“…Put aside your pathetic mammalian fears and prejudices and learn the truth about turtles and tortoises, lizards and snakes, and of course, at the pinnacle of reptilian excellence, the crocodiles and their kin. Within the walls of the lost world of reptiles you will find grace, beauty, specialization and adaptability. In other words, if I hear about anybody swerving on the road to hit snakes, I’ll track you down through the ages… and EAT YOU!”
Arising from the Ashes
Following the devastation of the Reptile Park by the fire of July 2000 the process of reconstruction presented a rare opportunity to create something truly original. Stories of ‘re-birth’ and metamorphosis abound in many cultures – but are exemplified in Egyptian mythology with the story of Phoenix, the sun-bird that famously rose from the ashes in rejuvenated splendor. But it was the Egyptian crocodile-headed god Sobek, and in particular, the temples dedicated to him that would provide special inspiration for the redevelopment. Palacial temples such Kom Ombo might well be regarded as the world’s first ‘reptile parks’. There, priests farmed crocodiles and performed crocodile feeding shows for Greek and Roman tourists.
Now, more than two thousand years after the last crocodile feeding show was performed at Kom Ombo, and on the opposite side of the globe, Sobek has resumed his role as ambassador for the scaly kingdom, taking pride of place in the Lost World of Reptiles exhibition. Under Sobek’s watchful eye, reptiles from around the world are presented within the context of long-lost civilisations – depicting elements from Ancient Egypt, Athens, and Rome – more often than not in a humorous, tongue-in-cheek manner. The result has been the creation of a very fun and highly educational adventure.
Over a period of only 18 months following the fire, teams of highly skilled workers transformed an enormous, burned out shell of a building, into one of the most unique zoological attractions anywhere. Tradesmen of all descriptions rubbed shoulders with sculptors, model makers, muralists and lighting and sound technicians. Throughout the project many Reptile Park staff members were involved in the hands-on production – with many late nights spent assisting in the construction of ‘stone’ walls, artificial rock features, fiberglass ponds, etc. Within a short period some of the more ebullient of these zoo keepers, receptionists, education officers and food service workers began to regard themselves as legendary artisans in their own right.
The project progressed in stages – only one section of the exhibit area was inaccessible to visitors at any given time. Some of the components were produced off-site to minimize disruption. Finally, on April 8th, 2002, an official opening ceremony was held to signal completion of the project.
Entry to the exhibition can only be gained through the gaping jaws of a 30 metre-long model crocodile. Just inside the croc-mouth, an animated Egyptian mummy urges visitors through to the Lost World of Reptiles. Upon entering the spacious recreation of Kom Ombo, awe-struck visitors are confronted by the five metre tall crocodile god Sobek, guardian of the pharaohs and ambassador of the reptile kingdom. From his golden throne, with feet soaking in a pool full of live crocodiles, Sobek thunders a reptilian-righteous oration, punctuated with billowing puffs of smoke and bursts of thunder and lightening.
Upon completion of Sobek’s speech, visitors are free to explore the exhibition and view a wide range of the world’s most fascinating reptiles from tiny geckos to awesome king cobras. Within the Lost World of Reptiles visitors can see the biggest, the deadliest, and even the rarest of the world’s reptile species (the rough-scaled python). The innovatively designed exhibits are world-class in their presentation. ‘Mad mummies’ provide comic relief as visitors explore mysterious passageways and ancient chambers reminiscent of an Indiana Jones film set.
After exploring the numerous reptile displays within the Egyptian component of ‘Lost Worlds’, visitors enter the ancient Australian section – Goanna Gully, where they encounter a frighteningly realistic seven-metre-long model of the prehistoric Megolania – the largest ever ‘goanna’ or monitor lizard, which no doubt terrorized the earliest Aboriginal settlers. A living example of Australia’s largest surviving goanna – the Perentie Varanus giganteus is exhibited in a spacious recreation of a centralian desert. Nearby, frilled lizards ‘Chlamydosarus kingii’ are exhibited in the context of a northern woodlands scene. Upon leaving Goanna Gully visitors find additional reptile exhibits within the settings of additional ‘Lost Worlds’ – including a Greek amphitheatre – and further along, elements of ancient Roman civilisation.
Everywhere the visitor looks something unexpected appears – always within the mysterious trappings of a lost ancient civilization. Although immersed in the Lost Worlds theme, each of the more than 40 reptile exhibits accurately recreates some aspect of the natural world. In many cases the effect is enhanced by the use of open top sections to glass fronted enclosures. In others enclosure ‘walls’ are replaced by glass surroundings. Underwater viewing is afforded for many of the aquatic exhibits. High-tech heating, lighting and humidifying systems assist in maintaining various reptilian environments, ensuring good health and a comfortable captive life for the animals.
Obtaining the Animals
By far the worst outcome arising from the fire was the death of nearly the entire reptile collection. Many of the animals had been maintained for more than twenty years and of course could never truly be replaced. Nevertheless, it was apparent that a new and extensive collection of reptiles would have to be assembled. Fortunately, most Australian zoos and fauna parks were very quick to offer assistance, as did numerous other reptile keepers. Within a short span of time a large proportion of the animals required had been obtained. The remaining species would have to be imported from overseas – something no privately-funded Australian zoo had done in over 30 years. The bureaucratic challenge proved to be incredibly onerous – but not impossible. A purpose-built high-security quarantine facility was built, which now operates in accordance with stringent legal requirements. A trial importation of reptiles from U.S. zoos was thereafter successfully undertaken, and numerous additional species will be imported in the future.
The reptiles exhibited in Lost World of Reptiles represent a wide range of species from nearly every corner of the globe. From crocodiles and alligators, to turtles, lizards and snakes, visitors receive a broad introduction to the world’s remarkable diversity of reptiles with a special emphasis on Australian forms. ‘Leonardo’, the massive 50kg American alligator snapping turtle was found wandering through the storm-water sewers of Sydney in late 2000 and has become a favorite with visitors and Reptile Park staff alike. Other popular exhibits include those containing reticulated pythons – the largest snake species in the world, king cobras – the longest of the world’s venomous snake species, and the rough-scaled python – regarded as one of the world’s rarest snake species, and the subject of considerable fieldwork by Reptile Park staff. The exhibit for this species recreates the sandstone escarpment country of the Kimberley region of Western Australia, where it is confined to small, isolated gorges. Other effective exhibits include those provided for South American iguanas, Philippine sail-finned lizards, central netted dragons, Fijian banded iguanas, and a full range of Australia’s own venomous snakes.
It was an aim in the redevelopment to depart significantly from the kind of zoo experience generally accepted as the norm – not that the Reptile Park has ever comfortably fit into the mold of ‘fauna park’ or ‘zoo’. The Lost World of Reptiles offers a fresh and unique approach to zoo displays that successfully enhances the wonderment, appreciation, and understanding of visitors for nature, while at the same time contributing to the provision of an unforgettable day out.