Sunday, 23 October 2011

Marwell - friendly rhinos and shy snow leopards

I decided to make the journey to and from Marwell Wildlife Park in a day from Cambridge, which was simple enough on the train, but did mean I got home rather late. Another time I’d be tempted to visit the area for longer, as the surrounding hills and woodlands looked stunning in the August sun.

After a taxi ride with a driver who ‘didn’t believe in zoos’ despite seeming to know an awful lot about the baby snow leopards who had just been born there, I arrived at the park, and wandered down its wide paths to the penguins.

Marwell seems to be part of the trend for hybrid zoos – wide and green enough to be safari parks, but with more traditional enclosures like traditional zoos – like Whipsnade and Port Lympne. As zoos moved out of the cities and further into the countryside, and animal rights issues were raised in the 1970s and onwards, this seems like a natural progression for zoos, and is really rather lovely – although my God you will do a lot of walking.

It was a warm day, with its sticky sunshine interspersed with torrential rain. Baby capybaras dipped into their pool with only their ears visible, an Amur leopard dozed in a sun spot on top of its shed and hundreds of kids gathered round the meerkats, chanting ‘seemples.’

In fact, unbeknownst to most, if not all, of the visitors, behind the charismatic meerkats lurked a much more rare, if not quite so sexy, species. Marwell holds the stud book for both the Arabian and Scimitar horned oryx – both critically endangered species. The Arabian oryx, with its white fur and sweeping black antlers is actually a very attractive beast, and I was sorry to be told by keepers about the difficulty oryx face in their native Middle East, where the land is fiercely divided and guarded by locals, making it difficult for the animals to travel. In fact, the Scimitar horned oryx had at one point gone extinct in the wild, and was only reintroduced as a result of individuals held and bred in zoos. I wonder if the taxi driver knew anything about that?

I was desperate to see the new snow leopards, but the wet weather meant only their mother was outside of the den – looking most unhappy about her sodden fur. Nonetheless, she was a stunning creature, and it was a very special moment for me when a sudden torrent of rain meant I was the only person left in her company. She eyed the rain bouncing from my umbrella, and settled down on her haunches. Magnificent.

Needless to say, when I met up with the park’s PR officer Becky Churcher (a lovely girl who was very patient in answering my hundreds of questions) she told me the cubs had made their public debut only the day before, and had enchanted their audience, gambolling and rolling across the enclosure. Typical!

However, consolation came in the (enormous) form of the park’s three white rhinos, who I was lucky enough to be able to meet.

The three were initially lying down indoors, making gentle snorting and farting noises as they dozed. I was led by their keeper down to the bars in front of them, and stupid as it sounds, it was only then I truly realised how big they are. I’ve seen rhinos before of course, in zoos, on safari and on TV, but until you stand next to one – and when they lumbered grudgingly up to the bars for an ear scratch I realised their shoulders were my height – it’s impossible to get a sense of scale. I was in complete awe of these gentle giants, and their colossal horns which they poked alarmingly through the bars.

There was a distinct pecking (horning?) order, with the two female residents clearly ruling the roost. The poor male would come up for a stroke (behind the ear, and under the ‘armpit’ seemed the most popular spots) only to be nudged out of the way by his female companions.

Their skin felt coarse, and left a huge amount of dirt under my fingernails – as their flesh is actually susceptible to sun damage they roll in mud, like pigs, to protect it. In places where the skin was thinner, it felt deliciously warm.

I could have spent all day touching these fascinating creatures, and it was even more special knowing that they enjoyed the contact – we weren’t feeding them, they just wanted a fuss. And who can blame them?