Wrocław Zoo is the oldest zoo in Poland: it was opened to the public in 1865, so the zoo celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. Hence it is not surprising that at present it is one of the most respected zoos not only in Poland but also in Europe. The zoo had had a big dream for six years – and now the dream came true. At the end of last year Wrocław Zoo’s new exhibition, the „Afrykarium – Life-giving Waters of Africa” was opened.
The concept of the facility is to present various ecosystems connected by water environments of Africa: seas and oceans, fresh waters and rainforests. The project has been financed by the City of Wrocław, the European Union and commercial funding. The exhibition is located in the central area of the zoo, so it is striking immediately as you enter through the main gate. After a long planning process construction began in April 2012. The first step was to clear the area: herons, lynxes and the playground have been moved to another part of the zoo. Information about the whole process has been provided for the public on the website of the Afrykarium. Actual construction work has been carried out in a truly international collaboration: besides the structure itself built by Polish workers, the acrylic walls of the aquariums and pools were made in Japan, the installation of the filtration systems were supervised by a German team, the artificial rocks were created by a Spanish company and the planting of the vegetation was carried out by a Dutch team. There were 300 people working at the same time on the construction of the Afrykarium.
The building is really monumental: 160 m (~525 ft) long, 54 m (~177 ft) wide and 12-15 m (~39-49 ft) tall. The total area of the exhibits is 1.9 ha (4.7 acre). The whole water system of the Afrykarium contains 15,000,000 litres (~3,405,000 gal) of water. The building is awe-inspiring at first sight; it looks like a huge black block, which symbolizes the „Dark Continent”. There is a model of a ship on one side of the building, which contain a restaurant too, with the pools of penguins and seals located on its two sides.
The exhibition consists of six major parts: a multifunctional hall, the Red Sea, East Africa with Malawi and Tanganyika Lake, the Mozambique Channel, the rainforest along the Congo River, and the Skeleton Coast in West Africa.
The multifunctional hall contains a conference room, an educational room and souvenir stores as well. Projected presentations are being held here about the threats befalling African habitats and the factors that lead to the extinction of animals.
The discovery of African aquatic habitats begins with the aquarium presenting the special and sensitive ecosystems of the Red Sea coral reefs. The pool contains 900,000 litres (~204,000 gal) of water. 140,000 kg (~308,647 lb) of salt is needed to provide the appropriate salt content of the water. Countless species of corals, sponges and fish are presented here.
The section presenting the wildlife of East Africa includes two aquariums that are the homes of Cichlids from the two famous lakes in the Great Rift Valley: Lake Malawi and Lake Tanganyika. About 400 fish have been moved into both aquariums for the opening. The main attractions of this part are the hippopotamuses (Hippopotamus amphibius) that share their exhibit with some duck species. Their pool contains 715,000 litres (~162,000 gal) of water. These large mammals have no outdoor area, but for this reason the roof of their enclosure can be opened in good weather so the animals have access to natural sunlight. There had been two female hippos living in Wrocław that got a male companion from Prague Zoo (Czech Republic) when moving into the Afrykarium. Other animals also live in the East Africa section, like Kirk’s dik-diks (Madoqua kirki), aardvarks (Orycteropus afer) and naked mole rats (Heterocephalus glaber).
The aquarium exhibiting the Mozambique Channel separating Madagascar from Africa is the main attraction of the Afrykarium. Sharks (e.g. zebra shark (Stegostoma fasciatum) and scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini)), rays (e.g. honeycomb stingray (Himantura uarnak) and giant guitarfish (Rhynchobatus djiddensis)), Napoleon wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) and many other fish are living in this aquarium along with a Loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) as well. Part of this exhibit is an 18 m (~59 ft) long acrylic tunnel where the visitors are completely surrounded by more than 3,000,000 litres (~681,000 gal) of water. Thus aquatic life can swim beside, above or just under the visitors. The biggest acrylic pane of the Afrykarium is here; it is 12 m (~39 ft) wide, 4.5 m (~15 ft) tall and over 30 cm (~1 ft) thick.
A tropical hall welcomes the visitors in the section dedicated to the rainforests along the Congo River. Amphibians, reptiles, birds and small mammals live in the lush vegetation of the exhibit – some of them are going to move freely among the visitors in the near future. Nile crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus) and manatees can be seen in a glimpse at the underwater world. Since African manatees (Trichechus senegalensis) are not being kept by European zoos, West Indian manatees (Trichechus manatus) are exhibited in Wrocław instead. Two males came from Odense Zoo, Denmark and a female from Tierpark Berlin, Germany. The pool of the crocodiles contains 260,000 litres (~59,000 gal) of water, while the pool of the manatees, which can be separated into two halves, contains 1,250,000 litres (~284,000 gal) of water.
There are two outdoor enclosures connected to the Afrykarium which are the homes of the sandy Skeleton Coast’s penguins and seals. Altogether 48 Black-footed penguins (Spheniscus demersus) have been moved into the pool containing 2,460,000 litres (~558,500 gal) of water, which is the deepest pool for penguins in Europe. The birds came from Gdańsk Zoo (Poland) and from Bristol Zoo and Banham Zoo (United Kingdom). The pool serving as the home of six South African fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus) contains 3,600,000 litres (~817,000 gal) of water. Visitors can see the first residents of the Afrykarium from the pathway around these two enclosures since August. The animals swimming underwater can be seen from the ’ship’ lying between the two exhibits. The enclosures can also be seen from the restaurant on the upper floor of the ’ship’. These two areas were also visible from the visitors’ paths before the opening despite the construction work in progress.
I had the pleasure to visit the Afrykarium one week before the opening, when the workers were still working hard and there were only a few animals living there. at the opening Only 40% of the planned species were present at the opening, so a lot of other animals are going to move into the Afrykarium later. Nevertheless, Wrocław Zoo’s new complex is already a monumental facility that can easily fascinate visitors, attain the respect of professionals, and last but not least ensure suitable living conditions for the animals living there.