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Chambers at Large: Belfast Zoo

Updated: Sep 15, 2022

I am a staunch supporter of Dublin Zoo, thus when I heard there was a zoo in Belfast I had to go.

Giraffes and zebras enjoying each other's company

Belfast Zoo, a 55-acre site, plays a “vital role in conservation work by taking part in global and collaborative breeding programmes with zoos around the world.” The zoo takes part in more than “90 breeding programmes and manages the programmes for Francois Langur, black and white Colobus monkey and marbled polecat. The sad fact that there are possibly fewer than 2,000 Francois Langurs left in the world shows the necessity of the work being done by Belfast Zoo and others around the world.

Francois Langur on the climbing frames

Natives of China, Vietnam and Laos, they are threatened by the destruction of forests, increased agriculture, warfare and logging. Unfortunately they are also hunted for food, oriental medicine and the pet trade. I repeatedly read that many animals were under threat for similar reasons, but the Francois langur in Belfast Zoo have a splendid enclosure and certainly came out to play in the sunshine.

Southern Pudu and the bird in the background is a Southern Screamer

Belfast Zoo is host to a few species I’d never even heard of, let alone seen. The Southern Pudu is arguably the “smallest true deer” and was mothering an even smaller calf. Found in the lowland forests of Chile and Argentina it’s estimated there are fewer than 10,000 of these charming animals left in the wild.

Vision Warty Pigs foraging for food

The Visayan Warty Pig is also under threat, but they were far the most boisterous animals I saw all day, and yes I had to google their home-place, the Visayan Islands, which I will happily leave you to do too!

Vicuna to the right centre of this shot

I hadn’t heard of Vicuna either, the smallest of the camel family, native to the Andes Mountains. I learned the “ancient Incas” held these animals “in high respect”, but “by 1960 the population had dropped to less than 6,000”. “Conservation measures have ensured that the population is now stable in several National Reserves” and the one I saw, sat on high ground lording over the landscape.

Success was celebrated too when a white-tailed sea eagle chick was born after “five years of trying” and he was released into the wild in September 2004. I wonder how he’s doing 15 years on. Yep, I’m going to have to google the life span of eagles!

Asian Elephant

Among the elephant population, there are two Asian elephants at Belfast Zoo, Yhetto and Dhunja. I read that both animals had been maltreated in their thirty to forty year lives and still bear the scars, but both are given “daily care and attention” and are showing signs of improvement,” which is a testament to the great work being done here. Sadly, the Asian elephant, not as big as its African cousin, is in decline in the wild.

Californian Sea Lions basking in the sun when in shone!

I have several favourite moments of my day at the zoo. The first was to find three animals who worship the sun, the second was the feeding of the Sun Bears. The weather, typical of Ireland, was changeable, but the Californian Sea Lions were quick to scramble up onto a rock and bask in the sun’s rays when it poked through the clouds. I was taking my coat off and putting it on again to bask myself whenever I had the chance.

The Sun Bears (also known as Honey Bears) coming to be fed.

I didn’t plan to see the Malayan Sun Bears being fed, but I happened to arrive at their enclosure at the same time as the keeper. There is a terrific programme of events throughout the day and it’s not possible to do all in the one day as some coincide, but I had the good fortune to see the two sun bears, Bora and Indera, chomping down on white rat, chicks, fruits and vegetables for their Friday lunch. The young, nine year old, came up to the plexi-glass, putting his snout to the glass, when his keeper came close.

His claws were long and lethal and I was grateful for the opportunity to see this beautiful animal close up, but wouldn’t want to encounter a hungry one in the wild. Indera wasn’t over keen on the rat, but he ate it all the same, wolfing down the chicks and the sweet fruit. He picked at the peppers and carrots, but I was told he’d eat that in good time.

Indera the male Sun Bear

His companion, Bora is twenty-nine years of age, and in her twilight years is losing her teeth. I was told she will not go grey like humans, but has lost a shine to her eyes and fur. She ate contentedly, throwing her head back to ensure all the juice from the fruit and vegetables flowed into her stomach. Nothing was wasted.

The keeper explained that when the bears were asleep and locked up, they would hide honey and other goodies around their enclosure for them to find when they woke. It keeps them active and doing what bears should be doing! These beautiful, small bears are under continual threat and I wasn’t surprised to read they have been rescued from hotels and restaurants where they have been caged for the amusement of tourists or worse, killed for bear paw soup! These bears may have amused me, but they are part of a very serious conservation programme and I hope Indera despite his destructive nature, (having two sets of climbing structures in the time he’s been at the zoo), may breed later on with another female in another zoo. I wish them both well.

The Barbary lions are now extinct in the wild, but are magnificent at Belfast Zoo

My final favourite moment was seeing the Barbary lions. There were three, one male and a female. Both females I discovered were over cub-bearing age, but that didn’t stop the male lion from mounting his favourite partner whilst children looked on asking parents what the lion was doing as he thrust into her. “He’s giving her a cuddle,” I overheard one mother say diplomatically, whilst the father filmed the entire episode. Barbary lions, once fought by gladiators in the arena, are now extinct in the wild and I hope the male will have an opportunity in the future to impregnate a younger, fertile lioness so these magnificent beasts flourish as they once did in the Atlas Mountains.

Gorilla intent on finding his food at lunchtime, rather like my good self!

Thanks to the plexiglass I was also able to be up close and personal with a ring-tailed lemur and a western lowland gorilla. Both were enjoying their lunch, the latter enjoying what looks to be a book by the pool, but is in fact a large cabbage or lettuce leaf! Tired after my three hour visit I left them to their business and went in search of my own sustenance.

The monkeys have a magnificent view of Belfast and the sea beyond, but that means visitors have to climb too. I certainly achieved my walking goal for the day.

A word to the wise, Belfast Zoo is on a hill and requires visitors to stroll up and down pathways in order to see the home of more than 1,000 animals and 150 species.. Alas, the Asian Golden Cat, I specifically came to see, was not to be found, despite speaking to staff, several of whom admitted they’d never seen it either! The feline wonder, which I wish to feature in my next book, remains as elusive as ever, but that only gives me a prime excuse to return in a few weeks, and believe me, in the immortal words of Arnie Schwarzenegger, “I will be back”.


As a keen conservationist I am a supporter of Dublin Zoo as well. To find out more please check out these blogs:

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