Bristol Zoo's wildlife park plans
Looking at a lion in a zoo is a wonderful thing, but being able to see a lion in its own environment is something very special, and that is what we want to achieve.
This is the simple vision set out by Dr Jo Gipps, the director of Bristol Zoo Gardens, who is leading the team behind a £70-million plan to create a wildlife and conservation park just off the M5.
Dr Gipps says the park, expected to open in 2012, will revolutionise the concept of wildlife parks by recreating as nearly as possible the environment and eco-systems for a wide range of animals, from mountain tops to the bottom of the sea.
Animals such as tigers, black rhino, sharks and apes will live in their “natural” habitats behind so-called 'invisible fences', which would be housed under cover in an animal version of the Eden Project.
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But with the emphasis on conservation, this is not just another theme park.
The park has been designed to link specific ecosystems and conservation programmes across the world with underwater exhibits.
The site will be divided into 14 areas. Visitors will be taken on a geographic journey to places similar to the Congo tropical forest, Sumatra rainforest, British ancient woodland and Indian Ocean coral reef.
All the exhibits have been selected following extensive research to identify areas of high conservation need around the world.
The park will be developed in several phases, with the first exhibits to open when the park launches in 2012, and additional displays added in phases.
The park will enable visitors to get close to animals in their natural habitats and understand more about the world and the impact humans have on it.
Rangers and ranger stations within every exhibit area will bring a personal element to the visitor experience as rangers will act as tour guides, lead activities and help visitors make the most of their day.
In the Sumatra rainforest exhibit (open in 2012) visitors will listen to a troop of gibbons calling to each other as they swing through the trees, get close to Sumatran tigers via a transparent tiger tunnel and visit the exhibit's ranger station, built in the style of a Sumatran stilted longhouse, to find out about the park's conservation project in Sumatra via video links.
Closer to home, the British ancient woodland exhibit (open in 2012) will link with UK conservation programmes led by Bristol Zoo Gardens.
In this area visitors will get to look back in time to see brown bears, lynx, wolves and other wildlife found in Britain hundreds of years ago, which have since been lost due to the pressures of human activity.
In addition, a centre for British wildlife will serve as a focus for local, regional and national native conservation organisations.
The master plan elements of the park includes exhibits such as Tanzania savannah – home to giraffe, rhino, zebra, cheetah, warthog and wild dogs – where visitors will be able to go on an off-road tour and find out about the key conservation area of Tarangire National Park in Northern Tanzania.
Research has been going on for some time to establish how to re-create the environment from different parts of the world.
The Indian Ocean coral reef exhibit will be temperature controlled so that coral can grow as it would naturally and fish and coral creatures can thrive.
Where it is not possible to recreate the exact atmosphere, the exhibit will be under cover.
Dr Gipps said: “The main difference is that we are creating worlds for animals to live in where they will be in the proper context.
“Of course we also understand the need to build something that will be profitable and will succeed in attracting tourists.
“But that profit will be going back into conservation.
“We want to nudge visitors into the idea of thinking more about conservation.
“We can recreate a project we have going on in Cameroon, for example, within the park and have the animals in it that you would expect to see, so we can show people what is actually happening around the world.”
A detailed planning application is soon to be submitted to South Gloucestershire Council for the park, which sits between Hollywood Lane and Blackhorse Hill, just over the motorway from Cribbs Causeway and The Mall.
The park, which is still to be officially named, will be built on the site of a former Victorian folly and mansion house, near the village of Easter Compton.
Dr Gipps said the 136-acre site will be the first conservation-led animal visitor attraction of its kind in the UK and will set a new benchmark for how zoos can support conservation in the wild.
He said: “The planning process is about to begin which can be a lengthy process.
“This is greenbelt land but our plans are obviously sympathetic with that, we are in the business of conservation.
“There are something like 3,000 trees on the site and we will want to get rid of about 12, so we will be keeping the impact as small as possible.
“This is a big project and we have spent three years getting to this point, where we are able to say what it is we want and what it will look like.
“There has been planning permission for the zoo on the land for 40 years, but I don't think we have ever been this close to being able to achieve what it is we want there.
“When the zoo was built things were done very differently.
“What we have at the zoo is a 12-acre site which is in an urban setting and is very safe and easy for people to come and see what we have.
“When we talk about invisible fences we mean that instead of putting animals in cages, we can use things like rivers to act as barriers so that it is safe for visitors and the animals feel more at home.
“We are going to be able to use the latest technology to help people explore the park.
“In four or five years when we hope to open the park, who knows where that technology will be, we could be talking about hologram guides walking beside you.
“But the focus is on the animals and conservation, and getting the message across that there are a lot of problems and disasters in the natural world, without making a disaster of the presentation.”
The process of raising the £70m to build the park will soon begin as wealthy individuals, charitable trusts and corporations will be approached for donations.
In 2006 the project suffered a setback when it was refused a £25m Lottery grant. It has now already received a grant of £1.5m from the South West of England Development Agency and backing from Sir David Attenborough.
He said: “I am all for it and it is good to see animals in the most natural environment possible.
“But there will be challenges to solve: you can't put them in completely natural circumstances because you can't put your predators among your herbivores and you can't re-create the poetic circumstances of the wild.”
Dr Gipps, said the park aims to make the children of today the conservationists of tomorrow. He added: “The park will make a spectacular day out for visitors of all ages and interests.
“Stepping through the gates of the park, visitors will be transported from the normality of the South Gloucestershire countryside to an amazing world of wildlife.
“Visitors will feel immersed in ecosystems from all over the world, engaged in active conservation programmes and inspired to make their own real contribution to sustainable living.”
The park will also offer a range of educational opportunities, from finding out about the threats facing ecosystems around the world in purpose-built classrooms, to facilities for university students.
It will be run in a sustainable way, with an emphasis on low carbon emission, recycling, on-site energy generation, locally-sourced materials and a green access and transport policy.
Among the animals visitors can hope to see, there will be snakes, mongoose lemurs, black tip reef sharks, blue stingray, tropical fish, tigers, gibbons and insects.