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The Honolulu Zoo: A walk on the wild side

by Larry LeDoux, faculty editor

The wildest night spot in Waikiki – daytime, too – is the Honolulu Zoo, the only major city zoo for 2,300 miles! The Zoo received its name in 1947, but its beginning is much older – nearly 125 years. Its original collection of exotic birds was part of an 1876 grant of royal lands dedicated in 1877 as a public park by King David Kalakaua in honor of his wife, Queen Kapiolani.
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The City and County of Honolulu assumed administration of Kapiolani Park, and thus of the Zoo, in 1913, and in the next year began construction of exhibits to house its first mammals – a monkey, a honey bear, and some lion cubs. In 1916, these were joined by a friendly African elephant named Daisy. From these humble beginnings, the Honolulu Zoo has grown and prospered until today it encompasses 42 acres and attracts more than 750,000 visitors a year. And there is talk of moving it to larger quarters in Kapolei.

The original purpose of the Zoo – to enrich the lives of the residents of the islands, by showing them something of life in other parts of the world, and to conserve wildlife – is unchanged. It defines its current mission as the fostering of “an appreciation of the living world, with emphasis on tropical ecosystems, by serving as a center for environmental education, biological study, recreation, and conservation.”
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Visitors to the Honolulu Zoo can experience 1,250 different animals in some 300 different species – including birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals – in habitats that duplicate the ecosystems of African savannas, and American and Asian tropical forests.

African Savanna The Honolulu Zoo’s African Savanna has been called “one of the best in the world.” An oasis of grassland, it is designed to make visitors feel as if they were on an actual African safari and built so that visitors are made to feel there are no boundaries separating the animals from the humans. It includes a walk-through aviary, giraffes, zebra, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, ostriches, and more.
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American Tropical Forest Reproducing the ecosystem of South and Central American Tropical Forests, this exhibit is home to some of the Zoo’s most exotic birds – king vultures, toco toucan, and spoonbills. It also includes the Zoo’s reptile house.

Asian Tropical Forest Construction on this exhibit began in fall 2000. It will provide habitats for the Zoo’s elephants, clouded leopards, sun bears, reptiles, and amphibians, including gharials (also called gavials), which look like slender-snouted crocodiles, and gibbons. One of these, the Siamang Gibbon, is the largest, darkest, and noisiest species of gibbon. Their hooting can be heard up to two miles away in the dense rainforest which is their natural habitat.
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The Asian Tropical Forest will also feature a walk-through aviary of a vast array of birds, including macaws, parrots, toucans, and cockatoos. The Zoo’s Bird of Paradise pair from New Guinea is the only pair breeding in captivity. They recently hatched a 54th chick.

The Honolulu Zoo includes a children’s zoo, a farm-style exhibit with animals for petting, including llama, goats, and piglets. New additions in June 2000 include two loveable pygmy goats born on site. An elephant encounter pen allows visitors to feed and pet elephants daily at 11 a.m. or 1:30 p.m. Special family programs include Moonlight Tours, exciting nighttime safaris that allow visitors to observe animals that normally sleep during the day.

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A similar program, for children, is “Snooze in the Zoo,” which lets kids camp out in the wildest place in town. Keiki and junior Zookeeper programs take children behind the scenes to meet the animals and their keepers and help prepare animal meals. Junior Birthday Parties and Vacation Adventures are also offered.

Some unusual animals The Honolulu Zoo collection features a special Komodo dragon exhibit, a sophisticated habitat that allows visitors to experience these giant lizards in their native environment. In fact, the habitat is so successful that, with the hatching of two eggs this past fall, the female became the first of her species to reproduce in captivity.
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The Zoo’s Monitor Lizards, a gift to the children of Hawai‘i from the children of Guam, have shiny yellow and green skin and are the only lizards that, like snakes, can increase the size of their mouths to swallow large prey.

The Blue Duikers (pronounced dye-kerz) are small, shy, diurnal forest antelopes. Duikers means “divers” in Afrikaans, and refers to the animals’ tendency to “dive” for cover when frightened. Although Blue Duikers are monogamous and mate for life, the female is responsible for most of the care giving – as staff at the Zoo discovered recently when a baby duiker was born.

Meerkats are active and highly sociable. Unlike most small carnivores, they live in groups and thus can successfully discourage predators. They also cooperate in caring for their young, but they do not hunt cooperatively. Meerkats are members of the mongoose family and, should they escape, would be capable of establishing themselves and damaging Hawai‘i’s native wildlife. As a safety measure, therefore, all of the Meerkats at the Honolulu Zoo are males.

The Radiated Tortoises have yellow and black shells, and are considered the “stars” of the Tortoise family. These are native to the southern portion of the island of Madagascar, located off the east coast of Africa.

Golden Lion Tamarins are small (500 – 600 grams) monkeys native to South America. They live in the heavily populated coastal region of Brazil, where less than two percent of the forest remains. There are about 400 in the wild and about 500 in more than 100 zoos worldwide.

The Nene, Hawai‘i’s state bird, became nearly extinct in the wild. In the 1950s, a captive breeding program was begun. Nene have been released on Maui and Hawai‘i. Today they live on both islands at high altitudes far from bodies of water. But the flocks are not increasing in size. For several years escaped birds on Kauai have reproduced on their own, flourishing in coastal areas.

After encountering all of these interesting animals, and more, at the zoo, visitors can relax and enjoy “The Wildest Show In Town” on Wednesday evenings in the summer months, a free program of singing, dancing, and entertainment.

On weekends, a Zoo Fence Art Mart on Monsarrat Avenue, on the Diamond Head side of the zoo fence, allows local artists and crafts persons to display affordable souvenirs and objects.

The Zoo entrance faces Kalakaua Avenue at the corner of Kapahulu Avenue. It is within walking distance of most hotels and is accessible by the Waikiki Trolley or TheBus. There is metered parking along Kalakaua and Kapahulu.

The Honolulu Zoo is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. Admission is $6, $4 with local I.D. Call for more information, 808–971-7171, or experience your own virtual safari at

Robert Kaspo contributed to this article.

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