JERSEY ZOO

A VISITORS GUIDE

"Of the 500 or so zoological collections in the world," wrote Durrell in "The Stationary Ark", "a few are excellent, some are inferior, and the rest are appalling." Here on this unlikely holiday island, Durrell and his team have tried to redefine the concepts of the modern zoo, and have thrown down the gauntlet to those inferior and appalling zoos. The Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust now has sister organisations in the United States and Canada, and has probably done more than any other zoo in the world to draw attention to the urgent plight of the disappearing animals of our planet. The world is a big place, and the problems that its wildlife faces are too extensive for any one organisation, or any one zoo. But through its example, Jersey Zoo has started a movement that may one day draw upon the support of hundreds of zoos. The history books of the 21st century or beyond will tell if they have succeeded; and if they have, they will surely keep a place for Jersey Zoo.

Good Zoo Guide Online

Jersey Zoo

The Updated Review

by Russell Tofts

It is remarkable the amazing strides that have been made in the last few years by British zoos, especially in view of the fact that successive governments have always regarded them primarily as places of entertainment and so, unlike major museums or botanical gardens, they are denied subsidies from central government, which is nothing short of scandalous. Despite this obvious handicap, Great Britain has some of the finest zoological gardens in the world. I would even go so far as to rate at least four or five of them, including Jersey Zoo, as being among the best in the world (I won't embarrass any zoo director by naming the others).

Jersey Zoo has been described in at least one book as being the 'Rolls-Royce of zoos'. When founder Gerald Durrell died in January 1995, the honorary directorship of the Jersey Zoo passed into the capable hands of his widow, Dr Lee Durrell. At the zoo's fortieth anniversary, on 26 March 1999, the name of the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust (the charitable organisation Gerald Durrell formed in 1963 to take over the zoo) was changed to the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in honour of the man who did so much to change our perception of zoos and who gave the world zoo community a new sense of purpose.

The first thing to greet visitors in the new entrance court is a slightly larger-than-life statue of Gerald Durrell in an informal pose. It replaces the pottery model of a dodo that stood here for many years. On the rock by the figure's feet is a carving of a Round Island Gecko, a rather drab and insignificant little lizard from a tiny island off the coast of Mauritius that the Trust has done so much to champion. Round Island may be a pinprick on the map, but it represents a major conservation achievement. As a result of Jersey's involvement, this ravaged island, once resembling a moonscape, is recovering slowly and its unique plant, reptile and sea bird inhabitants have been pulled back from the brink of extinction.

The day the Trust changed its name also saw the opening of the largest, most ambitious and expensive project to date. Costing £1.5 million, of which £1.2 million was donated by the Jersey Tourist Investment Fund in recognition of the Zoo's contribution to the promotion of tourism on the island), 'First Impressions' is a huge landscaped environment surrounded by a water-filled moat. This, the Zoo's first multi-species enclosure for carnivores, is home to the Andean (formerly called Spectacled) Bears, Ring-tailed Coatis and Oriental Short-clawed Otters. The coatis (which have bred on several occasions) and otters are new arrivals. They are 'model' species, added to the collection to allow staff to refine techniques which can then be applied to closely related, but much rarer, species. Rare Mountain Coatis are being considered as future replacements for the Ring-tailed Coatis, whilst the Short-clawed Otters may, at some future date, make way for the more deserving Chilean Marine, Giant, or African Clawless Otters.

A year before he died, Durrell instigated a strategic review of all the Zoo's operations to see where improvements could be made and to ensure that it was ready to meet fresh challenges as it prepared to enter the 21st century. As a direct consequence, the last few years have seen a number of exciting new developments that auger well for the future. Several new species have arrived including Meerkats (another 'model' species, this time for other, rarer social carnivores), Madagascan Narrow-striped Mongoose, Lar Gibbons (a 'model' species for endangered Pileated Gibbons or the critically endangered Silvery Gibbon), Maned Wolves, Echo Parakeets, Vietnamese Pheasant (the most recently discovered – in the year of my birth, 1964 – and least-known of all pheasant species, having been seen in Britain only since 1999 when the first specimens arrived at the Cotswold Wildlife Park in Oxfordshire), Oriental Pied Hornbills, White-rumped Shamas, two subspecies of stilts, and Yellow-throated and Red-tailed Laughing Thrushes.

The old nocturnal house has been converted into a Conservation Research Centre, not open to the public, and in the reptile house (or, to give it its full title, the Gaherty Reptile and Amphibian Breeding Complex) changes have been profound, including the removal of the old nursery cages, more imaginative graphics, and the arrival of a number of new species.

Caiman now peer up at visitors from quiet, limpid pools; there are several species of poison-arrow frog, each no bigger than a thumb-nail; Blue-tongued Skinks from New Guinea and, for the first time in over twenty years, venomous snakes are on exhibition. Other rare reptiles here include Coahuila Box Turtles; Hispaniolan Sliders (an extremely rare terrapin); Radiated, Egyptian and Flat-tailed Tortoises; Lesser Antillean and Rhinoceros Iguanas (In 1982 Jersey Zoo was the first in the world to reproduce Rhinoceros Iguanas in an indoor environment); Jamaican and Keel-scaled Boas (Jersey achieved the first captive breeding anywhere in the world of this latter species, also in 1982). Every year sees scores of students from around the world coming here to study. The hope is that techniques they are taught here they will put into operation at ad hoc breeding centres set up in the animals' own countries of origin. Many of the students, informally known as Durrell's Army, come from areas of the world where snakes in general, and venomous ones in particular, are persecuted. With the Gaboon, Eyelash and Milos Vipers safely ensconced in the reptile house, Jersey has a unique opportunity to teach people from developing countries that snakes, even venomous ones, are really very beautiful, beneficial creatures and an invaluable part of the natural ecosystem.

When the volcano on the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat blew its top, covering much of the island in a layer of choking ash, Jersey was quick to step in to remove some of its precious fauna for safe-keeping. The Montserrat Oriole (an extraordinarily beautiful bird) and the enormous Mountain Chicken (actually a type of frog, so called on account of it being widely eaten on the island as a substitute for poultry) are now established at Jersey Zoo as a safeguard against possible extinction in the wild, and both species are breeding very well. When Gerald Durrell visited Montserrat in 1979, he encountered some of these huge frogs and resolved then that one day this marvellous species would be seen in his zoo. It is a shame he did not live to see his ambition fulfilled.

Jambo, the zoo's magnificent patriarchal silverback gorilla, died suddenly in [1992], quite literally from a broken heart (his aorta – the main artery from the heart – had ruptured), and his place has now been taken by Ya Kwanza from Melbourne Zoo.

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Ya Kwanza (picture by DWPT)

A life-size bronze statue of Jambo (pronounced 'Yambo', the name is Swahili for 'Hello' or 'How do you do?'), created by sculptor Ralph Brown, was erected in the Zoo grounds as a permanent memorial to the zoo's most popular animal character. It was originally placed a lot closer to the gorilla enclosure, but had to be moved to a new location a short distance away when younger members of the clan started displaying to it.

The old 'gorilla walk' adventure playground for younger visitors, built in the early 80s, has been replaced by a new amenity close to the orang-utan complex that mimics the climbing facilities provided for the orang-utans.

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The Home-Habitat for Sumatran Orang-utans and gibbons consists of two large grassy islands surrounded by a wide moat in which swim Red-eared Terrapins. The orangs would probably benefit from the addition of a few more climbing frames, but it is still a remarkable advance on anything they had previously. The gibbons are much more agile and athletic and have plenty of space for showing off their brachiating skills.

The old orang-utan complex has been substantially rebuilt for Livingstone's Fruit Bats.

This enormous enclosure, aptly nicknamed the Fruit Bat Empyrean, meaning the 'Highest Heavens', must surely be the largest bat enclosure in the world, rising to 12m at its highest point, entirely appropriate for this, the largest, rarest and most spectacular of the fruit bats. Since it is built on a slope, the enclosure can appear even taller.

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All the new exhibits are spacious and well-designed. Some, such as the gorilla and Sulawesi Macaque enclosures, Aye-aye house, 'First Impressions', and the 'Home-Habitat' for orang-utans and gibbons, rate among the finest in the world for their respective species. The tamarin accommodation has recently been rebuilt. Now these diminutive Neotropical primates have up to four times as much space. There are three separate tamarin complexes. In each case spacious aviary-type enclosures have been built around a central building, and the tamarins have access to enclosures on both sides, so that these sun-worshipping animals can follow the path of the sun. In the mornings they are more likely to be found on the eastern side of each complex and in the afternoon they migrate to the western cages. Species here are nearly all Red Data Book listed, including three species of Lion Tamarin, Pied, Cotton-topped and Emperor Tamarins, as well as the closely related Geoffroy's and Silvery Marmosets and Goeldi's Monkeys, the latter thought to be a link between the tamarins and the higher New World monkeys. Several species of callitrichids are allowed the freedom of a copse, which enables them to perfect locomotive skills essential should they ever be chosen for reintroduction into the wild.

The Rodrigues Fruit Bat house has been completely refurbished to represent a Mascarene woodland; endangered Aye-aye lemurs share their accommodation with Giant Jumping Rats, and the old terrapin pen has been rebuilt for Sand Lizards. The woodland walk, always a quiet, reflective part of the zoo, has been transformed into a miniature Madagascar, with a vast open-plan enclosure for Alaotran Gentle Lemurs and, nearby, an enormous aviary for critically endangered Madagascar Teal and other Madagascan and African wetland birds. The aviary is secluded on all sides and public viewing is restricted to strategically placed hides, ensuring the birds remain as undisturbed as possible. The old Walled Garden is also developing a distinct Madagascan flavour. It does seem paradoxical, however, that in view of the emphasis on Madagascan animals, the zoo has only five taxa of lemurs represented in the collection (the Aye-ayes, Ring-tailed, Gentle, Red Ruffed and Black & White Ruffed species), since no animal is more instantly identifiable with Madagascar than the lemur.

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Visitors, particularly first-time visitors, should not miss the Princess Royal Pavilion with its touch tables and activities for children, such as brass-rubbing. The Pavilion is the venue for an illuminative film – 'Safe Hands in a Wild World' – shown at regular intervals throughout the day, that explains the holistic approach adopted by the Trust The Trust recognises that where these animals really need to be bred is in special centres set up in the animals' homeland. Unfortunately these are often some of the poorest countries in the world, with few resources for undertaking this work. This is where the Trust and the Zoo steps in. What the Zoo does is to send its staff out to the animals' countries of origin to study the species in the wild, to liase with local people 'on the spot' to see how best to protect each species, and to organise education programs that inspire the indigenous people to want to protect their own unique animal heritage. Thus, Ploughshare Tortoises and other Malagasy chelonians are now being bred in a sanctuary in Madagascar, Pygmy Hogs are breeding in a centre in Assam, and a whole host of endangered Mascarene fauna is being bred at the Gerald Durrell Endemic Wildlife Sanctuary in Mauritius.

The central valley of the Zoo, which had become degraded in recent years because of overgrazing by geese, has been restored as a natural haven for indigenous local wildlife (Red Squirrels, Bank Voles, dragonflies and damselflies are among the wild animals that have established themselves in the valley), as well as exotic Blue Cranes and a flock of thirty Greater Flamingos. This ambitious project, including an innovative water-recycling facility and an expansive reed bed which cleanses the water naturally without resorting to artificial means, took three years to complete at a cost of £1 million.

In 1992 Jersey achieved a considerable coup when it recorded the first birth of an Aye-aye conceived and born in captivity (one was previously born at Duke University in America to a female that was already pregnant on arrival). Since then, births have occurred at the rate of about one a year, a not inconsiderable achievement. The Giant Jumping Rats, which arrived from Madagascar at the same time as the Aye-ayes, have been so successful that breeding is now strictly controlled by contraceptive implants to prevent the population getting out of control.

With so many species on the brink of extinction and therefore in need of captive breeding, Jersey Zoo has to be careful not to spread its limited resources too thinly but to concentrate its efforts in areas of the world where it can do the most good with the money and manpower at its disposal. Cuba, for example, is one of the most impoverished areas of the globe with a community of endangered species such as the extremely rare Solenodon (a primitive insectivore so rare that only 21 individuals have been found since the 1800s). We can expect several Cuban species to arrive at the Trust's headquarters in the next few years as the Trust becomes increasingly involved in saving the unique fauna of this Caribbean island.

The limitation of space is a perennial problem. Jersey Zoo seems a lot larger than it really is. The careful landscaping helps, as do the winding paths and the fact that, unlike most other zoos, the enclosures do not border the perimeter. On an island such as Jersey, it is unlikely the zoo will be granted extra land. Jersey is a small island with relatively few exports (potatoes, tomatoes and cows are the things that come most readily to mind), and the States of Jersey, as the local government is called, is anxious to retain as much land as possible within the farming community. Even when, in 1979, the Trust bought the neighbouring property of Les Noyers – comprising a fine old Jersey farmhouse, spacious granite outbuildings, and some five acres of land – for use as student accommodation, educational complex (its 'mini-university' to teach people, particularly from so-called 'developing' countries, the principles and techniques of captive breeding), and ordnance supply store, planning permission was granted for the conversion of the buildings but strict limitations were imposed on how the land was to be used.

Being based on a small island in the English Channel does have its advantages, not least of which the islanders and local authorities are proud and supportive of their zoo, which is frequently voted the most popular tourist attraction on the island, and the majority of holiday-makers will include it in their itinerary, but it does mean the majority of us cannot visit as often as we should like.

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This review of Jersey Zoo for the visitor by the Author Russell Tofts is reproduced in full below by courtesy  of  the Author and The Good Zoo Guide Online.

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