Image of Peacock at Panaewa Zoo
Peacock at Panaewa Zoo. Photo: Frank Steele.

Located on 12 acres of rainforest land, the Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens, operated by Hawaii county, is far from your average zoo experience.

This small-town menagerie is the only naturally occurring rainforest zoo in the United States. It also serves as both an educational and recreational facility for keiki (children) and boasts a fantastic botanical collection.

Image of Peacock at Panaewa Zoo
Peacock at Panaewa Zoo. Photo: Robert Linsdell

The exhibits are designed to maximize and blend with the existing terrain and vegetation of the Pana‘ewa Forest Reserve, which receives more than 125 inches of rain a year.

Admission is free and the zoo is open to the public every day from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., except for Christmas day and New Year’s day.

The Animals That Make Panaewa Zoo Home

Image of Madagascar Lemur
Madagascar Lemur. Photo: Hector Parayuelos.

Opened in the fall of 1978, this zoo features more than 60 species of animals that come from similar rainforest climatic conditions and habitats. It’s home to a few white-faced whistling ducks, binturongs and red tegus.

Image of Hawaiian Hawk or Io
Hawaiian Hawk or Io. Photo: Makuahine Pai Kii.

There is a majestic southern crowned crane from South Africa, rascally ring-tailed lemurs of Madagascar, and the slowest mammal in the world, the nocturnal South American two-toed sloth.

You’ll also see endemic animals like the endangered ‘io (Hawaiian Hawk), and the storied “Kona Nightingale” donkeys that were brought from Africa to work Kona coffee farms in the 1900s.

Image of Monarch Butterfly
Monarch Butterfly. Photo: Forest and Kim Starr.

The butterfly house is a must-see, as are the giant anteaters, and don’t forget to pay a visit to the oldest resident: a 33-year-old turkey vulture named Igorina.

Children can also enjoy the petting zoo on Saturdays from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m.

Pana‘ewa Zoo’s latest additions are two Bengal tigers: Sriracha (an orange female) and Tzatziki (a white male). Gifted to the zoo by Great Cats World Park in Cave Junction, Oregon, the tigers have just recently arrived at their new home. They will remain in their quarantine quarters for 120 days but spend a large portion of their time in the yard where visitors can view them.

The 120-day quarantine period ends July 1, 2016 and the tigers will celebrate their first birthday with a big party on July 2.

There are also two alligators that have joined the cast of characters at the zoo in April 2016.

Panaewa Zoo’s Playground

Image of Panaewa Zoo's Playground
Photo: Katie Young Yamanaka.

Children will also delight in the zoo’s climbing structures, including a larger-than-life monarch butterfly approximately 14 feet long and seven-and-a-half feet high.

There’s also a fun playground area with several slides, climbing walls, and hang bars that are all shaded for maximum comfort for both the playing children and the adults who are keeping a watchful eye.

Panaewa Zoo’s Botanical Collection

Image of Lily pond at Panaewa Zoo
Lily pond at Panaewa Zoo. Photo: Forest and Kim Starr.

The zoo’s botanical collection, featuring more than 40 different species of plants, flowers and trees, is another reason to visit this zoo. A handy “palm and plant map” (available in the gift shop) will guide you on your rainforest journey to explore the collection of various palms, bromeliads, bamboo and vireya (tropical rhododendron).

The “Busy” Season

Image of Green Iguana
Green Iguana. Photo: Makuahine Pai Kii.

The busiest time of year is any time when the schools are on break. Visitor count can reach nearly 2,000 per day during peak times, and the zoo sees more than 200,000 guests come through its doors annually.

How to Get to the Panaewa Zoo

Image of Road to Panaewa Zoo
Road to Panaewa Zoo. Photo: Forest and Kim Starr.

The Pana‘ewa Zoo and Gardens is located off of Highway 11 in Hilo. Heading towards the Volcano area, look for the “Zoo” sign on a lava rock wall just after “Kulani 19.” Turn right on Mamaki Street and follow the signs. Where the road forks, bear to the right. For more information, visit