In April 2007 Olaf Paterok and myself took a ten-day tour to see the most important and interesting zoological collections in Portugal and to visit the new Omega Parque in the south of Portugal, which unfortunately has announced that it is to be closed very soon. During our tour we learned that we were lucky to see a number of other collections which are on the point of changing their appearance or closing. So it was the right time to do a survey and get an impression of the current situation of zoos, zoo design and wild animal husbandry in Portugal.
The first time I heard about Omega Parque was in 2005 when a curator at Paris Vincennes told me about this place in the Algarve where Vincennes Zoo had sent their group of hanuman langurs and some other primates including a couple of sifakas. The curator praised the place as a very animal-oriented and really good zoo. During the next year the name of Omega Parque was more and more mentioned in zoo-related stories, so we were most surprised when in early 2007 we got a paper published by Phillippa and Neil Birchenough, the owners and founders of the collection, which announced the impending closure of the zoo. They were obviously very much depressed by their constant problems with the local authorities and when, finally, the car park was taken away even though it belonged to the Birchenoughs' property, they gave up.
Visiting the park about four weeks prior to the final closing, we still found a lot of species. Only a few primates like the white-belted black-and-white ruffed lemurs (Varecia variegata subcincta) had already been caught and put behind the scenes ready to be sent abroad. The collection at Omega Parque was a very fine one indeed. From sifakas to bamboo lemurs (Hapalemur simus and H. alaotrensis), and from lion-tailed macaques to yellow-breasted capuchins (Cebus xanthosternos) many special EEP species were on show.
The small (about 2-ha) park was opened in 2003 and was located along a road about 30 km from the Algarve coast in the direction of Portimão. The park itself had a very hilly landscape with some enclosures being erected in the small valleys, some on the hills. The enclosure style was absolutely un-Portuguese, as the animals had a lot of space and many options to hide from public view, and the fences were almost all very ugly electric wires - very useful for the animals but really not looking too good. The collection consisted mostly of primates, most of which were very rare species. Being an EAZA member the park got lots of EEP species from all over Europe. This made interest in this new park rise a lot. Having so many rare species made Omega Parque seem obviously to be very good; but within the Portuguese zoo scene its reputation was rather different. All the international contacts and the rare animals caused a lot of jealousy against the owners - the foreign couple from England.
During our visit we saw a large group of Javan langurs (Trachypithecus auratus), a group of lion-tailed macaques, and 2.0 Ateles belzebuth belzebuth - extremely beautiful golden and darkcoloured spider monkeys, and unfortunately the only two individuals in Europe. For us it was exciting to see this subspecies for the first time. They had been obtained from Bristol Zoo in 2001. Furthermore we saw free-ranging Geoffroy's marmosets in several groups, emperor tamarins, Goeldi's monkeys, a nice group of Sulawesi crested macaques, 1.2 entellus langurs (some individuals from the once-beautiful group at Ramat Gan which had been sent to Paris and Besançon), mongoose, black, and red ruffed lemurs, a large group of ring-tailed lemurs, red-bellied tamarins (Saguinus labiatus), and golden-headed lion tamarins (Leontopithecus chrysomelas).
Among other mammals we saw there a breeding herd of Visayan spotted deer (Cervus alfredi), cheetahs, pygmy hippos and Barbary sheep. Birds in the collection were some lory species and cassowaries. Although this was not too many species, the park was not at all boring. The walk around would take about an hour and a café at the top with a great lookout point was available for a break. The entrance fee was €8.00. Due to the fact that the park would be closed soon, no maintenance had been done recently and some signs, fences and other things were falling to pieces. The dry and ugly hippo exhibit was a great disappointment. The old hippo enclosure, now inhabited by the spotted deer, was much better. When we asked where all the animals would go to, the reply was wherever the owners wanted them to go. Most of the animals were on loan and thus the Birchenoughs had no power to place them where they would like. Some of the confiscated or privately-owned animals would stay on the site for some time after the closure. Leaving the place gave us a strange feeling of sadness, knowing that the best place for zoo animals in Portugal was soon to be closed. Despite operating for only four years, this zoo hopefully gave some good examples of really fine zoo animal husbandry. Maybe for some years in the future the Birchenoughs will still live on the site with two old spider monkeys - which reminds me very much of a story from the Netherlands...