In a city like Dubai, with its desert skyscrapers, dancing fountains and indoor ski slopes, one could easily become immune to the many superlative attractions. However, few visitors could fail to be impressed by The Green Planet – an indoor rainforest that’s home to 3,000 tropical plants and animals hailing from as far afield as the jungles of South-east Asia and South America.
Step inside the building and you will be greeted by multiple layers of habitat mimicking the ecosystem of a true rainforest, including a leafy, sun-drenched canopy that’s home to a colourful population of exotic birds. It’s clear that a huge amount of work has gone into the construction, from the well-maintained heat and humidity levels to the dramatic centrepiece: a huge, man-made yet life-sustaining tree, reaching five storeys from floor to ceiling, and the largest of its kind in the world.
“The Green Planet was created to transport people into the very heart of a tropical rainforest,” says Jean Marc Bled, general manager of Leisure and Entertainment for Meraas Holding, who operate the venue. “By giving them such a unique and immersive experience, we hope to showcase science in action and instil a sense of appreciation among visitors – helping them to understand our ecosystem better in order to preserve it.”
Bringing the rainforest to the desert was no small feat; every element had to be taken into consideration, with nothing left to chance. “Meraas contracted some of the best companies in the world for this unique project,” says Bled. One of the most challenging aspects of the project was building the man-made tree. “Creating the raw structure was a complicated geometric exercise that required our team of architects, engineers and habitat designers working closely with the horticulturalist to ensure the correct angle and orientation for every single branch. The process was a very delicate balancing act; we used 3D modelling software systems to develop a series of branch knuckles, each with its own specific geometry for its location on the tree. It all came back to mapping the solar gain within the environment, even considering the angle of the sun as it changes from season to season.”
Visitors begin their journey on the ‘flooded floor’, a room that mimics the flooded rivers and streams of a typical rainforest using water tanks filled with freshwater species of fish, including catfish and stingray (on some days, you can even spot the biome’s biologists diving into the tanks to hand feed the animals). From there, you will be guided to the top floor, namely, the canopy, before beginning your descent via a winding path alongside its periphery, meeting the forest’s resident tropical animals and their handlers along the way.
Each visit to The Green Planet is unique. Because it’s such a natural environment, it follows the same rhythms as a real rainforest – the animals that are most visible in the morning are different from the species that come alive as the sun sets. The knowledgeable can be found throughout the centre, ready to answer any questions and even facilitate interaction between visitors and the animals.
For biologist Sarah Stevens, working at The Green Planet is a dream come true. “In other wildlife facilities, your focus is quite singular, but here, everyone gets involved in all aspects of the biome – you might spend your morning diving in the fish tank and your afternoon handling the snakes or feeding the sloths. That’s what makes the job so interesting and fun, because no two days are ever the same. It’s hard work at times, but you can’t have a bad day when you’re constantly surrounded by animals.”
Make no mistake, the animals are the biggest draw. Some of the notable species include a large-billed toucan, colourful chameleons and a beautiful pair of highly intelligent bright blue macaws. Some of the smaller exhibitions are equally fascinating, from the rainbow-coloured snakes to the butterfly display, where you can see the evolution from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly in real time.
The two resident sloths are the centre’s sleepy celebrities. This pair of crowd-pleasers that can most often be seen draped from a tree branch, hanging from the railings and usually catching forty winks. The sloths spend an average of 17 hours a day asleep, so visitors might not see them at their liveliest. Most recently, and to coincide with the centre’s first birthday, the rainforest welcomed two new residents: a pair of Tamarin monkeys, housed in the brand new monkey enclosure. And there are plans underway to expand the rainforest population even further.
Each animal receives an impeccable level of care that ranges from being hand-fed by the biologists to participating in detailed training programmes to ensure they are being intellectually stimulated, and to help them become at ease with human interaction. Both the animals and their handlers undergo rigorous training to ensure the safety of both, as well as that of their visitors.
Stevens describes the animals as ‘ambassadors’ for their species; they bridge the gap between their own exotic homelands and their adopted home in Dubai, introducing visitors of all ages to an unfamiliar ecosystem in order to communicate the message of conservation and encourage a sense of global awareness.
The Green Planet is entirely eco-friendly, with carefully monitored water sources and timed lighting systems to minimise waste. The building has received the global LEED certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and is fully compliant with Dubai Municipality Green Building Regulations and Specifications. The temperature and humidity levels are carefully monitored to ensure that the exotic flora and fauna can thrive at all hours of the day. Visitors will soon be able to experience the centre after dark too. “We will soon be launching a unique experience allowing our guests to camp in The Green Planet overnight,” says Bled. “This will include a personal guided tour and campfire stories. It will truly be a one-of-a-kind experience.”