Not many travelers can visit a zoo in such a unique setting, where the animals virtually live in paradise. The 150 animals at the 12-acre zoo are endemic and introduced species that would naturally live in such an environment.

While small and local, the zoo is a delight and the only natural tropical rainforest zoo in the United States of America.While small and local, the zoo is a delight and the only natural tropical rainforest zoo in the United States of America. The road to the Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo (800 Stainback Hwy., 808/959-9233, daily 9am-4pm, closed Christmas and New Year’s Day) is a trip in itself, getting you back into the country. On a typical weekday, you’ll have the place much to yourself. The zoo, operated by the county Department of Parks and Recreation, does feedings every Saturday around 1:30pm, so you may want to be around for that. Admission is free, although donations to the nonprofit Friends of the Pana‘ewa Zoo, which runs the gift shop at the entrance, are appreciated.

A giant anteater wanders across the grass.

A giant anteater, sometimes known as an ant bear, is just one of the rainforest dwellers that you might see at the Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo. Photo © Makuahine Pa’i Ki’i, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Here you have the feeling that the animals are not “fenced in” so much as you are “fenced out.” The collection of about 75 species includes ordinary and exotic animals from around the world. You’ll see pygmy hippos from Africa, a miniature horse and steer, Asian forest tortoises, water buffalo, monkeys, and a wide assortment of birds like pheasants and peacocks. The zoo hosts many endangered animals indigenous to Hawaii, like the nene, Laysan duck, Hawaiian coot, pueo, Hawaiian gallinule, and even a feral pig in his own stone mini-condo. There are some great iguanas and mongooses, lemurs, and an aviary section with exotic birds like yellow-fronted parrots and blue and gold macaws. The zoo makes a perfect side trip for families and will certainly delight the little ones, especially the weekly petting zoo from 1:30-2:30pm on Saturdays.

A Swainson's Toucan poses for a picture at the Pana'ewa Rainforest Zoo.

A Swainson’s Toucan poses for a picture at the Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo. Photo © Makuahine Pa’i Ki’i, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Sadly, Namaste the white Bengal, a resident of Pana‘ewa for 15 years and the most well-known face of the zoo, has passed. Birthday parties for Namaste were all-day extravaganzas with live music, free cake, and hundreds of attendees; Namaste’s cake was a special frozen meat treat with bone “candles”. Buried in his one-acre enclosure, he’s commemorated by a monument, and the zoo plans to keep the area reserved for any future tiger. Currently, you’ll see the enclosure under renovation.

To get to the zoo from Hilo, take Highway 11 (Hawai‘i Belt Road) south toward Volcano. About 2.5 miles past Prince Kuhio Shopping Plaza look for the Zoo sign on a lava rock wall, just after the sign Kulani 19. Turn right on Mamaki.


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Hawaiian Islands.