A young child in the front breaks the crowd’s trance, crying out, “It looks just like us!” This is what the Congo Forest is all about.
With 300 animals of 75 species within 6.5 acres of breathtakingly well-simulated tropical forest, New York City’s 100-year-old Bronx Zoo is now (since June of this year) host to the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Congo Gorilla Forest. Nineteen gorillas (22, if you count the babies in an off-exhibit nursery) live there, and if the WCS continues its four decades of breeding successes (five infants born in 1994 alone: a single zoo record that still stands), you can bet the mandrills, okapis, monkeys, and wild red river hogs that roam the land will happily populate the “forest” for decades to come.
“Congo Gorilla Forest will not only immerse the visitor in a mysterious environment of rare and unusual animals, but will also make the science understandable and fun,” explains WCS head Dr. William Conroy.
Such species as primates, ungulates, birds, fish, invertebrates, reptiles, and amphibians slither, swim, swing, run, and fly through 45,000 square feet of sculpted rock outcrops, lichen, fern, eroded mud banks, and 10 miles of vines both real and manmade. Eleven waterfalls pour gracefully. A ground-fog system and special effects seep system lie within the mud banks. A lush mosaic of shady forest (15,000 plants of 400 species), treetop lookouts, rock promontories, stream sides, bamboo thickets, sunny meadows, forested pathways, wading pools and retreats within the 55 living and fabricated trees keep the inhabitants active. Hidden from view within the trees are electronically-timed feeders that “stimulate exploration and involve the gorillas in natural foraging behaviors,” according to Dr. Conroy.
Each step into the exhibit plunges you deeper into the jungle; along the way subtly placed note cards inform you about your surroundings. Tiny telescopes direct your attention to exotic tropical flora, and a replica of a Mbuti hunting camp complete the scene. But you’ve only just entered the forest, the real stuff is up ahead.
The exhibit contains 21 interactive learning bays, including a room that allows you to see yourself the way an African rock python does, thermographically. A short film on the central African rain forest educates and prepares you for what you see next. At its conclusion, the screen disappears to reveal the gorillas. You walk through a huge glass tunnel right in the heart of the lowland gorillas’ home. Two adolescents wrestle near a rock, while an adult silverback named Timmy keeps watch.
One of the females suddenly gets up and ambles toward the windows, and the humans grow increasingly excited. She takes her time, picks at the grass, glances this way and that, until she sits down, right in front of you, and looks you straight in the eye. A young child in the front breaks the crowd’s trance, crying out “It looks just like us!” This is what the Congo Forest is all about.
After this visceral tug of experience, one is better prepared to make the decision to help save a rain forest and, as you leave, you are given the opportunity to do just that. Will your $3 go to help protect elephants in the Congo basin? Will it go to fund one of numerous international WCS projects dedicated to a particular wildlife species? You decide which species. You decide which habitat. You’ll leave knowing that your money helped, for instance, to preserve the endangered western lowland gorilla or the central West African mandrill.
Congo Gorilla Forest is the largest African rain forest ever built. Still, with all of its fantastic realism, it is only a miniature version of one of the Earth’s most essential ecosystems, which must be preserved at all costs. Your visit to the exhibit provides support for this cause.
The Wildlife Conservation Society hosted a gala last June to celebrate the opening of the Congo Gorilla Forest at the Bronx Zoo. New York society, along with a Los Angeles contingent, turned out to support the animals in the exhibit. Colobus monkeys, lowland gorillas, and grey-cheeked hornbills were among the stars in attendance. The WCS honored the efforts and support of specific patrons that night, including Ted Turner, shown above.