Could digital experiences spell the end of zoos?

Orbi Dubai is just one of the visceral entertainment experiences that could pave the way for the way we interact with animals in the future

Behind us, something is crashing through the undergrowth of the Rwandan jungle. Hooting, growling and thumping penetrates the darkness, with a sudden jolt reducing us to nervous giggles. Suddenly the cause of the commotion appears. A Silverback gorilla standing at six feet tall and weighing approximately 350 pounds – twice the size of an adult male – is sizing us up.

“Remember, stay very still,” says our guide. “And don’t look him in the eye: they view that as a direct threat.” After a few hair-raising seconds, the crisis is averted, and the Silverback returns calmly to his pack, the chest-beating alpha male turned into a gentle father playing with his young.

We are sitting inside Orbi Dubai, itself located inside City Centre Mirdif Mall in Dubai. Billed as a “high-octane indoor nature museum”, its aim is to bring the jungles of Central Africa – plus a raft of other wild locations – to cities worldwide.

Initially introduced in Japan as an experimental attraction, the UAE was keen to be next in line. Using renowned explorer Nabil Al Busaidi (who became the first Arab to walk to the magnetic North Pole in 2009) as its ambassador, the centre is a collaboration between BBC, a stalwart in natural history filmmaking, SEGA, a master in digital entertainment and Majid Al Futtaim, who own City Centre Mirdif where the attraction is housed.

It's wondrous to behold animals, but does that give us the right to keep them in zoos?

Jo-Anne McArthur, Photo-journalist

“Orbi Dubai is the attraction’s first location outside of Japan – this makes its opening in Dubai a big deal,” says Sherif Hashem, Senior Marketing Manager for Majid Al Futtaim’s leisure and entertainment department.

“The UAE is an ambitious and growing market and we continue to see high demand for ‘edutainment’ from consumers. It is also known for being at the cutting-edge of new technology and attractions and this made it a natural fit for the first Orbi location.”

The space is split up into several sections, all of which employ innovative tech to give visitors the closest experience to wildlife possible (outside of seeing them in the flesh). Visitors can compare their jump to a marsh frog using a motion capture photo booth, stand in a freezing wind tunnel that echoes the climate of Mount Kenya, or watch a family of meerkats as they see off a cobra.

A 37-metre screen plays custom-made BBC Earth films amplified by two massive screens behind viewers to create a 360-degree experience, with 3D sound and tech that generates wind, fog and vibrations all adding to the immersion into the animal world.

Orbi Dubai
BBC Earth on location; the team produced all the film screened within Orbi Dubai

As well as entertain, the experience’s aim is to educate, says Hashem. Before heading into the Rwandan jungle our guide tells us that mountain gorillas remain exceedingly endangered, with fewer than 900 existing today. The ramifications of the ivory trade are also explored, and man’s footprint on nature is a constant theme.

With documentaries like Blackfish enacting real change in the way animals are kept in enclosures – Sea World stopped using its killer whales in performance and ended its captive breeding programme after the film was released – it is clear that the way we interact with captive animals needs significant consideration.  

Photo-journalist Jo-Anne McArthur has an ongoing project photographing animals in captivity, whether it be in rescues, for research, breeding, fur, meat – or our amusement. Of zoos, she writes: “It's wondrous to behold animals, but does that give us the right to keep them in zoos… are we instilled with reverence for these individuals, or does seeing them on display reinforce the idea that they are ours, for our use and enjoyment?”

Damien Latham, the CEO of Majid Al Futtaim said that Orbi Dubai could “transform the way people in the UAE explore the mysteries of nature, inviting them to see, hear and feel the planet in a unique and enchanting way.” As we witness bison migrate through the giant basin of Yellowstone, the idea of watching them pace around an enclosure pales in comparison.