I have just finished my time here at the Durrell Wildlife Preservation Trust, and what a time it’s been! Between the three week Endangered Species Recovery (ESR) Course, and an extra 10 days of practical experience in the wildlife park, I’ve been here for just over a month. I’ve met such a variety of people and learnt so many things that I don’t know where to begin. The beginning, I suppose.
The group on the course was fairly small this year, so we got to know each other quite well. We had people from India, Australia, Hong Kong, Austria, and Jersey. And Canada, of course. We were also varied in experiences, from national parks staff to students who were just starting out and had an interest in conservation. On the first day of the course, Lee Durrell talked to us about how the Trust was formed, its vision, and its commitment to conservation around the world. Very inspiring! Each course participant then introduced themselves and talked about their experiences and why they thought conservation was important. It was so motivational to be in a group of people who all wanted to work to make a difference.
Throughout the next three weeks, we had lectures, worked through exercises and carried out projects on every topic imaginable to do with conservation. And I mean everything – from how to set conservation priorities to the role of zoos in conservation to captive breeding, reintroduction, and population management to dropping an egg off the top of the ITC without breaking it (developing teamwork, of course!).
The advantage of being at Durrell was that not only were we able to hear about certain theories and techniques, but we were also able to go into the zoo and speak to the people who were working on them! We learnt about egg incubation and chick rearing, and then saw the process in practice in the bird department. We learnt about the importance of microhabitats in amphibian breeding, and disease management in animals bred for reintroduction. We then had a tour of the old shipping containers Durrell has converted into biosecure habitats for the Jersey Agile Frog Headstarting Programme. Really cool!
We were also lucky that the course coincided with the Durrell International Team Meeting. I loved hearing about the work that’s being done all over the world, and was lucky enough to meet some really interesting people including former New Noah Lance Woolaver, and individuals involved with the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, who I hope to meet again before not too long.
As part of the ESR course, each student does a project; usually behavioural study on one of the species in the animal collection. I worked with one of the Jersey students on observing the activity patterns of the Livingstone’s fruit bats. These large bats are found only in the Comores and are endangered in the wild. They are being bred at Durrell, and have just been moved to a new enclosure. The keepers hope that the larger, more open enclosure will encourage them to fly more, as this is an important part of their natural behaviour. After quite a few hours of hanging around (haha) in the bat enclosure and watching their every move, we came up with some preliminary data that confirmed the keepers’ suspicions – the females were more active and used more of their enclosure than the males. They also flew much more often.
This supported the hypothesis that males get caught in a bit of a vicious cycle – they are dominant and territorial, therefore they defend a smallish area where there is lots of food. They have no need to travel around the enclosure, and because they have access to so much food they might even be getting too heavy to fly. Hopefully confirming this might be helpful for the keepers in terms of management.
After the course, I stayed on for another 10 days or so to see how things are done in the Wildlife Park. This was so much fun! I shadowed keepers in the bird and mammal sections, and they were really enthusiastic about answering my million questions. There were all sorts of interesting things going on, and I got to see baby birds and a tamarin being hand-reared, help in daily husbandry tasks, and learn about some of the management challenges involved in giving these animals the best life possible.
I spent some time in the vet centre as well, where there is almost always something interesting going on. It could be a baby meerkat who needs a microchip for ID, a gorilla with a sore toe, or a giant jumping rat who’s feeling poorly. You just never know! While I was there, also I got to help out with putting radio transponders in some Montserrat Mountain Chickens before they were released back into the wild.
Mountain Chickens are nothing like you might expect. They are actually frogs – big ones, yes – but they don’t look or sound particularly chicken-like. It could be the way they taste, as they are a local delicacy on the island of Montserrat, but I can’t make a comment on that based on personal experience! These frogs are critically endangered because of the spread of the chytrid fungus to their habitat, as well as recent volcanic eruptions on Montserrat. Durrell is breeding them in captivity, and then releasing them to help the wild population to recover. So that they can be monitored post-release, each frog carries a small radio transponder under its skin so that field workers can trace them. The Durrell staff are efficient, so this procedure isn’t too stressful for the frogs. I helped to record all the details of the procedures for reference purposes. I really enjoyed just being part (however small!) of this process, and seeing some of the work that goes into preparing animals for release.
As well as lots of learning, I managed to find some time to explore Jersey as well. It’s an amazing island. The ESR students spent one rainy Saturday exploring the War Tunnels, and learning about the occupation in World War II. We sampled local cuisine (Ice cream! Cream teas! Cream fudge!), and saw lots of the sights – pretty harbours, old granite farmhouses, green fields, rugged coastline, beaches, Jersey cows. We even went swimming- chilly but I am from Winnipeg, after all! I also spent one sunny day exploring the cliff paths along the coast. It was gorgeous and I could see all the way to France.
Now, I am sadly saying goodbye to Jersey. I will miss the people and animals of Durrell (even the lemurs who wake me up with their calling early each morning). It really is a lovely place to be. I’ve really enjoyed my time here, and learnt a lot. Now I’m off to the UK for a little while to visit family, before heading to Mauritius!
It’s very exciting, and slightly surreal, that next time I write it will be from a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. I can’t wait!