Shad enjoys watching the snow leopards

Spring-watch, Harry Potter, Wonders of the Universe and Planet Earth are some of my favourite shows to watch on television.  So when John called me in from the kitchen last Sunday night as Planet Earth II was about to start, my little paws hurried across the lounge and I hopped on to my favourite end of the sofa, sniffing it furiously before turning around 3 times and adopting my front facing semi-alert crouch down posture.  John said it was snow leopard night and I was looking forward to watching these magical and highly elusive creatures in their natural environments.   Patterned with little black rosettes, the fur on their gorgeous smoky-grey coats is up to 5 inches thick, especially on their tails which they use to help them balance on the narrow ledges and rocky outcrops where they live.  They also place their long lush tails across their mouth and nose like a muffler to shield them from the harsh winds and snow of the Himalayas.  I’m not jealous!

I am always astounded at how animals manage to survive in the wild and snow leopards are no exception.  The cameras followed a female and her 2 year old daughter as they used every ounce of their stealth and stamina to find shelter against the harsh climate, avoid danger and hunt for food.  They feed on a variety of herbivores in their mountain range habitats and one goat can keep them going for 2 to 3 weeks.  Like many wild animals, they are on the brink of extinction with an estimated 6000 left roaming their territories thanks largely to human persecution, prey loss and habitat destruction.  Anyway this brave female had a fur-raising encounter with a larger male that involved   a lot of growling and snarling and swiping of paws, the male making his intentions clear and the female putting him in his place while keeping her daughter safe from harm.  I was on the edge of my seat during this aggressive meeting and quite frankly relieved when they all walked away unharmed.  It was the total opposite to the adorable mating ritual of the Wilsons bird who desperately wanted to impress a female he spotted looking down at him from a branch.  This little black bird of paradise suddenly flashed a bright green disc of feathers at the female in a courtship display that tickled my senses.  I wiggled my rear-end in excitement as the bird skipped and danced in front of his girl, flaunting his emerald cape and putting his heart and soul into his performance.  In case you’re wondering, he won the heart of his fair lady and did his duty to propagate the species.  Ah the wonders of the universe.

Shad admires his bushy-tailed cousins

There are a few wild cats that give me tail envy, notably the snow leopard with her thick silvery-grey tail or the sand-cat with his bushy black-tipped buff-coloured appendage.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of my own long, sleek and silky extremity but there are times when a plush heavy tail would be an advantage.  Like when I want to look tough in front of the tabby cat next door who has the audacity to sit on my front door step, or when I’m curling around John’s legs as part of my ‘have treat, will eat’ strategy.

Another tail of splendour belongs to the Scottish wildcat, a muscular striped feline that would be insulted if you said it looked just like the neighbour’s pet tabby!  The tail is thick and ringed with perfect bands of black and brown while its agility and resourcefulness epitomise the wild spirit of the Highlands that it calls home.  The wildcats in these pictures live at the British Wildlife Centre in Lingfield because they are critically endangered and form part of a conservation and breeding programme.  Their numbers in the wild have decreased due to deforestation, human persecution and cross-mating with feral domestic cats which produces hybrids and dilutes the true wildcat genes.

Last time I went to the British Wildlife Centre I found out that the wildcat is truly untameable and just like a tiger or a leopard it is biologically designed to be happiest in its natural environment.  I cannot imagine surviving outdoors, finding shelter and hunting for food, avoiding predators and caring for young.  Sounds like a lot of work to me!  When the keepers enter the enclosures, the wildcats keep their distance, prowling around the bushes with their ears pointed forward and their supple bodies ready to respond to the slightest noise or movement.  Suddenly their piercing eyes focus unblinking on the keeper as she takes a piece of meat from her bag and throws it into the air where the wildcat leaps swiftly up to catch it and takes it away somewhere private to eat.  I wonder if that’s why I take the food out of my bowl and put it on the floor, because some base instinct within me thinks I should run off with it.  I spent the rest of that day thinking how lucky I am to have all the luxuries that come with being a domesticated feline photographer and entrepreneur.

The Scottish wildcat has overcome many obstacles including lack of food (due to lower numbers of prey animals), habitat loss and human persecution and they have survived for five hundred more years than the British wolf and over a thousand years more than the British bear or lynx.  The last of the British lynx disappeared around 700AD, hunted to extinction for its fur.  As a fur wearing creature myself, I find the notion of humans wearing fur in this modern age to be cruel and unnecessary, and even more so the concept of exterminating an entire species for its skin.  Wear your own skin!

There are some fine specimens of the solitary and secretive Eurasian lynx residing in zoos and sanctuaries across the country as you can see from the photos.  I am excited to say that there is a group of conservationists dedicated to reintroducing the lynx back into the ecosystem of the British Isles in order to restore some balance to the ecology of the forests.  Their presence would help control the deer population which has grown exponentially due to top predators such as wolves and bears becoming extinct, thereby protecting flora and fauna from deer damage and bringing economic wealth to rural areas through wildlife tourism.  I personally would support the introduction of any animal with a tail so lustrous and bushy that it would be the envy of every pussy cat in the land.

Shad does Dudley Zoo

The West Midlands was our destination, Dudley Zoo the organisation, 2 or 3 hours was the travel duration to visit Daseep the Sumatran tiger was our expectation.  She is a special feline relation because of her work in conservation; hopefully she’ll exert a lot of persuasion to ensure the future of her generation.

 

Don’t know what came over me just then, I went all Oscar Wilde!  Alright, I know, my poetry is more comparable to Pam Ayres than a great literary artist like Oscar Wilde.  Although I’m not disrespecting the lovely Pam, she is a talented and entertaining lady.  Anyway, I digress!  Daseep was chosen this year as the face of an international conservation campaign that supported Global Tiger Day held on 29th July to raise awareness of the shocking reality of the world’s tiger populations.  According to a Dudley Zoo spokesperson, there are now just 3,500 tigers left in the wild, of which there are fewer than 140 surviving Sumatrans.  Three year old Daseep and two year old male Joao are paired as part of an international project to safeguard one of the world’s most critically endangered species.  Check out the whiskers on these beautiful animals, and the facial markings so bold and striking.  I’m not jealous!

 

Dudley Zoo (in the Black Country region of the West Midlands) looks as though it is built on platforms in a circular pattern that surrounds Dudley Castle on top of a hill.  It has over 1,000 animals representing over 200 different species like these Chilean flamingos that seem to enjoy standing on one leg and the otters and sea lions that started yawning every time I got my camera out.  Some of the animals were struggling to keep cool in the recent hot weather so the zoo splashed out on cold showers for the Asiatic black bear and cooling fans for the meerkats.  The monkeys and apes were treated to fruit-filled lollies and staff have been applying suncream to the sensitive skins of creatures who are normally hidden from direct sun by the South American jungle.

 

One of the big attractions at the zoo right now is a trio of special new arrivals born to four year old mum Daisy the lynx (Carpathian lynx to be precise).  They are the first of their species to be born at Dudley and have recently started to explore their outdoor enclosure.  Born in May this year, the cubs appear to be developing nicely and Daisy is doing a grand job as a first-time mum alongside three year old dad Dave.  Then there’s the orangutans who are partial to a drink of squash and had a unique way of drilling straight through me with their eyes, like they knew what I was thinking.  This cheeky orangutan was called Jarong and had the biggest cheek chops I have ever seen!  I saw the giraffes whose pace of life is slow to very slow and they were so relaxed that they let the keeper rub their tummies.

 

The highlight for me had to be meeting the snow leopard cub Makalu who was born on 17th April.  He is making excellent progress, bonding with his mum, gaining weight and chasing anything that moves.  He was named after one of the world’s highest mountain ranges within the Himalayan region bordering Nepal and China were his species apparently originates.  What a privilege to witness these exotic and rare wild animals share their experiences of family life with us.  Roar!!!

Shad does the franco-english Marwell tour

Have you seen a ‘hippopotame pygmée’ or a ‘singe’ recently?  You would have, if you’d been with John and I at Marwell Wildlife Park this weekend.  Two of John’s friends were visiting from across the Channel and we decided to give them a guided tour of the wonders of the natural world at Marwell.  They came from Marseille which is the second largest city in France after Paris.  Marseille is an urban area with a large population and a rugged rocky coastal landscape, a far cry from the wooded hills and rolling countryside of Winchester where Marwell is situated.  There were 5 of us altogether, including 2 people who spoke both English and French and were able to translate, and one person who spoke French only.  John speaks a little German but that didn’t really help, and I speak cat which I consider a universal language, but that didn’t help much either!!

Have you worked out those French words yet?  The first one is pygmy hippopotamus, and we were lucky enough to get a clear view of a mother with her little female calf who was born on 13th December 2013.  The baby is part of the European Endangered Breeding Programme and is called Gloria, a name chosen by patrons of the zoo and members of the public following an online vote.  ‘Singe’ (pronounced ‘sairnge’) is French for monkey, and there was plenty of monkeying around as we watched the Colobus monkeys strike a pose for the camera and swing across the branches with their long arms and tails.

There was much guffawing at the giraffe area because these tall elegant creatures with big beautiful eyes looked so demure, but when they munched on their dinners, the prolonged chewing action combined with large elf-like ears made an amusing sight.  I held my tail high as a friendly greeting and made chirrup noises to communicate my appreciation of their awesomeness, but I’m small compared to them and I don’t think they saw me.

Unlike the big cats, which spotted me instantly, may be because they smelt me coming.  Not that I have some sort of body odour problem I hasten to add, but more due to the feline ability to convey identity and mood through scent.  Marwell has taken in a new male Amur tiger called Bagai who is 17 months old and is settling into his new environment before being introduced to Milla, a female Amur tiger.  It is hoped that they will produce offspring to help save this highly endangered species which is on the brink of extinction.  Shockingly, the evil poachers continue to trap and kill these magnificent beasts along with many other animals who now struggle to survive in their native environments.  My thanks go to the conservationists across the world and animal welfare groups such as PETA, IFAW and the WSPCA for their efforts in promoting the wellbeing of animals and giving them a voice.

2013 was a busy year for the keepers at Marwell who also welcomed a giant anteater baby born in November.  Little Rojo seemed content and was fully occupied when we saw him in his enclosure with his mum,  digging at a branch with his long fore-claws, looking for insects.  These curious looking creatures are listed as ‘vulnerable’ in the wild and have thick necks and a tubular snout which ends in a tiny mouth opening and nostrils.  They apparently have poor eyesight but a sense of smell 40 times more sensitive than that of humans.

John’s French friends were visibly impressed at how well the animals were cared for and how keen the Brits are to keep animals as happy and healthy as possible.  They went home with lots of photos and good memories from their trip to the zoo, and I improved my language skills and did my bit for anglo-french relations.  So au revoir, c’est la vie and bon voyage!

Proud Cub in the Setting Sun

This is one of the Snow Leopard cubs born in the spring at Marwell Zoo. Myself and John have watched them grow this year from fur balls into beautiful cats

Shad talks about Snow Leopards

Taking photos of wildlife is one of my favourite things to do, and I can often be found lurking outside enclosures at zoos and animal sanctuaries, waiting for the perfect shot.  It requires a calm demeanour, patience and a steady paw to trigger that shutter at precisely the right moment!  I particularly enjoy taking pictures of big cats because they’re part of my extensive feline family and I’m fascinated by the similarity of their mannerisms to mine.

I’ve spent many happy hours watching the snow leopards at Marwell in Hampshire yawning, stretching, playing and grooming.  However, like most cats, they spend an enormous amount of time snoozing, hence the need for patience and stealth when trying to capture an exciting moment.  Like the time I caught on camera the snow leopard cubs born in April 2013 as they took their first steps outside of their den close to proud parents Irina (mum) and Indeever (dad).

Unfortunately, these magnificent creatures are in trouble, and only humans can help.  It saddens me to say that the World Wildlife Fund estimate there are only 4,000 to 6,500 snow leopards left alive today in the wild and numbers are dwindling as a result of poaching, hunting, climate change, and loss of habitat and natural prey.  However, an international forum was established last year to outline urgent actions and a global strategy to conserve these rare animals and you can read more about that in an article I found in the South China Morning Post this week.

http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1336567/dont-let-snow-leopard-become-mere-memory

I love the idea of humans from different countries working together to protect the snow leopards and I have no doubt that their combined efforts will have other positive consequences such as preserving biodiversity, protecting other endangered species, supporting rural development and managing wildlife honourably.


Did you know that snow leopards hiss, meow and growl but don’t roar like other big cats?  They live in the cold high mountains across Europe and Central Asia in countries such as Afghanistan, China, India, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia and Kazakhstan.  Their white-grey coats help them blend in with the steep rocky terrain and their long tails and powerful builds provide balance and help them stay warm.