One of the many reasons people return to London Zoo time and again is because this most special of places seems to be constantly evolving – there’s always something new to see.
A few years ago it introduced its Land of the Lions area, taking visitors to a mini version of India’s Gir National Park – a land where kids can play at being forest rangers as well as exploring the beauty of the animals themselves.
You can even sleep in the Land of the Lions – a treat we enjoyed a couple of years back.
And now the zoo, in Regent’s Park, has transformed perhaps its most well-known structure, the Snowdon Aviary, into a new home for its Eastern black and white colobus monkeys – the first of its kind in the UK.
When we visited on Sunday we were among the lucky few to be given a preview walk-through with these intriguing creatures – the zoo is currently only letting a very limited number of people into the enclosure while the monkeys get used to their human visitors.
You can already walk through with the butterflies – and the spiders if you’re feeling brave, and of course could with the birds when the aviary was first opened in the 1960s.
But the plan is that, very soon, the general public will be able to walk with the monkeys as we did on Sunday, for the first time in the zoo’s history.
We were given a few tips – most notably keep your hands to yourself, don’t crouch down and don’t put kids on your shoulders – apparently the monkeys get freaked out by people who all of a sudden seem smaller – or bigger.
Inside the soaring new canal-side walkthrough visitors are transported to the lush, mountainous forests of central Africa, and treated to 360-degree, panoramic views of the colobus troop, as they leap from tree to tree.
Soaring 80ft above the Primrose Hill skyline – the height of six London double-decker buses – the new walkthrough features a range of monkey upgrades, including multi-level sunny and shaded basking spots for the 10 troop members to lounge in, more than 800m of rope to swing on, 1,347 new plants and trees to leap amongst, and a 30ft waterfall, flowing into a peaceful lagoon.
The new attraction is also home to Colobus Park – a peaceful picnic spot where parents can relax while little ones practice their own colobus leaps – and an interactive Colobus Corner, where visitors of all ages can learn to translate ‘colobus speak’, deciphering what their unique clicks and grunts really mean.
ZSL London Zoo’s chief operating officer, Kathryn England, said: “We’re excited to welcome visitors to Monkey Valley this summer – after seven years of careful planning and restoration, new life has been breathed into the former Snowdon Aviary, a remarkable piece of the nation’s architectural history.
“Colobus monkeys are nicknamed the ‘high-flying monkeys’ because of their impressive leaps – as they drop from branch to branch, with their arms outstretched, it’s believed they use the long hair on their body and tails as makeshift parachutes.
“It’s truly a sight to behold, and we can’t wait to share this and more about these incredible primates with our visitors.”
The Grade-II* listed Snowdon Aviary’s restoration and transformation into the Monkey Valley walkthrough involved 35,000 hours of sensitive construction.
Abseiling experts carefully replaced more than 1115sqft of aluminium mesh wrap, before deep cleaning the four towering tetrahedrons that create its distinctive shape and replacing 37 cables to provide the tension that famously holds the structure in place.
The original aviary was conceived by the late first Earl of Snowdon and realised by architect Cedric Price with structural engineer Frank Newby – it was pioneering in its use of aluminium and tension for support, and was Britain’s first walk-through aviary when the exhibit opened in 1965.
The zoo says it will allow generations of future visitors and schoolchildren to get even closer to the amazing animals at ZSL London Zoo while forming a new conservation breeding centre for the troop – part of a collaborative European-wide breeding programme focused on the preservation of the species, which is threatened by deforestation in the wild.
While we visited the monkeys stayed well away, but the keepers expect them to get more adventurous as they get used to being with us humans.
The ultimate immersive family adventure this summer, the Monkey Valley colobus monkey walkthrough experience exclusively opened to ZSL members, fellows and patrons on July 30, and will be given a public opening on Monday.
Visit www.zsl.org for more details and to book tickets.
Pictured top: A colobus monkey with zookeeper Kathryn Sanders as ZSL London Zoo (Picture: Ian West PA ZSL)