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Welcome to the Swiss rainforest

Zurich zoo brings Madagascar's rainforest to Switzerland

(Keystone)

The tropics have reached a small corner of Zurich with a unique indoor rainforest open to the public.

Twelve years in the making, the Masoala rain hall lets visitors glimpse rare plants and animals in a realistic setting.

Designed to mimic conditions on Madagascar’s threatened Masoala peninsula, the latest addition to Zurich zoo boasts temperatures in the mid 30s and humidity levels of more than 80 per cent.

The building even has its own ‘rainfall’ with sprinklers sending down up to 80,000 litres of water a day.

The hall was officially opened on Sunday at a VIP ceremony attended by Switzerland’s environment minister, Moritz Leuenberger, and his Madagascan counterpart, Charles Sylvain Robotoarison.

But for zoo director Alex Rübel, it’s the arrival of the general public that marks the true end of the building project and the real start of the rainforest’s life.

“Tthis is only the beginning of our close co-operation with the Madagascar national park,” zoo director, Alex Rübel, told swissinfo.

Tourist attraction

The zoo insists that the primary aim of the hall is to promote conservation but with its rope bridges, secret trails, stepping stones and even a Madagascan restaurant, the project is clearly vying for a place among Switzerland’s top tourist attractions.

“This is the biggest artificial rainforest anywhere in the world,” says project leader Andreas Hohl, “and I’m sure that it will be one of the main draws for visitors along with Zurich’s lakeside and the Bahnhofstrasse shopping district.

“Finding the balance between conservation and entertainment is part of daily life when it comes to running a zoo. You have to find the right meeting point between pure nature and a kind of Disneyworld. Zurich is one of the world’s leading zoos but we can only play a significant part in conservation and overseas projects if we can first entice people to spend money here in Zurich.”

Certainly, those who like their education to contain a fair amount of fun are unlikely to be disappointed as they make their way through the lush vegetation of the hall.

More than a hundred large animals, including birds, lemurs, insects and turtles, are hidden among the 17,000 imported plants.

With no closed cages or identification plaques, the emphasis is on visitors to make their own discoveries, just as in the wild, although guides are on hand for those who require them.

Private funding

Incredibly, given the size of the project, there are no lingering headaches over funding. The anticipated arrival of more than 300,000 extra visitors a year should ensure that the Masoala hall easily covers its running costs while the building costs of SFr52 million ($38 million) have largely been met, and mostly by private donations.

“It’s the biggest project we’ve ever undertaken and it was certainly a risky one at the outset,” admits zoo president Rolf Balsiger. “We owe a special thanks to the banker Dr Hans Vontobel who made a two-digit million donation.

“There is still around SFr4.5 million to raise, but I’m confident we won’t have any difficulty. Of course if we had fallen short it might have been possible to get some public money, but I am proud that we have managed to achieve this with purely private funding.”

Whether in the fields of finance, architecture or technology, Zurich’s latest tourist attraction is clearly an impressive tribute to human capabilities.

But as the first visitors make their way through the hall, it’s impossible to forget that nature has been creating much more complex habitats for millennia.

Those behind the new project seem only too aware that the hardest part of their mission statement will be in helping that natural process to continue.

swissinfo, Mark Ledsom in Zurich

Masoala rain hall

Conceived in 1991, the Masoala rainforest project has taken 12 years to complete - at a cost of SFr52 million.
The hall is similar to two football pitches in size, with a total area of 11,000 square metres.
It is populated with 17,000 plants and more than a hundred animals native to the Masoala peninsula in Madagascar.

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