October 13, 2008

The Really Wild Show

By Jerome Taylor

A Pounds 70m plan to create one of the world's most radical zoos on the outskirts of Bristol is set to do for wildlife what the Eden Project did for plantlife. Jerome Taylor reports

Walking through the thick jungle canopy of the Aceh rainforests, a troop of jealously territorial gibbons calls out from the tree tops with shouts that can be heard more than a kilometre away. Down past a row of traditional stilted long houses and beyond a seismic chasm, a family of critically endangered Sumatran tigers lazes around in one of the few open clearings of the forest floor.

But this is not, in fact, the sultry and humid Sumatran lowlands. This is just one of many scenes that will in just a few years greet visitors turning off Junction 17 of the M5 if a scheme to build one of the most radical zoos in the world gets the final go ahead.

Bristol Zoo, the oldest provincial zoo in the world, submitted plans last week for a 70m National Wildlife Conservation Park. The plans had languished on drawing boards and dusty shelves for more than 40 years. It will be built outside Bristol as a separate attraction to the town's older, celebrated zoo in Clifton.

Billed as "the first conservation-led animal visitor attraction of its kind in the UK", the 136-acre park north of Bristol aims to be a global leader in the next generation of zoological attractions, where environmentalism takes precedence over entertainment.

The timing could hardly be more prescient. Last week the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the world's largest environmental body, predicted that up to a fifth of all mammals are now facing extinction. At least 76 species are known to have died out since the 1500s with a further 1,141 of the 5,487 mammal species currently endangered.

Under the plans submitted to South Gloucestershire Council, Bristol's "eco zoo" could connect the inherent interest value of captive animals with the conservation methods needed to save their wild cousins.

The whole idea of captivity will be reduced to a minimum - this zoo aims to be to animals what the Eden Project is for plants. The often controversially cramped spaces of the Victorian era's most famous zoos are gone - replaced with open land, moats and ditches. Food for the animals will be organic, while 80 per cent of the building material will be locally sourced and sustainable.

But most importantly, the four themed areas of the park - which if given the go-ahead will be open by 2012 - have all been chosen to reflect specific areas of the world where conservation is desperately needed to save critically endangered species.

The Sumatran lowland rainforest, for instance, is home to some of the rarest large mammals. For centuries people and animals have co- existed, both depending on the rainforest for survival. Logging and the encroachment of farmland means less than a third of the lowland forest survives.

Bristol Zoo already has conservation programmes in that part of the world and the idea is that visitors to their Sumatran exhibition will not only be able to see the animals in danger, but will also be able to see via live video link-ups the conservation work needed to save the real Sumatra.

Another exhibit will feature a variety of animals from the tropical rainforests of the Congo, where tropical forest loss and illegal hunting are putting enormous pressures on the eco-system. The exhibit will include a replica of the Congo river, where bonobos (a species of chimpanzee), and striped okapis will mingle with river birds such as wattled cranes and black-billed touracos.

One of the most architecturally daring buildings will house an Indian Ocean coral reef where sightseers will follow a stream through a forest inhabited by chameleons and Livingstone's fruit bats before heading under the "sea" to mingle with blacktip reef sharks and blue stingrays.

Till Scherer, one of the architects working on the project with Bristol-based practice White Design, said every part of the park will be built to create the lowest impact possible on the environment: "This world-class project will combine animal conservation and sustainability throughout, allowing visitors to think differently about the world they live in. Every aspect of the park's design incorporates sustainability, from the buildings and the engineering infrastructure to the landscape."

Exhibits will include a Tanzanian savannah, Georgian wetlands, and a Costa Rican swamp.

The land itself has been owned by Bristol Zoo since the late 1960s but this is the first time that the full plans have been released for public viewing. Part of the estimated 70m needed to create the first stage of the park has been pledged by the South West of England Regional Development Agency, and John Cleese, the comedian, is leading a campaign to raise the rest from private investors.

But not everyone is happy with the idea of the park. Last year Bristol Zoo was forced to fight off a legal challenge to its proposal afterAlmondsburyParish Council argued that a consent issued 40 years earlier should be revoked because the zoo had failed to proceed with its plans to keep animals on the site. The council, no doubt mindful of the estimated 400,000 visitors per year that the zoo is expected to draw in, quickly sided with the zoo.

Then there are the animal rights activists. Will Travers, CEO of the campaign group Born Free, which opposes zoos, yesterday poured scorn on the idea that this "eco-park" was in any way ecological. "Does the UK really need yet another zoo?" he said. "Because that is all that Bristol Zoo's grandly-titled National Wildlife Conservation Park would be - 136 hectares or so is pitifully little to be called a 'national' wildlife park - it is less than 0.03 per cent of the size of the Snowdonia National Park."

Mr Travers believes the money would be better spent protecting the wild. He said: "The minimum expenditure on the first phase of the Park will be 70m: this would represent a huge commitment to conservation if only it were used for conservation in the wild, rather than on the construction of a tourist attraction. The Kenya Wildlife Service's budget is about 20 per cent of the figure proposed by Bristol, yet they have to protect 8 to 10 million acres. How long can zoos keep dressing up everything as 'conservation'?"

But the director of Bristol Zoo Gardens, Jo Gipps, argues: "The Park will be a spectacular day out for visitors. They will be transported to an amazing world of wildlife. Visitors will feel immersed in ecosystems, engaged in conservation programmes and inspired to make a contribution to sustainable living."

(c) 2008 Independent, The; London (UK). Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.