Pretoria Zoo to adopt breeding plan

Published Aug 21, 2006


Creatures from as far away as Sri Lanka and the Amazon jungle have been bred by the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa, but the Pretoria Zoo, as it is popularly known, is set to phase out its exotic animals project as it embarks on an affirmative action breeding campaign.

The executive director of the zoo, Willie Labuschagne, says the aim is to have 80 percent of the animals at the zoo African and 20 percent exotic.

"Most of the exotic animals will gradually be grandfathered in favour of African creatures," he says.

Many of the zoo's 126 species of mammals, 158 bird species, 283 fish, 21 invertebrates, 90 reptiles and four amphibians are exotic.

But visitors to the zoo need not worry about not seeing old favourites such as bears and orangutans.

Labuschagne says "popular animals" such as these will be retained to attract visitors.

"Obviously, we will always have animals such as kimono dragons and koala bears," he says. "Such rarities assist greatly in awareness programmes of the national zoo."

This work will form part of the National Research Foundation's display at the International Science, Innovation and Technology Exhibition (INSITE), hosted by the Department of Science and Technology at the Sandton Convention Centre in Gauteng from September 24 to 27.

Over the years the zoo has bred a variety of endangered exotic animals at its premises in Pretoria and at its three breeding centres in Lichtenburg in the North West Province, Emerald Animal World on the banks of the Vaal River in Vanderbijlpark and at Mokopane in Limpopo.

Lichtenburg successfully bred a highly endangered Asian gaur calf in January. The first gaur arrived from the San Diego Zoo in California in the United States in 1993.

Asian gaurs are found in forested hills and grassy clearings in India, Burma and the Malay Peninsula. Herds usually comprise eight to 11 individual animals, but herds as large as 40 animals have been recorded.

The latest youngster is the fourth gaur calf to be born at Lichtenburg, which is the only facility in southern Africa that houses the animals.

Lichtenburg has been highly successful in breeding the Chinese Père David's deer which was nearly extinct at the turn of the previous century. There are fewer than a 1 000 of the deer left in the world today. The zoo has managed to breed 80 and now houses the largest population of the deer worldwide.

Earlier this year, a rare and endangered Demoiselle crane hatched at the Pretoria Zoo. The Demoiselle is regarded as the smallest of the crane species and is naturally found in Europe from southern Ukraine throughout south-eastern Russia, western Siberia, Mongolia and eastern Turkey. They migrate to south-western Africa, India and Pakistan for the winter months. The zoo now has three Demoiselle cranes, including the youngster.

Przewalksi horses, discovered a few hundred years ago, are being bred by the zoo and are being reintroduced to their native Mongolia.

Wisent, the European counterpart of the North American bison, is another exotic that has been bred successfully.

But the exotics will now drop down the priority list as the zoo focuses its efforts on breeding African animals such as the Cape buffalo, the Cape Wild Dog and the west African pygmy hippo.

The piglike pygmy hippo, which is extremely rare in the wild, has been one of the zoo's African successes.

The most recent calf was born at the zoo in February. It is the first youngster born from a mating with the male pygmy hippo that was imported from Sri Lanka.

"The pygmy hippo forms part of our intention to focus on African collections," Labuschagne says. "The youngsters we have bred have helped to enlarge the gene pool of these rare mammals and have been made available to zoo collections around the world."

It is estimated that no more than a few thousand of these animals remain. The main threat to pygmy hippos is the loss of their forest habitat through the activities of the timber industry. They have been hunted extensively both as a source of food and for their teeth.

Pygmy hippos are mostly terrestrial, but are good swimmers. They prefer dense, swampy forests near rivers, streams and creeks. Smaller than Nile hippos, they weigh between 158kg and 249kg and stand 0.8m tall at the shoulder and are about 1.5m from head to tail.

One the main projects at the Vanderbijlpark breeding centre is to create a herd of disease-free Cape buffalo, considered Africa's "black gold" due to the prevalence of foot-and-mouth disease, corridor fever and TB in wild populations in southern Africa. At the moment the herd consists of two bulls and three cows.

"Our goal is to establish a strong and healthy herd of Cape buffalo," Labuschagne says.

The Cape buffalo occur in herds of up to several thousand in the wild. Their lifespan is approximately 23 years, but in the wild, calf mortality is high with only 20 percent of youngsters reaching maturity.

The zoo is negotiating with the Mpumalanga Parks Board to make its entire herd of black rhino available in exchange for Cape Buffalo, which will be bred at Makopane.

More than 50 white rhino have been bred at Lichtenburg. The animals have been given to farmers throughout South Africa to strengthen their genetic pool.

The breeding centres have managed to increase their populations of the rare Roan Antelope, wild dogs and cheetahs.

But the success of the zoo's breeding campaign is creating its biggest challenge - space.

"It often happens that breeding programmes are so successful that the zoos are faced with an unsuitable variety of habitats," Labuschagne says.

"Many animals are put on birth control pills to limit breeding because there are no suitable habitats for them."

Zoos and nature conservations authorities around the world have become partners in creating suitable environments for animals. But as cities spread into what were once pristine areas it will become more and more difficult to reintroduce animals into the wild.

Zoos will have to be enlarged to keep up with their breeding programmes and keep species alive for future generations.

"We want to act as reservoirs to release endangered animals into wild," Labuschagne says. "But there is no point in reintroducing an animal into a situation where the reason for its demise in the first place still prevails."

For more information about INSITE, contact Cebisa Mfenyana at 011 661 4062 or email [email protected] or visit the website at

Related Topics: