Coral Sands at Chester Zoo

The Secret Life of the Zoo 10/08/2016

The Making of Islands at Chester Zoo

Dr Mark Pilgrim, Director General, Chester Zoo

  • Feature - Sunda gharial

The realisation of a dream, five years in the making, Islands is a zoo experience unlike any other.

A breath-taking journey takes visitors to the heart of six remarkable South East Asian islands with the sights, colours, smells and the culture of each brought to life as a fascinating story of discovery.

Islands was designed to transport visitors thousands of miles away, to not only encounter some of the world’s most amazing animals and plants, but to experience what it’s like to be a real life conservationist.

Coral Sands at Chester Zoo
Coral Sands in Islands

South East Asia is a biodiversity hotspot and the islands in the region are home to tens of thousands of different animal and plant species, with many of them being threatened with extinction. 

Chester Zoo is involved with, and supports, a number of conservation projects across the region and it therefore seemed like a natural progression for our next development, providing us the opportunity to showcase our vital field work.

Chester Zoo was already the most visited zoo in the UK but since the opening of Islands this summer our visitors numbers have increased by over 220,000 compared with our record breaking year last year. We see Islands as the first step in a much wider plan to transform Chester Zoo over the next few decades, enabling us to increase the amount of work we can do with our conservation partners around the world.

Warty pigs in Islands at Chester Zoo
Visayan warty pigs in Islands

Our vision was, that by throwing a spotlight on threatened species in a more immersive way our visitors develop a deeper connection with the animals. Not only will our visitors be able to appreciate why we have animals here and what we are doing as a wider zoological community to help these endangered species in the wild but that they might feel more empowered to become the conservationists of the future. 

Already we’ve seen more visitors moving away from the more ‘social’ visit and telling us that they feel both an emotional and intellectual motivation for visiting us.

Coral Sands at Chester Zoo

Conservation in the 21st Century is as much about people as it is about animals and plants and Islands is all about telling the story of how people live alongside wildlife. It’s so much easier to engage and educate the public if you have a fascinating story to tell. 

The story behind Islands has been a big part of the theming and why we’ve brought in a wide range of artefacts from across South East Asia – everything from tools to tuk-tuks, stalls and fishing boats. The fact that we can interweave the human stories alongside the animal stories is what makes Islands so special.

We’d seen examples in Europe of innovative zoo developments, where they used immersion techniques successfully. Their success was all about attention to detail and in Islands everything is themed to replicate the landscape from each individual island. We have tried to disguise the boundaries between the visitors and the animals, so it appears you’re walking through their habitat. It goes down to recreating the architecture from each of the islands – we have six islands, which meant six different types of architecture and culture to recreate, plus a 450m boat trip around the islands.

Boat trip in Islands at Chester Zoo
The Lazy River Boat Trip

Central to the Islands experience is Monsoon Forest - our 4,000m² Indonesian tropical house and the biggest indoor zoo exhibit in the UK - a highly complex building. We’ve created a rainforest home to Sumatran orangutans, Sulawesi crested macaques, Sunda gharial crocodiles and a range of bird species inside a free-flight aviary. Technically, we have a complex roof structure with transparent, insulated plastic pillows allowing maximum daylight into the exhibit.

Monsoon Forest at Chester Zoo
Monsoon Forest

With temperatures inside the building around 80°f with 70% humidity we’re growing South East Asian species of plants and adding the fragrance of the forest with fruiting trees such as breadfruit, starfruit, paw paw, coconut, mango and banana.

We are also showing off some of our national collection of tropical pitcher plants (Nepenthes). These are amongst the largest and most spectacular of all carnivorous plants but many are critically endangered so it’s vitally important we conserve them and the climate in Monsoon Forest is the perfect place to grown them and show them off.

In all we have moved 650 animals to Islands – not including the fish and invertebrates. The orangutans, tigers, and macaques have always proven popular with our visitors but Islands gave us an opportunity to showcase other unsung heroes from the collection like the Visayan warty pig, southern cassowary, lowland anoa and banteng.

Bali starlings at Chester Zoo
Bali starlings

We’re also focusing on song birds like the Bali starling – one of 11 species of birds in Islands, some of which are highly threatened in the wild. This gave us the perfect opportunity to talk to the public about our involvement in tackling the song bird crisis in Indonesia where millions of birds are kept in captivity, a tradition deeply embedded in South East Asia culture.

Our keepers were involved with the design process of Islands from day one - nearly five years ago, working closely with architects to ensure that all aspects of the development are suitable for both animals and keepers. The move means an improvement for all the animals at Islands - bigger enclosures and much better back of house facilities too.

Orangutans in Islands at Chester Zoo
Sumatran orangutan in Islands

We have taken the opportunity to use research to enhance conditions for the animals to recreate the natural environments that they would experience in the wild, and we hope this will encourage more natural behaviour. For example, we worked with the University of Birmingham to produce carbon fibre sway poles for the Sumatran orangutans.

In the wild they would move through the trees, leaning from tree to tree using the movement of the trees to help them through the canopy. This natural motion especially helps when carrying their young. The new sway poles should allow them to move in a more natural way around their new enclosures. The Sumatran orangutans proved to be one of the most challenging animals to design an enclosure for, as they are so intelligent!

Moving so many animals in to brand new enclosures was a challenging element of the project. The team worked for years with the animals here at the zoo to make them feel comfortable going in to their crates in preparation for the move.

Tentacled snake
Tentacled snake

We were really keen to ensure that our naturally inspired enclosures show cased the varied and interdependent biodiversity linked to our key islands. This meant we would have to start working closely with species that had not really been kept in zoos before. 

Using expertise that we’d developed with other, closely related species, we developed pioneering new husbandry techniques for a selection of lizards known as forest dragons, a family of frogs known as gliding frogs and a whole bunch of bugs, many of which we couldn’t even pronounce! We looked at a range of reptiles, amphibians, fishes, almost 40 species of invertebrates and one crocodilian!

From this selection we were able to select a group of species which would live happily alongside each other within Monsoon Forest in large mixed species exhibits, representing various types of habitat found on the islands of Sumatra and Sulawesi.

Sunda gharial crocodile at Chester Zoo
Sunda gharial crocodile in Monsoon Forest

The public are particularly captivated by the Sunda gharials that now live in a fantastic new pool within Monsoon Forest which they share with various fish and turtle species. Native to the jungles of South East Asia, our pair travelled from a specialist breeding centre in the South of France. As a vulnerable species with less than 2,500 left in the wild, we are delighted that their presence in Islands will draw attention the issues threatening this magnificent species.

It has been a huge challenge planting over 52,000 plants across 14 acres. Around the perimeter of Islands, we have put in a selection of species which are native to the UK to provide habitat for the existing wildlife. The majority of the rest of the vegetation is composed of evergreen and deciduous plants with lush and exotic qualities to create a tropical rainforest effect.

Aerial shot of Islands
An aerial view of Islands

The main challenge of Islands has been the sheer scale of this project. With lots of complex elements and numerous construction interfaces, we’ve fought to ensure that our high standards and animal welfare were never compromised. We are incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved and we are looking forward to seeing Islands grow and evolve in the years ahead.

- Mark Pilgrim, Director General

Explore Islands at Chester Zoo