Dusseldorf, Germany – Police in western Germany have said that a Chinese lantern released during New Year’s Eve celebrations may have caused a fire in a zoo that killed more than 30 animals.

The fire burned down Krefeld Zoo’s Great Ape House, killing primates including chimpanzees, orangutans and two elderly gorillas.

“It is the worst day in the history of Krefeld Zoo,” the zoo’s director Wolfgang Dressen told reporters on Wednesday.

The incident was an “inconceivable tragedy,” the zoo wrote on Facebook. “Our worst fears have come true.”

The zoo, some 9 miles outside Dusseldorf, was closed to visitors on New Year’s Day and would remain closed on Thursday.

The police suspected that the fire may have been caused by a Chinese lantern released into the air during New Year’s Eve celebrations. Several lanterns like this had been found in the area.

Investigator Gerd Hoppmann said that the lanterns were “highly dangerous” and could fly more than half a mile. They have been banned in Germany since 2009.

After an appeal to anyone who had lit lanterns in the area to come forward, several people reported to the police station in Krefeld. Police said they were treating the fire as a case of negligent arson.

Dressed in black, Dressen said that only two chimpanzees named Bally and Limbo survived the fire, which reduced the Great Ape House to its bare structure. They sustained minor injuries and were now under sedation, he said.

Pygmy marmosets, birds and flying foxes also died in the blaze, a zoo spokeswoman said.

A neighboring gorilla enclosure, where a young family of seven gorillas lived, was spared any damage.

The fire service said they were called and arrived at the scene within minutes.

By this time, the monkey house had already been consumed by the flames. “It was clear to us that we could not save it,” said Kai Guenther from the fire service.

Krefeld Zoo sees about 400,000 visitors each year. It counts elephants, leopards and rhinos among its star attractions, with a total of around 1,000 animals.

The ape house was opened in 1975, and has a total area of some 2,000 square metres.

The fire prompted the German Animal Welfare Federation to call for an exclusion zone around zoos when it comes to New Year’s fireworks. Germans traditionally let off private firework displays in streets across the country at the turn of the year.

“We are shocked … If fireworks did cause the blaze, it would be terrible proof of the dramatic consequences of the uncontrolled use of fireworks,” the group said.

Private displays should be banned in areas where there are many animals such as zoos and animal shelters, said the federation’s James Brueckner.

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