Readers with good memories might recall the ‘let’s review zoos’ series I started back in 2016, and which has so far consisted of a grand one (1) contribution (the review concerned was devoted to Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland). Anyway, today we’re going to look at Colchester Zoo, located in Essex, south-eastern England. It’s a good-sized zoo with an impressive collection of livestock large and small, celebrated both for the innovative aesthetics of its exhibits as well as for its captive breeding and conservation work: through its Action for the Wild charity, Colchester Zoo has supported conservation, rehabilitation and reintroduction projects in numerous locations worldwide.

A zoo warrants a good entrance hall. Credit: Darren Naish

Colchester Zoo – originally Stanway Hall Park Zoo – opened in 1963 under the ownership of Frank and Helena Farrar. During the 1990s, and under the ownership of Dominique and Angela Tropeano, it underwent a major increase in size due to new land purchase and has undergone progressive modernisation ever since that time. In the zoo world it is famously associated with the gigantic Simba the lion (who weighed an incredible 380 kg at his peak), the successful breeding (via artificial insemination) of African elephants, and its attractive and award-winning enclosure design. The zoo is also well known for housing numerous interesting exotics over the years, among them striped hyena, puma, grison, tayra, binturong, brown bears, maned wolves and saddle-billed stork. Zebra-donkey hybrids – zedonks – were kept there at one time as were white Bengal tigers, the last of which (Sasha) died in 2010. Those seriously interested in the zoo and its history should seek out S. C. Kershaw’s book The Story of Colchester Zoo (Kershaw 2013).

Megamammals at Colchester Zoo. Check out the giant wrinkles on the Reticulated giraffe. At right, one of the several African bush elephants there. Credit: Darren Naish

I wasn’t at Colchester as a tourist but for work-related reasons; consequently, I only had a rushed look around half of it and will have to go back there at some stage. Furthermore, the day of my visit was miserable (weather-wise), the constant rain and cool, overcast conditions meaning that some animals were not showing at all. Keep this in mind while reading.

Scenes from the large African section at Colchester Zoo. At left, white rhino and giraffe together. At right, a damp cheetah. Credit: Darren Naish

Biogeographical zones. Colchester Zoo is arranged, broadly, along biogeographical zones, there being large African, tropical Asian and Neotropical areas, among others. The African section is the largest, its centre being a large African bush elephant exhibit and an adjacent mixed savannah exhibit where giraffes, white rhino, crowned cranes, ostriches, kudus and zebras are kept together. You should be able to tell from the photo here that the zebras are the maneless or half-maned zebra Equus quagga borensis, a little-known form of northern Kenya and southern Sudan with very prominent neck striping and white backs to the ears (Grubb & Groves 2011). It isn’t typically truly maneless, it’s just that the mane is very short.

Maneless zebras, ostriches behind, at Colchester Zoo. In less than brilliant conditions. Credit: Darren Naish

If you’re at this exhibit at the right time, you can get to feed a giraffe – keepers provide you with a bit of vegetation, the giraffes come over, reach across the barrier and take it from your hand. That’s great, though I was disappointed that my allotted piece of vegetation was a weak little strip of cabbage leaf. Still, a giraffe took it anyway and graciously slobbered on my hand during the process.

Aardvarks at Colchester Zoo, doing what they do best. Well, that and digging. Credit: Darren Naish

Also in the African section, there are aardvarks – I saw three asleep in an exhibit that mimics a gigantic burrow. On that note, this is a good time to talk further about the look and feel of the exhibits. Much has been done to landscape the enclosures – to make them feel something like the animal’s actual native environments – and also to impart the sections with the flavour of whatever part of the world they’re linked to. The aardvark enclosure is not just a gigantic earthen installation that makes you feel like you’re travelling underground in an aardvark mega-burrow yourself, its exterior features African art and faux architecture.

Exterior of the aardvark exhibit at Colchester Zoo. The tunnel is sculpted such that you feel that you're travelling underground. Credit: Darren Naish

Lions and tigers and bears – insert cliched exclamation. Colchester is also good for large carnivorans*. Lions, leopards, Amur tiger, cheetah, hunting dogs and wolves are all there. Among the real highlights for me were the three Spotted hyenas Crocuta crocuta. They were great fun to watch and also highly co-operative as goes coming close enough to the viewing area for good photos. I can’t remember the last time I saw a live hyena (I’m not well-heeled enough to go swanning off on African safaris); you might be surprised by how large they are, and also by how ‘kind’ and fascinating their faces are.

Hyenas are fantastically handsome animals - look at that beautiful face and amazing nose. Credit: Darren Naish

* Again, let me use this as an opportunity to remind people that the annoyingly ambiguous term ‘carnivores’ has an available and already widely-used alternative – carnivorans – which you should get into the habit of using.

Cathartids - the New World vultures, which includes condors - are bizarrely flamboyant. At left, King vulture. At right, male Andean condor. Credit: Darren Naish

Raptors, dragons, crocodiles. Colchester has a nice selection of birds, highlights including King vulture Sarcoramphus papa (they have at least two), an Andean condor Vultur gryphus pair and various additional raptors and owls. Rhinoceros hornbill Buceros rhinoceros are present in the Wild of Asia section but were a no-show during my visit.

Telu, the big adult male Komodo dragon at Colchester Zoo. As is the case with many adult Komodos in captivity, he seems to have some sort of problem with his forelimbs. Credit: Darren Naish

The same, Asia-themed section also features red panda, gibbons, binturong, Burmese python Python bivittatus…. and Komodo dragons Varanus komodoensis! Yes, this is one of four collections in the UK to house dragons (the others are Bristol Chester, ZSL and Crocodiles of the World at Brize Norton). They currently have one large adult and a number of juveniles and have had considerable success in breeding them. The large house dedicated to the dragons is really well designed, with pools, excellent viewing areas and good planting. A Cuban crocodile Crocodylus rhombifer is also on show in the same building. Even better, a Slender-snouted crocodile Mecistops cataphractus is present in the Chimpanzee Lookout; my photos of said animal aren’t worth sharing but I was pleased to see this species.

Another view of Telu, this time showing the impressive forelimb claws and those prominent gular folds. Credit: Darren Naish
Tumba the chocolate chimp (on the right) with a more conventionally pigmented relative at left. Credit: Darren Naish

Chocolate chimpanzees. So – Chimpanzee Lookout. Colchester has always had chimps but 2013 saw the opening of a newly revamped chimp exhibit with improved viewing areas and indoor and outdoor climbing facilities. I had no idea prior to visiting that Colchester is home to a ‘chocolate chimp’; a brown individual born in 2004, named Tumba. Tumba’s parents (Pippin and Tekita) are black-furred but his grandmother – a wild-caught animal named Coco, still at Twycross Zoo in England – is also brown (thanks to Helen Hewitt for this information). Since Tumba is a hybrid of different chimp subspecies, he won’t be breeding himself. Other chocolate chimps are present at Twycross in addition to Coco. They are highly inbred.

I’ve already mentioned the enclosures at Colchester. Many are well designed and look modern, and one thing I absolutely love about at least some of them is how well planted they are. Thick masses of what look to be naturally growing stands of vegetation give some of the green spaces a packed, natural look that better resembles real habitat than anything involving concrete or wood chip. Look at this tiger enclosure (below)…. I didn’t care too much whether a tiger was in there or not (though I assume it was), I loved the look of the space that much. Seeing it from an elevated walkway with massive glass windows was part of the reason this worked.

Disclaimer: big windows and green spaces are not always happy bedfellows. Despite a long evolutionary history, birds have yet to evolve collision-proof faces.

There is probably a tiger of some sort in there, somewhere. But just marvel at how well-planted this enclosure it. Credit: Darren Naish

Another thing I like about zoos is artwork, and here I refer collectively to murals, banners, bass-reliefs, statues, models and so on. Colchester has an interesting mix of the great and the…. not so great. Super-sized plastic statues are located about the grounds (look at this Giant anteater Myrmecophaga tridactyla, with a model termite mound) and are often fantastic. A few other pieces (there’s a weird bit of artwork at the hyena exhibit) look dated and I think the zoo would benefit from their replacement.

Zoos are great. Zoos with animal statues? Even greater. This is not a real anteater. Credit: Darren Naish

To conclude… Finally, please keep in mind what I said above as goes not having time to see the whole of the zoo. I never got to see the penguins and the Inca Trail, the langurs, sun bears, pygmy hippos, the Australian Rainbows rainforest exhibit, the Wallaby Walkabout, Otter Creek, the tortoise-themed Walking Giants exhibit, the orang-utans, or Butterfly Glade. I was unable to visit one of the highlights: the Playa Patagonia, a sea lion exhibit with an underwater tunnel. So, wow, I missed a lot.

More dragons. At top, a statue close to the Dragons of Komodo house. Below, close-up to Tevu. Credit: Darren Naish

My overall impression was of a very busy zoo that has tons to see, features a great deal in the way of clever and well-designed buildings, devotes suitably large areas to its bigger animals, and is contributing to global conservation. The entrance building is suitably imposing, and the shop is really pretty good though, as always, they could do with more quality toy animals… and what is it with zoo shops never stocking animal books for adults?  I must go back to Colchester Zoo again some time. As per the previous zoo review, here are my (wholly subjective) scores…

  • Selection of species: 9 out of 10
  • Zoo nerd highlights: Komodo dragons, Spotted hyena, chocolate chimp Tumba, King vulture, Slender-snouted crocodile
  • Size and quality of enclosures: 8 out of 10
  • Quality of signage: 9 out of 10
  • Value for money: 10 out of 10
  • Overall worthiness: 10 out of 10

For previous Tet Zoo articles relevant to various of the issues covered here (and not linking to anything on ver 2, since TODAY IS THE DAY when it disappears from the internet forever)...

Refs - -

Groves, C. & Grubb, P. 2011. Ungulate Taxonomy. The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Kershaw, S. C. 2013. The Story of Colchester Zoo. Red Lion Books, Colchester.