Antwerp Zoo: 175 years of science and nature conservation

Chris Simoens
19 April 2018
The Antwerp Zoo is blowing out no less than 175 candles this year. But did you know the Zoo has been a strong advocate of science since the very beginning? Or that it puts great effort into nature conservation?

At 175 years old, Antwerp Zoo is one of the best-kept historic animal parks in Europe. It comes a close second to the Artis Zoo in Amsterdam, which opened 5 years earlier in 1838.  When a prominent citizen of Antwerp sought out his brother in Amsterdam and was introduced to the Artis Zoo, he decided that Antwerp had to have something similar!

Showing off the daughters

‘Several other zoos were being set up at that time,’ recounts Zjef Pereboom, head of the research centre at the Royal Zoological Society of Antwerp (KMDA), the umbrella organisation that Antwerp Zoo belongs to along with Planckendael Zoo and Blankenberge Serpentarium. ‘All with one noble aim: promoting our wonder of nature and creating opportunities for the scientific study of animals.’ The Artis Zoo adopted the motto ‘Natura Artis Magistra’, or ‘nature is the artist's master’. For Antwerp, this became ‘Pro Natura et Scientia’, or ‘for nature and science’.

Unfortunately, access was reserved for the wealthy gentry. ‘A visit to the zoo was at that time an opportunity to show off one's credentials in society,’ explains Jiska Verbouw, a science communicator at KMDA. ‘It wasn't just a chance to see the animals - the well-to-do could show off their daughters as well.’ A lower entrance fee for three years a year has only existed since 1862. It would not become fully democratic until after WWI.

 

The zoo has been established with one noble aim: promoting our wonder of nature and creating opportunities for the scientific study of animals.Unfortunately, access was reserved for the wealthy gentry.

View on antilope building and central station
© Beeldbank Zoo Antwerpen

Okapi, bonobo, Congo peafowl

From the very beginning,  Antwerp Zoo had a major scientific slant. ‘Scientists could visit the zoo to describe and study the animals,’ says Pereboom. ‘All the zoo's directors have stimulated scientific research, in collaboration with Antwerp's universities. Since 2002, we have received substantial support from the Flemish government to further extend our research.’

Antwerp Zoo was a founding member of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), for example, and it does intensive work on its breeding programmes. The members of EAZA each take in a number of animal species, many of which are threatened with extinction. Antwerp chose the okapi, the bonobo and the Congo peafowl, among others, all rare species from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The breeding programmes for the Brazilian golden-headed lion tamarin, the Fischer's turaco, Mexican military macaw and swamp wallaby are also co-ordinated by the KMDA. ‘The breeding programmes are intended to lead to stable, healthy populations with sufficient genetic diversity, comparable with wild populations,’ says Pereboom. ‘This kind of stable breeding programme allows zoos to continue to astound their visitors with an extensive collection of animals, without having to take them in from the wild.’

This kind of stable breeding programme allows zoos to continue to astound their visitors with an extensive collection of animals, without having to take them in from the wild.

Zebra and giraffes in the zoo
© Jonas Verhulst

Cameroon and Brazil

The zoo also conducts basic research. This forms part of the basis for the breeding programmes. Scientists are investigating how to build up stable animal populations, taking life in a zoo into account. They are also conducting research into the animals' health and behaviour in order to further promote animal welfare.

Finally, Antwerp Zoo puts active effort into nature conservation. In Cameroon, for example, the researchers of the zoo are attempting to improve survival rates for chimpanzees and gorillas in unprotected areas, while they also invest in conservation of bonobos in DR Congo. Moreover, research is being conducted in Brazil to determine exactly what the golden-headed lion tamarin needs to survive. This is always carried out in close collaboration with the local population. ‘Development co-operation is not the zoo's main goal - we want to preserve nature. But in unprotected areas, the locals rule the roost. That's why it's important to make them aware of the importance of this heritage, and offer them alternative sources of income. All our projects lead to a win-win situation,’ Pereboom concludes.

Development co-operation is not the zoo's main goal - we want to preserve nature. But in unprotected areas, the locals rule the roost. That's why it's important to make them aware of the importance of this heritage, and offer them alternative sources of income. All our projects lead to a win-win situation.

Zjef Pereboom

Kai-Mook

Besides its own projects, the zoo also supports third-party initiatives. Following the birth of the baby elephant Kai-Mook, for example, it opened a pamper account to protect her endangered relatives in India. Pereboom: ‘Asian elephants take fixed routes for their yearly migration. But sometimes there are villages along those routes - villagers are regularly trampled on.  Thanks to our support, a local NGO has helped to move a village to leave the migration route unencumbered. The villagers had also been asking for a solution, and were closely guided throughout. This was another win-win.’

The European zoos (EAZA) also maintain a yearly theme for which they raise money. ‘This year, the campaign is themed around endangered songbirds in South-East Asia,’ says Verbouw. ‘The people there view owning a songbird as a status symbol - it makes you a real man. Song contests are very popular there too; you can make a lot of money from them. And wild birds are said to sing better. That leads to the mass hunting of wild songbirds.’ All European zoos are raising money from their visitors to make the people of South-East Asia aware of the importance of biodiversity, thereby solving the problem.

Naturally, on the face of it, there are plenty of animals from around the world to admire at Antwerp Zoo. But behind the scenes, dozens of people are attempting to develop our knowledge of these animals and to preserve their species in nature.

175 years of Antwerp Zoo

 

The KMDA is organising a range of activities to celebrate its 175th anniversary. The musical ‘Zoo of Life’ will be running there from 3 to 15 April. Antwerp Zoo is also putting on a Belle Époque theme. From 30 June, you can take part in a heritage walk, while a butterfly walk is being organised for children. There is also a nostalgic playground with swing rides and a range of other activities. You can also bump into some Belle Époque figures. Planckendael Zoo is drawing extra attention to the Asian route, with a special discovery quest, arts and crafts activities, musical workshops and naturally a particular focus on the Asian elephant family.

 

More info at www.zooantwerpen.be or www.zooplanckendael.be

Biodiversity
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About the same theme - Article 19 /21 Growing cocoa among the golden-headed lion tamarins