Komodo dragons, Bengal tigers, Western Lowland Gorillas and Binturongs….not only are they found across the furthest stretches of the verdant Indonesian islands, equatorial Africa and the depths of the everlasting stretches of Asian forest, but this array of superb species are all found in the rather non-tropical heart of the Costa Del Sol.
Situated in the busy coastal town of Fuengirola is Bioparc zoo. This spectacularly simulated zoo with over 260 species and 1600 animals, with collections from Equatorial Africa, Asia and South America was established in 1981 with the name Fuengirola Zoo. As a member of EAZA and AIZA it partakes in the Endangered Species Breeding Programme (EEP). The zoo was entirely rebuilt in 2001 and renamed Bioparc with its new ethos and free of barriers concept. There is glass of course! But the overall impression makes it feel like you are watching them in the wild. The architectural design of the enclosures attempts (and in my opinion, succeeds) to recreate the natural habitats of its fury, scaly and smooth inhabitants. The entire experience allows you to stroll through each of them in a rather immersive fashion, encapsulating the feel of the wild ecosystems and the continuity of the design is overall very pleasing to the eye.
Take this man made Baobab tree (Adansonia digitata), yep, it’s made of concrete and clay! Originally constructed from wires them plastered with cement, it accurately depicts this revered tree, which can store over 30,000 litres of water during the rainy season. It is often called the “upside down tree” for obvious reasons or “tree of life” due to its succulent fruits which ripen during the dry, scorching African and Australian summers. The seeds are incredibly nutritious and the bark is used for all sorts; including musical instruments, waterproof hats and homes. The leaves can handily treat kidney problems, bladder disease, asthma and insect bites. These ancient trees can live for over 5,000 years and have been central to local folklore in Africa as well as traditional remedies. All are deciduous and can reach impressive heights of 5-20 metres. Their rather bloated pinkish barks are easily carved/hollowed out and lived in by several African tribes, with up to a staggering 40 people residing in the cavern. Other unusual uses for the tree have included a bus shelter, storage barn, shop and prison!
On my route around the park, I first encountered a Lowland Gorilla, which was a remarkable specimen; a large adult male who’s been around for quite some time now. I do feel sorry for the poor old chap, Ernest, I can’t help but imagine him in his native forest in the Congo. The gorillas first arrived 2004 from the Royal Rotterdam Zoological Garden; Kim, Xara and Ernst. Brazza monkeys also inhabit the enclosure and are perfectly happy to share their space with their larger counterparts. The enrichment includes trees and tyres with a small artificial waterfall and stream, and visitors can see him through a large 6x6m glass frame. Photography is made a LOT easier with this architectural pleasure! Indeed this is a thought, for all of the enclosures contain this if not open air plan. Although mind, keep your ISO up to at least 800 in the shade, then switch back to 200 when back in full daylight. The Spanish sun always causes a lot of contrast in your images, whereas in my experience in the UK its doesn’t create enough, so keep checking your settings when on holiday, and make sure you shoot in RAW so you can edit them later on in Photoshop.
I also went into the lemur enclosure, where they roam free and approach you at their will. There are strict rules of not touching them, but they most certainly approach you if you happen to have fruit in your bag! I had apricots and apples in mine which caught the attention of a particular Red Ruffed lemur. The Ringtails were bursting with energy as we approaches, literally bouncing off the palm trees like fuzzy black and white pinballs as they jostled for the best position to knock each other over. Lemurs are highly social and communicative primates, and are the oldest- at the base of our phylogenetic tree. Our common ancestors once came from theirs too. Often the young males partake in “stink fights” by rubbing their tails furiously along their studded thumb projection on their hand, whilst females are often far more aggressive as the dominant, stripy- trouser wearing members of the troop.
The Black ruffed were rather inactively grooming themselves, I would recommend visiting them earlier in the morning, I went at 11am, and they were still all fairly active, but even earlier or later on in the evening when the air is still and cool, is perfect. It’s a most wonderful feeling to get so close to our little hairy cousins, their large, amber coloured eyes protrude from their head and stare at you in a rather primitive fashion- its not like the sentinel and meaningful gaze of a chimp or Gorilla, but nevertheless still a magical moment. In the wilds of Madagascar these beautiful creatures are critically endangered (Red Ruffs and Indris), primarily due to habitat destruction. Over 90% of the forests have been destroyed, GONE FOREVER. Although replantation programmes are in place, it will take many years for the ecosystems to recover, indeed, any forests that are cut also require time to recover as the mycorrhizal fungi that connects and symbiotically associates with certain trees are also destroyed- life is NOT that simple! There is hope though now, many breeding programmes across the world are now able to add to the genetic pool and many babies are born each year in captivity, ready to be released into the wild when the time is right.
Walking over a reassuringly, well-constructed bridge, Chimpanzees were frolicking and residing next to a cool pool with nothing more better to do than pick their noses and groom their companions. Their gaze is entirely different to that of the Lemur, behind those dark emblazoned eyes is something far more meaningful and intelligent, which is of course one the reason why we share 98% of our DNA with them. Some of the relaxing poses were remarkably similar to that of a human, scary in some way! Even reminding me of particular yoga move my teacher is fond of- I don’t think I will be able to get a mental image of that chimp out of my mind now during my next session! Flashes of “Rise of the Planet Apes” also come to mind, but then you are reminded of the high elevation the impossibility of one nabbing a bamboo cane to use as a vault pole to escape… but you never know.
The stunning leopards were up next through the maze of palm trees, who were also relaxing on a log. The mother, Toni and the once cub, (now a two year old, he has grown a lot since I last saw him!) Again, another small enclosure for a big cat, but nevertheless a well-constructed one. Some scientists argue that cubs, having been born in captivity have no prior knowledge to life in the wild, thus it is not unethical to keep them in enclosures. My argument is that evolutionary and instinctively these animals need VERY LARGE areas to roam as they would do in their natural habitats. It’s hard-wired in their DNA, so how on earth are you supposed to observe natural behaviour and reintroduce healthy characteristics and traits into the gene pool with this sort of restriction? It is however remarkable view, only 6 metres away from one of the rarest felines in the world. Its coat was irrefutably a thing of beauty, dappled in the light, with brown swirls and rosettes splayed along its golden back and delicate face. Its flank was cream coloured, and his large paws dangled down while he slept and rested his head on his mother’s back. He only stirred to look up at the young children tapping the glass, and then rather nonchalantly returned to his dream state. What a privilege.
Further along were the stunning Sumatran tigers, with their enormous paws and burning eyes.. However it was clear to me that they were clearly disturbed. The incessant pacing and non-meaningful stare into the unknown are classic signs of “zoochosis” as coined by Bill Travers of the Born free foundation or stereotypical behaviour. This deeply upsetting behaviour is due to extreme boredom, frustration and usually a lack of enrichment. For all the marvellous recreations of the Angkor watt temple, complete with a mini-waterfall and stream, as well as large fallen logs and a bamboo forest, the enclosure was simply not large enough for this fierce some predator. I always get a thrill to see them, but no in this condition. They did play around with each other for a short time which was lovely to see, check out my video below.
Next up were the Biturongs… now a year ago I NEVER heard of them. With a monkey-like tail, body like a bear and a face like a cat many call this 2-3ft animal a bearcat. Their short, stocky bodies and coarse shaggy hair give it its distinctive appearance. They inhabit the tropical rainforests of South-East Asia in the densest and remotest regions, and their main threats to their survival in the wild is, ye you guessed it, habitat destruction. These little quirks of evolution reveal many fascinating insights into its family, the Viverridae which includes the Civets and Gneets, under the order carnivore… thus is not related to bears or cats, but part of a very old group of medium sized mammals found in the Old World (East). They primarily eat fruit, eggs, plant shoots, fish, birds, small mammals and carrion. However they have a mutualistic relationship with the strangler fig, whose digestive enzymes are strong enough to remove the husk of the seed, and thus plays a vital role as a keystone species, spreading the seeds far and wide. The scent glands located underneath its tail, which is dragged along the foliage when it patrols its territory, and the smell is apparently similar to buttered popcorn! Can’t say the same for a leopard! Living in the tree canopy, they are superlative climbers and use their semi-retractable claws to move with agility throughout the forest trees. With its prehensile tail to aid it (only the second carnivore in the Old world to have one, other than the Kinkajou) with its climbing. I tell you what, I’m beginning to think that having a tail would be pretty useful for my own, or indeed caving! Avatars have it right after all…Nearby were the Alligators too, which you can see at very close quarters, remarkable ancient looking creatures.
The very exciting a new Komodo dragon enclosure was really interesting, it was my second encounter with one of these prehistoric looking reptiles. The enclosure resembled another one ancient temples at Angkor Watt, complete with its little stream and sandy court yard. It wasn’t very active initially, but then it picked up a scent as it flicked its tongue, tasting the air as it retracted it into its mouth, from which it can use the molecules of air to taste what its surroundings are giving off. It has relatively similar vision to humans, so it’s a useful sense to have. He then waddled towards a pile of small pebbles, which initially I thought were eggs, and started digging them up. Although they seem rather lazy and cumbersome in terms of their gait, they can move pretty fast as monitor lizards, at 20kmph. Of course they are known for their powerful bite which inflicts much damage to its prey in that the repulsive bacteria congregating in its mouth with almost certainly cause its victim to die of septicaemia or blood poisoning.
Later on I went to a “Jungle event/animal exhibition” whereby trained animals are on show, including kookaburras, Asian Otters, Sitatunga, Wild Peccaries and several other birds of prey. I always enjoy a good show, which is in both English and Spanish, wand lasts for around 20 minutes. By then my camera battery had run out and I was a spectator without a camera, which I actually enjoyed! Although I occasionally used my mobile. The last animals I went to visit were the flying foxes, VERY CUTE Old World bats which were busily scoffing down an assortment of succulent fruits such as mangoes and banana which seemed to be their particular favourite.
Bioparc Fuengirola is a fantastic day out, one which I would highly recommend; it only costs you £13 with the discount card you can pick up at the Miramar centre. They even have African dance night, which I went to last year and was great, the atmosphere is electric and the buzz you get from dancing is positively euphoric! Its also a very good time to see the animals out and about. If you need any tips on getting there, or would like to know about any of the animals there, get it touch!