Clear as mud at Orana Wildlife Park

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA Canterbury mudfish or kowaro (Neochanna burrowsius). (Photo credit: DOC)

by Nick McIndoe

Christchurch’s Orana Wildlife Park recently took delivery of 99 Canterbury mudfish or kowaro (Neochanna burrowsius).

These little freshwater fish are unique to New Zealand’s only open range zoo in that “Keeping an eye on them” and checking water quality aside (to be done by Orana and DOC staff), they will largely be left to their own devices as a “wild” population of the first native species to be introduced to the site—trout have been held for many years.

They are however no less important than any of the other conservation work being undertaken at the Park.

There are five mudfish species in New Zealand and the Canterbury variety is the most at risk—Threatened (Nationally Critical) under the New Zealand Threat Classification System. This means that they are facing an immediate high risk of extinction.

Canterbury mudfish are only found in a limited number of waterways on the Canterbury Plains, between the Ashley River (in the north) and the Waitaki River (in the south). They thrive in slow-moving to still waters, that offer a substrate for burrowing refuges, and an absence of introduced fish or eels. They are fussy eaters too, only eating certain species of native freshwater plants.

Their small home range is one of the main reasons this species is the most endangered mudfish. Other factors include an inability to swim against the current, loss of over 90% of their habitat through drainage, irrigation and land development, and vulnerability to invasive weed and fish species.

What Orana Wildlife Park can do is offer a safe habitat and raise awareness. According to Engagement Manager Toby Johnson, Canterbury mudfish are, “Poorly known, almost impossible to see and largely occur in remnant wetlands on private land. The key is checking with DOC before undertaking any work that may modify their habitat—let DOC see if they are in the wetland, then go from there. Translocate if necessary, but why not leave them where they are and celebrate having these unique fish on your land?”

After all, as the DOC Website says, mudfish are our most specialised freshwater fish and a unique part of our natural heritage. For example, mudfish are placed in the family Galaxiidae, which also includes five species whose young are commonly referred to as “whitebait”.

Brown/black in colour, about 12cm in length and sporting an eel-like body with no scales, the Canterbury variety is the only species of mudfish to sport pelvic fins.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe pelvic fins which are unique to the Canterbury species of mudfish are visible here (Photo credit: DOC).

Probably their most unique feature is the ability to aestivate for several months (albeit with approximately 30% mortality according to Toby). Aestivation is the summer equivalent of hibernation and mudfish use it to ensure they don’t dessicate in New Zealand’s hot summer sun.

Africa’s lungfish also aestivate, does this mean galaxiids have lungs too? No. Lungfish (Family Protopteridae) are Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fishes), which today are only represented by four species of lungfish and two species of coelacanth. Sarcopterygii are more closely related to tetrapods (including us!) than other fish.

These “other” fish are the Actinopterygii or ray-finned fishes to which the galaxiids belong. However, the galaxiids are considered primitive and the ability to survive out of the water for long periods of time is something very few fish can do.

While some galaxiids are diadromous (involve both fresh and seawater stages in their life cycle), most New Zealand species, including the Canterbury mudfish are not. In a classic example of speciation, they most likely descended from sea going galaxiids that became landlocked at the time of the ancient super-continent, Gondwana. Once isolated from their close relatives, these fish eventually evolved into new species, and are now distributed throughout the temperate Southern Hemisphere.

Over summer, mudfish drop their metabolism by as much as 60% and absorb oxygen through the skin. To keep them alive during aestivation, mudfish must have damp surroundings and cover such as logs, tree roots and vegetation. Unlike lungfish, they do not enter a state of complete torpor—mudfish are still alert during aestivation and will become active immediately when water returns, ready to swim, eat and reproduce, albeit in poorer body condition.

The arrival of Canterbury mudfish at Orana Wildlife Park has been a three- year process says Toby Johnson. “A park-wide inspection was followed by a narrowing of potential sites, inspection and finalising of site, and finally a seasonal inspection. We use groundwater here, so the depth is highly variable. After that was recovery group approval, iwi consultation, permit applications water testing, predator trapping [none found], capture, transfer, and finally, release.

“Following the sad destruction of Southern Encounter Aquarium and Kiwi House in the Christchurch earthquakes, a population was established at Travis Wetlands with some success and at Isaac Conservation Trust to great success,” says Toby.

“The growing population at Isaacs was harvested for the 99 mudfish released to Orana with repeats scheduled for 2020 and 2021. Aside from monitoring, they will be left to their own devices to thrive as an insurance on the wild population and back-up to Isaacs. The habitat they were released to is so naturally perfect that they are expected to breed successfully and when they reach abundance they may be collected for release to additional areas.”

OWP Mudfish LocationMudfish habitat at Orana Wildlife Park (Photo credit: Orana Wildlife Park).

For Orana Wildlife Park, which is rightly proud of its association with DOC’s breed and release recovery programmes for endangered New Zealand species, the acquisition of Canterbury mudfish is another major milestone.

The Park is currently home to 23 (well above the regional average of 9) zoo-based breeding programmes and has had great success on the national stage with kiwi, who, pateke, and parakeets, as well as exotic species like cheetah. There is no reason to believe that mudfish won’t be another success story.

Ungulate movements at Auckland Zoo


Nyala calf Pili was born at Auckland Zoo on October 11 and was soon on her feet. Females and calves have a rusty brown coat with white stripes on their flanks (Photo: Auckland Zoo).

by Nick McIndoe

A female nyala calf was born at Auckland Zoo on October 11. Its name is Pili which means “second” in Swahili—fitting, given that this is mum Akiiki’s second baby and brings Auckland Zoo’s nyala herd to 12 individuals, consisting of a breeding male Khari, five adult females and six calves.

The original herd of six came from South Africa and arrived in Auckland in late 2017 following a quarantine period at Wellington Zoo.

Nyala (Tragelaphus angasii) are spiral-horned antelope native to southern Africa. They are a member of the Bovidae family (cloven-hoofed, ruminant mammals), Order Artiodactyla (even-toed ungulates)—pigs, peccaries, hippopotamuses, camels, llamas, alpacas, mouse deer, deer, giraffes, antelopes, sheep, goats, and cattle.

These animals bear weight on two (an even number) of the five toes (their third and fourth toes), as opposed to the Perissodactyla or odd-toed ungulates (rhinoceroses, horses, and tapirs), which only bear weight on one (the third) of the five toes.

Order Cetacea (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) evolved from even-toed ungulates and their closest living relative is believed to be the hippopotamus!

 Auckland Zoos team leader for ungulates Tommy Karlsson, says that Pili’s birth went well. “We have really thorough notes on these animals so can tell when they are due. Nyala are good mums and when we can see a birth is getting close, we give them access to the back of house area.

“In Akiiki’s case, we thought she would give birth that night but while feeding the herd we noticed she was close,” says Tommy. “She found a spot and Pili was born on exhibit.”

Another great thing about Auckland Zoo’s nyala is the best practice recall system (like that used by specialist canine trainers) developed to bring the herd inside every night, or if they need medical care. “They are shy animals, but we work with them every day, so they do not see us as a threat,” says Tommy.


Pili isn’t old enough to learn recall yet so nyala co-ordinator Jess carries her inside for the night (Photo: Auckland Zoo).

“Advanced training includes conditioning the animals to go into, and stay in, a box with latches on the side, and a door front and back. This is useful for examining the females’ udders to make sure they are lactating and for examining their feet.

“We start this training from a young age when they’re easier to handle, so they are used to it by adulthood.”

These beautiful antelope exhibit a rusty brown coat in females, which is darker in males. Females and young of both sexes also have up to 10 white stripes on their sides. Only the males have horns which may grow to 80cm in length.


Only male Nyala grow horns which maybe 80cm in length (Photo: Nick McIndoe).

The biggest threats facing this species are poaching and habitat loss from human settlement.


Continuing the ungulates theme, a three-year-old male waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprmnus) arrived at Auckland Zoo on 25 October.

He has joined the Auckland ungulate herd from Melbourne’s Werribee Open Range Zoo and will undergo a one month, off-exhibit quarantine before visitors can see him in the African savannah habitat.

Three female waterbuck recently arrived from Hamilton to join him and Auckland Zoo is hoping for the pitter patter of tiny hooves soon.


Three female waterbuck from Hamilton Zoo are now on display in Auckland Zoo’s Pridelands exhibit and will soon be joined by a male from Werribee  Open Range Zoo (Photo: Nick McIndoe).

Fighting extinction with the snow leopards of Melbourne Zoo

Report and photos by Nick McIndoe

In December 2017 Zoos Victoria opened Carnivores’ Trail at Melbourne Zoo.

Fully funded by the Victorian State Government, the $9m development is, as the name suggests, a trail which visitors follow starting with African wild dogs, African lions, Philippines crocodile (the most endangered crocodile in the world), South American coati (carnivore related to racoon), snow leopards, Sumatran tiger and finishing at Tasmanian devils and a view into the wild dogs’ exhibit from the other side.

Snow leopards? As soon as I heard this, I knew I had to visit and did, on Wednesday 5 June.

Melbourne Zoo is currently home to two snow leopards (Panthera uncia)—three-year-old female Miska arrived from South Lakes Safari Zoo in the UK about two years ago. Kang Ju (male), was born in August 2015 and came to Australia from Germany.

Both cats are at Melbourne Zoo as part of an international breeding programme to help save this vulnerable species, with no more than 7000 believed to exist in the wild.

Snow leopards are a keystone predator in their ecosystem. Without them, ibex populations would increase, decimating alpine grasses and leaving no food for other animals.


Signage such as this holds key information about the animal on display and connects visitors with why snow leopards must be saved.

 It is thought that snow leopards reach sexual maturity between two and three years of age, so Miska and Kang Ju are of the right age—the pitter patter of cubs’ feet is certainly an exciting future prospect, but for now, the cats live in separate enclosures as their keepers patiently work with them to ensure amicable introductions. While Species Survival Plans (SSP), studbooks and experts recommend individuals who they believe suited to each other, like us humans, a courting process must take place.

Zoos Victoria is a world leading zoo-based conservation organisation with the mission statement “fighting extinction”. They achieve this through five action areas: conservation (achieving tangible success in both wildlife and community conservation); animals (every species in collection has conservation relevance, also world leaders in animal care/welfare); visitors (inspiring visitors to care); people (developing staff) and financial stability (increase visitation/revenue to ensure money can be invested in animal care and conservation).

This is obvious as I walk around Carnivores’ Trail; the whole of Melbourne Zoo for that matter. Some examples I saw:


Above: a sign at the beginning of Carnivores’ Trail remind visitors that they can “join the pack” and help fight extinction, while another shows how—help reduce human/wildlife conflict by purchasing Snow Leopard Trust products at zoo shops.Below: bins located near the Wild Seas exhibit give visitors the opportunity to dispose of old fishing lines so they don’t end up in the environment harming marine life, while a creative sign shows how demand for toilet paper is destroying the forest homes of koalas and other native Australian wildlife.


Areas where conservation in action stands out at Melbourne Zoo are exhibit design, enrichment and connecting people with wildlife.

Take Miska for example. Snow leopards are native to the mountains of central Asia, living in 12 countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In the Himalayas, these cats may be found at altitudes of 18,000ft—no feline lives higher.

The name snow leopard is a bit of a misnomer. Although comfortable, thanks to their huge paws which act as snowshoes, walking in snow as deep as 85cm, their preferred habitat is rocky, broken terrain above the treeline in summer, coming down into forests in winter—perhaps rock leopard would have been a more apt name? But snow leopard is more befitting these cats’ beauty and mystical, elusive nature.

And they are beautiful. Miska’s fur can be described as a “smoky” colour—white underside; grey topside with a yellowish tinge and black rosettes—rendering them almost invisible in some of the steepest, most inhospitable terrain on earth and earning them their nickname, “ghost of the mountains”.

As we approach Miska’s home I do not see her. Prompted by staff I look up and catch my first glimpse of her. The exhibit is designed to mimic snow leopard Himalayan habitat—it is one of the best and most naturalistic I have ever seen and combined with the snow leopard’s camouflage, obviously works well—fantastic enrichment and animal welfare.


Can you see her? My first view of Miska (she is lying on the rocks mid-right, at the top of the tree branch) and her exhibit, from the lower viewing area. The upper viewing windows can be seen at left.

I am privileged to be invited to help the keepers place some enrichment items inside the exhibit. With Miska safely tucked away back-of-house—snow leopards are not known to be aggressive toward humans, but you can’t take any chances with a powerful predator that can take down prey three times its own weight!

An opportunity to find out more about Miska’s exhibit, and the enrichment used to keep her active and stimulated. Enrichment is a vital part of Zoos Victoria’s duty of care to all its animals and is done to provide increased exercise, satisfying animals’ natural behavioural needs, optimising stimulation and reducing abnormal behaviour patterns.

I stand on hallowed ground—a wooden bridge that a snow leopard will soon walk across. I survey my surroundings—rocks that can be chilled in summer to help her cool down; motion-triggered misters can be activated by the cats whenever they want to cool off; the back rock wall has holes for randomised food delivery which encourages opportunistic hunting in the wild; water, wood, vegetation, different substrates, ledges, opportunities to climb/jump, elevated vantage points to look out to other areas of the zoo—everything a snow leopard could want.

It is important to note though that all animals at Zoos Victoria’s three parks always have access to back of house and choose when they want to be on/off display and what enrichment items they want to use at any time.



From top to bottom: the back wall of Miska’s enclosure has holes where food automatically drops at random times throughout the day; the rocks can be chilled in summer; Miska’s pug mark.

All too soon we are out of Miska’s exhibit and she appears—the most beautiful animal I have ever seen!


Miska in all her glory. The grey–white fur with black rosettes helps her disappear into her rocky surroundings. Unfortunately, it has made snow leopards sought after by poachers and the illegal wildlife trade. Human–wildlife conflict, habitat destruction and global warming also threaten these magnificent cats. Their massive paws have fur on the soles and act as snowshoes and their thick tail, which they use for balance and wrap around themselves as a scarf, is almost as long as their body. Note the light green–grey eyes—unusual for cats.



Miska explores her home—what a breathtakingly beautiful animal!

While training zoo animals is nothing new, most people probably associate it with species such as seals or dolphins. Zoos Victoria is taking it one step further and in keeping with their mission of fighting extinction is positioning itself to be a world leader in animal welfare. Their aim is to train every animal across its three parks, regardless of size or species, to participate in their own healthcare—simple, yet extensions of natural behaviours, such as presenting their feet, teeth or ears. The animal participates of its own free will and can leave at any time.

The training is being conducted by zookeepers and specialist training staff. Training animals to participate in their own healthcare enables keepers and vets monitor the animals’ health and provide necessary medical treatment, ultimately reducing stress and anxiety for the animals throughout the process.

Furthermore, many of these training sessions will be conducted in full view of the public—connecting visitors with wildlife to build a love of wildlife which will hopefully translate into care and action.

During my visit to Melbourne Zoo, I am lucky enough to witness a public training session with Miska the snow leopard. A special mesh wall has been set up in her enclosure to allow keepers to safely interact with her and visitors to watch.

 Snow leopards are about the size of a golden retriever—Miska weighs 34kg and is weighed every day. She is fed a total of 1.7kg of food a day over three feeds—a morning (back-of-house) training session; a feed in her exhibit, and the public training session. Typical food is beef and chicken.

I have had pet dogs and done basic training (sit, wait, recall etc) with them but to see my favourite animal (snow leopard) up close, responding to her keepers … wow, it is something else!


Miska responds to keeper Craig’s signals. This training allows Miska to participate in her own healthcare, making it a far less stressful experience for her. It also inspires visitors like me!

In the wild snow leopards can jump six metres into the air. Melbourne Zoo’s snow leopard exhibit allows Miska to jump 4.2m to the ground when she sees her keepers arrive for training—fantastic enrichment and encouragement of natural behaviours.


Miska leaps 4.2m to the ground ready for her training session. Snow leopards can jump from heights of six metres—impressive!

Melbourne Zoo supports the Snow Leopard Trust and awarded a 2017 conservation grant to the Snow Leopard Conservancy—two examples of putting money back into conservation.

Thank you to the staff of Melbourne Zoo for a fantastic day. I was suitably impressed and have been inspired to do whatever I can to help snow leopards.


Beautiful and mysterious

The beautiful, mysterious black panther has long fascinated me (and many others). The name “black panther” is often given to black leopards (Panthera pardus) and jaguars (Panthera onca).What exactly is a black panther?



Black panthers: a black or melanistic leopard (left), and a jaguar (Photos:

In February, wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas and a team of scientists from San Diego Zoo, captured the first photographs of wild black leopards in Kenya since 1909.

There had been reports of black leopards in the area previously, but these photos have confirmed it and could have important implications for the conservation of African leopards—one of eight recognised leopard subspecies.


A Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya) at Singapore Zoo. The Sri Lankan is one of eight subspecies of leopard (Photo: Nick McIndoe).

The word “panther” is used to describe members of the Panthera genus—the “big cats”—tigers, lions, leopards, jaguars and snow leopards. To confuse things even more, the mountain lion/puma/cougar (Puma concolor) is often called panther.

Black panther refers to any member of Panthera who sports a black coat, however, even though there have been reports of black lions and tigers, none have ever been scientifically documented, making black leopards and jaguars the only “true” black panthers.

Though technically, there is no such thing as a black panther; the term does not exist in taxonomy and they are not separate species’, rather, leopards and jaguars that carry a genetic mutation known as melanism—the opposite of albinism—hence their other name, melanistic leopard/jaguar.

The colour of leopard fur is controlled by two genes involved in the production of pigments called melanins. One gene produces the dark pigment eumelanin, while the other produces reddish pheomelanin. In black leopards, the gene that produces the reddish colour is damaged, permanently turning off production of pheomelanin. Eumelanin is also deposited in the iris giving black leopards their distinctive amber-coloured eyes.

In jaguars, melanism is largely inherited—they have a fault in the gene that produces black pigment, greatly increasing the amount deposited in the animal’s fur.

Another myth is that melanistic leopards and jaguars are more aggressive than their “normal” counterparts.

It is thought that only 11 percent of wild leopards/jaguars are melanistic. In fact, the largest known population of black leopards in the world is on Peninsular Malaysia, where it is thought that most leopards are black—their colour giving them an advantage when hunting prey in the dense, dark rainforests. In fact, up until 2015, it was thought that most, if not all, leopards in Malaysia were black.

In Kenya as well, it is thought that most of the melanistic leopards live in the mountains, where it is possible their black coat allows them to absorb more sunlight for warmth at high altitude.

Another advantage of melanism is that despite their beauty, their coats are less desirable to poachers than the standard spotted variety.

Black panther sightings have occurred the world over. Even in New Zealand the “Canterbury black panther” pops up in the news from time-to-time, the last sighting in 2017.

Oh, and if you are ever lucky enough to see a black panther, either in the wild or in captivity, look closely—the rosettes are still there and can be seen in the sunlight.

Leopard vs Jaguar

The leopard (Panthera pardus) and jaguar (Panthera onca) do look very similar. However, jaguars are the only member of Panthera found in the Americas—leopards live in Africa and Asia.

Jaguars are larger and stockier with an obvious curve to their back. Jaguars also have larger heads and stronger jaws—while leopards kill their prey by suffocation (crushing the windpipe), jaguars crush their prey’s skull. While the fur of both leopards and jaguars sport rosettes, however jaguars’ are larger with spots inside.

Today leopards exist in about 25% of their historical range and found in Africa, south/southeast and central Asia, Arabian Peninsula and Russia. They are classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and despite this and threats such as poaching, the illegal wildlife trade, habitat loss and fragmentation, is considered the most common and adaptable “big cat”, however it is not known how many remain in the wild.


Another subspecies of leopard is the Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis). These stunning, critically endangered cats live in the mountains of Russia and China. Despite their thicker coat, they retain the plain spots on their heads and rosettes with no spot inside over the rest of their body, as in all leopards (Photo:

The Panthera genus most likely evolved in Asia approximately 6 to 10 million years ago. It is thought that the jaguar spilt from a common ancestor about 1.5 million years ago and either swam to America or entered via a land-bridge.

The jaguar is classified Near Threatened and while abundant in some parts of its range, its numbers are declining. The main threats are over hunting of its prey, habitat loss and fragmentation, and human/wildlife conflict.

Sadly, jaguars have been eradicated from 40% of their historical range and today occur in the USA (based on occasional sightings in the southwest, particularly Arizona, New Mexico and Texas); through Mexico to South America including: Amazonian Brazil, Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela.

The remarkable thing about jaguars is that there are no subspecies—all jaguars throughout their range are genetically connected.



A jaguar cub (left) and an adult jaguar. Note the spots inside the rosettes and bulkier head-jaguars crush the skull of their prey (Photos:

A Good Fellow in the Trees


TK1                                                                    (Photo: Wildlife Reserves Singapore)


by Nick McIndoe

When the English began chanting The Twelve Days of Christmas in 1780, they sang of a “partridge in a pear tree”. They couldn’t have imagined that nearly 240 years later we would be celebrating kangaroos that live in trees – you read right! However, they don’t suffer as much as an identity crisis as you might think.

Last week was Tree Kangaroo Awareness Week – a time to celebrate the 12 species of tree kangaroo, all of which inhabit the tropical rainforests of Papua New Guinea and far northeastern Queensland. They are marsupials of the family Macropodidae (macropods) – the kangaroo family which includes kangaroos, wallabies, tree-kangaroos, wallaroos, pademelons and quokkas – adapted for an arboreal lifestyle.

Awkward, clumsy and slow on the ground, tree kangaroos are agile climbers and expert leapers – nine-metre jumps from one tree to another have been recorded while amazingly, they can leap up to 15 metres from tree to ground without hurting themselves.

Unlike their terrestrial cousins, tree kangaroos’ muscular forelimbs and powerful hind legs enable them to climb by wrapping their arms around a tree’s trunk, allowing their forelimbs to slide while using their hindlegs to “hop” up the tree. They also possess broad feet with padded soles and sharp curved claws for better grip on tree limbs, and a long tail for balance. Tree kangaroos can also walk backwards.

The species you are most likely to see in zoos is Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo (Dendrolagus goodfellowi), named after British naturalist, Walter Goodfellow, who discovered them.

Unfortunately, these remarkable animals, identified by their beautiful chestnut and gold fur with two gold stripes trailing down its back, are one of the rarest species kept under human care – there are approximately 50 in zoos globally, where they can live up to 23 years of age.

Singapore Zoo, under the umbrella of Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) – Jurong Bird Park, Night Safari, River Safari and Singapore Zoo – is now home to five Goodfellow’s tree kangaroos – one-tenth of the global population under human care, with the birth of a female joey in July 2017.

And the Zoo is hoping for more. As part of the Global Species Management Plan (GSMP) for Goodfellow’s, in 2016 male Makaia and female Nupela arrived from Adelaide and Taronga Zoos respectively. Both animals are celebrities in their own right – Makaia, which means “magic” in Tok Pisin (a Papua New Guinean language), is the only tree kangaroo in the world to be raised by three mothers. In news that made global headlines, the “miracle joey” was adopted by a surrogate yellow-footed wallaby at just 47 days old after his mother died. Once he outgrew the wallaby’s pouch, a human “mum” took over.TK3







Makaia.  Note the Goodfellows’ beautiful colours; muscular fore and hindlimbs; sharp claws and long tail (Photo: Wildlife Reserves Singapore).TK2Nupela shows off the two distinctive gold stripes that run down the back of Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo (Photo: Wildlife Reserves Singapore).

Nupela – “new” or “fresh” in Tok Pisin – was born on 4 September 2013 and became the first Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo to be born at an Australian zoo in 20 years.

Hunted as food and said to taste like hares – the genus name Dendrolagus translates as “tree hare” – the other threat to tree kangaroos is habitat loss. The Goodfellow’s wild population has halved in the last 50 years and they are classified as “Endangered” by the IUCN.

To enhance the sustainability of the global population under human care and to act as an assurance population should there be a catastrophic decline in the wild, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) set up the GSMP for Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo in 2012. It involves the co-ordinated efforts of zoos in Australia, Japan, North America and Singapore to manage the Goodfellow’s population with a globally agreed set of goals, while building upon and respecting established regional processes.

A GSMP is set up when a species will benefit from the outcomes of a strategic alliance between multiple regions rather than a single-region approach.

For example, Makaia and Nupela were paired under the GSMP and in May 2015, a young male Goodfellow’s born at Singapore Zoo, was sent to Yokohama Zoo, Japan, under the recommendation of GSMP. Matchmaking suitable individuals from participating zoos minimises the risk of related animals breeding and enhances the genetic pool of the species under human care.

WRS Deputy Chief Executive Officer and Chief Life Sciences Officer, Dr Cheng Wen-Haur: “Such programmes enable zoos from different countries to breed threatened species in a scientific and coordinated manner to achieve demographic and genetic sustainability. Together with in-situ conservation efforts, these breeding programmes help to ensure the survival of the species.

If you are ever in Singapore, there is an opportunity to meet and have your photo taken alongside Nupela, daily, at 10.45am. For more information on Singapore Zoo and her sister parks, please visit



Strangely Beautiful Australia


Words and Photographs by Nick McIndoe

 Australians may love to claim what is ours as theirs (think Phar Lap, pavlova and Split Enz) but the Australian-born Auckland Zoo director, Jonathan Wilcken has scored some serious brownie points in the trans-Tasman rivalry. He has brought a slice of ‘home’ to Auckland Zoo with the opening of the $3.2 million dollar highly immersive ‘Strangely Beautiful Australia’ development – the Zoo’s second project to be completed in 2016, following the opening of the new African Savannah in March. Both are part of Auckland Zoo’s $120 million 10-year redevelopment programme.

  There is no denying that Australia from the Great Barrier Reef in the north to Tasmania in the south, from the outback in the west to Sydney’s stunning beaches and Ayers Rock in between, is a beautiful country.

  ‘Strangely Beautiful Australia’ is based on habitats found in south-east Australia’s Murray-Darling region says Wilcken: “It’s where I come from and I love our new exhibit on so many levels”.

  The new exhibit links the existing ‘Aussie Walkabout’ (home to emu, wallabies and a walk-through aviary), Tasmanian devil exhibit and soon-to-be completed brolga enclosure and is the Auckland Zoo’s most species-rich precinct to date, featuring over 23 different species, 18 of which will live in ‘Strangely Beautiful Australia’ alone.


‘Strangely Beautiful Australia’ links the existing ‘Aussie Walkabout’ with the Tasmanian devil exhibit (above) and soon-to-be completed brolga enclosure. One female and three male devils arrived at Auckland Zoo in 2014 as part of an insurance population for this endangered species. Wild Tasmanian devils are affected by Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD).

 Residents include three male lace monitors (Alf, Bruce and Ned), goliath stick insects ( Australia’s heaviest stick insect), red-back and huntsman spiders, eastern water dragons, snake-necked turtles, frogs, fish and a diverse collection of vibrant, and very noisy, Australian birds.

From the walkabout, visitors enter a gallery which houses the invertebrates, including red-back and huntsman spiders, along with the goliath stick insects.

 No snakes are allowed in New Zealand, not even in Zoos, due to the threat they pose to our endangered native birdlife. I am curious on the rules surrounding red-back spiders. Auckland Zoo’s curator of ectotherms and birds: “as far as I’m aware you cannot currently import redback spiders. Though they have been in the wild in NZ for decades and are well-established at some sites they are certainly not a welcome introduction as they pose a competitive and predatory threat to various native species, especially other invertebrates. However they are not yet classed as a ‘pest’ to my knowledge.

The spiders on exhibit in Strangely Beautiful Australia were collected from a long-established and well known population in the South Island by colleagues undertaking redback spider control.

From inside, a veranda overlooks an open woodland where lace monitors lurk.  Because UV light is essential for bone development and especially thermoregulation in ectothermic (cold-blooded) reptiles, the lace monitor exhibit is designed as a ‘sun trap’. An Ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (EFTE) roof allows sunlight in even when the roof is closed. A sprinkler system mimics the rain (down to droplet size!) that these giant lizards would experience in the wild in south-east Australia.


The impressive lace monitor is the second-largest monitor in Australia. All monitor species have a split or forked-tongue, like snakes – the only lizards to do so. While sensing the environment around it, the tongue moves so fast that trying to get a shot of the lizard with its tongue out is a lesson in the art of patience that is wildlife photography!

  “Strangely Beautiful Australia is a real celebration of the eclectic, gorgeous, brash and gaudy wildlife of the area, of the sort that you come across in all sorts of unexpected ways in back gardens, outhouses, and homes” says Wilcken.

“Growing up, I vividly remember leaning on a bush veranda watching a giant 2m lace monitor lizard patrol our garden. This exhibit is dedicated to those sorts of odd and casual wildlife encounters that help make Australia’s natural environment, the strange and beautiful place it is.”

A walk-in riverside aviary completes the experience. Here, visitors can see red-tailed black cockatoo, sulphur-crested cockatoo, king parrots, cockatiels, diamond doves, crested pigeons and musk lorikeets. Peering underwater, visitors will observe three species of rainbow fish and eastern snake-necked turtles.

Not to forget the flora, ‘Strangely Beautiful Australia’ is also home to over 30 species of Australian native plants.


Sulphur-crested cockatoo Captain, is a long-time resident of Auckland Zoo and is now part of a diverse (and noisy) native Australian birds that will feel right at home in ‘Strangely Beautiful Australia’.

 Following a nine-month build involving 27 companies including Hawkins Construction, Thorburns, Aqua Environs and H2O, over 23,400 person-hours, ‘Strangely Beautiful Australia’ is an impressive addition to Auckland Zoo and the Zoological Society of Auckland congratulates them on this fine achievement.


The Best Little Zoo in the World

Words and Photos by Nick McIndoe


New Zealand’s first Zoo, Wellington Zoo, is a very special place. Founded in 1906, the Zoo has run as a not-for-profit charitable trust since 2003, and is home to over 100 species of fauna from across the globe. Some of these are unique to New Zealand zoos too – sun bears, dingoes and caracal, and from my recent visit, it is obvious that animal care, conservation and education are at the heart of Wellington Zoo.

Two Malayan sun bears, Sean, and daughter Sasa call Wellington Zoo home – they are currently the only bears in New Zealand.

Sean arrived at the Zoo in 2004, and is now approximately 20 years old. Born in the wild, Sean was rescued from outside a restaurant in Cambodia by the Free the Bears Fund in 1996, and was one of the first bears rescued by the Fund after its formation in 1995. Sean initially went to Perth Zoo, before coming to Wellington and he sired Sasa in 2006, making Wellington Zoo the first zoo in Australasia to successfully breed a sun bear.

In 1993, Perth grandmother Mary Hutton, was watching a TV segment that contained horrifying footage of thousands of bears, being held in coffin sized cages throughout Asia, unable to move, with dirty catheters inserted into their gall bladder. Cubs are taken from the wild and the bears are regularly milked for their bile to feed the demand for bear bile, which has been used in traditional Asian medicines for centuries.

The next day, Mary drew up a petition and stood at the local shopping mall, collecting signatures to help “free the bears”. Within months, Mary had thousands of signatures and on 23 March 1995, Free the Bears Fund was registered as a not-for-profit charity; petitions were delivered to the Chinese Embassy in Canberra, raffles, film nights and other events were organised to raise funds and awareness about the plight of Asia’s bears.

Australian businessman John Stephens had rescued a number of sun bears from Cambodian restaurants where they faced being butchered for bear paw soup. Stephens’ work however, was drawing him back to Australia and the bears needed a new home. He wrote to Mary, who organised for the sun bears to be brought to Australia to start a regional breeding program, and, recognising that many more bears in Cambodia needed help, began construction of the Cambodian Bear Sanctuary at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Centre Rescue Centre –  now the world’s largest sun bear sanctuary.

Free the Bears Fund is now involved in projects throughout South-east Asia and even India, and works to protect, preserve and enrich the lives of bears throughout the world, through education, fighting the illegal wildlife trade and providing sanctuary for rescued bears.

Sean and Sasa are ambassadors for their species at Wellington Zoo, but are also part of a regional breeding programme. This means that either of them could be moved to another zoo for breeding purposes if a recommendation came from the species’ Studbook Keeper, says the Zoo’s Animal Care Manager, Jo Richardson.

At 120-150 cm long and weighing 30-80 kg (males are slightly larger than females), the sun bear is the smallest of the bears, so named for the golden marks on their chest that resemble the rising sun. Sun bears are also known as the “honey bear” because of their voracious appetite for honeycombs and honey.


Sasa shows off the distinctive sun-like markings that give sun bears their name. Sasa is easy to tell apart from her father Sean, as her markings are a full circle, whereas Sean only has a half “sun”.

Classified as “Vulnerable” by the International Union of Conservation for Nature (IUCN), sun bears are under threat from habitat loss due to unsustainable palm  oil plantations, poaching, and the illegal wildlife trade.

Wellington Zoo raises funds to support Free the Bears projects in Cambodia and Vietnam. Visitors can make a donation to Free the Bears through the Wellington Zoo Conservation Fund  says Jo; “People will protect what they love and through Sean we have a genuine connection to Free the Bears.

“Another thing we do is give staff ‘conservation leave’, where they can take their skills from looking after Sean and Sasa to Free the Bears projects in Cambodia and Vietnam, and in return, bring new skills back to the Zoo.”

Hopping “Across the Ditch” now, there are two pairs of dingoes at Wellington Zoo – Kora and Burnum, and Wolfrik and Yindi.

Jo says that as far as they are aware, their dingoes are “pure” dingo – something of a rarity now, due to genetic pollution: interbreeding with domestic dogs has “diluted” the dingo’s unique adaptations to the Australian environment, and they are listed as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN. Some of the interbreeding is controlled, while in some cases, domestic dogs have gone feral and mated with dingoes.

Although the dingo’s exact origins are unclear, both it (Canis lupis dingo), and the domestic dog (Canis lupis familiaris), are subspecies of the grey wolf (Canis lupis). It is thought that dingoes descended from semi-domesticated dogs from East or South Asia, and returned to a wild lifestyle once introduced to Australia.

The dingo is the largest terrestrial predator in Australia and is endemic to that continent. For these reasons, Jo describes the dingoes at Wellington Zoo as incredible ambassadors for their species.

“In the wild they have a bit of a bad reputation, especially with livestock farmers. However, they are only found in Australia, so it is important to protect them, and our four dingoes give people an incredible opportunity to understand dingoes”.

Although dingoes and the domestic dog are genetically very similar, there are some differences. Pure dingoes are a certain colour and size – typically around 60cm tall, 130cm long and weighing 20kg. The fur is a sandy to reddish brown, but can be tan or light brown, with white on the chest, muzzle, tag, legs and paws. White/cream (not albino) and melanistic individuals have been reported.

Male dingoes play a big role in raising the pups, and dingoes howl a lot more than domestic dogs. But do they bark? “The jury is still out on that one”, says Jo.

“Maybe it is a strategy they have learnt not to bark, to avoid detection. After all, a bark is easier to tell direction from than a howl”.

dingo-1   dingo-2

Wellington Zoo is home to four “pure” dingoes – Australia’s endemic wild dog.

The two caracal sisters at Wellington Zoo are the only caracals in Australasia, and once again are incredible ambassadors for their species.

The caracal looks very similar to the lynx, but its closest relatives are the serval and African golden cat. Although the caracal is sometimes known as the ‘desert lynx’, it is actually found throughout Africa, Central Asia, and south-west Asia into India, occupying a vast range of habitats from semi-desert areas to forests.

Caracals are a really cool animal to have at Wellington Zoo. For example, their long back legs allow them to jump up to 3m in the air to catch prey!

They also have black tufts on the back of their ears, which they use to get closer to prey – the tufts can sense vibrations. They also have little tufts of hair between their toes to spread their weight on sandy substrates.

Caracals are listed as “Least Concern” by the IUCN – the main threats being human conflict with livestock farmers, and habitat destruction in Asia.


Caracals can jump 3m in the air and have black tufts on their ears – two adaptations that help them catch birds, which appear to form a large part of their diet. The name Caracal is believed to have   come from the Turkish Karakulak, which means “black ears”.

Jo describes the caracals as a really “sassy” cat, and says that with all three species – caracals, dingoes and sun bears, the most challenging, albeit, enjoyable aspect of her job is constantly finding new ways to enrich their lives and give them the opportunity to express their natural abilities.

“For example, with the caracals we will place enrichment items high in the trees, and find ways to test their ear senses too.

“Sun bears are intelligent and very energetic – Sean in particular is a very excitable bear! These bears have poor eyesight but great hearing and a fantastic sense of smell, so the challenge is finding ways to test their cognitive ability and their senses. Every day at 2pm, there is a sun bear talk/feed, which is great husbandry training for the keepers and bears – allows a non-invasive health check, and of course great enrichment for Sean and Sasa”.

sean                                     sasa-2

The 2pm Sun Bear Talk is an excellent opportunity for keepers to perform health checks on the bears, while telling visitors about their plight in the wild. Sean (left) is a very excitable bear, especially around food, and certainly proves that chivalry is not part of his nature, as daughter, Sasa (right) waits her turn.

Wellington Zoo’s wildlife hospital, The Nest Te Kōhanga opened in 2009. Since then the team have treated over 430 native wildlife patients, 57% of which have been successfully returned to the wild.

Not just native animals either, the hospital is a great supporter of international conservation projects too, and when unique species such as turtles or emperor penguins (think “Happy Feet”) arrive for treatment, it is great for the staff as it broadens the experience of what is already an “amazing” team says Jo.

Another great feature of Te Kōhanga is the talks, where Zoo visitors can actually watch check-ups or surgeries on animals and ask the vets questions. Most people will never get to see a lion or a chimpanzee that close says Jo. In fact, on the day of my visit, Yindi the Dingo is in for some minor surgery – I had certainly never seen a dingo that close – beautiful animal!

With over 260,000 visitors passing through the Zoo’s gates in the last year, Wellington Zoo is fast reaching its aim of becoming the “Best Little Zoo in the World”.  Certainly during my visit, I was impressed by the relaxed yet professional feel of the Zoo. All the animals looked happy and well cared for; the enclosures were large, clean and naturalistic, and it is obvious that animal care/welfare, conservation and education are the highest priorities of all staff.


All the enclosures at Wellington Zoo are naturalistic, including a waterfall, reminiscent of the sun bears’ natural Malayan habitat.

Wellington Zoo is home to some unique animals, and in exciting news, there may be more to come! Subject to funding, the Zoo is hoping to acquire snow leopards in the next few years. Wellington Zoo has had snow leopards before, and Jo calls them her favourite big cat – mine too!

Jo has been lucky enough to work with snow leopards before and says it would be “awesome” if Wellington Zoo were to get them – “Even though we work with them by protected contact, they are not as highly strung as other leopards, and more interactive!”

Fingers crossed!

The Zoological Society of Auckland would like to thank Wellington Zoo, especially Ash Howell and Jo Richardson for their assistance with this article.


Wellington Zoo could soon be home to snow leopards!

The ‘Tropical’ Polar Bear

Scan (1)

(Photo: Renny Hayes)

by Nick McIndoe

I am at Singapore Zoo to meet Inuka the polar bear. Polar bears are one of my favourite species but, are becoming increasingly threatened by habitat loss due to climate change, so I am keen to find out how to help the world’s largest land carnivore.

Singapore Zoo, together with Jurong Bird Park, Night Safari and River Safari, are managed by Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS). The parks are dedicated to the management of world-class leisure attractions that foster conservation and research while educating visitors about animals and their habitats. All four parks are a must-see if in Singapore. The Zoo itself opened on 27 June 1973, and currently occupies 28 hectares (69 acres) of land.

‘The World’s Best Rainforest Zoo’ displays over 300 species in spacious, naturalistic enclosures with hidden barriers, moats and glass between the animals and visitors. Singapore Zoo is also home to the largest colony of the world’s orangutans under human care, which are free-ranging! Orangutans are the Zoo’s flagship species, and more than 40 have been born at the Park (both Sumatran and Bornean). In fact, the free-range exhibit has just recently been expanded and the orangutans have hammocks from which to look out over the Upper Seletar Reservo

P1011778Mum and infant orangutan enjoy their free-range habitat at Singapore Zoo. (Photo: Nick McIndoe).

Inuka the polar bear was born on 26 December 1990 to parents Nanook and Sheba, and was the first polar bear to be born in the tropics. His name is Inuit for “Silent Stalker”.

Inuka’s caregiver is Anand Kumar, Acting Assistant Curator of Carnivores, who has worked at WRS for 10 years. Although Anand only recently started working with Inuka, his affection for the bear is obvious. He describes Inuka as “a baby bear in an adult bear’s body—he’s an old guy who acts like a baby and always wants attention!

“And like most bears, he’s very playful!”

Tony Abbott
Inuka the polar bear enjoys an ‘ice cake’ especially for his 25th birthday at Singapore Zoo on 26 December, last year. (Photo: Wildlife Reserves Singapore).

So how do you keep a 400 (plus) kg polar bear entertained? Inuka is fed 11kg of food every day and this provides keepers with some excellent enrichment opportunities. His diet consists of meat (usually veal or beef); fish (usually mackerel or sardines); polar bear pellets, fruit, vegetables and supplements.

The diet is well balanced to keep Inuka in optimum health and at an ideal weight, explains Anand. Although in good health, at 25 years of age, Inuka is starting to move a bit slower due to arthritis— any increase in his weight would make the arthritis worse, especially in the knees.

On a typical day, there are three token feeds. This not only allows keepers to talk to zoo visitors about polar bears and spread their conservation message, but is also the perfect time for some operant conditioning—Inuka is asked to present his teeth, ears and paws for a health check.

Sardines are a popular item at token feeding time and can also be placed in Inuka’s den. Anand tells me that they used to give Inuka live fish in the main pool, which was “Amazing to see—a large carnivore chasing and successfully catching such small fish, given that in the wild their prey would be much larger—seals, small whales etc!”

Other forms of enrichment for Inuka include crushed ice, ice blocks and scattering food on the rocks around the enclosure so that he has to “hunt” for them. Anand tells me that Inuka also loves inventing games to amuse himself. Games such as getting his ball stuck in pipes, or pushing toys against grating.

“But he only goes inside when there’s food” says Anand, “He’s definitely a tropical bear!”

The enclosure and pool itself exceed WAZA (World Association of Zoos and Aquariums) standards. The pool is five metres deep and the water is kept at room temperature. Inuka loves to swim; in fact, it may surprise some people to know that polar bears are officially classed as marine mammals. Their scientific name, Ursus maritimus, means “sea bear”, and of the eight extant members of the family Ursidae, it is the only one to be classed as a marine mammal.

A polar bear’s life cycle is closely tied to the sea ice. They rely on it to travel, hunt seals, breed and den. They are powerful swimmers and divers, an adaptation that allows them to swim from one ice floe to the next.

SZ - Frozen Tundra - Inuka Polar Bear Swimming

Their scientific name means “sea bear” and polar bears are classified as marine mammals. (Photo: Wildlife Reserves Singapore).

Despite the loss of Nanook and Sheba, Anand says Inuka is doing well because in the wild, male polar bears are solitary animals, but that Inuka will be Singapore Zoo’s last polar bear, as the Zoo is focusing on South-east Asian species.

Having said all that, according to Polar Bears International, wild polar bears live an average of 15 to 18 years. So at 25, approaching 26, Inuka is doing well, and Anand expects he will reach 35 years of age. One captive polar bear in Canada lived to 42!

Since 2013, Inuka has lived at “Frozen Tundra”- a new S$8 million exhibit which also displays raccoon dogs and wolverines, and allows visitors to experience the “Kingdom of the ice bear” up close. Despite earlier plans to move him to River Safari, it was decided to keep him at Singapore Zoo, as he is one of the Zoo’s iconic animals. In fact, in 1993, Inuka was named as one of “28 people and things to call our own” by Singapore’s national daily, The Straits Times. In 2000, a party was held for Inuka’s 10th birthday, which included cake!

SZ - Frozen Tundra - Inuka Polar Bear 3

The magnificent Inuka, which is Inuit for “Silent Stalker”, enjoys his “Frozen Tundra” exhibit at Singapore Zoo. Wild male polar bears are solitary animals and Inuka is expected to reach 35 years of age. (Photo: Wildlife Reserves Singapore).

Anand tells me that a decision was made against moving Inuka to a more temperate zoo after Sheba died, by the Zoo’s Animal Welfare and Ethics Committee, because of his age and arthritis—the best decision for his welfare was to stay at Singapore Zoo, as the stress of travel would have been too much. “Our job is to give Inuka the best quality of life possible for his remaining years, and he has a team of dedicated and passionate keepers looking after him.”

While Singapore Zoo’s conservation efforts are focused on South-east Asian species such as elephants and orangutans—by the way, Night Safari has just welcomed a new baby elephant, the first at Night Safari in six years, and sired by impressive bull, Chawang—token feedings and talks are an important time for keepers to raise awareness of the plight of wild polar bears.

Image 2 - NS baby ele_WRS

This adorable, and as yet, un-named Asian elephant calf was born at Singapore’s Night Safari on 12 May 2016, before making her public debut on 28 June. She is Night Safari’s first calf in six years and was born to their mascot; impressive bull, Chawang (39) and mm, Sri Nandong (30). Night Safari is the world’s first nocturnal wildlife park and focuses on the breeding of threatened species. With Asian elephants listed as “Threatened” by the IUCN, with only 40-50,000 remaining in the wild, the birth of this calf will raise important awareness of her species’ plight, as well as funds for field projects such as Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME) in Malaysia and Elefant Asia in Laos, which WRS funds. (Photo: Wildlife Reserves Singapore).

The IUCN classifies polar bears as “Vulnerable”, with approximately 26,000 remaining in the wild. They live in the Arctic in Canada, U.S.A. (Alaska), Russia, Greenland and Norway (Svalbard). As of 2014, three of the 19 populations of polar bears are in decline.

While polar bears have been hunted in the past, and some Inuit tribes still do as tradition, the main threat facing polar bears today is the loss of sea ice area and thickness, driven by climate change. The endurance limits of these powerful animals is being tested as they are forced ashore (where they can’t hunt their preferred seal prey), or embark on marathon swims in search of sea ice. The ice is now increasingly far offshore, floating over deep, unproductive waters, and many polar bears are drowning trying to find it.

The long swims are especially hard on younger bears, and older bears in poor body condition. One collared bear embarked on a 426-mile swim over nine days—eventually losing her cub and 22 percent of her body weight!

SZ - Frozen Tundra - Inuka Polar Bear 2

Polar bears might be  powerful swimmers, but the rapid loss of their sea ice habitat is testing the limits of their endurance. (Photo: Wildlife Reserves Singapore).

In some polluted areas, cubs have been seen bearing both male and female sex organs, and scientists predict that fewer and fewer cubs will be seen in the future, if current trends continue!

The single most important thing that every single person on Earth can do for polar bears is take action to reduce their carbon footprint and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and this is a key message in our token feeds and talks says Anand.

Perhaps more than any other, the polar bear is a symbol for climate change—they are an indicator species, as they are directly impacted by climate change.

The great white bear (polar bears have black skin which can be seen when they moult and their fur is actually pigment-free and transparent, but scatters and reflects light, giving polar bears their beautiful white appearance) is at the top of the Arctic food chain and plays an important role in the overall health of the marine environment.

It’s simple really—by reducing global warming, we will save not only the sea ice and the polar bear’s habitat, in turn saving the polar bear, but we will save the world’s oceans, its climate, and ultimately, ourselves.

The grim alternative is losing one of the world’s most impressive and beautiful animals, forever.

Singapore Zoo, and its associated Jurong Bird Park, Night Safari and River Safari, are excellent zoos. It is clear that they are focused on animal welfare, conservation, education and research. If you are ever in Singapore, I highly recommend visiting the four attractions.

The Zoological Society of Auckland would like to thank Singapore Zoo, especially Natt Haniff, Anand Kumar and Loo Jin Xiang for their assistance with this article.

SZ - Frozen Tundra - Inuka Polar BearNo doubt about it- polar bears are beautiful and iconic animals, but unless we change ourhabits to reduce greenhouse gas emissions soon, we risk losing this key species forever. (Photo: Wildlife Reserves Singapore).

Breed and Release Helping Native Birds

by Nick McIndoe

Although known as the seabird capital of the world, New Zealand also has a large number of endemic (found nowhere else on Earth) forest, wetland, and alpine birds. With March being Whio (blue duck) Awareness Month, I visited Orana Wildlife Park to learn about the important conservation work they are doing with whio, and along the way also discovered pāteke (brown teal) and North Island brown kiwi.

U.S. ecologist Jared Diamond, once said, “New Zealand is as close as we will get to the opportunity to study life on another planet.”

How is this so? Isolated since breaking away from the supercontinent Gondwana around 80 million years ago, New Zealand’s plant and animal life has developed down a unique evolutionary path. The level of endemism amongst New Zealand’s flora and fauna is amongst the highest in the world- examples include the tuatara, kiwi, kakapo, native frogs and giant carnivorous land snails.

P1011417      P1011419

A young tuatara (top) and a bell frog at Christchurch’s Orana Wildlife Park.

This isolation did come at a cost however. The absence of mammalian predators meant that many of our native species became defenceless against attack- for example, the kiwi cannot fly and nest on the ground.

When humans (first Maori and then European settlers) arrived in New Zealand, introduced mammals came with them: rats, possums, stoats, ferrets, weasels, deer, pigs, mice, cats and dogs took a heavy toll as they either preyed upon or competed with New Zealand’s largely defenceless native species. Human activities such as felling and burning vegetation and draining wetlands also destroyed many native species’ habitats.

Many species such as the moa, the South Island kokako and the world’s largest-ever eagle, the Haast’s eagle became extinct, while others such as the whio, pāteke and kiwi remain on the brink to this day.

Christchurch’s Orana Wildlife Park is committed to reversing this trend. In fact, Marketing, Public Relations and Visitor Services Manager, Nathan Hawke, points out that at least 20 New Zealand native species live wild on Orana’s grounds. Modern day zoos should be all about animal welfare, conservation, education and research. With native wildlife in such trouble, New Zealand zoos have a unique opportunity to show that they are world leaders in “breed for release” conservation initiatives.

Orana Wildlife Park is owned and operated by the Orana Wildlife Trust-  a registered charitable trust and not-for-profit organisation – and is a proud member of the Zoo Aquarium Association Australasia (ZAA), ZAA NZ Inc (the New Zealand Branch of ZAA) and World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA).

During Whio Awareness Month (March), Orana’s Native Fauna Manager, Alyssa Salton, and colleague, Leigh Percasky, travelled to the central North Island to assist in the release of 12 captive raised whio. Despite having raised over 50 whio for release, this was the first time that staff from Orana Wildlife Park had ever attended a wild release.

The ducklings were reared at Orana Wildlife Park, Peacock Springs and Pukaha Mt Bruce. They were released to the wild in the Maunganui o tea o River near Wanganui.

Well done to the Orana team – captive facilities play an important role in not only producing and rearing these special ducks, but also in raising public awareness of their plight. And Orana Wildlife Park is planning to do more for whio: they are hosting an education workshop for teachers run by Whio Forever. They are also excitedly anticipating more baby whio in the upcoming breeding season, and are keen to “breed and release” South Island whio as well.  Although the North Island and South Island whio are genetically distinct, they are not classified as subspecies; they are, however, treated as separate management units.

Orana Wildlife Park currently has one breeding whio pair, located in the Park’s beautiful walk-through lowland aviary. Eggs can be laid from July to December, says Alyssa, “Here in captivity we feed them a specially formulated pellet that was developed by Massey University. They also get live food, particularly during breeding season – crickets, locusts and similar.


The whio breeding pair located in the beautiful walk-through lowland aviary at Orana Wildlife Park.

“In the wild, their fleshy bill allows them to scrape against rocks and dislodge invertebrates to eat.”


The whio’s unusual but highly effective bill has a soft lip at the end, which the duck uses to scrape invertebrates off rocks.

Although they may not know it, most, if not all New Zealanders would have seen a whio, if only in artistic form – the blue duck is depicted on the reverse side of the New Zealand $10 banknote. In the North Island, the Maori name whio (pronounced “fee-oh”) or ko whio (South Island) depicts the call of the male bird, and they are a taonga (treasured) species. Maori have a strong cultural, spiritual and historic connection with whio.

Whio $10 bill           back-combined

The New Zealand $10 dollar banknote, old design (top) and new feature the whio (Source: Wikipedia).

The whio is one of New Zealand’s “ancient” bird species that unfortunately has suffered at the hands of predation and habitat destruction. Current estimates put the population at less than 3,000 individuals. The International Union of Conservation for Nature (IUCN) classify the whio as Endangered, while the Department of Conservation (DOC) species threat classification is Nationally Vulnerable. This makes the ducklings (and any future ones) from Orana Wildlife Park, an important addition to the wild population. They are beautiful ducks and it would be a real tragedy if we were to lose them forever!

Saving whio presents some unique challenges. They are one of only four torrent water (fast flowing water) duck species worldwide. However, they are river specialists – they are born with enormous webbed feet which they can collapse like a folded umbrella to create less drag, allowing the ducks to pull themselves through fast-flowing water.

Whio are considered an “indicator” species for the state of New Zealand’s rivers – if whio are present, the river is said to be in a very healthy state. Therefore, saving the whio, means saving their habitat too.

Complicating matters, is that researchers have recently discovered whio to be better fliers than originally thought. An attempt to relocate two pairs of adult ducks from Ohakune to Mt Taranaki went wrong when the ducks returned to their home territory over 100 km away, in a matter of days!

Closer to home, Auckland Zoo celebrated Whio Awareness Month with their annual ‘Blue Duck Race’- 500 rubber blue ducks were ‘released’ into the Zoo stream for a race over the weekend of 5 and 6 March.

DSC_0631 (1)

500 rubber blue ducks are ‘released’ into Auckland Zoo’s stream for a race to celebrate Whio Awareness Month (Photo: Auckland Zoo).

Meanwhile the ‘Orana pair’ seem to have lost interest in us, so Alyssa offers to show me some of the other native conservation projects that the Park is working on.

Like the whio, the brown teal or pāteke is an endemic New Zealand waterfowl, and is a “Very underrated bird”, says Alyssa.

Unlike whio, pāteke do not live in torrent water, instead, they prefer swamplands and kahikatea forest where there are slow, meandering creeks and overhanging, secretive banks.

Like the whio, the pāteke’s numbers have fallen from habitat destruction, predation and poaching, and it is now the rarest waterfowl species on mainland New Zealand. Estimations put the number of wild individuals at between 2,000 and 2,500.

Orana Wildlife Park also has a “breed and release” programme in place for pāteke, and so far, more than 80 have been released into the wild.  The teal spend around eight weeks at The Isaac Conservation and Wildlife Trust in Christchurch, before their release into the wild.

I agree with Alyssa – they are beautiful ducks. “Don’t be fooled though!” she says, “They have a massive personality. The males especially can be feisty as they are highly territorial.”


The brown teal or pāteke is another beautiful, but endangered New Zealand endemic waterfowl- just look at that chestnut colouration on the male’s breast (rear).

Orana Wildlife Park is involved in the captive component of the North Island brown kiwi Recovery Programme, meaning that kiwi are bred on-site. Last year, eight kiwi from Orana were transferred to the wild and two newly created pairs have showed promising signs that they will hopefully produce eggs this year.

The Park also has an important role in advocating kiwi conservation – the kiwi house is open from 11 am daily, with a daily feed/talk at 1.30 pm.

There are four distinct forms of North Island brown kiwi, plus four other kiwi species. The North Island brown kiwi is considered Nationally Vulnerable with around 25,000 individuals remaining in the wild. This may seem like a lot, however, the population is decreasing by approximately 2-3% a year.

The kiwi is New Zealand’s national icon, so it would be an absolute tragedy if they went extinct, something which experts are warning could happen within two generations if the current decline continues. The biggest threats facing kiwi are stoats and dogs.

This is where advocacy is so important- stressing that dog owners must keep their dog on a leash at all times.

OWP Kiwi (2)

North Island brown kiwi (Photo: Orana Wildlife Park).

Orana Wildlife Park has a comprehensive native fauna collection, in beautiful surroundings, enabling you to see many of New Zealand’s unique native treasures.

Captive facilities like Orana Wildlife Park, through “breed and release” programmes and advocacy are vital to the survival of New Zealand’s native fauna. The Park provides a place where the public can view New Zealand’s diminishing native wildlife and hopefully, become passionate about and engaged in assisting conservation efforts.

As Alyssa says, “That is one of the best parts of our job, seeing birds we have raised being released into the wild, it is very gratifying.”

The Zoological Society of Auckland would like to thank Orana Wildlife Park, especially Nathan Hawke and Alyssa Salton for their assistance with this article, and also Jane Healy from Auckland Zoo for supplying a ‘Blue Duck Race’ photo.

New African Savannah Development Opens at Auckland Zoo




Words and Photos by Nick McIndoe

Easter is all about the ‘birth of new life’, so it is appropriate that Easter Weekend 2016, saw the opening of Auckland Zoo’s new $7 million African Savannah development. The new area marks the first stage of a $120 million redevelopment programme at the Zoo over the next 10 years, being funded by Auckland Council’s long-term plan. Among upcoming developments will be a new Wild Asia precinct, new habitat for the Zoo’s beloved elephants, and new homes for more African wildlife, including the flamingo and hippo.

The opening of Stage 1 marks the end of a 10-month project, involving 31 different companies (over 200 people), covering approximately 37,000 man hours!

P1011367    P1011369    P1011370

Auckland Zoo director Jonathan Wilcken says as well as providing the very best environments for the animals, it “gives our [predominantly urban-dwelling] visitors a unique view of the world of African wildlife, providing new and close-up views of some extraordinary animals.”

The animals are giraffe, zebra, and ostrich – located in the savannah’s large paddock. Beyond the paddock are rhino, guinea fowl and springbok. There are also meerkats, leopard tortoise, and African masked lovebirds in the new walkthrough aviary.

Highlights include giraffe viewing – for the first time, visitors can get ‘foot to hoof’ with these majestic animals as they bend down to drink from their new watering hole. This has been made possible through major re-contouring and landscaping of a large area of the giraffe paddock, while the elevated viewing platforms remain. Other features include new meerkat tunnels with large pop-up windows and underpasses, allowing close-up views of the Zoo’s meerkat mob; volcanic rocks from the former Pridelands have been recycled to create a large natural outdoor amphitheatre, with its rock seats providing a great spot for visitors to sit and enjoy views of the expansive savannah; dramatic water features include the watering hole and waterfalls.


         A view from the watering hole across the savannah, including zebra, ostrich and giraffe.


                                    The meerkats also seem pleased with their new surroundings.

The walkthrough aviary opened a week later, on Friday 1 April, as the African masked lovebirds took a little longer than expected to settle into their new home. Animal welfare is at the heart of everything Auckland Zoo does; the health and wellbeing of its animals always comes first, and is the reason the Zoo erred on the side of caution. Says Auckland Zoo’s curator of Birds and Ectotherms, Richard Gibson: “The new African savannah aviary is the second largest aviary in the Zoo and provides our resident flock of lovebirds with a huge and highly complex environment. It’s a really great enriching space for these birds, and we are certain they will be very happy and breed successfully here, but it’s just taken them a little time to get used to their new surroundings.”


           A view across the Savannah from one of the orginal raised viewing platforms, showing the                      waterhole, rock features, waterfall and walkthrough aviary in the background.

For the first time, three species (meerkats, leopard tortoises, and African masked lovebirds), have new homes within one expansive aviary. The aviary features German-made Ornilux glass. This specialised triple-laminate bird friendly glass has a twig patterned reflective coating, making it visible to birds so that they don’t fly into it, but remains virtually transparent to the human eye. There is also a ‘bypass’ path for those visitors not so keen on birds flapping around their head!

It’s not just about the animals either. The new savannah is home to approximately 2000 plants (trees, shrubs and groundcovers)- many (20%) have been recycled from other areas of the Zoo, including the former Pridelands. Around 30 different species of plants from Africa: Meru oak (Vetix keniensis), Mukinduri (Croton megalocarpus), African cabbage tree (Cussonia spicata), and red mahogany (Khaya nyasica); Australia: Queensland bottle tree (Brachychiton rupestris); and New Zealand: Coprosma virescens and Coprosma rhamnoides, pohutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa), closely simulate African vegetation reflective of the African savannah landscape.

The Zoological Society of Auckland congratulates Auckland Zoo on this achievement, and we look forward to the future developments.

The final word goes to Jonathan Wilcken: “A key part of our work at Auckland Zoo, as an organisation that cares for and helps conserve wildlife, is to engage visitors with the wonder of the natural world. We believe that this new African savannah habitat will provide powerful opportunities for people to connect with, and fall in love with, some of the world’s most amazing and disappearing wildlife. We want people to be inspired to help ensure their future”.


Auckland Zoo’s lionesses maintain their lookout over the savannah, providing excellent enrichment for them, as all the species exhibited in the savannah would be a lion’s natural prey in the wild.







This site is the cat’s pajamas