The Budungo Trail
Kings of the swingers
Claire Prentice hangs out with the new residents of the world’s largest and most chi-chi chimpanzee enclosure
In Edinburgh a group of extrovert housemates have just moved into a new high tech environment where they will be under almost constant supervision by the public. For the next few weeks experts predict squabbles, group bonding and excessive personal grooming.
Life in the Budongo Trail, the new £5.65m state-of-the-art chimp enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo, is a lot like an episode of Big Brother, even if the residents are much smarter than their TV counterparts. Their palatial new home is the first part of a major £77.8m overhaul of the zoo to create enclosures that stimulate the animals and simulate their natural environment.
And judging by the happy looks on the chimps’ faces, it’s working. While Lucy gets up close and personal with an Italian tourist, Ricky, a grizzled 47-year-old chimp who lived at sea for years with the merchant navy, where he learned to drink rum and smoke cigarettes, is looking none too impressed by the antics of a group of school children. As they bang on the glass, he turns his back on them.
‘It has been interesting to watch them settling in and to see the effect the new environment has had on their behaviour,’ says Jo Richardson, head keeper of The Budongo Trail. ‘Chimpanzees are extremely intelligent, physically strong and complex characters. It’s important to continually evolve their environment and stimulate them. You’ve got to consider all aspects of their behaviour when designing a home for them.’
The chimps’ new home consists of three indoor pods of varying humidity, light and temperature as well as the world’s largest climbing frame for apes which was specially created by the army.
‘The most important thing is to make sure the enclosure is chimp proof,’ says Richardson.
As if to prove that it is, alpha male Qafzeh lets out a terrific whoop and his five male and five female flatmates all begin running and climbing up the frame as Qafzeh races through the overhead passage banging on the walls.
‘If an alpha male isn’t doing a good job of being the alpha male then the women won’t keep him in that position,’ says Richardson. ‘The males rely very heavily on the females and it pays to keep them on side.’ More hints about animal nature from our nearest living relatives will be on offer when the Trail is fully opened in May.
The Budungo Trail, Edinburgh Zoo, is now partially open to the public; it will be fully open on Thu 1 May when the chimpanzees will be released into the outside enclosure.