The irony hasn't escaped me that the lessons Perth Zoo is teaching its orang-utans in its new Jungle School exhibit, are pretty much the same that I teach my own kids. However, where I am trying to get my kids ready for the big wide world, the orang-utans are being prepared for life back in the wild. Of course, kids below a certain age aren't going to see this aspect of the new Jungle School exhibit: they're just going to go ape over the new panoramic and interactive boardwalk.
Jungle School is a Perth Zoo initiative which teaches orphaned and pet orang-utans five essential lessons for life in the wild jungles of Indonesia. Some of the Sumatran orang-utan colony at the zoo will one day be released back into the wild thanks to its reintroduction program – but only after mastering the five essential lessons: stay in the trees; getting along; finding food and water; know your neighbourhood and make a nest.
As a human mum, I am constantly trying to keep my kids out of trees, but the other four lessons ring true for me. As our family approached the new boardwalk it was all I could do to stop them from racing off. Built over the existing concrete paths, the new 125 metre boardwalk (made from environmentally friendly plantation pine, bamboo and recycled plastics) rises to over two metres, bringing Perth families that bit closer to our not-so-distant relatives in the trees. What the new exhibit also does, is bring life in the trees down to ground level as well, with the introduction of ropes to practice swinging on, as well as replicas of the pods that the orang-utans live in. I saw more adults swinging in the pods and pretending to be monkeys than kids (but that could be because most kids can't reach the bars).
What kids can reach though, are a number of interactive boards and screens that line the boardwalk (Lesson 4: know your neighbourhood). Want to know what orang-utans eat for breakfast? You can find that out and more. Want to see the baby orang-utan up close? Easy – there are now purpose built binoculars at the high end of the boardwalk. Binoculars aren't good enough for the techno-geeks? No worries, use the CCTV observation stations that you can control yourself from the ground.
There's even fun for parents, as I overheard one family during my visit. 'Look, a cage!' the Mum cried. The kids crowded in happily (Lesson 5: make a nest). 'That's the best place for you,' said the Dad. My kids overheard this exchange, and couldn't wait to get in there themselves. They were happy to sit in the cage and hang around in the pods eating bananas (Lesson 3: find food and water) while I sat on one of the stools and observed the orang-utans observing me. With over 2,000 new plants (including some unbelievable fungi), permanent misting sprinklers and recorded bird and insect sounds, the new exhibit certainly feels more jungle-like than the previous incarnation.
And while the Zoo has gone to great effort to get its human visitors off the ground (you can look down and see the old concrete paths) it is much more interested in getting its orang-utan colony off the ground as well (lesson one: stay in the trees). They have done this by removing some of the enticements that kept them on the ground (including us, presumably), although some of the discarded boxes and hessian sacks can still be seen lying around on the ground. It actually looked a bit like my place.
The new boardwalk is also much more wheelchair and pram friendly than the previous narrow paths. Smooth, wide and with a gentle incline, the boardwalk is both accessible and fun. The kids will also love the real bogged jeep at the beginning of the exhibit, which has the best thing of all – buttons! My kids spent ages playing along with the recorded radio messages, and pretending to drive through the jungle (Lesson 2: getting along). I wish there was a bench nearby.
The jeep has buttons, switches and levers. Good luck getting your kids to leave it
The mammoth effort behind Jungle School, and the reasons for the new boardwalk and changes to the enclosures might be beyond the smallest visitors to the zoo. But those who like to stop and read the signs along the way, will realise how important a program like this can be to a critically endangered species like the Sumatran orang-utan. Added to its successful breeding program (29 orang-utans have been born at Perth Zoo since 1970) Jungle School is another inspirational experience that shows why our world-class zoo plays a key role in regional conservation.
* 'Shannon was invited as a guest'