In many cities of Europe and North America, falcons breed in safety on tall buildings. So it is expected that with some additional support it must be possible to re-establish a peregrine falcon population in Stockholm.
(Source: website Nordens Ark; Nordens Ark Annual report 2014 and 2015)
directions to Nordens Ark
Nordens Ark is situated on the west coast of Sweden, 20 km from Smögen and Kungshamn on route 171, and about 120 km north of Gothenburg and some 200 km south of Oslo.
Getting to Nordens Ark by public transport is possible but it requires some stamina, unless you go first to Kungshamn by car for instance. In Kungshamn there are several options to stay overnight, including two campsites. On the other hand it makes sense to take your time and travel relaxed by train and bus, after which you check in in the Nordens Ark hotel. There’s much to see for a zoo enthusiast, so a night in the adjacent hotel is not such a bad idea.
The nearest railway station which is connected to a direct bus service to the Nordens Ark bus stop is Munkedal station. There is a direct train connection between Gothenburg and Munkedal station every other hour, which takes about 1h40min.
Routeplanner and timetables for trains in West Sweden are available here.
The bus stop is located right at the entrance to Nordens Ark and services are run by Västtrafik. Bus No. 860 runs between Kungshamn and Munkedal railway station with Nordens Ark halfway — either way takes you about 20 minutes to get there.
For a routeplanner and timetable of bus 860 check here.
I would not recommend going to Nordens Ark by bicycle. All roads leading to the Zoo lack a decent bicycle lane. Although most drivers are careful when passing cyclists danger is lurking, because the maximum speed allowed on these rather busy roads is on average 80 kmph and the traffic includes heavy trucks.
Nordens Ark lies at the head of the stunning Åby fjord, and there is a guest jetty for those arriving by boat. Water depth at the jetty is 2 — 3 metres and the fjord provides a good anchorage. If you’re visiting Nordens Ark, you are welcome to stay one night at the jetty free of charge. However, please bear in mind that it is not a marina and there are no facilities such as rubbish containers, showers or toilets.
When you use NavSat equipment then please use these coordinates: lat. N58° 26´33.65″ and long. E11° 26´10.68″.
Take motorway E6 towards Oslo. After Munkedal, Nordens Ark is signposted from the E6.
Take motorway E6 towards Gothenburg and follow the signs to Nordens Ark (Smögen and Kungshamn).
Parking is free, but at Nordens Ark they welcome a donation that you can leave in the milk churn by the payment windows. There is ample space at the parking lot with disabled parking spaces near the entrance.