How you can help East Anglia's 'zoo tycoon' save animals from extinction
PUBLISHED: 15:24 08 April 2019 | UPDATED: 16:18 09 April 2019
Visitors to Africa Alive! and Banham Zoo will be helping save endangered animals as part of a five-year plan revealed by the new boss.
Professor David Field revealed the new strategy which includes plans to get 150,000 people better connected with nature and improving 15,000 people’s wellbeing.
From using his zoos to help those with dementia to launching befriending schemes, to simply encouraging young people to engage with animals rather than computer screens, Professor Field hopes to take the attractions to a whole new level.
“People are becoming more divorced from nature, we are covering ourselves in these electronic cloaks of gadgetry, putting a barrier between ourselves and nature so we need to rebuild those bridges, when we have the public’s hearts and minds then they will want to do more about conservation,” he said.
Professor Field, 52, took over as CEO of the Zoological Society of East Anglia – which covers Banham Zoo and Africa Alive! – last year and he views conservation as the main goal.
He said: “Zoos have gone through an evolution through the past 30 years and respond to many of the environmental and conservation crises in the wild, many species are under threat and zoos can be a real champions of species. There are many organisations out there looking out for big charismatic species like tigers and elephants but zoos can be champions of the forgotten species, little lemurs or the reptiles or the spider or venomous snake – the beauty of zoos is that we have the skills and the ability to help protect those species in the wild and that’s the transition we are going through.”
Not only are the two East Anglian zoos involved in breeding programmes, reintroducing animals into the wild and protecting animals in their own habitats, Professor Field also wants to use the knowledge they have to help other zoos across the globe.
“We are part of a group to try to give a last chance to the ‘Asian unicorn’. A Saola, a beautiful little antelope-like animal which lives on the border of Vietnam and recently known to science, it’s last ditch attempt to save this species – the Vietnamese authorities have set up a breeding centre and we are heading up a captive breeding taskforce.”
Other funds are being pledged this year to save the rhino – £25,000 is hoped to be raised for this charity from Banham and Africa Alive! and Professor Field is keen to work on native species too such as dragonflies.
Since 2013 the zoos have been run under charity status and therefore deemed non-profit organisations. So every surplus they generate funds the conservation mission.
The two zoos currently have a £6m annual turnover but are hugely expensive to run, spending £150,000 just on vet bills alone last year and with 180 staff on the payroll.
“Last year we did not make a profit,” said Professor Field. “It was a really tough year attendance-wise but we still saw 360,000 people come through the doors which are really sound numbers. But like other attractions we have to improve our performance without putting up our prices.
“Africa Alive! and Banham Zoo have changed from being a private passion of an individual to a charity – with a mission and drive to be more than just successful visitor attractions.”
Professor Field has made zoo-keeping his life, keeping various unusual species as a child at home – when his mum found out he was hiding a snake under his bed, he had to start going to zoos to be close to wildlife instead.
“It was August 12, 1980, when my aunt bought me a season ticket to Dudley Zoo in the West Midlands, the first day I went there, they were looking for a volunteer to go and feed the gorillas and it was a moment when I fed this beautiful male orangutan and a chimp called Coco.
“Zoos become a part of your life, they’ve been such a special part of my life and the connection I felt towards animals, and wanting to do something better for animals – it’s my whole mission.”
Over the years he’s had a few brushes with danger – namely an elephant who got too close to him at another zoo. But he prefers to talk about the wonderful memories - one being when he got to show the Queen around the elephant house at Whipsnade. “The passion and the smiles which appeared from both the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh was so special, that was a very special moment and it’s when my mother finally thought I had got a proper job.”