Chester Zoo Baby Boom

Jumaane is having a good scratch, rubbing his cheek against a tree stump in an enclosure modelled on Kenya’s Tsvao National Park. Mum Melini chews her lunch nonchalantly nearby while quietly keeping one eye on her weaning baby calf.

The black rhino was born in July and represents something of a coup for Chester Zoo: the East African species is critically endangered with only 650 estimated in the wild. Baby Jumaane’s horn is still to grow but it would be much coveted by hunters in his natural environment.

This illegal animal trade has contributed to a nearly 60% decline in the global wildlife population since 1970, according to The Living Planet assessment by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

“Everyone was so excited about the birth, especially when it happened right in front of our eyes,” says zoo ranger Amy Pilsbury, who has a special love of amphibians and a background in marine science.

New arrivals

I’ve come to Chester Zoo on an autumnal afternoon to meet some of the new arrivals from the zoo’s recent baby boom — some 733 mammals have been born in 2018, beating the previous highest total of 566 in the same time period.

The new additions include an endangered okapi calf, a baby Sulawesi macaque and Anjan, an Asian elephant calf, who was born in May after a 22-month gestation period — the longest of any mammal. There’s even a special baby-boom section in the gift shop, featuring cuddly animal friends from the new generation now making their home in Chester.

The baby boom will inform activities for half term, including talks and a self-guided trail to tick off the new arrivals. The babies are also sure to be the stars of the new series of The Secret Life of the Zoo, the TV series returning to our screens on October 31.

A leading role is assured for Kyra, the first Malayan sun bear cub to be born in captivity in the UK. I find him working on his climbing technique under the watchful gaze of mum Mili. She and dad Toni were rescued from trophy hunters in Cambodia and brought to Chester in 2015. The bears are listed as a high risk of extinction on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, a comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of species.

Changing role 

But what lies behind the baby boom? Science, explains Amy. “We’re constantly monitoring the animals’ poo to check their hormone levels,” she says.

“Ultimately, we want the gene pool to be as wide as possible as these animals are essentially a back-up population,” she adds.

It’s all a far cry from the days of George Mottershead, who opened Chester Zoo in 1931. The 125-acre site is now home to some 21,000 animals and over 500 species monitored under the European Endangered Species Programme.

“The role of zoos has changed hugely, taking an active role in conservation and breeding. We do a lot of scientific work behind the scenes,” says Amy.

My visit ends with a rare glimpse of a baby silvery gibbon born just one week before. The tiny creature has no fur, just a grey, wrinkly skin. Gender as yet unknown, it clings to its mother while she chews nonchalantly on a banana.

“It’s strange to think,” smiles Amy, “that despite all the science and work in our laboratory, sometimes nature just takes its course.”

Thanks to David Atkinson for this blog. David is a travel writer but always returns home to Chester; find more from him here atkinsondavid.com.

Three must-see animal attractions coming to Chester Zoo

* Find out more about the baby boom with talks and learning activities during the October half term. Read more: chesterzoo.org/whats-happening.

* Lanterns at Chester Zoo runs November 23 to December 23. Read more: chesterzoo.org/whats-happening/christmas/the-lanterns.

* New projects for 2019 include a lemur walkthrough for next spring and a new expanded enclosure for the lions.

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