Things you never knew about… building a zoo

28 March 2024

We are leading the delivery of the 55-hectare Bristol Zoo Project, helping to create a central African home for some of the world’s most endangered species. We asked Project Manager Alex Murray what he’s learned so far.

Zoos are getting bigger, wilder – and more vital

These days, we can marvel at exotic animals without going anywhere near a zoo – but that doesn’t mean we don’t need them. In fact, zoos are more important than ever as habitat loss threatens so many species worldwide.

“Bristol Zoological Society has always been a conservation and education charity first and foremost, and this project really reflects that,” says Alex. “It’s creating a new conservation zoo, which will be home to the world’s most threatened species.” Around 80% of the species at Bristol Zoo Project will be linked to the Society’s conservation work in the UK and around the world. Developing its 55-hectare site in South Gloucestershire will enable it to provide spaces that more closely reflect their natural habitats and immerse visitors and animals alike in the landscape.

The first phase, soon to be underway, is the Central African Forest habitat, which will recreate the dense forest of Equatorial Guinea in a wooded area of the site. The zoo’s troop of Critically Endangered western lowland gorillas will take up residence upon completion, joined by a new group of Endangered cherry-crowned mangabeys, as well as Critically Endangered slender-snouted crocodiles, Endangered African grey parrots and several threatened species of West African freshwater fish.

We are overseeing delivery of this and subsequent phases, which will include visitor facilities, a veterinary centre, a conservation and learning campus, and Central African Savannah, a second immersive landscape based on northern Cameroon, where black rhinos and ostriches will join giraffes, zebras and cheetahs.

Zoos protect native species too

The Bristol Zoo Project site is interesting in its own right, says Alex. “It’s on the ground of an old estate, which encompasses an ancient woodland, so there were some ecological considerations that we had to deal with. “Bristol Zoological Society not only wants to protect the animals within the zoo, but those native to the UK as well. So, they’ve encouraged native species in the landscaping as much as possible, supplemented by non-native species, to create that central African feel.”

Making everyone feel at home has been crucial. Some native plants that could be toxic to the animals will have to be removed and protected native species such as badgers have been relocated. “It wouldn’t have been practical for them to stay there while we’re doing the works, so we’ve built them a new sett next to the site.”

You have to think like a monkey

Working alongside a live visitor attraction is always a challenge for a construction project. But at a zoo, there is even more to consider.

Talking to the keepers about how they manage the animals has been one of the most interesting aspects for Alex. “A lot of it is stuff you wouldn’t usually have to think about. For example, the process of gaining access to a space requires a lot more consideration, to make sure that the gorillas aren’t in the same place as people at any point.”

A 200kg gorilla may pose the greatest physical danger, but the mangabey monkeys who will share their enclosure are by far the most difficult to contain. “We’ve definitely had to think hardest about the mangabeys. They’re much more versatile in how they move, and they could escape through the tree canopy. We’ve had to design in offsets not only between trees and buildings, but also other trees around the habitat.”

Building regs are only for humans

A key technical difference when designing buildings purely for animals is that Building Regulations don’t apply. Instead, UK zoos are designed to best-practice guidelines published by EAZA, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria. “There can be quite stringent requirements in terms of temperature and humidity, depending on the animal,” says Alex. “One of the things I didn’t know is that you have to design in areas of privacy, so the animals have somewhere they can be off show if they don’t want to be seen.”

Facilities also have to be able to withstand occupiers with super-human strength: “There’s a different level of robustness that you’ve got to consider with a gorilla. There were conversations as to whether a gorilla can undo an M20 bolt with its hands – apparently it can.”

Central African Forest is planned to open to the public in summer 2025, but this is just the first milestone in Bristol Zoological Society’s mission to create a new kind of conservation zoo. When its multiphase transformation is complete, Bristol Zoo Project will welcome over 800,000 visitors every year, and 90,000 schoolchildren and students, as well as educating 600 conservationists – a new generation to continue its vital work of saving endangered species.

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