Saturday, March 31, 2012

What’s new at Prague Zoo

Mating season is underway, just one of many reasons to visit the zoo

By Marie Ryan

As one approaches the entrance to Prague Zoo, the distinct smell of hormones fills one’s nostrils. It’s mating season and even the polar bears are getting closer, despite the warm weather.

Stepping inside the African house, one can’t help but stretch one’s neck and watch the alpha male giraffe, Johan. It’s obvious that he’s the chief and protector, since he’s standing tall in front of the herd. Behind him are newborn Vincek and his mother Eliska, both nibbling on a branch. She lowers her neck onto her child’s neck and strokes him gently.

“Indeed, giraffes are very charismatic animals,” says Mgr. František Tymr, from the zoo’s Program and Content Department. “They have a large savannah of 1.5 hectares here, so you can get a feeling of those giraffes being in the wild.”

Mother giraffe Eliska hugging little Vincek
Born on February 9, the new baby boy giraffe was highly anticipated by followers throughout the city who voted for his name out of three suggested by Prague zookeepers – Mojmír, Vincek and Arpád.  The contest, held in collaboration with TV Nova, lasted a few months and the winning name received 4,976 votes. Vincek is a diminutive of Wenceslas, the patron saint of the Czech nation.

Vincek is a very active child, full of energy, galloping between adults under the higher supervision of his father Johan.

Currently, Prague Zoo has a total of 15 giraffes. Every two years, another 4 or 5 are born. A great number of them cannot remain in Prague Zoo. “Vincek will definitely leave, because his father, Johan, is the only adult male giraffe in the zoo and he’s still young,” says Tymr. “If Vincek doesn’t leave after 1-2 years, he will start competing with his father.”

Baby giraffes tend to leave the zoo very early, particularly before they reach the height of 3 meters, as giraffes are not easy animals to transport. Asked if it’s possible to use medication to allow for a smoother journey, Tymr responds in the negative: “It’s difficult to use medication on giraffes because they have strong hearts and special blood vessels to supply the brain up their long necks. Thus, they respond unexpectedly on medication.”

But even with Vincek gone, visitors will continue to flock to Prague Zoo, which attracted a record 1.3 million visitors last year. One of the biggest attractions is baby animals like Vincek, which is no accident. Prague Zoo has a worldwide reputation for its excellent breeding programs. For example, Prague Zoo was the first to find the correct temperature at which the Leopard tortoises eggs must be hatched in captivity. 

Baby Leopard tortoise waiting for siblings
Moreover, Prague Zoo is home to the most fertile female Komodo dragon outside that species’ home climate. The Komodo dragons, which are from Indonesia and can reach 2.5 meters in length, were given to Prague Zoo as diplomatic gifts, first to Václav Havel, then to Václav Klaus. The female has had five clutches of eggs in captivity, a high number compared to other zoos.

“The crucial factor is temperature,” says Tymr. “They live in 40 degrees Celsius, so we have a strong heating system with special thermal waves.  Also, they must be fed in the right way, like in nature. We feed them a half-goat, once a month, including the skin and fur.”

Whether it is meal frequency or the perfect temperature, “the Prague Zoo team is happy to share new knowledge with other zoos whenever they can,” says Tymr.

Komodo dragon basking under a heater
Komodo dragons can be an aggressive species, and mating techniques are quite brutal. Weeks later, the female still bears the scars of being the object of attention of her much older male partner. Despite being 15 years beyond the normal life expectancy of 20 years, and partly blind, he can still manage to stay up on all fours. He holds himself up for visitors, immobile with his belly off the ground and his muscles flexed. While striking a pose and blinking his eyes, a black fly lands on his nose. It takes a few seconds before he reacts, flicking out his forked pink tongue, giving the fly little chance to escape.

Another important activity is helping endangered species. Prague Zoo is a member of the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which every year runs a new campaign focusing on animals in a particular region of the world. This year’s campaign is focused on preserving some of the more enigmatic species, such as the Asian unicorn (saola), the proboscis monkey, the Roti Island snake-necked turtle, found in southeast Asia, Vietnam and Indonesia.

“The project we are doing in Asia includes, when possible, sending back animals to the wild, which is currently the case with Mongolian horses,” says Tymr. “There is a travel box in which people can put donations. Last year, the money raised allowed four horses to go back to Mongolia.”

In upcoming weeks, Prague Zoo will be offering a family Easter celebration, giving children a chance to celebrate with colored eggs and traditional games.  On April 21, a gorilla named Kiburi (Swahili for “fifth”) will celebrate his birthday. As bananas are unhealthy for gorillas, Kiburi will be offered a lettuce cake. On June 2, there will be a Run for Gorillas in Prague. Funds raised will go to a center for rescued gorillas and chimpanzees in Cameroon.

These activities, along with breeding and preservation programs, give people a chance to experience exotic fauna firsthand and learn the challenges of wildlife conservation. 

“Thanks to these animals living in the zoo, you can educate people about animals currently living in nature,” says Tymr. “Other than to protect them, the main reason to keep animals in zoos is to help the animals living in nature.  Animals in zoos can act as diplomats for their species.”

For more on the programs and animals at Prague Zoo:

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