Close encounters of the animal kind: Norfolk and Suffolk zoos launch new animal experiences
- Credit: Archant
The new animal experiences at Banham Zoo and Africa Alive! are about so much more than getting up close to some amazing animals, there's an important conservation message too.
It may have been his Tina Turner hairdo, or perhaps it was my anthropomorphism of his sighs and grunts – Malachi, the gelada baboon, stole the show when I visited Banham Zoo, to try out some of the new on-the-day animal experiences on offer here and at sister park Africa Alive! in Kessingland, Suffolk.
And what experiences they are! At Banham Zoo, as well as feeding the gelada baboons, you can meet an armadillo or a rhinoceros iguana, and even feed a tiger; while at Africa Alive! you can meet the ring-tailed lemurs and feed a giraffe.
Only available to book on the day, these new animal experiences raise vital funds to support the zoos' important conservation work, says Gary Batters, director of conservation for the Zoological Society of East Anglia (ZSEA), the charity behind both the zoos.
'It's also important to us to provide our guests with the opportunity to connect directly with wildlife and for our keepers to talk about the animals in their care and the problems they face in the wild,' says Gary.
'The gelada, giraffe and the other animals are ambassadors for their species and I don't think anyone comes away from these encounters without a real bond with them; more importantly, having that bond makes them more likely to act to protect them.'
And that was certainly the case when I tried out the experiences – it's impossible not to be in awe of the animals when you see them up close, and inspired by the passion of the keepers.
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When it comes to icons of endangered animals, the tiger has to be up there. Its plight in the wild is heartbreaking, and the opportunity to feed one of these impressive animals was a privilege.
Feeding chunks of meat through the wire of the enclosure, I was literally within a metre of Kuzma, the enormous but fairly laid back male, and Sveta, who despite being smaller was trying her best to push in on Kuzma's snacks.
It was amazing how delicately they took the meat from the tongs – you could almost forget that these guys are top predators… until you hold the meat above your head and their full height is revealed.
Senior keeper Deborah Harris was full of information about the pair, from the fact that they love CK One (it's the pheromones apparently) and enjoy a dip in the pond, to the way Kuzma gets very angry if you look at him when he has his main meal.
Kuzma and Sveta had two female cubs in 2013 – but are more on the way?
'Sveta is on contraception until we get the green light from the species co-ordinator who holds the studbook,' explains Deborah. 'Breeding in zoos is carefully managed to control numbers and in-breeding in the captive population, so although there are fewer than 500 Amur tigers left in the wild, it's not as simple as allowing pairs to breed repeatedly.'
The zoos also support a number of conservation projects, including the WildCat Conservation Alliance, which Banham Zoo is hoping to raise £25,000 for over the next two years as part of its 50th birthday celebrations.
From the king of the jungle to the world's tallest mammal – giraffe feeding has been a popular on-the-day animal experience at Banham Zoo for 10 years, and has recently been introduced at Africa Alive!
Standing on the five-metre high feeding platform – head height for Aisling, Fiona and Maxwell – I struggled to hold on to a willow branch as they stripped the leaves and quickly moved on to the tasty vegetables. As someone who can't even roll her tongue (it's genetic – thanks mum and dad!) I found their long, blue, prehensile tongues fascinating as they wrapped around the food – beware, this experience comes with complimentary slobber!
Giraffes are facing what's been referred to as a 'silent extinction' – in 2016 they were moved from being classed as a species of 'least concern' to 'vulnerable' on The International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species.
Deborah has a real soft spot for these gentle giants and you could see her passion as she spoke about an amazing conservation effort to move groups of giraffes across the Nile to establish a viable, free-ranging giraffe population in the southern sector of Uganda's Murchison Falls National Park.
Back on the ground, I was in the capable hands of senior keeper Jade Doggett and heading to the gelada baboons.
As soon as dominant male Malachi saw us, he rushed to the feeding point to await his snacks – voluminous Tina Turner hair flowing behind him. I was fascinated by his stumpy childlike fingers and how dexterous they were – he particularly loves grain, and was able to pick out every last seed from my hand.
But it was the sounds he made that really surprised me. A couple of times he sighed while waiting for the next handful of food to be offered up, and when he dropped a piece he would make an irritated grunt that sounded very much like the 'arrgghh' that we might make in the same situation.
The Banham Zoo geladas live in a relatively small group of five male individuals, whereas in the wild they can form herds of up to 1,200 as they graze over the high mountain meadows of Ethiopia. However, Malachi doesn't seem to mind being a big fish in a small pond, and the other monkeys don't even attempt to muscle in on feeding time – they know their place in the pecking order.
On-the-day animal experiences are a great alternative to the longer and more in-depth full and half-day pre-bookable experiences. They last around 15 minutes and cost between £10-£39.50, plus zoo admission. All on-the-day animal experiences can only be booked at Guest Information on the day of your visit and are subject to availability, weather and circumstances permitting. There are also minimum age requirements for each experience.