Leopard passion comes full circle

by Nick McIndoe

Will Burrard-Lucas (Photo: Blackwell&Ruth)

Will Burrard-Lucas is one of the world’s top wildlife photographers, known for utilising “BeetleCam” and camera traps to capture close-up images of Africa’s most charismatic and dangerous wildlife, often at night. However, one animal has captured his heart more than any other—the leopard.

Born in the UK Will spent three-and-a-half years of his childhood living in Tanzania. He explains that the leopard became the “holy grail” because while on safari with his family, they spotted other animals like lions and elephants quickly. “In that whole time, I only ever spotted one leopard. I can still picture that moment like it was yesterday, it’s very special to me.”

Will’s leopard obsession came full-circle in 2019 when he photographed a young African black (melanistic) leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) in Kenya—the first scientifically verified sighting of a melanistic leopard in Africa since 1909. These pictures are the subject of his new book: The Black Leopard: My Quest to Photograph one of Africa’s most Elusive Big Cats.

As a young man about to enter his final year at secondary school, Will was on holiday with his family in British Columbia when he snapped his first wildlife photograph, using his mother’s film camera—a black bear.

It didn’t take him long to realise that wildlife photography brought together his greatest passions: nature, travel, creativity, technology, and adventure.

Will joined the digital revolution in 2002 with the purchase of his first DSLR camera—a Minolta DiMAGE 7i. While developing his photography skills he was also studying for a master’s degree in Physics at the Imperial College in London.

At the same time, he met his now wife, Nat and the two bonded over a love of travel, where Will would photograph something, anything, any chance he got. Although his reputation and online presence as a photographer was growing, he realised that his business and websites were not yet profitable enough to sustain him, so he followed his father into an accounting career.

Will says it took around six years to get his photography business to the point where on 30 April 2010, he took a leap of faith and became a fulltime wildlife photographer—“It was now or never”, he says.

BeetleCam was first used in July 2009. Will had always craved close-up, immersive images of Africa’s iconic wildlife—the sort of animals that would maul or trample you to death if you got too close, such as lions or elephants.

Being the technically innovative, entrepreneurial type, Will set about building BeetleCam—a strong remote-control buggy, that would carry a camera up to an animal. He says that his physics degree helped with understanding the electronics and programming. He was also able to self-teach topics such as remote-control, and robotics. Will learnt how to trigger a DLSR camera using a signal from a remote control, and to wire the buggy so that it could be steered.

The first design was basic and lacked any protection, save for a camouflage cover. Will was banking on the animals being weary and not getting too close. In Tanzania in July 2009, after capturing exciting images of elephants, the plan came unstuck.

A lioness picks up BeetleCam and runs off with it! Fortunately, she lets go and Will manages to retrieve the buggy, albeit torn, and covered in saliva. Despite two large incisor holes through the camera itself, he replaces it, and repairs BeetleCam. Most importantly, the memory card and images survive the mauling.

Will is also known for his expertise in photographing wildlife at night, and for his use of camera traps. He saw the night as one of the final frontiers in wildlife photography and says there are few sights as spectacular as the African sky on a clear, moonless night. After experimenting with crocodiles in a shallow stream, Will captured his first BeetleCam night shot in Zambia in 2013—lions.

Inspired by fellow photographer Steve Winter’s camera trap photos of snow leopards in the Himalayas, Will was determined to capture images using high-quality, easy to set up camera traps during his time in Zambia. A camera trap is a stationary camera set up that can be left outside for days, even weeks at a time. When an animal passes in front of the trap, a sensor triggers the camera automatically.

Will’s passion for photographing African wildlife at night and use of camera traps, leads directly to photographing the black leopard.

In August 2018, the disappointment of a cancelled trip to Madagascar gave way to excitement at the possibility of photographing a melanistic leopard in Kenya instead. Will explains that the first decent images he saw of a wild black leopard were in a 2016 issue of Wild Planet Photo Magazine. He says these pictures made “his pulse quicken” more than any other wildlife photo he has seen.

This black leopard was photographed in the Nagarhole Tiger Reserve, also known as Kabini Forest in India; therefore, is the Indian subspecies (Panthera pardus fusca).

Black leopards are often called “black panthers”, a non-scientific term for any large cat that is melanistic—an excess of the dark pigment melanin, resulting in black colouration—in reality, of the big cats, only leopards and jaguars have ever been seen in melanistic form.

In India, black panthers are not common, but restricted to the forested areas in the south of the country.

Black panthers are most common on the Malay Peninsula. In fact, until September 2015, when a “classic” leopard was photographed on a camera trap, it was thought that all Indochinese leopards (Panthera pardus delacouri) living on the Peninsula were melanistic—even the local Orang Asli people had never seen a spotted leopard.

It is thought that melanism gives leopards in Southeast Asia an evolutionary advantage of stealth when hunting, as they blend into the dense tropical rainforest.

Will knew that no one had ever captured quality images of a black African leopard, certainly not at night.

It’s worth noting here that while the resulting images are Will’s, he acknowledges the team around him that allowed it to happen, particularly Steve and Annabelle Carey, owners of Laikipia Wilderness Camp, and Luisa Ancilotto, on whose land the black panther was photographed.

Upon first enquiring with them, Will learnt that three black leopards had been seen in the area at regular intervals. He arranged to first arrive at Laikipia in January 2019, during the dry season when tracks would be easier to find.

Will can’t speak highly enough of Steve, Annabelle, who, despite having a business to run, generously allowed him to leave his camera traps for as long as needed to capture images of a black leopard. Also, the guides who lugged heavy camera gear in the Kenyan heat, and expertly examined trails for the best places to set up the cameras, as well as cleaning the lenses etc after the second trip in August 2019 when Will left the camera traps for several weeks.

Before heading to Kenya, Will was invited to speak at Nature in Focus, a photography festival in Bangalore. In lieu of payment, he asked if organisers could arrange for him to spend a few days in Kabini—home of the Indian black panther he had previously seen pictures of.

Will was guided by photographer Giri Cavale and managed to capture photos of the panther—an animal he describes as so black, the only details he could make out were its yellow eyes—“Did it really happen?”

Will captured his first image of an African black leopard after three nights, and describes it: “It was a jaw dropping moment. I knew there might be a chance to photograph this black leopard, but never expected to as safari guides who have been working the African bush their whole lives had never seen him. But I got the photographs [mostly at night] of two black leopards, and it’s a dream come true!”

What made the photographs even more meaningful for Will is that they were contributing to science, being used by San Diego Zoo Global who were conducting a leopard conservation program in Laikipia. They were able to confirm that these were the first scientifically documented sighting of a melanistic leopard in Africa since 1909.

Will returned to Kenya in August 2019, and as well as capturing more images of the young black African leopard who he had named ‘Blacky’, and also who he believes to be Blacky’s father—‘Big Spotty’, and his mother—there is a 25 percent chance their cub is black if both leopards carry the recessive gene for melanism.

He believes (or hopes) that the images will inspire people to travel to Africa and join a wildlife safari to try and spot the black leopard—this can only be a good thing for leopard conservation as funding comes from these safaris, and people protect what they love.

 Will says his next book will probably be about lions as “That’s where it all began”.

For the full story, buy a copy of The Black Leopard from https://willbl.com/product/black-leopard/

It is a stunning book, and the images are simply breathtaking!

South island zoological society turns 50

by Nick McIndoe

Photos: Orana Wildlife Park

From the start, the Lion Reserve has been Orana Wildlife Park’s trump card, setting the Zoo’s tone for providing incredible opportunities for people to connect with wildlife. Although the days of driving your own car through the Lion Reserve are long gone, Orana still operates a Lion Encounter where visitors are driven through the lion’s habitat in a specially modified vehicle.

The South Island Zoological Society (SIZS) recently celebrated 50 years and, having achieved its objectives, has decided to wind down its activities. Forming in July 1970, the Society’s aim was to create a major wildlife park in Christchurch, which opened as Orana Wildlife Park at 10am on 25 September 1976.

New Zealand’s only open range zoo, Orana is now a world class facility accredited by the Zoo Aquarium Association Australasia (ZAA), and a member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA).

SIZS vice-president Dave Laughlin says that it is “immensely satisfying” to see what the Park has become today, from very humble beginnings. “By 2pm [on opening day] we had a queue of cars stretching 7km down McLeans Island Road—the last vehicles came through the park in the dark!”

The first car! SIZS’s vison captured the imagination of the Canterbury people and dream became a reality when Orana Wildlife Park opened at 10am on 25 September 1976.

The Society’s vision captured the imagination of the Canterbury people and it didn’t take long for membership to grow from eight founding members to over 100 people. From the outset, SIZS envisioned an open range, drive-through zoo. “Starting with almost unusable land—a dry, stony riverbed—volunteers cleared the site, initially with just hand tools,” says David. “It was backbreaking work! As fundraising results increased, secondhand equipment was purchased, resulting in significant progress.”

 Once the Park opened, Orana Wildlife Trust was formed to run and manage the Zoo. The Society took on the role as a supporting organisation and contributed to capital projects over the years with a mix of financial and volunteer labour support.

Through the dedication of volunteers over a six year period, the Park was built on almost unusable land-a dry, stony riverbed. Volunteers cleared the site, initially with hand tools! Soon after opening, the Orana Wildlife Trust was formed which runs and manages the Zoo. For the past 50 years, SIZS has contributed financial and volunteer support to capital projects, but is now winding down its activities. Today, Orana Wildlife Park is New Zealand’s only open-range zoo, and is a world class facility that has had considerable success in breeding programmes for both exotic species such as cheetah and Scimitar oryx, and natives such as the whio/blue duck-a species Orana breeds for release to the wild.

Orana’s trump card was the drive-through Lion Reserve—the first and only one of its kind in New Zealand. This amazing experience operated until 1995, when a “significant shift in direction” took place. The present administration building and a new, large carpark was opened. This resulted in the entrance of the Zoo moving to the middle of the Park. Visitors could no longer drive their own cars through Orana. Instead, they walked or utilised the safari shuttle. Closing the Park to cars also meant the drive-through Lion Reserve ended.

However, the Lion Reserve had set the tone for the Zoo: providing incredible opportunities for people to connect with wildlife. Today, Orana offers the unique Lion Encounter, where visitors are driven through the lion habitat in a specially modified vehicle, which the lions can climb on—a must do when in Christchurch. This encounter is the only one of its type in the Southern Hemisphere and a ‘historical nod’ to the drive through days and SIZS’s vision.

Another project that symbolised the vison of Orana’s founders was two pairs of Scimitar oryx transferred to the Park in 1979. Declared extinct in the wild in 1984, captive breeding programmes have resulted in oryx being re-introduced to protected areas, and Orana was the first institution in the world to breed the species by artificial insemination. Over 80 have since been bred at the Zoo, and the import health standard has recently been updated to allow the import of cows to breed with one of Orana’s two current bulls.

David also reflects on two significant SIZS/Orana Wildlife Trust achievements that have contributed greatly to the conservation of native species. “The walk-through native bird aviary built 26 years ago, was ahead of its time—an immersive exhibit for visitors to encounter threatened native birds. Over the years, the aviary (currently closed for a well-earned upgrade) has become a key conservation habitat for the Park’s whio/blue duck pair, a species Orana breeds for release to the wild.”

SIZS also made an important contribution to Orana’s latest exhibit, a New Zealand frog research facility for Maud Island/Hamilton’s frog—a significant conservation project with the aim of reliably breeding these native treasures in captivity, something that has not been achieved globally.

SIZS has made a final donation to Orana Wildlife Park where a plaque has also been unveiled, and awards inferred for outstanding service to the Society and Zoo.

Despite Covid-19 doing its best to interrupt Orana’s plans for a new native house and rhino quarantine facility (the Park separately raises 100% funds for capital projects but has had to focus on operational takings [gate, souvenir shop] this year), the future is bright.

A new Zoo School Facility was completed in April 2020. This modern learning space is a key resource for Orana’s formal education programmes, and the previously mentioned Maud Island/Hamilton’s Frogs, a new species for Orana, arrived in May 2020. Public Relations Manager Nathan Hawke says: “We are privileged to join another breeding programme for a key New Zealand native species. The 17 frogs are housed in our purpose-designed research facility, where we have replicated the wild habitat in a laboratory setting. This is a significant conservation project for these unique and ancient creatures.”

Nathan also says some exciting animal transfers will be taking place soon.

The Zoological Society of Auckland (ZSA) congratulates SIZS on its achievements over the past 50 years.

New Zealand’s only bear


by Nicholas McIndoe

Photos courtesy of Wellington Zoo

Wellington Zoo, the world’s best little zoo, is home to a special little bear—Sasa the sun bear, the smallest species of bear. Don’t be fooled though. Only half the size of an American black bear, larger males can reach up to 75kg, and armed with long, sharp claws, this member of Order Carnivora can still pack quite a punch.

From the mighty polar bear at 800kg, to the sun bear, there are eight species of bear in the world.

All species are in family Ursidae. The polar bear, brown bear, North American black bear, Asiatic black bear, sloth bear, and sun bear are all in subfamily Ursinae—sometimes referred to as the “real” bears.

The giant panda is the sole member of subfamily Ailuropodinae, while the spectacled or Andean bear, is in subfamily Tremarctinae.

A short muzzle, round ears, black coat, and gold/white fur around the eyes and muzzle help set the sun bear apart. Their common name comes from their most distinctive feature—the orange/yellow crescent marking on its chest, which resembles the rising or setting sun. Each bear’s crest is unique—like fingerprints.

The sun bear’s common name comes from the orange/yellow crescent marking on its chest, which resembles the rising or setting sun. Other distinguishing features include the black coat, gold/white fur around the muzzle, round ears, and a short muzzle.

Its home is the dense tropical rainforests of South East Asia, including, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Basindo nan tenggil is the sun bear’s name in the Malay language, and they are the most arboreal of all bears, spending most of their day asleep in trees, in DIY nests.

They live up to their name too. Four-inch claws, amongst other uses, are an adaptation for climbing trees, as are large paws with hairless soles, and a pigeon-toed walk—sun bears are the ultimate tree huggers, as they “wrap” themselves around a tree, dig their claws in, and use body weight and momentum to climb.

Sun bears are the most arboreal bear species and Wellington Zoo provides climbing structures and platforms for Sasa. The large paws with hairless soles, four-inch claws, and pigeon-toed feet, all of which are adaptations for climbing, are clearly visible here.

Sadly, the same effort has not been put into hugging sun bears. Not that you would.  These little bears can move faster than a giant panda, have the longest canines (five inches) relative to body size in the bear world, and … remember those four-inch claws?

The omnivorous sun bear’s canine teeth are also flat. They rely on fruit and insects to meet their energy needs and use their claws to rip open trees in search of insects or sap, which are then sucked up by the nine-inch long tongue!

Their appetite for coconuts, palm oil, and other commercial crops has led to much conflict between sun bears and humans. Unfortunately, this is a significant conservation threat to these little bears as they are often killed or confiscated for the exotic pet trade.

Naturally solitary, the sun bear is perhaps the rarest of all bears. They are listed as vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN, with a decreasing population trend. It is not known how many wild sun bears there are, however, the population is thought to have declined by thirty percent in the last 30-years.

Other threats to sun bears’ survival are habitat loss due to palm oil plantations, expansion of human settlements, building of roads, and agriculture; wildlife trade in body parts and skins; and the farming of bears for their bile which is used in traditional Chinese medicines.

While small birds, rodents and lizards may occasionally make their way into a sun bear’s diet, a favourite food is honey—that long tongue is also useful for extracting this from hives! This honey fetish gives the sun bear one of its nicknames—honey bear.

In fact, sun bears will use their claws and strong jaws to break open a beehive and sit there enjoying the honey, while a thicker coat around its neck protects it from being stung.

Sun bears have a typical carnivore digestive tract and are poor digesters of their omnivorous diet. This means that they play a crucial role in their ecosystem by dispersing seeds throughout the rainforest.

If a predator such as a tiger grabs hold of a sun bear, loose skin allows the bear to turn, face its attacker, and fight back.

Fortunately, Wellington Zoo promotes the use of sustainable palm oil, and works with Free the Bears and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), to provide a brighter future for sun bears.

FSC promotes environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial, and economically viable management of the world’s forests. Wellington Zoo supports this by using FSC certified wood and paper products throughout the Zoo, including in animal habitats.

Free the Bears was established as a not-for-profit charity in 1995 by Perth grandmother, Mary Hutton. Ms Hutton had seen horrifying news images of Asiatic black bears (moon bears) being held, unable to move, inside coffin-sized cages, with dirty catheters inserted directly into their gall bladder to “milk” their bile.

Today, Free the Bears works in five countries across the sun bears’ range. Their work includes supporting animal welfare projects throughout South East Asia, fighting the illegal wildlife trade, establishing alternative livelihoods, protecting native sun bear habitat, and providing sanctuary for rescued bears. Sasa herself, is the offspring of one such bear.

Sasa was born to Chomel and Sean in 2006, and Wellington Zoo became the first Australasian Zoo to successfully breed sun bears.

Sean became one of Free the Bear’s earliest rescues when he was saved by an Australian businessman from outside a shop in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on 22 February 1997. The good samaritan carried the bear on the back of his motorbike and kept him at his home while he worked with Free the Bears to find a more permanent solution.

Alongside two rescued female bears, Sean found his way to Perth Zoo in 1998, to establish a regional conservation breeding programme for sun bears. He arrived at Wellington Zoo in 2004 and vindicated the breeding programme with Sasa’s birth.

Sean passed away in 2018 at 22 years of age, a good age for a sun bear, and his legacy lives on in Sasa, who as the only bear currently in New Zealand, acts as an ambassador, highlighting the threats facing her wild cousins.

Conservation and animal welfare are at the heart of everything Wellington Zoo does, and all three sun bears have thrived in their time there. Sasa, like her parents, is highly intelligent, so is kept in tip-top condition by her dedicated keepers, both mentally and physically, with a variety of enrichment. This includes training, which also makes those all-important health checks less stressful.

Sun bears are a highly intelligent species and a variety of enrichment is used at Wellington Zoo to promote physical and cognitive stimulation. In the wild, these bears use their sharp claws and strong jaws to break open trees or beehives, then use their long tongue to suck up the honey or grubs from inside. A ball stuffed with food encourages this natural behaviour from Sasa.

The world’s smallest (and cutest) bear is in trouble. Please consider throwing your support behind Free the Bears (www.freethebears.org) or Wellington Zoo (www.wellingtonzoo.com), who the Zoological Society of Auckland would like to thank for their assistance in preparing this article.

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: http://www.cgwp.co.uk).

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: http://www.cgwp.co.uk).

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: http://www.cgwp.co.uk).

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 http://www.wrs.com.sg



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!

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