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Wildlife park: It’s time for counting
NOAH had it easy.
While loading his animals on to the ark, he only had to count to two.
But spare a thought for the keepers at the Cotswold Wildlife Park.
As one of the country’s leading breeding zoos, with globally-important collections of rare and endangered animals, it is imperative that they know exactly how many beasts they have within their fences.
So last month, staff at the zoological park near Burford embarked on a crucial annual ritual – counting each and every one of their guests – from insects to big cats.
They call this marathon census, which is now complete, ‘stocktaking’.
And when you consider that this year’s total was 2,094 (plus an additional 80,000 leaf-cutter ants), then that is no mean feat.
“People don’t realise what goes on behind the scenes,” says the park’s curator, Jamie Craig.
“We know exactly how many lions, tigers or zebra we have, and don’t suddenly lose or gain animals. But it does get trickier in the tropical house, where we have got big flocks of birds.
“The tropical house is naturally-planted, and we don’t like checking nests every day as it’s disruptive. So once a year, it’s important to check. Likewise for insects and reptiles. We need to keep tabs on populations to see if they’ve increased, And if they’ve decreased, we also need to know why.
“We also need to know about genetic information, to know which are related. Without accurate monitoring, we could end up with inbred animals.”
The keepers’ task is made easy by fastidious record-keeping on the park’s computers. Called the Animal Record-Keeping System (ARKS), it contains information on almost every aspect of a creature’s life history, from who, when, and where it has mated, to details of illness and injections – all kept up-to-date by the park’s animal registrar, Louise Peat, who keeps tabs on each of the park’s 267 species.
And while they always know exactly how many large animals they have – such as rhinos (just the one), numbers do change. Especially among the park’s more diminutive species.
“The insects are the biggest breeders,” says Jamie. The leaf-cutter ants, for example, are always breeding – and we can’t count them all. The size of colonies can change by the end of each day. So with some of the insects, we have to just estimate the size of the colony.
“The spiny mice are also prolific breeders. The larger animals and birds, meanwhile, are seasonal, with numbers rising by only one or two at a time, which makes them easier to count.”
Wildlife park spokesman, Debbie Ryan, agrees. “Some animals are easier to count than others,” she says. “Counting our two slow-moving Sloths is a lot less tricky than counting the many tiny Yellow-banded Poison Dart Frogs. And keeping tabs on the cumbersome Aldabra Tortoise (the second largest species of tortoise after the Galapagos Tortoise) is easier than finding the Meller’s Chameleon - which is tricky to spot when it changes colour.
So do the keepers ever get a surprise?
“Yes,” admits Jamie. “We like to keep our animals in natural environments, but they make good hiding places.
“The birds, especially, can catch us out. Our hammerkops, for example, build large elaborate nests in their enclosure, and a couple of years ago, we discovered one we didn’t know we had – and they are fairly big birds!
“An anaconda surprised us once too. They are unusual for snakes in that they give birth to live young – and we found three snakes hidden under bark chips.
“That was a very welcome surprise. But while it is lovely to have these surprises, the trick is not to have any at all!”
l The Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens are two miles south of Burford on the A361.
The park is open every day (except Christmas Day) from 10am.
Last admissions are at 3.30pm in winter, 4.30pm in summer.