This was a logistical challenge involving five adolescent Asian elephants a male and four females silvery gibbons, Malayan tapirs, binturongs, langur monkeys, small-clawed otters and a plethora of rainforest birds not to mention the evocatively named web-pawed fishing cats.
Threaded through these exhibits there needed to be sleeping quarters for the animals, a massive new elephant barn, food amenities for visitors and a student learning centre.
The finalised design was a distillation of earlier drawings, with previous architectural input from Sydney architects Hassell. On completion, Wild Asia achieves the sense of a naturalistic Asian riverside village by addressing several distinct elements.
Upon arrival at the precinct, visitors see the elephants at play in the river-like flowing water area. The giant animals are close at hand and seem only a disturbingly short clamber from the onlookers. However, the river on the visitors' side of the water is actually a wet moat, a deeper area that elephants can enter from the distant shallower side but not exit from the steeper side here. In the past, visible dry moats had separated elephants from observers, but these had not been designed to be entered.
"Disguise is the name of the game," says Williams. "Rock formations and trees shield fences in other areas and, importantly, the visitor is never allowed to see the enclosure in its entirety. Leaving the extent of their domain, and even the number of elephants, up to the imagination adds to the immersion experience."
With buildings an easy giveaway as to the mechanics of the zoo, they are treated in three distinct ways.
Firstly, many are themed, such as the food court near the entrance to the precinct, which has the appearance of a shingled village building. Likewise the elephant barn becomes an upscale Asian structure and an adjacent learning centre resembles an Asian-style village classroom.
The benefit of theming is that the buildings contribute to their setting while hiding their function. Materials, though Asian in appearance, are sourced locally. The cost of repairing the natural materials is built into the precinct's running costs a necessary price of authenticity. Throughout the exhibit, shingled roofs, bamboo panels and Asian artefacts greet the eye.
Advances in materials such as mock rock allow other buildings to be de-emphasised. Building concrete cliffs and paths and hillocks that have twigs, riverside rocks or other natural elements embedded into them provide ways to disguise the sides of buildings. Many of the animals' sleeping quarters are disguised in this way. Contemporary zoological design advances have seen mock rock developed to an art form, with the versatile material even designed to age naturally over time.