All in a day’s work: The zoo breeding director *H&H Plus*

  • Mark Holden, head of the large hoofstock team at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, on the birth of a rare wild foal, as told to Kate Johnson

    I manage the day-to-day operations for large hoofstock. We’re right on Dunstable Downs, it’s a fantastic site with naturalistic enclosures.

    We have some very charismatic animals; rhinos, giraffes, hippos, Grévy’s zebras, and Przewalski’s horses – it’s pronounced Shav-al-ski. Native to Mongolia, they are named after Nikolai Przewalski,  a Russian of Polish origin, and that’s the Polish pronunciation.

    Our Przewalski foal was born on 13th April. She’s fantastic; the first offspring for this pairing of parents, Nikki and Charlotte. Our last three foals were male, so we were due a filly. Mum is quite feisty so we gave her a wide berth for a week or so and kept an eye, by binocular.

    They’re pale cream when first born, then after a few weeks they get darker patches round their eyes. Now she’s just around six months, she’s getting adult colouration – sandy tan on the body, white underbelly, chest and muzzle, legs dark to the hock, dark brown mane and tail.

    She’s quite confident, she’ll come about 60 metres from us to investigate, then think, “I should be with Mum!” and run back.

    We sent a picture to our colleagues in Mongolia and asked if they’d like to name her. They suggested Shargahan; the first part means yellow in Mongolian. It’s the most desired horse colour; Genghis Khan had eight Shargas. The second part means cute or little.

    Unlike domestic horses, Przewalski’s horses have 66 chromosomes not 64. They’re a smaller, stockier build with shorter legs, and erect mane. They’re special because they were extinct in the wild. They’ve been reintroduced, but are thought to be only true wild horse; mustangs are wild horses that were previously domesticated and have gone feral.

    Przewalski’s horses were found on the central steppes of Mongolia, but as a result of habitat destruction, hunting and droughts, numbers reduced and the last one was seen in 1969.

    As part of a conservation breeding programme, Przewalski’s horses from the captive population in Europe and America have been put back into the wild, in Mongolia, China, Russia, Hungary, and Chernobyl as a free-ranging population. It’s a great success story.

    Getting through lockdown has been challenging. The animals knew something had happened and adapted. You’d see them thinking, “Where is everyone?” When we reopened, we thought it might take them time, but they almost seemed to miss the public. They’re adaptable; in the wild they need to find water, avoid predators and cross unfamiliar areas.

    We lost three months’ funding through lockdown. We have 2,500 animals at Whipsnade, so the food bill alone is quite high. The public embraced coming back but numbers are limited. We need to secure the future of Whipsnade and London zoos, the animals, and our conservation projects.

    Giraffes, like horses, give birth standing up. We split the mum off to give her space, but her family can see what’s going on. The front feet come first, then the nose, head, shoulders. Then they’re out, 6ft down! We make a straw bed for a nice landing. Their hooves are very bendy, like slippers. It’s fascinating how dexterous the mums are, gangly but so gentle. A perfect birth is when the calf is suckling and standing within the hour.

    We had a Thomson’s gazelle who wasn’t interested in her first offspring at all. We took turns to take him home overnight – he fitted in a pet carrier. During the day we’d bring him to work with his own stables to keep him warm.

    You get attached, but you want him to think he’s a gazelle and get back into his group. They’re usually nervous, but being hand-reared, his fear of people had gone. It was a special time.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 8 October 2020