What happened to Riga Zoo's elephant house?

They say an elephant never forgets - which is just as well when a project to build them a new home is running ten years behind schedule, reports Zane Mače of Latvian Radio, August 2.

A map showing elephants can be seen at the entrance to Riga Zoo and indeed they should be in residence by now. Unfortunately, the visitor to the zoo will not encounter these hard-to-miss animals because for reasons that are hard to fathom, an ambitious decade-old project to build an elephant house -- which used state money -- has failed to materialize.

The location of the planned elephant enclosure is currently home to various animals including yak, boar and Hungarian cattle, according to Riga Zoo representative Laura Lidaka.

In 2009 bears were removed from this area, because the zoo was waiting for the construction machinery to arrive and start work on the elephant home project.

The new elephant home project began in the autumn of 2003, when it became clear that the existing structure dating from 1914 did not meet modern animal welfare standards. At that time two elephants were in residence, named Radža and Rupa, who were sent to a more modern zoo in the Netherlands.

After three years, the then Minister of the Environment -- now President Raimonds Vējonis -- said that with the support of the government, the Riga City Council and the public, elephants in the Riga Zoo could return during the next six years. 

A donation campaign "Give yourself and elephant" collected 13,000 lati (18,000 euros).

"We do not now have any elephants and I do not forsee when we could," says Rolands Greiziņš, Chairman of the Board of the Riga National Zoo. The zoo boss says that in 2006 a technical project for the construction of new elephant housing was devised:

"The design was carried out, but I do not remember exactly, whether it came to a total of about 120,000 lati -- we had 90,000 lati from the ministry, and the rest of us at our own expense. We carried out both the design of the elephant's house and, at the same time, we carried out designs for quarantine facilities and a new veterinary ambulance. ''

A new elephant building project was included in the list of projects supported by the National Program "Establishment of the Biodiversity Conservation and Environmental Education Infrastructure". Greiziņš says that it was a project of the Ministry of the Environment, the total cost of which was about 15 million lats, and included the participation of the Riga Zoo, the Natural History Museum and the Salaspils Botanical Garden.

It was estimated that construction of the elephant enclosure would cost at least 7 million lati (9.8 million euros).

"We presented everything and everything was proceeding. Then in 2007 a major crisis came. If I'm not mistaken the Prime Minister was Einars Repše, and expenses had to be cut. The zoo and the Natural History Museum were dropped [from the projects] leaving only the building of a tropical house at Salaspils Botanical Gardens," remembers Greiziņš. 

In fact Repše was Prime Minister 2002-2004. He was Finance Minister 2009-2010. 

The architect of the project was Janis Rutkis who says: "In principle, construction was ready to go, but nothing was done because its estimated cost was higher than expected. I wasn't involved in the planning at that time. The cost of the plan was some 8 million [lati]."

You can see a picture of a model of the project - which does not look like it cost a great deal to produce - HERE

Now the delay is so long that the entire project would need to be started from scratch, he says, as the project has lost its legal force under building regulations.

As to why the elephant house never apepared, if the planned co-financing from Europe had already been approved, Greiziņš can provide no answer.

Meanwhile Environment Ministry spokeswoman Aiga Aizpuriete said that she was unable to find a dossier confirming that such a project had existed was at all. But she promised to look for it and what had happened to the 100,000 lati that was spent.

Sadly the opinions of both Repše and Vejonis were unavailable to the reporter as both are on holiday.

The good news is that an agreement with the Dutch zoo to return Riga's elephants when suitable facilities have been constructed remains in force and, luckily, elephants live a long time. However, luring Radza back may be more difficult than expected as he's now the father of 11 children.

And elephants were seen at Riga Zoo in 2010 - albeit only as projections during the annual 'Staro Riga' festival of light.

"The well-known symbol of the Riga Zoo - the main entrance gate, built in 1912 – will be transformed beyond recognition, becoming a bright window to the African savannah with herds of antelopes, zebras and giraffes grazing lazily and lions and elephants lounging in the sweltering sun. It does not matter that all of it is just a delusion that has been achieved with the help of a video projection... These dreary and dark autumn evenings are just the right time to let ourselves dream!" the zoo said at the time.

Meanwhile, the zoo hopes that its new "African savannah" project will form part of Latvia's centenary celebrations, and this idea will not share the fate of the elephant home.


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