The largest zoological building in the UK is set to reopen to visitors, nearly two years after it was struck by a tragic fire.
Zookeepers rescued and led many of the animals to safety while firefighters tackled a huge blaze that engulfed part of Chester Zoo’s Monsoon Forest habitat in December 2018.
At the time, conservationists worked round the clock to relocate animals, including Sumatran orangutans, Sulawesi macaques, lizards, tortoises and hornbills, to new areas within the zoo’s 128 acres.
Now, almost two years on from the fire and with the animals settled back in, the 3,000m2 building is set to reopen to visitors after being lovingly restored to its former glory.
Featuring its very own weather system enabling it to ‘rain indoors’ and reach temperatures as high as 27°C, Monsoon Forest closely replicates the climate of South East Asia.
The “incredible building” is home to nearly 70 different animal species, many highly threatened in the wild, including silvery gibbons, rhinoceros hornbills, Sunda gharial crocodiles and tentacled snakes – a reptile that cannot be seen anywhere else in the UK.
A team of botany experts spent eight weeks installing 2,600 tropical plants and trees including carnivorous nepenthes plants that catch and eat insects, fruit trees such as coconut, cocoa, mango and fig that provide a natural food source for dozens of birds, as well as giant palm trees reaching heights of 20ft.
Conservationists at the zoo hope the reopening of Monsoon Forest will put a renewed spotlight on some of the world’s most endangered species and inspire visitors to help protect their future.
Dr Mark Pilgrim, CEO at Chester Zoo, said: “Monsoon Forest is an incredible building – there’s nothing else quite like it in the UK. It’s a little piece of South East Asian rainforest in Cheshire. To see it once again brimming with life – tropical trees full of birds, gibbons singing their calls and crashing waterfalls – just two years after the awful fire, really does give me goosebumps.
“This place is a real showcase for the vital conservation work that Chester Zoo carries out to help prevent the extinction of so many wonderful species throughout South East Asia. It’s immersive, it exhilarates the senses and it connects people with the amazing animals it’s home to like no other zoological building. For all of those reasons it simply had to bounce back from the tragic events of 2018, and I’m so proud of the team that has restored it to its former glory.”
A conservation fundraising page, which was set up in response to a deluge of offers of support, raised more than £220,000 within just one week of the fire.
The funds are being spent on the zoo’s charitable mission of preventing extinction, specifically to help further protect species in South East Asia.
Dr Pilgrim added: “The fire was such a heart-breaking event and something we’ll never forget. However, the legacy of what happened in terms of the incredible outpouring of love and support directed at the zoo as the tragedy unfolded, will have a lasting impact.
“Already, the funds raised via the incredible spontaneous donations that came in have done a fantastic amount of good – to the benefit of vital conservation work both here at the zoo, and in South East Asia.
“One of these projects was the support of the Borneo Nature Foundation and their amazing efforts to extinguish the huge forest fires that engulfed parts of Borneo last year. The money raised helped protect vital rainforest habitat that thousands of species call home.”
Monsoon Forest is the centrepiece to the zoo’s Islands zone, which throws a spotlight on a number of highly threatened species from across South East Asia. Within Islands, visitors can set off on their own expedition, walking over bridges, travelling in boats and see buildings that are architecturally identical to those found on the islands of Panay, Papua, Bali, Sumba and Sulawesi.