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Jardim Zoologico Do Cidade Do Rio de Janeiro / Rio Zoo

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This critique last updated:  Dec 2007

Official Description

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Visitor Reviews

This review written by Christoph Schwitzer and reprinted by Kind Permission of International Zoo News

The last zoo we visited on this journey was the Jardim Zoológico do Rio de Janeiro, the oldest zoo in Brazil. Rio de Janeiro, the `River of January' (so named because Amerigo Vespucci, when he landed in Guanabara Bay on 1 January 1502, believed he had found the mouth of a big river and, as it was New Year's Day, named the place after the month), was Brazil's capital from 1763, when it succeeded Salvador, until 1960, when President Juscelino Kubitschek declared Brasília, a new city built within a thousand days, as the new capital (Marggraf, 1996).

So Rio's zoo, which was founded in 1888, is definitely the country's `capital zoo'. After a delightful walk through the Parque da Quinta da Boa Vista, one approaches its impressive main entrance, with a row of columns on each side leading to a great arch in the middle through which visitors can go: it is comparable in grace only to the greatest of its counterparts, for example the main entrance of Budapest Zoo or the elephant-gate of Berlin Zoo. It was given by an English aristocrat as a wedding present to the first emperor of Brazil, Pedro I, and his wife Leopoldina.

Having passed the gate, one is no less impressed by the botanical display surrounding the animal enclosures. An avenue of royal palms (Roystonea regia), which can grow up to 25 metres high, casts its shade upon the main axis of the zoo. The zoo is encompassed by light forest, mainly consisting of huge old trees that alone would make the park well worth a visit, with clumps of flowers like red heliconia (H. rostrata) or bird-of-paradise flower (Strelitzia reginae) between them.

On almost 30 acres (12 ha) can be seen about 2,100 animals (reptiles, birds and mammals) of 350 species. Most interesting, as in all the other Brazilian zoos, are the rarely-seen native species, and of these Rio Zoo shows at least two for which a search in any European collection would be absolutely fruitless: a single female red-backed saki (Chiropotes satanas chiropotes), which belongs to the genus of the bearded sakis, members of which (but of different species/subspecies) are housed only at Cologne and Mulhouse Zoos, as well as a pair of dusky titis (Callicebus moloch ssp.), a species related to the red titi (Callicebus cupreus) of which a trio lives at Berlin Zoo. Rio's primate collection also includes a group of the yellow-throated capuchin (Cebus apella xanthosternos), a very rare subspecies of the ordinary brown capuchin, for which a captive-breeding project was initiated by the Rio de Janeiro Primate Centre. From there animals have already been sent to Mulhouse, Zürich and Chester Zoos. Among the Callitrichidae, noteworthy species are pied tamarins (Saguinus b. bicolor), black red-handed tamarins (Saguinus midas niger) and moustached tamarins of the subspecies S. m. pileatus. All these animals are kept in suitable, but rather unappealing, enclosures of the cage type, except for the capuchins, which live on a rock descending below the visitors' level into a dry moat. The homes for the two ape species, though, look quite different. Orang-utans and chimpanzees are housed in a row of dry-moated, meadow-like enclosures, and, judging by the crowds of visitors gathering in front of them, are the greatest attraction for the people of Rio.

As is the case in many good zoos, not all of Rio's animals are kept in a modern and adequate style, and there are certainly some species that need rehousing. A single female Asian elephant is among them, as well as some larger carnivores occupying a menagerie-style row of cages. But nobody has the money to do everything which needs to be done at once, and as the rest of the zoo looks very promising, one can be sure that it is only a matter of time before these relics are replaced.

Nothing is as obvious in Rio Zoo as their participation in the breeding projects for golden and golden-headed lion tamarins, as groups of these two species are scattered through the whole zoo. But spectacled bears, the already mentioned yellow-throated capuchins, and some bird species are also held in cooperation with breeding programmes.

The zoo features no buildings providing visitor access, except for a semi-covered building (one side open) for reptiles and fish and, again, the gift-shop and restaurant. The latter, in great contrast to many of its European and North American counterparts, offers a large variety of not only edible, but actually tasty and well-prepared foods, which the hungry zoo visitor can accumulate on his plate in self-service before being billed by weight.

All in all, Brazil's zoos in the range of their quality are comparable to German, British and North American facilities. There are good and not-so-good zoos, with some excellent enclosures as well as some designed without much imagination. The standard of behavioural enrichment is high (not least due to the very natural enclosures, which sometimes look like a fenced-in piece of rainforest), and breeding of those species kept in pairs or groups is successful.

The collections often comprise a large proportion of native species, which, considering Brazil's uniquely rich fauna and flora, is understandable and definitely of great educational value. Unfortunately, there is usually only very little or even no educational material available, such as e.g. guidebooks, magazines, teacher-packs or even leaflets with maps. Also, in many cases the enclosure labelling is not too informative, but there are laudable exceptions.

A great deal of research is apparently being carried out in many of the institutions I was able to visit, in particular at Cuiabá Zoo, CASIB and São Paulo Zoo (which maintains pathological and clinical laboratories, as well as a zoological library accessible to the visitors).

Attendances, which largely reflect the recreational value of a zoo, are uniformly high for those Brazilian zoos replying to the International Zoo Yearbook (which does not mean that they are low for all the others, simply that there are no data readily available). In 1993, the best-visited were Rio de Janeiro (2.2 million), São Paulo (2.1 million), Belo Horizonte (1.1 million) and Brasília (0.6 million) (Olney and Fisken, 1995). These figures indicate the Brazilian people's high degree of satisfaction with their zoos, which is definitely justified by their quality. They also show that, even in a country with a fauna of such great diversity as Brazil's, zoos are very popular places to go, and taking into account the fact that not many people are able to see the animals in their natural homes, zoos offer the best chance to create among the public an awareness of the wildlife in their own country.


I would like to thank Mara Cristina Marques of São Paulo Zoo, Otilia Vieira Breitwieser and Ana Paula Rocha Vieira of Fortaleza, as well as Franziska Huber and Marcos Roberto Ferramosca Cardoso from the University of Mato Grosso, Cuiabá, for their helpfulness and hospitality, and John Tuson for reviewing the manuscript. Especially I would like to thank Stephan Gantner and Dierk Wanke for their company and their discussions.



Christ, W. (1996): Rio-Itaipú-Iguaçú-São Paulo. In Brasilien (C. Naundorf, R. Marggraf and W. Christ), pp. 168–193. Reich Verlag AG, Luzern.

Marggraf, R. (1996): Geschichte. In Brasilien (C. Naundorf, R. Marggraf and W. Christ), pp. 62–90. Reich Verlag AG, Luzern.

Olney, P.J.S., and Fisken, F.A. (1995): Zoos and aquariums of the world — Brazil. In International Zoo Yearbook Vol. 34, pp. 254–255. Zoological Society of London, London.

Saliba, A.M. (1995): The São Paulo Zoo, among the best in the world. Fundação Parque Zoológico de São Paulo, São Paulo.

Wanke, D., Gantner, S., and Schwitzer, C. (in press): Drei südbrasilianische Echinodorus-Arten vom Aussterben bedroht. Deutsche Aquarien- und Terrarien-Zeitschrift.

Christoph Schwitzer, Am Botanischen Garten 61, D-50735 Köln, Germany.

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