It was a warm summer’s evening with a carnival atmosphere as a steel band played away, swaying to their Caribbean rhythms were dancers on stilts dressed as bright pink flamingos, the smell of barbecued food wafted through the air. But this was no ordinary party, it was a special summer’s night late opening at Whipsnade Zoo –it was the ‘Big Night Out’. This event was a unique opportunity to see the animals and their keepers for a series of talks, feeds and greets after normal opening hours. And it was a great reason for everyone to stay up late!
Being a keen conservationist I enjoy any excuse to take the kids off to see animals and learn more about a zoo’s efforts to help wildlife. This Saturday was a very special treat and we got to see Whipsnade Zoo in a different light. We were welcomed by cheerful gate staff and attendants whose faces were painted with all manner of butterflies and wild beasts. Crowds gathered on hill tops to see the birds of prey demonstrations, others followed the path in order to attend many of the events planned at the different enclosures around the zoo. Whilst strolling along, we stopped in surprise at the sight of wallabies, kangaroos and capybaras just freely hopping past us without a second glance.
My youngest drew a breath and pointed in excitement to, ‘Elephants walking right here!’ Sure enough there were 3 Asian elephants out in the open just standing there nibbling grass. The keeper chatted with everyone and asked if we had any questions, of course my son did – he asked how much they weighed, how much they drank, and why none of them had tusks. The answers were much appreciated, and for those of you interested, here are the answers; the baby elephant is 18 months old and weighs half a ton, whilst her mother who is 31 years old weighs 3 tons, Asian female elephants don’t have tusks (unlike the African elephants), and as for water it’s about 200 litres per day, and at the zoo they’re given extra things that they don’t normally get in the wild like bananas and apples which they love. Thank you Mr Keeper!
My kids were keen to see the enclosure holding the fastest land mammal in the world capable of reaching 70mph, the Cheetah. Smaller than the other cats that we saw, the cheetahs were fast on their feet when it came to feeding time, racing to catch a whole chicken each. Interestingly, the breeding programme for Cheetahs at Whipsnade has been one of the greatest breeding success stories for this species. Forty years ago, Whipsnade bred their first cheetah in captivity and since then it has gone onto breed a total of 130 felines. This is a remarkable achievement for this zoo as you realise that there are estimated to be less than 9000 cheetahs left in the wild, having become extinct in more than 20 native countries. In addition to its breeding programme, Whipsnade is currently involved in Cheetah conservation work in Tanzania, hopefully helping to preserve this agile endangered species in its natural habitat.
Another breeding success story at Whipsnade is the Caribbean flamingo, the zoo’s experts have been breeding their flock for the past thirty years.
We came across Pygmy Hippos which are endangered in their native West Africa. Whipsnade is involved in their conservation in Liberia; this is miraculous in itself, because despite their dwindling numbers, somehow the hippos have managed to survive two civil wars living in swamps and forest. The zoo has a breeding programme for these hippos, and we were pleased to see two contented babies grazing whilst their parents cooled off in the indoor pool. Children were engaged as they were told about the giant tooth brushes that staff use to keep Lola the Hippo’s teeth clean!
We were spoilt for choice with so many animals to see including the White Rhino, Siberian Tiger, European Bison, Brown Bear, Lions, Bongos, Chimpanzees, Giraffes and Camels. I just hope that they are around for my grandchildren’s generation to enjoy too.
And finally, just this once, crowds joined the penguins at the end of the day to watch the sun go down on a fantastic evening at Whipsnade Zoo.
Written by Sonia Zubri