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.