WHAT has been described as Chester Zoo's 'jewel in the crown' is reopening its doors to the public, nearly two years on from a devastating fire.

The 3,000 sq m Monsoon Forest was left heavily damaged in December 2018 when a fire destroyed much of the attraction, and sadly several birds, insects and rare plants died.

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But thanks to a huge team effort, 22 months later the Monsoon Forest is ready to reopen to the public, looking as good as it ever did. Indeed, regular visitors to the zoo who had the chance to visit the Monsoon Forest between its original opening in 2015 and the fire in late 2018 will think nothing had ever happened, with the layout and animal habitats largely identical to before.

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The Monsoon Forest is home to more than 2,600 plants, including meat eating plants, as well as 33 animal species such as rare and colourful birds, Sumatran orangutans, rhinoceros hornbills, silvery gibbons, Sunda gharial crocodiles and tentacled snakes, plus and all the sights and sounds one would expect to experience in the South East Asia jungle.

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Chester Zoo CEO Dr Mark Pilgrim, speaking to this newspaper, explained how a magnificent team effort had ensured the Monsoon Forest had come back to life.

He said: "After the fire, the place was completely devastated. There was an enormous clean-up task and all the animals were taken out and rehoused in other parts of the zoo, and then the clean-up itself began.

"We had to remove all the plants and all the soil – 2,500 plants went out and back in. To have a tropical rainforest means taking care of an awful amount of plants with regular checks, including the right humidity.

"Each one of the metal struts was taken out, restored, repainted and brought back in.

"It takes a huge number of skilled people – building engineers and horticulturists included."

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Dr Pilgrim added the team effort was more impressive considering the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

He said: "Some of the larger plants come from Holland; a team normally comes across to help install them, but obviously they couldn't.

"It's all thee things that make makes us extra proud. I am so proud of the staff who have achieved this, especially when you think back to what it looked just after the fire."

Dr Pilgrim also thanked the zoo's supporters, who have not only helped donate millions as a result of the Save Our Zoo appeal this year, but were prepared to donate after the initial fire.

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He explained: "The area [Monsoon Forest building] was insured, so the insurers have been very good, but even at the time of the fire, people could not have been more generous.

"We made it clear we didn't need the money to rebuild it but people were so keen to donate.

"We came in for a bit of criticism for setting up a JustGiving page, but that was because we had so many people calling the office wanting to donate when we needed to contact crisis support teams, we needed to take the pressure off."

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And the money donated has gone to good use.

"Some of the money has gone to improvements in the Monsoon Forest, a little bit here and there, but most of the money has been used to fund on-the-ground conservation projects in South East Asia."

That has led Chester Zoo to work with the Borneo Nature Foundation, which has front line firefighters protecting human communities and wildlife in Sebangau National Park, Borneo, from the advance of peat fires.

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Sebangau is itself home to an incredible diversity of life, including precious habitat for critically endangered Bornean orang-utan.

Money has also gone to provide much-needed habitats for hornbills in Indonesia.

"There is some real silver linings coming out of the tragedy, " Dr Pilgrim added.

  • Chester Zoo's Monsoon Forest officially reopens to the public on Saturday, October 24.​

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