Zebras, ghosts and small animals

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13 September 2016

With the big cats behind us we were on the last leg of our Marwell adventure, heading down the hill towards the place we’d started out two hours earlier. Across a field filled with Scimitar horned oryx, zebras and the odd muddy rhino, we got another glimpse of Marwell House. What a view they must have from their windows!

Beside the path a flock of flamingos made a change from the usual geese, ducks or swans. Then Bard spotted the capybara.
“They’re like giant Guinea pigs,” he said, very taken with them. Perhaps they reminded him of his recently deceased gerbil.
“I think you’d have a job to keep one in your flat,” I laughed as we watched them charging about the field.
Capybara are, in fact, the world’s biggest rodent, found in most of South America. They like to live near water and are very social animals, living in large groups conntrolled by a dominant male. Unfortunately, their meat and hide is highly valued.

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Next we came to the penguin enclosure and, inside, our next clutch of Zany Zebras, Herd. There were just three zebras in this clutch Snappy, Southern Gold and Ziggy Zebra all at Sea. Photographs were taken and they were ticked off our list but there were still a lot we hadn’t seen and not many places left to see them. Now I really was convinced we’d missed some but where we’d missed them was a mystery.

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There were big windows in the penguin house looking under the water. The Penguins seemed to be well aware of the humans standing inside, open mouthed watching their antics. They swam up to the glass and put on a real show for their audience. They were surprisingly graceful and we stood watching for quite some time as one after another they performed for us.

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Amusing as they were to watch there is a serious reason for the Humboldt penguins living at Marwell. The seas in their usual home, the Coasts of Chile and Peru, have been over fished and the droppings they use to make their nests is being harvested by man to use as fertiliser. This, along with hunting for food and egg harvesting has led to them being vulnerable in the wild.

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Outside it was a different story. The penguins standing on the rocks beside their pool looked like different creatures altogether. They waddled about clumsily like fat old men in dinner jackets. The black and white dinner jacket look does serve a very important purpose however. Humans are not their only predator, they and their eggs are also a favourite food of gulls, birds of prey, foxes, fur seals, sharks and orcas. As a defence, their white chests make them difficult to see from below the surface of the water and their dark backs blend in with the sea from above.

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When we finally left the penguins behind we found ourself almost back where we started. By my reckoning there were still twelve miniature zebras we hadn’t found and I thought they might be near Marwell House, the one place we hadn’t yet visited. There was a quick look to check we hadn’t missed a clutch in the Pygmy hippo enclosure as we retraced our steps. The hippos didn’t looked like they’d moved since we looked in more than two hours earlier and there were no minature zebras anywhere in sight.

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On the way past the zebra, oryx and rhino field we got our closest look yet at the wonderful Grevy’s zebras. With all the fun we’ve been having hunting the Zany zebras large, small and miniature it’s easy to forget the whole point of the zebra trail. Like the Go Rhinos trail before it, it’s an exercise in raising awareness of the plight of these beautiful, stripy beasts. Grevy’s zebras, the largest member of the horse family, are endangered.

Their stripes may help them hide and they may be able to run up to forty miles an hour but they can’t outrun the big cats who hunt them. They also fall prey to packs of hyenas and wild dogs but their biggest threat comes from man. They are hunted for their meat and their hides and have lost a lot of their natural African habitat to agricultural land as the human population expands. In the last thirty years there has been an eighty three percent decline in their numbers. That is an awful lot of zebras.

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Marwell are doing a great deal to try to put this situation right and stop these lovely zebras becoming a statistic on the list of extinct animals. Zany zebras is not just about raising awareness. All the zebras, including the giant Gulliver, will be auctioned off at the end of the event and the money raised will support Marwell’s conservation programmes.  They have already helped create a national conservation strategy for Grevy’s zebras and are linked to a worldwide captive breeding program. In fact Marwell manage the International Studbook of the European Endangered Species Programme (EEP) for Grevy’s zebra. Hopefully it will be a success and our stripy friends will be around for a long time to come.

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At the top of the field we turned left rather than right as we had the first time we came this way. Soon we were walking up the gravel drive of Marwell House. The hall was built by Walter Woodlock in around 1320 on the site of an even older building, thought to have been a royal house. In the sixteenth century, when it was owned by Sir Henry Seymour, the property was destroyed by fire. The present building was  rebuilt by the Long family in 1816 around the core of the medieval remains.

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“Imagine living in a house like this,” I said, looking at the front of the building with its covering of Virginia creeper beginning to turn red at the edges.
“It would take a lot of cleaning,” Bard said.
“It’d keep Dad busy though,” CJ laughed.
At the door we discovered the house was closed for an event so we couldn’t visit it after all. We did stand at the door though and look in at the huge stone fireplace still bearing the crest and coat of arms of King Edward VI. There were pictures of some of Marwell’s animals on the walls and a long table laid out with a buffet. We hadn’t eaten yet and it was tempting to nip in and steal a roll but we restrained ourselves.

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As you would expect with such an old house, there are several stories surrounding Marwell. It’s believed that Henry VIII secretly married Jane Seymour in the house in 1536. No one knows for sure but it’s plausible as the house was owned by the Seymour family. There is also a ghost, or several ghosts. Apparently the hall was the scene of a terrible tragedy.

On the eve of her wedding Lord Lovell’s bride to be grew bored with dancing and instigated a game of hide and seek. She ran off and hid in a large oak chest in a remote part of the house, little knowing that it had a spring lock. The groom and wedding guests searched and searched but couldn’t find her and her cries for help were muffled by the thick wood of the chest. It was many years before her remains were found, still in the chest and clutching a sprig of mistletoe. To this day the wedding guests can be heard roaming the building searching for her. Perhaps if we’d been able to go inside we’d have heard them.

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Our walking hadn’t all been in vain. Around the side of the house we found silvery marmosets. These cute little Brazilian natives were dashing about so much it was tough to get a photo. In the wild, deforestation and farming, along with illegal pet trading have seen their numbers decline. They were certainly thriving at Marwell and we spent some time watching them.

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There are no lions at Marwell but, walking through the gardens, we did manage to find a stone one looking over a little pool with a fountain. With more time I’d have liked to wander around the gardens but we’d been walking for almost three hours and I didn’t think Bard and CJ would thank me if I dragged them around looking at plants. Maybe another day.

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So far we hadn’t found the Zany zebras I’d expected but we did find cotton-top tamarins, a critically endangered species. These agile little creatures with their white Albert Einstein hairdos are natives of  the South American rainforests where wild cats, snakes and birds of prey are their main predators. The destruction of the rainforest along with illegal pet trade has seen their numbers dwindle to an all time low despite laws designed to protect them and ban their export.

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As we finally turned back towards the beginning of the trail it was obvious we must have missed the last twelve miniature zebras somewhere. Unless we were prepared to walk around the whole park yet again though, there was no way we were going to find them. It was disappointing, especially as the illusive Ticket To Ride was one of the ones we hadn’t found.
“At least we’ll be able to see them all at the Aegas Bowl in October,” CJ said.
Then we stumbled upon the meerkats and all thoughts of minature zebras dissolved into thin air. No one could possibly be in the least unhappy watching meerkats. They have such expressive, inquisitive looking faces. No wonder they use them for all those adverts.

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Meerkats live in tunnels and burrows in Southern Africa and are very social animals living in large groups of up to fifty. These communities give the meerkats an advantage. There is safety in numbers from predators such as eagles, snakes and jackals and each member of the group takes a turn in acting as a sentry, standing on hind legs on the lookout for any threats and giving an alarm call if they see any. Perhaps because of this they are not currently endangered.

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Soon we were passing the Grevy’s zebras for the final time and our time at Marwell was almost at an end. It had been an interesting day getting a glimpse at animals we might otherwise never have seen and learning a little about the wonderful work they do. Many people don’t like zoos and say animals shouldn’t be in captivity. Maybe they should visit Marwell.

Because of Marwell the Grevy’s zebra has a chance of survival and the scimitar-horned oryx, successfully bred there, is being reintroduced to the Sahara. The oryx was actually extinct in the wild but more than two hundred have been born at the zoo and many are now thriving in the wild. They have also been involved in reintroducing the wild horse, golden lion tamarin and roan antelope to the wild. Their success in breeding critically endangered animals alone is worth the price of admittance.

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By the time we made it back to the gift shop and the giant Gulliver zebra we’d been walking for over three hours and felt a little like the fossa below.

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There was one last thing to see before we left. Beside the door of the gift shop we discovered a wonderful moasic showing many of the animals we’d seen and some we had missed. We must have walked right past it at the beginning of the day just as we must have walked right past those twelve miniature zebras. Oh well, Aegas Bowl here we come then…

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Marie

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

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