The days are numbered for Bangkok’s historic Dusit Zoo
Like many of Bangkok’s finest modern institutions, the Dusit Zoo was born from the will of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) at the end of the 19th century. However, it was not originally a zoo, but a botanical garden. The King had been impressed by botanical gardens he visited around Southeast Asia, including the Lands Plantentuin te Buitenzorg—the National Botanical Garden in Buitenzorg (today Kebun Raya Bogor in Indonesia), which is Southeast Asia’s oldest botanical park. Rama V was also taken with the Singapore Botanical Garden, which had opened in 1859, and one of the reasons he enjoyed such institutions was that they combined relaxation with educational purposes.
The botanical garden in Dusit was thus created around 1895, on land east of the Premprachakorn Canal and across from Chitralada Palace. The grounds included an artificial lake, surrounded by vast gardens with rare trees and bushes being planted to form a city forest. The area was, at first, only used by the King and the Royal Family, who enjoyed the scenic vista over other palaces and the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall. In the Glass House, a charming pavilion built around 1920 in late Art Nouveau style, there is some explanation about the history of the garden, as well as some old photographs of the zoo.
During the later reign of King Rama VII the garden was further expanded, but it was only after 1932, and the change from absolute to constitutional monarchy, that the government decided to establish the area as a public park, and transform the grounds into a zoological garden (with royal permission of King Rama VIII of course).
To join the small herd of deer, which had populated the garden since its beginnings—they were brought back by King Rama V from Java—Bangkok’s municipality transferred birds, crocodiles, and monkeys from other royal gardens, such as Suan Umporn and Suan Saranrom, over to the new institution. A request was also made for royal elephants from the palace to be shown at the zoo on Sundays. After the transformation of the garden into a full-fledged zoo, the area was officially open to the public on March 18th, 1938. It was then that it was officially named ‘Dusit Zoo’. Since 1954 the zoo has been under the control of the Zoological Park Organization, which manages six zoos and elephant parks all across Thailand.
Nowadays there are some 1,600 animals to be admired at the zoo and many have become true stars, including “Petch”, the first albino barking deer in the world, and “Mae Mali”, a 52 year-old hippopotamus. Other celebrity-status critters include: white tigers; white lions; elephants; Axis deer (among the “historical animals” brought by King Rama V in from Indonesia); dozens of species of turtles; giraffes which can be fed by visitors; Red-Shanked Douc Langur monkeys (some of the most beautiful species of these monkeys in the world); and the largest Asiatic black bear to be found in Thailand.
Unfortunately for history buffs, in October of last year there was an announcement about the possible relocation of the zoo to Pathum Thani. Then, in December, newspapers reported that the Zoological Park Organization had announced the creation of working groups to move forward the plan to close Dusit Zoo in Bangkok, and relocate it to a larger site in Pathum Thani’s Thanya Buri district. The extensive plot of land the new site will occupy was graciously granted by King Maha Vajiralonkorn (Rama X), and is almost three times larger in area than the current zoo.
The plan for the new zoological garden will be to create landscapes similar to the natural environment of the animals, and to provide modern edutainment facilities for visitors. The Pathum Thani Zoo might be opened in 2019, at the earliest, but in the meantime making one last visit to the original zoo is recommended for those wanting to give it a final furry farewell.
INFORMATION: The Dusit Zoo is located on Uthong Nai Rd, and is open daily from 8am to 6pm. Entrance is B150 for adults and B70 for children (Thai citizens pay, respectively, B100 and B20).
Words and photos by Luc Citrinot