Fire at German Zoo That Killed 30 Animals Ignited by New Year's Eve Sky Lanterns

By George Dvorsky on at

A fire that engulfed a primate enclosure at Germany’s Krefeld Zoo has resulted in the deaths of at least 30 animals. The blaze, which began shortly after midnight on New Year’s Day, is being attributed to the illicit use of sky lanterns.

“Our worst fears have become reality,” the Krefeld Zoo grimly announced on its Facebook page on New Years Day, saying all but two animals kept in its Great Ape House, also known as the “monkey house,” survived the blaze.

Built in 1975, the enclosure is home to orangutans, lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, marmosets, and birds. The exact number of animals killed in the blaze has not been disclosed, but the AFP reports that the figure is at least 30. Zoo officials said a pair of chimps, named Bally and Limbo, survived the blaze with slight injuries. A family of gorillas housed at the zoo’s Gorilla Garden were not affected by the fire, which broke out around 40 minutes after midnight on New Year’s Day, according to the New York Times. There are no reports of human injuries.

A preliminary investigation determined that sky lanterns were the likely cause of the fire. Deutsche Welle reports that the floating ornaments are believed to have landed on the plastic roof of the Great Ape House, starting a fire that quickly spread to the rest of the enclosure. The structure “burned down to the basic scaffolding,” declared the zoo on its Facebook page, and at least three sky lanterns with hand-written New Year’s wishes were found in the debris, reports AFP.

The use of sky lanterns is forbidden in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the Krefeld Zoo is located. This ban was implemented in 2009 following several incidents in which the sky lanterns triggered deadly fires.

Deutsche Welle is reporting that three women – a 60-year-old woman and her two adult daughters – have turned themselves in to authorities. The women are claiming to have released three sky lanterns on New Year’s Eve, so the case is “largely cleared up,” according to Krefeld police. The suspects said they were unaware of the ban and that they ordered the sky lanterns online. The women will likely be charged with negligent arson, an offence that could result in a fine or imprisonment of up to five years, according to Deutsche Welle.

Sky lanterns are pretty, but this sad episode reminds us that they’re also very dangerous. Various fires over the years have been attributed to sky lanterns, and bans now exist in Australia, Spain, Brazil, various parts of the US, and other countries, although not in the UK. In addition to starting fires, sky lanterns are also considered a menace to wildlife and aviation.

In an upsettingly tone-deaf tweet put out by the UK-based Night Sky Lanterns, the company said it was “deeply sad” for the loss of over 30 animals and that people should light 30 sky lanterns “to remember this tragedy,” adding that, “Hopefully this will help reminding everyone the importance of choosing only sky lanterns made with high quality materials.”

Responding to this tweet, English birder Dave Simmonite said: “A sky lantern, when released, is just an out of control fire. You can’t control where it lands. There’s no way anyone can justify or defend that. Need to be banned ASAP.”

“I can honestly say you guys are going to deserve all the comments you’re about to receive,” tweeted evolutionary biologist Ben Garrod from the University of East Anglia. “Can’t tell if whoever is running your account is clueless, arrogant, desperate or all three! The sooner sky lanterns are banned throughout, the better.”

For sure. There are many other ways for us to celebrate or commemorate that don’t involve airlifting fire to parts unknown.

Featured image: Krefeld Zoo