We’re going to the zoo, zoo, zoo, you can come too

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13 September 2016

The final part of the Zany Zebra puzzle, if you don’t count Ticket To Ride who was still at the ‘vet’ recovering from his swim in the Itchen, was at Marwell Zoo, in Owslebury just outside Winchester. The last time I visited Marwell, CJ was at playschool and it teemed down with rain. Today was supposed to be the hottest day of the year. Obviously, there was no way I was going to get away with going alone. In fact, not only did I have CJ with me, but Bard came along too. When we set off in the car it felt like a real family day out. 

Many people don’t like zoos, they don’t like to see animals in captivity, but Marwell isn’t an ordinary zoo, it’s a one hundred and forty acre park that happens to have a lot of animals living in it. The animals aren’t on display in cages they’re in large enclosures. If you happen to see one as you walk round it’s by chance rather than design. Many are endangered species.

Founded by John Knowles in 1972, Marwell was one of the earliest zoos in Europe to focus on animal conservation. The breeding programme at Marwell has been very successful. It’s now a breeding centre for several species already extinct or close to extinction in the wild. It has one hundred and thirty five different species and runs a range of educational and conservation activities. The Go Rhinos and Zany Zebras trails are examples of campaigns to raise both funds for and awareness of endangered species.

For us, the main focus was zany zebras although we weren’t exactly sure what we were looking for or where they’d be. It didn’t take long to find the first. As soon as we’d paid for our tickets and entered the park we spotted Gulliver, created by Winchcombe Reclaimation by Dave Danson Hill, standing outside the gift shop. He’d have been hard to miss. A good twelve feet tall, probably more, he towered above us.

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After quick stop for photos we popped into the coffee shop to fortify ourselves for the journey ahead. We had no real idea where to start so, after a little dithering outside the cafe, we randomly chose to take the right hand trail. The Zany Zebras app told me there were miniature zebras about somewhere but exactly what they looked like and how miniature they were was a mystery.

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Before long we came to the semi-aquaritic mammal house. Not entirely sure what a semi-aquatic mammal was when it was at home, we went inside. What we found were Pygmy hippos, a little like regular hippos but about the size of a large dog. Natives of West Africa they are shy animals who like to hide in swampy areas but their habitat is under threat from deforestation and logging. Sadly, they are also the victims of hunting and are on the endangered species list. These particular Pygmy hippos were hiding in their house, lounging about in some muddy looking water. We took a photo and left them in peace.

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The rolling hillside beside the path was filled with animals, but unlike most of the open spaces in Hampshire, these were not cows, horses or sheep. In fact we were getting our first sight of real life Grevy’s zebras, albeit at a great distance on the far side of the field.

Grevy's zebras in the flesh
Grevy’s zebras in the flesh

The hillside was also home to Scimitar horned-oryx (now extinct in the wild), ostriches and another animal we knew very well, the white rhino. Of course, much like the Grevy’s zebras, we were more used to seeing them in sculpture form, decorated and hidden on the streets of Southampton. Despite their name they are not white and would more properly be called wide rhinos as the word white comes from the Afrikaans word ‘weit,’ referring to their wide square lips.

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Kiri, Sula, Pembe and Jabari, the four rhinos at Marwell, may be a long way from their natural home on the grasslands, savannas and shrub lands of Southern Africa but they seem to like it here in Hampshire. In fact Sula has given birth to two calves, Bhasela in 1999 and Shaka in 2003. In the wild white rhinos have suffered from habitat loss and poaching for their horns. Breeding white rhinos in captivity is an important part of the European Endangered Species Breeding Programme and, along with conservation, is vital for their continued survival.

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The hot sun beat down on us as we strolled along the trail and the field full of zebra, rhinos, ostriches and oryx beside us gave me the feeling we’d been transported to Africa. With so many endangered species in one spot Marwell seemed a kind of modern day Noah’s ark rather than a zoological park.

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We may have seen real Grevy’s zebras but so far there’d been no sign of any miniature zany zebras. The map on the app wasn’t much help because we seemed to be on a trail that didn’t exist. Then we came to a crossroads and the app showed two lots of zany zebras on the path ahead. Soon we’d reached a building with a sign saying Tropical World, perhaps the zebras would be hidden there? Inside we were met with a wall of searing heat that made the hottest day of the year outside feel positively wintry. Amongst the tropical plants we discovered vivariums. Most of the occupants seemed to be hiding but in one we spotted some cobalt blue frogs. The sign beside the glass told us these were dyeing poison frogs from South America

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The glass of the vivarium didn’t make for the best of photos but it’s just as well it was there because, as the name suggests, these pretty little frogs are poisonous. Toxins from the ants in their diet seep out of glands in their skin. Their bright colour is a warning to other animals not to eat them.  Native people were said to use them to change the colour of parrot feathers, hence the dyeing part of their name. Apparently they would pluck the poor parrots and then rub the bird with a secretion from the skin of the frog. When the feathers grew back they were said to be red instead of green.

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Leaving the frogs behind we wandered around the winding path, stopping every now and then to look at brightly coloured plants. We also stopped for a while to watch the leaf cutter ants marching along perspex tubes carrying pieces of cut leaves to their nest. Sadly they move too fast and are too small to make good photos but they were fascinating to watch.

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The ants live in the rainforests of Central and South America and don’t actually eat the leaves they cut with their powerful jaws. They take them back to the nest and make a compost pile where a fungus grows, this fungus is their food. Each colony is started by a single queen who carries a sample of fungus from her original colony to start off a fungus garden for her new colony.

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Soon we found ourselves back at the doorway having walked right around tropical world. We still hadn’t found any miniature zebras but I was certainly glad to be outside away from the oppressive heat.
“I don’t think I could have stayed in there a minute longer without melting or fainting,” I said.
“It was the perfect temperature for me,” Bard, who’d kept his trapper hat on the whole time, laughed.
“I think you were meant to be born in a rainforest,” I said. “You’re always cold.”
“That’s why I like working in a kitchen,” he smiled. “Everyone else is complaining about the heat but I love it.”

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Soon we reached a large stone arch flanked by a distinctly Egyptian looking statue. It put me in mind of the Valley of the Kings and I wondered if we were heading for Egyptian animals. What we actually found were Oriental small-clawed otters basking in the sun.

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These sweet and playful little otters actually come from Asia and live in wetland areas. They dig around in the mud to find crabs, molluscs, fish and small mammals to eat. Sadly they are classed as vulnerable due to deforestation and pollution. They have also been hunted for their fur. Luckily there are many captive breeding programs around the world so hopefully these lovely animals, who mate for life, will be around for a long time to come.

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The next enclosure we came to had a lone Siamang gibbon sitting in the centire. He, or maybe it was a she, looked quite sad and lonely which is not surprising as loss of habitat, illegal capture and sale as pets has led to the Siamang becoming an endangered species. Their natural home is tropical forests in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand where they live high in the canopy. Like the otters, they mate for life and breed every two or three years giving birth to just one baby. It would be a terrible shame if they all died out.

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Hoping for a closer look we walked into the building beside the enclosure. We didn’t see any more gibbons but, to my delight, we did find our first cluster of miniature zebras. They were called Stampede and a closer look revealed they were actually tiny replicas of the full sized zebras we’d seen on the city trail. Stampede was a group of four, Crystal, Zebbie Go Round, Rio and Zozy zebra. Whoever painted them must have had a very steady hand and lots of patience.

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“At least we now know what we’re looking for,” I said as we went back out into the sun and left them behind.
“If only we knew where we were looking too,” CJ said, “we might have a chance of finding them all.”
Antelope were wandering about in the field and ahead we could see the macaque study centre building.
“Perhaps there’ll be some more in there,” I said, trying to make some kind of sense of the information on the zany zebras app and failing abysmally.
There weren’t but we spent a pleasant time watching the macaques running about their enclosure.

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Primates are always fun to watch especially when, like these Sulawesi crested macaques, they have young ones. These come from the rainforests of Sulaweisi in Indonesia but now live on an island at Marwell, presumably because they can’t swim. In the wild they are under threat from hunting. For some strange reason the people of Sulaweisi consider them a culinary delicacy. To make matters worse farmers also kill them because they raid their crops and their habitat is being eat up by the growing human population.  This has led to them being critically endangered. All the more reason to be happy to see the young ones scampering about with their parents.

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Beside the macaque study centre we found a large aviary containing brightly coloured parrots. These, the sign told us, were sun conures from South America. Their main threat in the wild is man. Despite trade regulations they are caught and sold as pets and are now rare in the wild. I’d thought we might find more miniature zebras near the aviary but, if they were there, they were very well hidden because we didn’t see them.

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In the next building, the cold blooded corner, it was a completely different story. There were lots of large, glass fronted enclosures but no creatures at all as far as I could see. What there were though, were miniature zebras, Zebra Crossings, Zebby Road and Tooly McTool, otherwise known as the Bray cluster.

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It wasn’t until we were on our way out that I spotted what I think was a bearded lizard, another creature that has been badly affected by illegal pet trading in its homelands of Mexico and Guatemala.  Given how difficult they are to spot I’m surprised anyone ever caught one to sell it as a pet.

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Slowly I was beginning to get my bearings on the app, or so I thought. From what I could make out there was another cluster just ahead, somewhere near the Wallayby Walkthrough. We walked through, stopping for a few photos of some particularly photogenic red necked wallabies. Thankfully these are not an endangered species, although they are facing problems in their native South Eastern Australia and Tasmania, where they are hunted for food and fur and considered a pest by farmers.

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We also saw a ring tailed coati, a rather usual looking chap with a long nose used for sniffing through the leaf litter in its native South America in search of insects to eat. This one was, quite literally, over a barrel but, happily, they are no longer under threat in the wild. What we didn’t find were more miniature zebras.

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Any disappointment we may have felt was soon forgotten when CJ spotted a red panda climbing a tree stump. This was quite a find as they usually sleep during the day and forage during the night. Like the giant panda a large part of their diet is bamboo shoots, although they don’t mind the occasional egg, insect or small rodent. Their normal home is the mountainous forests of Western China, Nepal, India, Bhutan and Myanmar where they are considered vulnerable, mostly because of hunting for fur and habitat loss. It seems to me that a fur coat looks far better on an animal than on a human being.

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So far we’d been wandering around Marwell for an hour and had only managed to find two out of the twelve clusters of miniature zebras hidden in the park. This did not bode well and I had a feeling we might end our day without finding them all.

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Marie

Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

10 thoughts on “We’re going to the zoo, zoo, zoo, you can come too”

    1. I must admit I’m not that fond of zoos as a rule but, at Marwell, the animals do have a lots of space to roam in. They do some wonderful conservation work and it really does feel like a kind of Noah’s ark for endangered species. I guess it’s better to have the animals alive on a Hamoshire farm than becoming extinct and some are in grave danger of that, usually because of man.

      The miniature zebras will all be sold when the Zany Zebras trail finishes. The money raised from the sale of all the zebras, big, small and giant, will be used to help conservation of the Grevy’s zebras. If I could afford one I think I’d buy it but I’d have a job to choose which one.

    1. It is a great place to spend the day. Quite pricy but the money all helps to sabe the animals and many are in danger of extinction without zoos like this one.

  1. I’ve always enjoyed zoos, but I’m glad most have changed into large habitat places rather than a bunch of caged animals. I think the breeding program is great, but unfortunately, they are bred for captivity. The red panda sure is cute!

    1. I’m glad the whole concept of zoos has changed too. In fact a lot of the animals at Marwell have been released into the wild including some that were extinct in the wild previously. The red panda was a stroke of luck as they usually sleep during the day.

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