We’d been planning to visit Chester Zoo since last August as an anniversary present from both of us. We did tried once but there was an accident and we were stuck for nearly an hour on the M6. Looking at the clock, we won’t have enough time to check the place out. Instead, we made a left turn and headed to one of our favourite place in the world, Aberystwyth. We finally made our trip on a cloudy day with temperatures at 8.3C. We left the casa at 9am and was there at about 11.15 am and that was because we missed the sign on a very confusing roundabout.
Chester Zoo was a zoological garden at Upton by Chester, in Cheshire. It was opened in 1931 by George Mottershead and his family. It was one of the UK's largest zoos at 125 acres. The Zoo was operated by the North of England Zoological Society, a registered charity founded in 1934 as it received no government funding. In this spectacular setting were over 7000 animals – more than 400 species of rare, exotic and endangered wildlife It was the most-visited wildlife attraction in Britain with more than 1.4 million visitors in 2014. In 2007 Forbes described it as one of the best fifteen zoos in the world. In July 2015 it was named as the best zoo in the UK and seventh in the world by TripAdvisor.
There were already hundreds of cars parked in the ample parking space and joined the queue for tickets. As soon as we entered and walked past the gift shop, I squealed with delight when I spotted Nandita Hi Way, the baby elephant which was born in August to experienced mum Thi Hi Way. She was one of the stars of the Channel 4 hit series, Life at the Zoo. The Hi Way are rare Asian elephants and spanned 4 generations. Thi was also mum to Sithami, grandmother to Sundara and great-grandmother to Hari, which died of the Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus (EEHV), a disease common in elephants held in confined spaces.
Elephants were intelligent and sociable animals who lived together in family groups led by the oldest female. There was a bull elephant, Aung Bo, who played a very important role in the Zoo’s conservation breeding programme. Asian elephants were listed as endangered on the IUCN’s Red List, threatened by habitat loss, poaching, diseases and direct conflict with humans. Two months after our visit, another female calf was born to 12-year old Sundara after a 22-month gestation. The new calf, named Indali, was a huge boost to the endangered species breeding programme.
The family lived in a state-of-the-art ‘Elephants of the Asian Forest’ facility. It was a purpose built enclosure with a tropical house, indoor enclosures with several off-show pens for the bull, a paddock, a bull yard, large sand pen, a large pool with waterfall and feeding dispensers designed to promote natural foraging behaviour. The enclosure gave the 10 elephants over 2 acres of space, adequate but could be larger. Chester Zoo was the first zoo in the UK to successfully breed Asian elephants in captivity.
Opposite of the elephants enclosure was the Greater one-horned rhinoceros or Indian rhino as it was also known. It was feeding so close to where we were standing that we could see that fabulous, slightly wrinkled armoured plating look with that silver-brown hide and folded skin that almost riveted together. It was pretty prehistoric looking, too. Reflecting the ‘heartland’ of India, the paddock was a swampy flood plain where it enjoyed regular dips in the muddy pool, galloping around and grazing on the grasslands.
Over the Elephant Bridge, we spotted two more Asian species, the Onager, which was related to the donkey, and the Bactrian camel. Both of these animals were critically endangered in the wild. The Onagers also known as hemione or Asiatic wild ass belonged to the equid family of hoofed animals and they were the most rare equids in the world. Unlike horses and donkeys, they had never been domesticated.
It was lovely watching the family of one adult male, four adult females and 3 very playful foals which were born last year. Most had white bellies, buttocks and muzzles and from the dark stripe which ran along the centre of their back. The young ones were sprinting and rolling about in the sand pit. They were taking turns to have a spin on the ground and was having fun doing it.
It was also fascinating to see the two-humped beast of burden snacking away on a bark from a fallen tree. We were standing quite close that we could see the double set of eyelashes, hair lined inner ear and thin nostrils. Bactrian camels needed these protection to survive the harsh conditions of the Gobi Desert against dust and sandstorm. The humps gave them their legendary ability to endure long periods without water. As the fat gets used up, the humps became floppy and flabby.
‘Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump; you may be freeing him from being a camel.’
~Gilbert K. Chesterton~
From here, we walked under the monorail track and waved to the little passengers who were waving enthusiastically back. This was a transportation system with a station at the main entrance near the elephants and a station near the lions. It ran in a circle, but passengers were only permitted to make single journeys of a half circle. It costs£3.50 per adult and £2.50 per child. At first, I planned to be on it to get an overall picture of the zoo and off course, take the opportunity for photographs. But unfortunately, the train was covered with quite grubby glass (plastic?) windows. And I also thought that given the cost of the tickets, the monorail should be complimentary.
We walked past the Rothschild’s giraffes, the world’s second rarest giraffe, enjoying their feed. Giraffes spent 16-20 hours a day feeding. Males fed with their neck and head stretched upwards, while females tended to put their heads down, feeding off ground level grasses and shrubs. Just like no two humans have the same finger print, the blotchy pattern of each giraffe’s coat was different from each other. Rothschild’s giraffe had another uniqueness in that they’d no markings on their lower legs. They looked like wearing white socks. It was also a challenge trying to spot their long blue tongues. Chester Zoo had received a wonderful Xmas present on Boxing day when a calf was born.
We gave the Tropical Realm a miss because we won’t be able to use the cameras. While we were walking on the tarmac footpath, we spotted an Airbus Beluga flying above us. What a sight to behold as the white whale of the skies, the A300-600ST flew past. It was known as the ‘Beluga’ for its uniqueness resemblance to the Minke mammal and boasted one of the biggest cargo holds of any aircraft and was one of five of its kind. While we were in the zoo, we saw it at least three times flying above us.
We spotted a crowd crowding an enclosure and was delighted to see a Malayan sun bear going about its business. One of the world’s rarest species of bear and also one of the smallest, it got its name from the golden markings on the chest which looked like a rising sun. It was also known as the ‘honey bear’ due to its love of honey. Our only bug-bear was that the cage-bars were photo-bombing our photographs.
Next was the impressive Spirit of the Jaguar (funded by Jaguar cars, who else eh) but unfortunately, the piece de resistance was so well camouflaged in the very humid glass house. There was a pair lurking somewhere in there. We pressed our noses on the glass walls but nada, zilch, non. The building was split into 2 sections (savannah and forest) which was the range of a Jaguar’s habitats.The area was heavily planted with tropical vegetation to create a rainforest appearance. As we were about to leave, we came across an enclosure for Leafcutter Ants. They were busy at work, getting leaves before making there way across a branch.
Exiting the ‘Spirit of the Jaguar’, we immediately saw the stunning Orang-utan exhibit named ‘Realm of the Red ape’ for both Sumatran and Bornean Orang-utans. Heading up a timber ramp, we walked up to tree top level, to experience life within the rainforest canopy. A walkway winding around the building allowed us access to the different views of the enclosures, along with numerous other exhibits of other Asian rainforest canopy species. These included monitor lizards, praying mantis, scissor billed starlings and the world longest snake, the reticulated python, which lived in their own controlled environment.
We enjoyed looking through the tiny windows into the mammals habitats. The Sumatran Orang-utans had 2 outside exhibits and 3 indoor exhibits whilst the Borneans occupied the adjoining old house and enclosure and 2 netted enclosures. The outdoor areas was viewed from a first floor public gallery and featured mesh roofs supported by tree-like structures which act as climbing frames. These stimulating and appropriate environment allowed the world’s largest arboreal animals to utilise the space.
This exhibit was recognised as one of the world’s best habitats, and apparently the primates felt so at home, having reproduced several times. Also sharing the Orang’s new home was a family group of charismatic Lar gibbons (which shared with the Sumatran Orangs). With the rise in temperature, the exotic plants draping around the structure and the sounds of the many exotic animals and birds, we were transported into the other side of the world.
Next was the Dragons in Danger habitat, home to the Komodo dragon. The male, Jantan (which meant male in Malay) and a female, Ora, both arrived from Prague Zoo in 2014. They were joined in May 2014 by three females who arrived from Colchester Zoo. Komodo dragons were the gorillas of the reptile world – big and charismatic. They were the largest lizards on the planet at over two metres in length and they were also one of the oldest too.
They were magical, muscular and mysterious creatures with a deadly bite, but they were also gentle, curious and loved exploring. Scent trails were laid down to stimulate their natural curiosities and kept their surroundings really interesting for them. We enjoyed watching this handsome guy strutting his stuff around the artificial rock structures and then having a drink in the pool. It was quite soothing to watch from behind the safety of the glass barriers.
From here, we saw a huge pavilion which was The Chimpanzee Breeding Centre. This pavilion was opened in 1989 by Princess Diana, and was home to 26 common chimpanzees. This was the largest colony of chimps in Europe, housed in the Roundhouse, a conical indoor enclosure linked to an outside moated island. The island was planted with many bushes and had large poles for the chimps to climb on. The inside area had a climbing frame that allowed the chimps to stay close together on several levels of platform. There were seven interconnected off-show dens.
Following their natural instinct, these chimpanzees formed their own complex society as they would in the wild. They’d strict social rules and communicated through their loud high pitched calls and shouts. They were full of shenanigans and it was fun picking out the leaders, the ambitious adolescents, the breeding females and the elderly statesmen, four generations in all. It was too cold to be outside on the island so all of them were sheltering indoors.
Getting off the new bridge, we entered ‘The Twilight Zone’ which was a walk-through bat cave containing Rodrigues Fruit Bats, Seba’s short-tailed bats and Livingston’s fruit bats. It was the largest free-flying bat cave with 300 bats in Europe. We were plunged into the darkness and got close to them. We could feel them as they whooshed past us, skimming our heads and bodies as they whizzed in all directions. Amazing, but unfortunately, our photographs were useless.
Outside, we walked on a bridge to the Asian Steppes where we got an aerial view of the world’s fasted animal, the Cheetahs snuggling in their den. There were 4 male cheetahs in this enclosure that had been developed in a style consistent with Central Asia, from where these rare mammals originated. The spacious enclosure consisted of 2 large on-show areas and three-off areas, including 5 heated dens, sand for basking on and plants from arid regions. Again, it was just too cold for them to show off their prowess.
We walked down the walkway to the Asiatic lions. It wasn’t difficult to find because we could hear the roars from the pride of three beautiful and rare lions. The enclosure situated next to the Oakfield House was a wooded area with thirty or forty trees, surrounded by chain-link fencing. They were enjoying the winter sun, relaxing and lazing around. Lions spent between 16-20 hours resting and sleeping. In the middle of their habitat was a large mound and one of the females was sitting at the top watching the visitors watching the pride.
Then we took another path through some shady wooded area and came across a herd of the Congo or Forest buffalo from the dense forest of Central Africa. Typically reddish brown or dark mahogany in colour, with coarse bristly hairs, these heavyweight cattle had backwards sweeping horns that equipped them to deal with life in the wilds of Africa and also stopped them getting tangled in the trees and bushes as they walked through the forest. They were so chilled out and didn’t bother getting up when we walked past them.
We’d a few hours left and I wanted to visit the latest attraction, the £40m island zone which was at the furthest end of the zoo, typical. The supposedly 30 minute walk took us more than an hour as we stopped to admire the exhibits along the way and most memorable was the Tsavo Rhino Experience. The exhibit was modelled on the Tsavo National Park in Kenya, and was opened in 2003 at a cost of £2 million and home to the magnificent Eastern black rhino, one of the world’s most endangered animals.
The Tsavo habitat was a large open grassland with low, walled, moated paddock and a circular mud hut. I was chuffed when this handsome fellow came over to say hello. Watching him, I reflected on the cruelty of poachers and hunters, hunting them for their useless horns and for sport. It was a sad realisation that generations to come might never see them alive. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of Gabe, the latest addition, a male calf born to Ema Elsa but he was AWOL.
As we were walking around the zoo, Babe kept on mentioning Sitatunga every time we walked past the different species of antelopes. They just happened to blend together with huge horns, hooves and shaggy coats. From the critically endangered Visayan warty pig, to the extraordinary heights of the giraffe herd, we came across amazing hoofed animals in paddocks, scattered all over the zoo.
Hoofed animals were generally herbivorous mammals and often lived in large herds. They often have huge horns, which were used by males in combat with other males of the same species during the mating season. We fell in love with the the Visayan warty pigs, which had about 200 left in the wild, semi-aquatic Kafue Flats lechwe, gemsbok with their beautiful horns, mini kirk’s dik-dik, Scimitar-horned oryx, shy Okapi, colourful Eastern bongos, distinctive face Roan antelopes, upward-rising horns Warthogs, striped Kudu, spectacularly-eared Red river hogs, and off course the famous swamp-dwelling Sitatunga or marshbuck.
Shy in their herding dwell the fallow deer.
They are spirits of wild sense. Nobody near
Comes upon their pastures. There a life they live,
Of sufficient beauty, phantom, fugitive,
Treading as in jungles free leopards do,
Printless as evelight, instant as dew.
The great kine are patient, and home-coming sheep
Know our bidding. The fallow deer keep
Delicate and far their counsels wild,
Never to be folded reconciled
To the spoiling hand as the poor flocks are;
Lightfoot, and swift, and unfamiliar,
These you may not hinder, unconfined
Beautiful flocks of the mind.
Finally, we spotted a huge painted wooden structure from Manado and followed the winding foot-path which was lined with bamboo copses, pampas tussocks, palm trees, yucca plants and long grasses. The vegetation was mostly stumpy and patchy. Fingers-crossed, they would looked lush in summer. We came across authentic Javanese fishing long boats, tuks-tuks, canoes, ploughs, mopeds and colourful market stalls.
While looking for the signs to the Lazy River Boat trip on Sumba island, we saw a family of the critically endangered Visayan warty pigs on Panay Island. They were gathered by the river bank and having a drink. Only 200 were thought to be left in their natural habitat in the Philippines so seeing these cute pigs with distinctive tufts of hair and covered in warts was really special. In spring this year, a pair of twins made their debut on this island.
We found the jetty and hopped onto one of the 14 boats that was individually themed around a different South East Asian island. As we slowly meandered down the river, we listened to the surround-sound of bird calls while misty fog rolled out. We sailed past tribal lands, rickety-looking bridges, isolated palm-roofed huts and danger signs. A herd of Banteng wild cattle from Bali were chilling out and chewing cud on the sandy river banks.
‘If my ship sails from sight, it doesn’t mean my journey ends, it simply means the river bends.’
After the gentle 15-minute excursion came to an end, we hopped off to explore on foot, walking over the bridges, and seeing buildings that were architecturally identical to those found on the far-flung islands of Panay, Papua, Bali, Sumba, Sumatra and Sulawesi. This island attraction showcased the vital conservation that the Zoo does in South East Asia. We crossed the Dragon Bridge from Papua, stopped at the Bali Temple which was situated in a large aviary as it was home to the iconic Bali starlings, one of the rarest birds in the world that was unique to the island. The place was peaceful and tranquil with trickling water, the sound of temple chimes in the background and the charming song of the starlings.
We were gutted to find out that the Monsoon Forest, the largest indoor zoo exhibit in the UK was closed. There were still plenty of construction work going on. This exhibit was home to the critically endangered Sumatran tigers, Orang utans and Sunda gharial crocodiles. We could view the tiger exhibit and was keen to catch a glimpse of the Sumatran tigers but we can’t find the elusive big cats. Then it was a slow walk back to the car before the Zoo shut down for the day.
We browsed the gift shop and came out with an ice-cream each. After finishing our ice-cream, we’d a picnic in the car and talked about our day. Would we come again? We think not. It was just too expensive and completely over hyped. Most of the animals we’d already seen in Tycross Zoo, Cotswold Wildlife Park and Yorkshire Wildlife Park. The Island zone was a major disappointment and we would be really p----d off if we’d to pay for the boat ride. I felt that the concept was flawed. It was quite difficult to think of sunny South East Asia on a freezing October. Imagine that in the middle of winter!!! Apart from that, there was a distinct lack of signage on how to get to the Islands for the boat ride from the main zoo area.
Chester Zoo was not a place to visit if you don't like walking as there was plenty of walking to be done and not a lot of seeing!! There was nearly 3.2 km of walking and I think we missed many highlights. Navigation was anything but intuitive, and with more paths and sub-routes, that we went astray several times. Even with the map, the layout was confusing and strangely organised. We wasted plenty of time and energy backtracking. I think, since it was winter and not the peak season, there were lots of maintenance work going on and diversions in place.
The Zoo had reduced prices (not much) during winter to reflect the shorter opening hours. We didn’t try any of the refreshment outlets and some were closed, especially those at the end as there were fewer visitors to serve. There were extra costs too, £3.50 per adult and £2.50 per child for monorail rides, a minimum cost of £10 for a photo (there were staff dotted around the park taking them) and you collect them as you leave at the main entrance. The cost wasn’t mentioned when they took the photograph. I’d my photo taken at one of the exhibits and was told to collect when we leave. I’d forgotten about it and if I’d to pay, I would be doubly p----d off.
But well done to Chester Zoo for hosting a large number of births. Careful planning, top class facilities, skilled zookeepers and animal staff, first class animal husbandry and scientific insight had contributed to these baby boom of endangered species. Kudos for working closely with other zoos to breed these valuable species. With so few of these animals remaining in the wild, a successful conservation breeding programme in zoos were hugely important to stop them from becoming extinct.