More interesting than you think
July 12, 2014 § Leave a comment
by Douglas Richardson, Head of Living Collections, RZSS Highland Wildlife Park
The most important role for any modern zoological institution is to act as a safety net for highly threatened species by managing them in captivity as a buffer against possible extinction in the wild. If you were to ask our visitors which of the species we maintain is in most peril, you are likely to be told Amur tiger, polar bear or Scottish wildcat. All three answers are correct when measured against a range of criteria, but it also illustrates a wider conservation issue: the high profile, easily recognised species are the ones that are likely to attract most interest and funding and the small, blandly coloured or unattractive may not receive the required amount of attention. In birding circles they are called “small brown jobs”.
A number of the species we maintain at the Highland Wildlife Park would certainly fall into the mammalian equivalents of the medium and large brown job categories. One in particular is our breeding herd of Turkmenian markhor, a spiral-horned goat from central Asia. It is listed as Critically Endangered with a wild population in the very low hundreds and decreasing. The current wild census is an informed estimate as the range of this species includes the mountains of northern Afghanistan and western Pakistan, not the safest place on the planet to carry-out fieldwork. Although we are the only location in the UK to hold this species, there is a fairly well developed breeding programme with the bulk of the captive population in continental European and North American zoos.
Although the adult males look pretty impressive with their metre long spiralled horns, the younger males and all the females are basically just a drab, brown goat. Our visitors walk past them on the way to or from the polar bears and most appear not to give the markhor a second glance. This suggestion of indifference is not just restricted to zoo visitors, but to some zoos as well. Locating more zoo space for elephants or tiger breeding programmes is not a significant problem, but finding more zoos that are willing to devote resources to some of these less than charismatic species can be a challenge, even when there is a concrete conservation need.
A fairly large percentage of our animal collection can be seen in no other or only one other zoo in the UK. They vary from the easily identifiable and spectacular polar bear, to species whose names are unfamiliar to most like our Japanese serow or the herd of Himalayan tahr. We have an animal adoption programme at the Park where people can help to support a species’ care. Whereas there is no shortage of adopters for wildcats and tigers, the markhor had not a single name on their adopters’ plaque, until a gentleman materialised whose surname matched that of the markhor’s scientific surname, Capra falconeri. Now they have one person interested, which is a start.
This piece was first published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald