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By Christopher Mill, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO – The considerable rebuilding works of urban zoos in cities such as Chicago, London, Hong Kong, Melbourne and Cape Town in recent years have become leading examples for the rest of the world’s zoological community in the creation of urban animal enclosures. Having hit a new record of over 70,000 visitors last year and with the forthcoming, and much-needed, renovations set to start in early 2012, Rio Zoo is slowly closing in on claiming a spot on the city’s famous list of tourist destinations.

The leopard at Rio Zoo, one of several wild cats whose enclosures are set for modernization, photo by Keven Law/ Wikimedia Creative Commons License.

Set among stunning imperial palm trees in Quinta da Boa Vista in Zona Norte, it was first opened in 1888. Despite its reputation as ‘The National Zoo’, Rio in fact has fewer species than São Paulo, and is roughly half the size of that in Port Alegre. Its 2,900 animals, deriving from 485 different species, is also comparatively modest given the amount of land available to house them. The London Zoo in Regents Park, for example, has 755 Species and close to 15,000 individual animals on 36 acres of land, only five acres more than Rio.

Certainly some of this can be attributed to the higher quantity of creatures found together in London’s marine life habitats, not present here in Rio, but what it lacks in underwater life it makes up for in its rare species of birds and collection of endangered domestic primates such as the yellow-throated capuchin monkey.

The apes have always been a big draw, and whilst the orang-utans and chimps grab the crowds, the legend of monkey Macaco Tião’s will always endure after he was jokingly nominated to run for city mayor in 1988 by TV show Casseta e Planeta and, it is widely claimed, came third with almost half a million votes.

The spectacular entrance to Quinta da Boa Vista, photo by Zoological Park of Rio de Janeiro.

From an aerial view, the zoo can be divided into three distinct sections, the first and largest of which is the ‘Animais da Quinta’, located in a fenced off part of Quinta da Boa Vista park. Kept in the spacious enclosure is a sizable array of farm animals from around the globe and smaller members of the cervidae family such as the reindeer.

The second section is home to the reptiles, amphibians and nocturnal creatures as well as the spectacular bird collection for which Rio Zoo has grown famous. Down a steep ridge circling back around towards the entrance, the third area is filled with the crowd-pleasing mammals that no major zoo would be complete without, from hippos to monkeys and elephants, but some of the big cats look increasingly unhappy with their lot.

It is clear that the 122-year-old zoo has had a long wait for the forthcoming renovations, and though numbers are up, the appeal of the zoo has decreased somewhat with the obvious need for modernization. Whereas many of the animals have plenty of space to keep themselves in which to roam, some, notably the wild cats and the bear, are in serious need of new housing. The Asian Elephant paddock will also be a priority if the standards are to be brought into line with the world’s best.

The Rio Zoo can be easily accessed from the south zone of the city by metro, alighting at São Cristovão. Entrance is R$6,00, and the National History Museum is a 10-minute walk from the zoo in the Área Verde park.

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