Arrving early , we soon joined an excited stampede of visitors heading for the new Islands attraction. Its located on the far side of the zoo, a fair walk with expectations high. Entering the £40 million Islands area you can see where the money has been spent, as well as housing the animals, the zoo has imported artefacts from South East Asia to give visitors a sense of culture and the real life environments. Phase one opened in mid July and the opening of Monsoon Forest tied in nicely with our visit. It all adds up to an impressive effect of being “somewhere else”.
“Just think of what a nightmare this will be later” someone said as we hurried towards the boat ride, rushing past the signs marking a 30 minute wait. At peak times, this is going to be busy. The queue soon built up, while waiting to board the boat we spoke to a chatty member of staff who was telling us all about vaccinations he’d had for a foreign trip with the zoo, as well as telling us the boats weigh one tonne each.
The boat ride has a commentary by another informative staff member. As we passed the Visayan warty pig enclosure we were told that they were all named after punks including Sid Vicious , as their manes in mating season resembled mohawks. The ride continued , with the sun beating down and the artifical mist rolling in, it was a magical break from the hassle of the real world.
The Banteng are cattle from Bali, endangered with numbers down 80% in the last 2 decades due to hunting. The boat passes the currently vacant Tiger enclosure, which will be a lot larger than their current home. The evocative Bali temple and the also vacant /extended enclosure for the Bornean Orang-utans is next. This area will be more open with less fencing. Professional rock climbers were employed to assess the area for safety and ensure the animals cant climb out.
Sulawese Macaques will also be moving in, although the animals are friendly and sociable, they need to be moved in slowly and gradullay get used to to new surroundings. These animals are also endangered and the zoo is working in partnership with the Tangoko reserve to educate villagers not to hunt the animals, which are regarded as a delicacy as well as a source of fur.
We headed to Monsoon Forest, “the UK’s largest ever indoor zoo exhibit”. Inside,there are some fascinating animals on display. The buffalo leech, the giant asian mantis and the jungle nymph being some of the more smaller scale displays. Zoo ranger Phil explained that the leaches feed on blood, but also give out an anesthatic so victims dont feel any pain while their life force is drained away. The instinctively repulsive Leeches were an early highlight for me. They are fed via a sausage skin pumped full of blood – would be a great feeding time to see.
The crocodile is the showpiece animal here- the Sunda Ghanial- a thrill to get so close to such a magnificent creature and look into its eyes, we paused here for a long time, clearly the best and most popular of the new additions , illustrating the savage beauty of the natural world around us. There are two, each weighing 500kg but only one was out to play during our visit. Surely a great feature of the zoo is its combination of education/awareness with the wonder of seeing such a rare species. The zoo is supporting a project in Malaysia which is gathering data which will be used to establish the size of the population and the level of threat to their habitat.
The forest is densely packed with exotic plant from across the region including star fruit, mango, orchids and palm trees. Also look out for the tentacled snake, I’m told its the only place in the UK where it can be seen- with the crowds building up, we missed this one sadly. There is plenty to explore and immerse yourself inside, also look out for the rainstorm- another feature we missed, maybe it will stir some memories of Rhyl sun centre??
On to the new restaurant the Manado street kitchen, again, excellently landscaped and built to replicate SE Asian architecture. Serving street bites and noodles it also got a thumbs up from us. Pleasingly was able to pass the SC business card onto member of staff on the till, who pledged to follow the twitter.
We up with the ever popular mainstays of the zoo including the atmospheric nocturnal house with its free flying bats, the fantastic butterfly house. The tropical house with its poisonous frogs and tortoises. As everyone knows, there loads to see at the zoo.
A personal highlight was the sunken garden with the nightmarish Noah statue- a deeply ingrained childhood memory of being scared and fascinated by this statue lives on to this day. I always used to think it was Poseidon rising out of the sea,but is in fact Noah, minus the ark, looking fairly annoyed.
The islands are a great addition to the zoo, and despite many early negative comments on social media, when they are fully complete, will easily be the highlight of the zoo for many visitors. The Sumatran island opens later this year and will be the new home for tigers and the popular orang-utans. The islands are expected to bring an additional 150,000 visitors into the borough. I have grown up with Chester Zoo, and waved my flag at Princess Diana when she opened the monkey house in 1989, so perhaps I’ve taken it for granted. But its something Cestrians should be proud of.
With thanks to John Brown of Chester zoo