Colchester Zoo is the largest privately run zoo in the UK and celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It relies on its internal income (retail, catering and admissions) and donations to monitor and preserve the health of the animals in its care and to support conversation projects all over the world. The dedicated staff at Colchester Zoo organise training programmes to help the animals adjust to their surroundings and coordinate enclosure enrichment to improve the welfare of the animals in their care.
So John, his daughter and I decided to visit Colchester Zoo to see the animals and talk to the keepers about their work. John’s daughter was particularly excited about the white rhino baby that was born earlier this year called Pembe. We watched her playing in the paddock with her mum (Emily), charging and hopping and looking at her mum for approval. Who would have thought that something so leathery could look so cute! White rhinos are endangered due to excessive hunting for their horns which are used to make dagger handles and trinkets, and unfortunately poaching has increased in recent years. However, Colchester Zoo’s charity supports rhino conservation in South Africa, raising funds for education and the equipment needed to protect both white and black rhinos in the hope that this trend can be reversed.
I really liked the slow and steady giant tortoises, surprisingly graceful despite having to carry their homes around on their backs. Giant tortoises are among the world’s longest living creatures, with an average lifespan of 100 years or more, and can grow to weigh as much as 300kg (that’s 660 lbs in old money). Historically, they have sadly been caught and killed in such large quantities that they were virtually extinct by 1900, so giant tortoises are now under strict conservation laws. What magnificent beasts they were.
There was a cheeky pair of red pandas in an open-air enclosure in the Wilds of Asia section, but every time I got my camera out, they kept hiding behind their bamboo. I suppose I can let them off this time though, seeing as they’ve been busy raising two red panda cubs (the first red panda birth for Colchester Zoo in 14 years). Apparently the keepers hadn’t witnessed any mating, so the first time they were aware of the new arrivals was when the cubs were seen through the hatch of the nest. Altogether now – ahhhh!!
The Komodo Dragon is classified as vulnerable and their number has declined in the wild due to the threat of habitat loss, a loss of prey species and hunting. The Dragons in the enclosure were quite small and young apparently, and the keepers said that a male Dragon can reach 3 metres long when fully grown. They like to catch a few rays and can often be seen basking in 40 degrees of heat during the day in their specially designed enclosure, which comes complete with pool and rain water showers. I was thinking of spending a couple of weeks here in the summer, but I don’t suppose the Dragons would go for that!
One of my favourite animals was the Sun Bear. They seemed so mellow and gentle, and they were black like me (although they had a golden crescent marking on their chests which in Eastern folklore represents the sun). The Sun Bear (also known as the honey bear after its love of honey) is the smallest of the eight bear species. The Sun Bears at Colchester Zoo have been given the chance of a new life too. One female was found as a baby in a village in central Cambodia weighing around 300 grams and suffering from pneumonia. Jo Jo was rescued from a bar in north-eastern Cambodia when he was 6 months old where he was kept to amuse visitors. I’d like to acknowledge the efforts of Free the Bears, a charity who work tirelessly to help bears in these conditions.
Another highlight was feeding the elephants in the Kingdom of the Wild exhibit. These gentle giants had wisdom and sorrow in their eyes, almost as though the memories of their past persecution in their native lands linger on, along with the hope that their role in the zoo will raise awareness of their plight and lead one day to a peace between humans and the kingdom of the wild. They patiently watched us, grasping the food from our hands with their powerful hairy trunks and letting us stroke them on their rough grey noses. I spent the whole of the car journey home licking my paws to get rid of the elephant dribble, but it was totally worth it!