Come Visit the Bronx Zoo’s Congo Gorilla Forest
Wildlife Conservation Society, Bronx Zoo
New York, New York
Explore the wilds of Africa at the new Bronx Zoo exhibit, The Congo Gorilla Forest, the largest African rain forest ever built. This exhibit took ten years to plan and three years to build. It is a 6.5-acre African rain forest habitat. The aim of this new exhibit is to develop an awareness of conservation concepts, that is, to understand that the rain forests are subject to deforestation and that animals are utilized as bush meat. Throughout the exhibit, the astute observer will find evidence of animals that could have passed through the exhibit, whereas in reality, due to size limitations, they will not be seen.
This exhibit was designed as a total immersion experience. There are 400 species of plants within the exhibit. Parts of the exhibit are fifty feet from a major Bronx road so it was necessary to plant huge numbers of plants (15,000) to give the illusion of being within a rain forest. Some of the native deciduous trees were covered with sandy-textured vines to give the visitor the impression that they are deep within the Congo rain forest. There are ten miles of epoxy covered “vines” throughout the exhibit. In addition there are created trees and rock formations. Large-leafed trees, for example, the magnolia from North Carolina, were planted. Pictures of trees were sent in by field scientists to assist the Exhibits and Graphic Design Department to assure accuracy.
As you walk along the rain forest trail, approximately one third of a mile, you are to pretend that you are no longer a visitor, but a scientist. The total immersion begins with the entryway, which was patterned after pygmy bark cloth. The artwork within the building was selected from Central African countries.
The first stop shows evidence of an elephant that passed through, partially eaten fruit, the skull of a water buffalo, and a termite mound. The next exhibit is of Colobus monkeys. The exhibit design does not give the sense of animals in captivity, as the mesh is barely visible. As the visitor looks up in the trees he is able to see a gorilla nest. Often field scientists don’t see the animals, however, they look for signs that they were there. The nests can tell the size of the troop, and the condition of the leaves indicates how long ago the nest was used. There is a scope to indicate the presence of a rainbow boa and a clipboard indicates pottery pieces embedded in a bank of soil. To show evidence of humans there is a native Mbuti hut, burnt logs, fishing net, and a basket possibly used for collecting fruit.
A fallen Ceiba tree, made of wire and epoxy, leads you into the next area of the exhibit. The tree is home to a countless number of invertebrates and here you will hear recordings of crickets and birds. A healthy forest is never quiet. These recordings also help mask the traffic noises of the Bronx. Here the elusive okapi can be viewed. Looking down on the pavement you will see impressions of various leaves and okapi hoof prints.
Looking up in the trees you will see weaver bird nests and a green tree snake under the weaver nests. The nests are difficult to find when the trees are in leaf, however, they are easily viewed in the winter. The next area shows an artificial tree with the scratching, gouging marks made by an elephant. A ruler is next to the tree to give visitors a point of reference to show how high the damage to the tree occurs (nine feet).
There are also castings of elephant footprints where visitors may insert their hands to compare the size. A field station, to replicate the Ituri Forest Station in Zaire, has the equipment that a field scientist might use in tracking animals in the field. The graphics explain the workings of a field scientist. Fern canyon is a twelve-foot high artificial mud bank covered with living ferns. Each planter box has its own irrigation.
A fog machine adds mist.
As the visitors enter the building they are greeted with many live animal and graphic displays. The theme of this exhibit is to celebrate the diversity of life and how all life is interconnected. A television monitor is set up so that visitors may see their bodies on the screen, indicating how an African python might seek out his prey by sensing the person’s body heat. The yellow areas on the monitor are the coolest and the reds are the warmest.
The red river hogs and the mandrills share the next exhibit. The graphics along the exhibit include three leaves that a mandrill may turn over in search of food. The first one is a tasty grub, the second is a small fruit, and the last one hides a predator snake. The wolf guenons and the hornbills share the next exhibit, which is open all year. The exhibit also includes an ant nest and a crocodile mound with shattered eggs, probably devoured by a monitor lizard. This leads to the gorilla winter quarters exhibit. The wall opposite the exhibit shows pictures of logging and deals with the problems of habitat destruction.
A seven-minute movie informs the public of the work that is being done in the field and conveys a very powerful conservation message. During the summer months, after the movie is over, the drapes part and the gorillas are seen for the first time. There are artificial rocks that dispense food so that the gorillas are in full view after the movie is over. The exhibit was designed to assure the comfort of the gorillas; the trees have branches that are “back rests.”
In this section visitors can design a gorilla habitat on a computer screen, view other graphics that enable them to appreciate the size difference of primates, and see journals and photographs from field scientists.
As the visitors leave the gorilla viewing area they are able to see the other troop of gorillas up very close. A glass tunnel passes through the gorilla’s habitat to the Choices Pavilion, where the visitor is able to decide which WCS project should receive their admission fee. All “voted dollars” go directly to conservation projects in Africa. The choice is made on a computer touch screen. This is also an opportunity to do some conservation education as the visitor usually wants to make an “informed” choice and is eager to help the animals in need. In making a personal choice to save wildlife, the visitor first decides on which animal–elephant, gorilla, mandrill, or okapi–they wish to support. Then they must determine if they wish their dollars to go to discovering animal needs, involving local people, or protecting wild places. After they have made their choice, they are able to see their money go from New York directly to the Congo in Africa.
There are a number of programs offered to familiarize the public with the treasures found within the Congo Gorilla Forest. In order for a teacher to take a class in the CGF he/she must have taken a two-hour training program, which includes a slide presentation and an hour tour. A set of activities is available for ten dollars. There is a K-3 and a 4-7 set of materials available.
Another program, SPARKS, utilizes the classroom within the CGF. It is made up of a parent-teacher team who work together to improve science education in their school. They then train other parent-teacher teams.
A National Science Foundation grant has enabled “underserved” parents to become involved in their children’s science education. They are invited to participate in a program at the zoo, and receive a “goodie” bag and a pass for free admission for their immediate family.
The role of the docents in the CGF is to educate the visitors as they wait in line. There are two tables set up, a biodiversity table and a primate table. In addition, we do mini talks within the exhibit areas and assist in the Choices Pavilion.