Monday, 18 July 2011

175 years and 1 week today!

Utila Iguana
Last Monday the zoo celebrated its 175th birthday with an evening picnic and hog roast, with a variety of stalls for the visitors. Fortunately we had great weather, so a great time was had by all. Bristol is actually the fifth oldest modern zoo in the world, and the oldest outside a capital city. The older ones run like this:

Vienna zoo – 1752
Madrid – 1775
Paris - 1795
London Zoo – 1828, but only opened to the public in 1843

In fact, Bristol could claim to be the oldest “zoo” – the first recorded use of the word in print refers to Bristol Zoo (in 1847). Of course, collections of exotic animals are far older – the oldest known is a menagerie at Hieronkopolis in Egypt dating to 2500 BC. For most of human history, rulers have collected exotic wildlife, and swapped their own native wildlife as diplomatic gifts a custom that still survives with China’s panda diplomacy.In the UK the Tower of London had a menagerie from the 13th century. Mostly these did not live long, and the last animals in the Tower menagerie were transferred to London Zoo in 1835 (that the Duke of Wellington had an interest in the zoo may have had some relevance to this). With the growth of public transport, especially the railways, the newly affluent and mobile public wanted something to do on an afternoon, and from the 1860’s on zoos were opened to the public in many countries, with Philadelphia being the oldest in the US.

From the beginning, Bristol was heavily involved with both entertainment and education, and for only a 12 acre site it manages to punch well above its weight in innovation in animal husbandry and education. Notable firsts at the zoo include:

• World’s first nocturnal house in 1953

• First chimpanzee to be conceived and born in Europe in 1934

Aye-Aye 'Kintana' the first to be raised at Bristol
• First black rhino to be born in the UK in 1958

Bristol was also one of the first zoos in the world to breed Okapi, and currently is one of the few zoos to hold Aye-Aye, Livingstones’ Fruit Bat, Utila Spiny-Tail Iguana, and the only surviving colony of the Raiatea tree snail Partula faba (all 112 of them).

One of the main focuses of current conservation work at Bristol is in situ projects all over the world, often in conjunction with other conservation bodies or local groups.

Current projects include:


• Cameroon – Ape Action Africa, currently caring for 250 orphaned primates from the bushmeat trade
• Comoro Islands – protecting rainforest and biodiversity
• Madagascar – Lemur conservation on the Sahamalaza peninsula
• South Africa – African penguin conservation with SANCCOB


• Vietnam – working with the Asian Turtle Network to educate locals and preserve threatened Asian chelonians

• Philippines – Forest preservation on Cebu and conservation breeding programme for the Negros Bleeding Heart Dove

South America:

• Columbia – Silvery Brown Tamarin


• Tahiti and Moorea Partula snail programme

Partula faba. Bristol has the last of their species


• White clawed crayfish conservation
• Water Vole reintroduction
• Avon Gorge and Downs Wildlife Project

For more on these projects check out the downloads from the Bristol Conservation and Science Foundation website at

The other main activity at Bristol is the constantly busy Education Centre, built a few years ago and handling many thousands of school pupil visits a year. Catering for all years, the Centre also does spider phobia courses in conjunction with a local clinic

Future plans for the zoo at our main site are a 10 year programme of new exhibits, hopefully to be started on next year. These are aimed at increasing visitor use of some of the less popular corners of the zoo, and also will enable the zoo to exhibit and become involved in the conservation of more species. At present, four are planned, but the exact order has not yet been decided on – much depends on funding. They are currently

• Mountain habitat for Barbary Macaque, Giant Salamander, Rock wallabies and others

• New rainforest exhibit to include a permanent butterfly house (the current version is a polytunnel with about 5 years life left in it)
• Enlarged gorilla house
• River display, possibly with large crocodiles amongst others

The history of Bristol Zoo has always been entwined with all the other historical events that have so transformed the world since the start of the Industrial Revolution. In a world facing multiple political, economic, and above all ecological challenges it will undoubtedly continue to be a major player. Hopefully, for the bicentennial in 2036 none of the species we currently care for will have become extinct – I wish I could say for those we do not have room for.

Next week - the aquarium

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