A critically endangered animal known as Asia’s unicorn, and almost as mythical as the name suggests, links eastern Vietnam’s Ammanite mountain range with a seaside village on Suffolk’s east coast in a project that encapsulates the work of a local animal conservation trust. Tony Wenham reports.
Delivered in the amiable and inclusive cadence of the Black Country, a stream of consciousness is beginning, basted in an energy that quickly becomes infectious.
Professor David Field – zoologist, wildlife champion, global traveller, communicator and blue sky thinker – is warming to his specialist subject: animals.
“Animals have such a power to do good,” he explains, citing the examples of zoos in Jerusalem and Kabul, two of the world’s most dangerous cities, where he says people of every creed and ethnicity gather together regularly in peace to wonder at the animals and forget their own differences.
Now 51, David – the new chief executive of the Zoological Society of East Anglia (ZSEA) which runs Banham Zoo and Africa Alive! at Kessingland, near Lowestoft – began feeding the animals with keepers at Dudley Zoo in the west Midlands at the age of 12.
He says: “I was quickly hooked when they let me feed an orangutan with Horlicks through a watering can. Those beautiful brown eyes… The zoo became my life and that passion is still there. It becomes a lifestyle rather than a career.”
Animals have also played a key role in his private life. He met his wife, now director of Jersey Zoo (founded by Gerald Durrell) when they were both keepers at Edinburgh Zoo.
David, who arrived in East Anglia from his previous role as zoological director of London and Whipsnade Zoos, adds: “My relationship with animals and the pleasure I get from being close to them is a massive part of my life. But it’s not enough, there must be a deeper purpose – and that is conservation.”
On a tour of Banham Zoo, David explains his vision for the role zoos can play in creating a world where people and animals connect, inspiring human wellbeing (he gestures to a young couple enjoying the antics of a family of prairie dogs) and sparking a desire to help.
Now he tells me about the ZSEA’s involvement in a conservation project on the other side of the world with the ambitious aim of establishing a breeding programme for the saola, a cross between an antelope and a cow – known as the Asian unicorn, and almost as rare as its fairytale namesake.
“We simply don’t know how many saolas there are in the wild,” David says. “The last formal sighting was in 2013 and we’re trying to establish whether they still exist on the Laos-Vietnam border.
“If there are some left, the issue is to provide heavy protection because they are in such small numbers and local animal snaring is putting them at severe risk.
“Conservation authorities have now agreed that the solution is to set up a rescue centre for saola, allowing us to breed them in safety over the next 20 years and protecting their habitats in the meantime so we can put them back in the wild.”
Africa Alive! animal manager Terry Hornsey and ZSEA will be key to the next stage – assuming specimens are found – translating the Kessingland zoo’s local experience, in collaboration with conservation organisations and other zoos, into the Vietnamese breeding centre.
“Zoos are experts in managing animals,” says David. “It all comes down to collaboration, getting zoos to work together.”
But, while he champions the work of responsible zoos, he points out that not all zoos are the same around the world – and he has seen many of them in his career.
At its most simple, he says the responsible zoo’s business model is to attract visitors, whose financial support allows investment into animal conservation.
“A zoo is an expensive operation, feeding all these animals” he explains. “We need our visitors’ entry fees to ensure the welfare of the animals and to pay our dedicated staff.
“But there’s a bigger picture. This place, with the calming influence of the animals, can be a community hub for families. We have our education centre – what a place for adult education, for example, inspired by our animals. With a focus on the local community, we can deliver more.
“We don’t get any direct funding, nor would that be appropriate, but as we develop our community and education aims we will seek support from foundations and trusts and I would like to start relationships with local companies. Many have a social agenda and there is a synergy there.”
David adds: “When I was at London Zoo, we had some youngsters sent to us who had been excluded from school, some of them were in care. They arrived belligerent, swearing, they didn’t want to be there.
“After they’d gone, we heard from their guardians that they had begun to open up, they’d talked about their visit, they were making conversation. This is what I mean by the power of animals for good.”
A little later, I’m generously offered one of the zoo’s new “experiences” – a new way to connect the zoo’s visitors with the animals. I’m hand-feeding a gelada baboon, originally from Ethopia and, with his wild hair, a dead ringer for rock icon Tina Turner.
It’s a simple operation but uplifting, as pack leader Malachi gestures with raised eyebrows and grunts his disapproval if I fail to serve up grains and lettuce at the pace he prefers. I sense a bond (not sure about Malachi, who struts off without thanks as soon as the bowl is empty).
“Isn’t it amazing,” David enthuses. “You know, Tony, I really like animals.” You know, David, I get that!