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Zoo welcomes clutch of new babies
19 June 2009

Baby spotted deer with mum at the Joburg Zoo

Dozens of animals have been born at Johannesburg Zoo over the past breeding season, giving kudos to its animal welfare projects.

MORE than 26 babies have been born at the Johannesburg Zoo in recent months, signalling a milestone for the reserve, which prides itself on every birth.

It's a lazy day at the Joburg Zoo for the baby buffalo
It's a lazy day at the Joburg Zoo for the baby buffalo

The births also contribute to scientific research, education, recreation and conservation. Of the recent ones, two are particularly noteworthy - that of a Cape buffalo and of an nyala, born on 17 and 19 May, respectively.

Other newborns include six flamingo chicks, six bushbucks, four female sable antelopes, a waterbuck, a West African pygmy goat, an axis deer, a scarlet ibis, a common barn owl, a scimitar-horned oryx, an African porcupine and a pintail Bahama, which is a species of duck.

According to Letta Madlala, the zoo's brand and communications manager, the staff members are "very excited and protective" of the newborns. "Their excitement stems from the fact that the new births will increase the zoo's animal collection [since] zoos are no longer allowed to acquire animals from the wild and are expected to maintain their collections without the introduction of animals caught in the wild."

Members of the public can visit the zoo to see most of "our bubbling, healthy babies and should look out for the white flags outside the enclosures that house babies", she adds.

Dr Michelle Barrows, a senior veterinarian at the zoo, notes that the reserve tries to enhance ways in which its animals give birth by providing nesting material, privacy and a secure space. "There are instances where females require assistance to deliver babies; however, this year has been an excellent one as none of the births have required our help," she explains.

Deddou Burkhard, a volunteer in the zoo's education and marketing department, adds: "Most of the mammals give birth during the night or just before sunrise in a hidden place inside their enclosures, and zoo keepers usually find the newborns in the morning."

A special highlight was the birth of twin Nyala lambs - an uncommon occurrence both in the wild and in captivity. "Unfortunately, despite all efforts to resuscitate, only one was strong enough to survive," she says.

Some babies look quite different from their parents, Burkhard notes. For example, the flamingo and scarlet ibis chicks are white and grey. "Both species only develop their distinctive bright colour over time."

The zoo surrounds
The zoo surrounds

To see the newborns in the bushbuck and nyala enclosures, visitors might have to peep inside the huts as the babies stay inside the shelter and "only leave it once they are no longer dependent on their mother's milk and start grazing".

She says spotting the porcupine baby in the outside enclosure also might be difficult, as the zoo's group of eight porcupines is only active during the night. "However, you can find them in the back of their enclosure in the night room, sleeping. Most of what is known about the reproduction of porcupines comes from individuals kept in captivity."

Burkhard says the gestation period for porcupines takes on average 66 days. At birth, the baby weighs between 500 and 900 grams, which is about three percent of the mother's weight. "After a week they leave the den and their spines begin to harden."

African porcupines take about two years to reach adult body mass and weight. The gender of the baby porcupine is still unknown; it will only be discovered later when the baby has its first check-up at the zoo hospital.

The baby scimitar-horned oryx, which has a white coat and a russet neck and chest. When it is fully grown, it will have a wide reddish nose strip and its facial mask will consist of vertical russet stripes which cross through the eyes.

Its two fragile scimitar horns, which are prone to breaking and can grow up to 125 centimetres, are its most distinctive feature.

Oryx are adapted to the desert and can go for long periods - possibly months - without drinking water because of its specialised kidney, which helps prevent excess loss of water through urine.

Burkhard notes that even though the breeding season is almost over, the zoo is still expecting the births of a scimitar-horned oryx, sitatungas and bushbucks in the next months, "and hopefully a wattled crane chick". Wattled cranes are an endangered species and the zoo is part of a breeding programme to increase the number of these animals.

Most of the breeding encouraged at the zoo is of endangered species, animals that need conservation, and of rare animals. The recent births will contribute towards conservation, scientific research and education and will gauge the success of the zoo's conservation efforts, notes Madlala.

Burkhard says that one of the Joburg zoo's aims is to inspire people to appreciate wildlife by becoming an educational and recreational facility for all to enjoy. "We especially place importance on four key pillars: conservation, recreation, education and research."

The maintenance of animals is a huge task, which is why the zoo has plenty of personnel. Their primary focus is to ensure the wellbeing of all animals through direct bathing and feeding. Each enclosure is custom-built to meet the needs of its residents, from food and shelter to enrichment and perfect health.

Horticulture and technical teams care for the physical environment and ensure that the reserve is an attractive and safe environment for animals and visitors alike. Its kitchen is open on a full-time basis; here a wide range of diets is prepared, ensuring that the best ingredients are available to feed the variety of animals appropriately.

There is also a veterinary hospital with two full-time vets and nurses to deal with any health hazards; the zoo's chief executive, Stephen van der Spuy, is a qualified vet who actively alternates his roles.

The zoo hospital
The zoo hospital

"The zoo places emphasis on ensuring a high standard of animal care and welfare, including nutrition, enrichment, husbandry and medical care," Burkhard says.

"Breeding is a sign of good health, as reproduction forms a significant part of an animal's natural behaviour," Madlala adds.

The Joburg Zoo tries to concentrate on its breeding efforts and programmes, especially regarding indigenous and endangered species, which need specific conservation efforts. It also protects those species that are on the brink of extinction.

It warns that many animal species are under threat from habitat destruction and need sufficient resources to survive, prompting its involvement in numerous conservation projects. These include the Joburg Zoo South African Frog Project, Amphibian Conservation Project, Spectacled Bear, Emperor Tamarin and Red-bellied Lemur International Co-operative Breeding Programme, and Wattled Crane Recovery Programme.

The wattled crane programme entails rescuing abandoned cranes and breeding them, and then costume rearing the young. Like humans, cranes are dependent on wetlands; through promoting their conservation, the zoo plays a pivotal role in encouraging safe environmental practices, environmental education and the sustainable use of natural resources for the benefit of all.

And the success of its breeding programmes means that the reserve is playing its role as a surrogate parent effectively and efficiently. Effective breeding is seen as a measure to gauge the comfort and happiness of animals.

Together with the Jane Goodall Institute and the University of the Witwatersrand, the zoo is also part of a conservation research project on chimpanzees. It is also a part of the International Species Information System (ISIS), a computer-based system for keeping tabs on wild animal species held in captivity. More than 600 institutions in 54 countries are part of it.

There are also other projects on the go: monitoring and breeding of ground hornbills, research on African rock pythons and the studying of animal behaviour. Many university and technology students use the Joburg zoo as a resource to do animal observation studies and studies of particular species regarding feeding, reproductive habits and behaviour enrichment.

Spread across 54 hectares, the Johannesburg Zoo is surrogate parent to more than 2 000 animals belonging to 365 species. For more information visit the zoo on Upper Park Drive in leafy Forest Town, click on the Johannesburg Zoo website or call the reserve on 011 646 2000.

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Last Updated on 02 July 2009