The fu­ture of zoos?

We pay a visit to the Wild Place Project on the out­skirts of Bris­tol

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - By Jo Price

When Wild Place Project first started re­leas­ing in­for­ma­tion about Bear Wood, some peo­ple got the wrong end of the stick and thought they were rewil­d­ing. “We’d get phone calls say­ing, ‘What do mean you’re go­ing to be putting bears up here? What about my dog?’” says an­i­mal man­ager Will Walker.

Bear Wood has been de­scribed as the largest and most am­bi­tious brown bear ex­hibit in the UK. It in­cludes bears and wolves in­hab­it­ing sec­tions of a 30,000m² an­cient wood­land within the grounds of Wild Place Project, run by Bris­tol Zoo­log­i­cal So­ci­ety.

The plan for an attraction in Black­horse Wood at Bris­tol Zoo’s sister site was put to­gether 15 years ago, but the zoo re­ally started work­ing on the finer de­tails 24 months ago. As a Euro­pean As­so­ci­a­tion of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) mem­ber, it con­tacted the rel­e­vant stud­book keep­ers for the species it wanted to in­tro­duce to the wood­land to get their in­put.

“For­tu­nately, the co-or­di­na­tor of bears, José Kok, has kept

wolves and bears to­gether for 25 years at Ouwe­hands Dieren­park, the Nether­lands,” says Will. “She knows through hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence what works and what doesn’t, so I was able to get a lot of in­for­ma­tion.” Will joined a spe­cial­ist bear group at EAZA that works with the co-or­di­na­tors of all eight species of bears, to dis­cuss best prac­tice: “When José was happy with what we were go­ing to be do­ing, we made some changes and came up with a strat­egy for build­ing this ex­hibit. “We knew we wanted to cre­ate a wood­land ex­pe­ri­ence. A lot of places don’t nec­es­sar­ily do that, but we’re lucky that we’ve got an an­cient wood­land in the mid­dle of the zoo that we can fence in. By giv­ing the an­i­mals a wood­land to live in, it’s more en­rich­ing.” While on the 700m elevated walk­way that runs through­out the ex­hibit, Will points out a 10m-high oak tree: “I’ve seen our younger bears at the top – they’re able to climb like they would in the wild. Be­cause ev­ery­thing in the ex­hibit is re­ally nat­u­ral, it gives the an­i­mals so much to do, like hol­low­ing out in an old ditch.”

I watch a male Euro­pean brown bear emerge from dense fo­liage and start walk­ing along a fallen tree. He’s 2.5 years old and weighs about 180kg, but will even­tu­ally reach 350kg. Be­fore long, he is joined by an­other male that browses while on his hind legs.

Happy house­mates

These in­di­vid­u­als share this wood­land space with two other bears, a male and a female that are 1.5 years old. In the fu­ture, five Eurasian grey wolves, which have been at Wild Place Project since it opened in 2013, will join the bears in the same en­clo­sure. Other new res­i­dents of Bear Wood also in­clude two Eurasian lynx that are three to four years old and two wolver­ines that are one to two years old. How­ever, the lynx and wolver­ines will re­main in sep­a­rate en­clo­sures.

“Not ev­ery­thing is mixed to­gether,” says Will. “You don’t mix wolver­ine and lynx with wolves, be­cause gen­er­ally they’re

“Bears and wolves get on fine – they don’t com­pete for the same food and re­spect each other.”

quite small an­i­mals and wolves may see them as some­thing to pre­date. Wolves and bears though, they mix re­ally quite well to­gether – it’s been done in lots of zoos in Eu­rope and in Amer­ica, too.” While black bears and wolves have been housed to­gether in the UK, it’s never been done with brown bears, which are much big­ger. “But we know they get on fine be­cause they don’t com­pete for the same food and [they] re­spect each other,” says Will. “Bears are way too big for a wolf to even think about.” Ac­cord­ing to EAZA guide­lines, the min­i­mum space re­quired is 300m² per bear, though the or­gan­i­sa­tion en­cour­ages zoos to have a size­able en­clo­sure. In Bear Wood, the bears and wolves in­habit a 12,000m² area, the wolver­ines, 3,000m², and the lynx, 2,000m². “This is the largest brown bear ex­hibit in the UK by a coun­try mile – well over dou­ble the size of any

oth­ers. We’ve made sure that we’ve gone way past the guide­lines,” says Will.

In the wild, bear home ranges and wolf ter­ri­to­ries tend to vary from be­tween 100km² to over 1,000km² in Eu­rope, with the big­ger ranges in the north, ac­cord­ing to John Lin­nell, senior sci­en­tist at the Norwegian In­sti­tute for Na­ture Re­search. “Male bears range much more than female bears and wolves tend to have shared ter­ri­to­ries,” he says.

Ac­cord­ing to David Garshe­lis, chair of the IUCN SSC Bear Spe­cial­ist Group. “Bear and wolf home ranges over­lap to a large de­gree and are of­ten recorded on the same trail cam­eras. Wolf pres­ence could ben­e­fit bears through klep­topar­a­sitism (bears are un­able to kill large un­gu­lates but may usurp wolf kills) and there may be oc­ca­sional (rare) cases of pre­da­tion of one species on the other.” De­spite the fact bears and wolves will live to­gether at Bear Wood, they won’t have to share their food: “When we’re

feed­ing the wolves, we can en­close them in a sep­a­rate area from the bears, so if we want to give them a big car­cass feed and we think the bears may try and steal it, we can do that in an area the bears can’t get in to,” says Will.

“We pro­vide them with dif­fer­ent food – if we’re feed­ing berries, fruit and veg­eta­bles to the bears, the wolves aren’t go­ing to bother with it.

“We are con­fi­dent that our brown bears and wolves will mix well, how­ever, it is im­por­tant not to rush the in­tro­duc­tion.”

En­hanced ex­hibit

“This style is def­i­nitely the fu­ture of zoos. I think it has to be,” he ex­claims. “It’s not all about the size of the ex­hibit, it’s also about the com­plex­ity of the ex­hibit – to en­sure the an­i­mals are get­ting ev­ery­thing that they need, from en­rich­ment to stimulatio­n. “See­ing our bears in here is the right way to see them in cap­tiv­ity. This is how large, in­tel­li­gent an­i­mals should be kept – in the best pos­si­ble ex­hibit that we can pro­vide. We re­ally feel like we’ve done that here.” There are plans to breed wolver­ine at Wild Place Project, to get new ge­net­ics and blood­lines into the Euro­pean pop­u­la­tion. The zoo also has a breed­ing rec­om­men­da­tion for lynx. But bears and wolves will not be bred here be­cause their num­bers in the wild are in­creas­ing and there are al­ready a lot of them in cap­tiv­ity with man­aged breed­ing pro­grammes in place.

“Many bears that are re­homed in Euro­pean zoos are cubs that have been or­phaned due to hunt­ing and can’t be re­leased back into the wild. The bear breed­ing pro­gramme pri­ori­tises find­ing space for these in­di­vid­u­als over lots of zoos breed­ing them, which is how we keep the pop­u­la­tion up in cap­tiv­ity,” says Will.

The aim of this multi-mil­lion-pound ex­hibit is to tell the story of na­tive species that have been lost to the UK coun­try­side and to in­spire vis­i­tors to pro­tect the wood­land and wildlife that we have left – only two per cent of the coun­try is cov­ered by an­cient wood­land to­day.

Upon en­ter­ing a ‘time cham­ber’ at the en­trance, sev­eral di­als spin and whirr, rewind­ing the clock to 8,000BCE, when

“It’s not all about the size of the ex­hibit, it’s also about the com­plex­ity.”

the UK was ab­so­lutely cov­ered in wood­land, when bears and wolves co­ex­isted. “It’s very dif­fer­ent to what any­one has done be­fore,” says Will. “You can re­ally im­merse yourself in the whole area.”

Even be­fore it opened, Bear Wood was spark­ing con­ver­sa­tions about rewil­d­ing, but Will in­sists this isn’t the mes­sage, de­spite many peo­ple ask­ing about it: “Per­son­ally, I’d love to see these an­i­mals roam­ing the Bri­tish coun­try­side again, but I don’t think bears are ever go­ing to get there,” he says. “Bear Wood is about wood­land loss and what we can do in the fu­ture to in­crease wood­land ar­eas, pro­tect what we have and the an­i­mals that in­habit it.”

Life among the trees

The Wood­land Trust vis­ited Black­horse Wood to re­view the pro­posal. Adam Cormack, head of campaignin­g for the char­ity, says: “An an­cient wood­land site is not an ap­pro­pri­ate lo­ca­tion for an ex­hibit like this. While we ap­plaud the idea of rais­ing aware­ness of lost species, Black­horse Wood is hun­dreds of years old and an ex­hibit lament­ing the loss of an­cient wood­land, should not in turn dam­age that very same habi­tat.

“A small wood­land does not pro­vide the con­di­tions to mimic the nat­u­ral rang­ing distances and pop­u­la­tion den­si­ties of these species. As well as fenc­ing the wood­land, in­tro­duc­ing in­fra­struc­ture and large cap­tive car­ni­vores will have neg­a­tive con­se­quences for the ex­ist­ing wildlife in the wood­land.”

Dr Christoph Sch­witzer, chief zoo­log­i­cal officer at Bris­tol Zoo­log­i­cal So­ci­ety, says: “Bear Wood has been care­fully de­signed to en­sure min­i­mal en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact on the an­cient wood­land that it is part of. Our na­tive species con­ser­va­tion team is con­tin­u­ously mon­i­tor­ing the pres­ence and den­si­ties of a num­ber of na­tive an­i­mal and

plant species, both in­side and out­side the an­i­mal ex­hibits, and feeds the re­sults back into our wood­land man­age­ment plan.”

As I make my way through the ex­hibit, a ranger points out three cav­i­ties in a tree made by great spot­ted wood­peck­ers. The na­tive species work car­ried out on the Wild Place Project site in­cludes sur­vey­ing ar­eas within Bear Wood to find out how the in­tro­duc­tion of larger mam­mals im­pacts on the wood­land’s fauna and flora.

“We want to con­nect peo­ple with na­ture and do some­thing that is a little bit dif­fer­ent,” says Will. “Yes, we want an­i­mals here, but we also want to concentrat­e on what’s on our doorstep and cel­e­brate what we have in the UK. We won’t de­velop the rest of the woods into an­i­mal ex­hibits, be­cause we want to en­sure we keep ar­eas just for wild species.”

When Bris­tol Zoo­log­i­cal So­ci­ety de­cided to open Wild Place Project, it wanted it to of­fer a dif­fer­ent vis­i­tor ex­pe­ri­ence to Bris­tol Zoo Gar­dens, which is a his­toric and tra­di­tional city zoo. “Peo­ple have changed how they want to see an­i­mals in cap­tiv­ity,” says Will. “Once upon time, we kept things in very small en­clo­sures and zoos have had to change their ways.”

He tells me that be­cause Wild Place Project has 140 acres to play with, it can keep a col­lec­tion of large an­i­mals that need a lot of room: “You have to tai­lor your col­lec­tion to the space that you’ve got. There is no point in us try­ing to recre­ate the noc­tur­nal houses and rep­tile houses here, be­cause at Bris­tol Zoo they do that so well.”

Project with a pur­pose

“Bear Wood is the same size as all of the an­i­mal ar­eas at Bris­tol Zoo put to­gether, but it’s just for four species here,” he says. “Also, what’s re­ally good about this site, and the whole ethos of Wild Place Project, is that ev­ery ex­hibit that we build links to in-situ con­ser­va­tion.” For ex­am­ple, the Bé­noué Na­tional Park ex­hibit is linked to a project in Cameroon, run by the Bris­tol Zoo­log­i­cal So­ci­ety’s con­ser­va­tion team: “It’s not just about bring­ing in gi­raffes be­cause we knew peo­ple like gi­raffes. We brought in gi­raffes be­cause we were go­ing to work with gi­raffes in the wild.

“It’s bril­liant to feel like you’re not just keep­ing an­i­mals be­cause we want peo­ple to have a good day out,” Will says. "Of course we do want peo­ple to have a good day out, but vis­i­tors com­ing here can see what we’re do­ing, help fund the work that we’re do­ing in the wild, and re­ally make a dif­fer­ence to wildlife around the world, which is fan­tas­tic and is the rea­son why I’m here.

“In 20 years’ time, we hope to have a col­lec­tion that is a lot big­ger than what we cur­rently have now, but we never want to lose the core phi­los­o­phy that we started with at this site – get­ting peo­ple in­volved and con­nected to na­ture, be­cause it is at the heart of what we do.”

“We want to con­nect peo­ple with na­ture and do some­thing that is a little bit dif­fer­ent.”


Ex­tinct in the UK, brown bears can now be found at Wild Place Project, where rangers teach the pub­lic about our lost wood­land in­hab­i­tants (

Left: young bears spend time climb­ing trees. Above: in the ‘time cham­ber’. Right: a ranger teaches vis­i­tors about the wood­land’s na­tive wildlife. Bot­tom left: a seven-year-old wolf stretches.

An­cient trees form a key part of our land­scape. Wild Place Project plans to breed from Alice, a wolver­ine brought from a zoo in Siberia.

Above: Eurasian lynx are soli­tary crea­tures that favour dense wooded habi­tats. Below: nest­boxes are mon­i­tored by the zoo’s na­tive species team.

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