There are very few Belgians who have never paid a visit to either the Antwerp ZOO, ZOO Planckendael or the Queen Elisabeth Hall. These are the jewels in the crown of the KMDA, the Royal Zoological Society of Antwerp. ICT Manager Kristof Van Bouwel tells the unique story of the organisation’s origins.
This year, in 2018, the Antwerp ZOO celebrates its 175th birthday. Today, the zoo is a big tourist attraction. It receives over 1 million visitors a year. But that used to be different, Kristof explains: “At first, the KMDA was an exclusive club for the local bourgeoisie. Entrance to the zoo cost 1 Belgian franc, the daily salary of a blue-collar worker at that time. So it was mostly the KMDA’s own members and some other happy few who came to stroll around the zoo.”
At that time, the Antwerp Zoo Society already had its own event venue as well. This, of course, had little to do with animals. It was just another outlet to entertain the club’s members. The Queen Elisabeth Hall was built in 1960, at the exact same location of the KMDA’s very first venue. The current hall is its successor, constructed in 2016.
Refocusing on animals and nature
Later on, animals became center-stage again. When in 1956 a baroness wanted to sell a large domain in Mechelen, the KMDA did not have to think twice. It was just looking for more space to be able to breed animals, and ZOO Planckendael was born!
Apart from all that, the organisation also manages the reptile zoo in Blankenberge (ZOO Serpentarium), it undertakes nature conservation in the De Zegge reserve, and it has its own centre for scientific research. The KMDA is a non-profit organisation that thinks and acts very much like a for-profit one. It wants to make money to be able to invest that money in animal welfare, scientific research and nature conversation.
Park versus garden
In a way, a visit to the Antwerp ZOO or ZOO Planckendael also helps to protect rare plant species and finances international research projects. Pretty cool, huh? But how do you choose between a trip to Antwerp and one to Mechelen?
Kristof points out the differences: “We call Planckendael a park. There is more room for kids to run around and play. For a full immersive experience, I think this is where you need to go. Antwerp is more of a beautiful, stately garden than it is a park. It is a green lung in the middle of the city, but even the grass lawns are classified as heritage areas. Then again, these lawns boast an impressive art collection. A whole lot of visitors prefer Antwerp because of its sculptures.”