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After twelve, long weeks closed to the public, due to the COVID19 outbreak, the Alameda Wildlife Conservation Park was given permission to re-open its gates on the 8th June. For zoos around the world, the situation has been dire; animals still have to be fed and animal keeping staff could not be furloughed as animals need to still be cared for. This has placed a huge financial burden on many zoos, as funding primarily comes from visitor entrances. The knock-on effect for conservation projects, supported by zoos across the world, has also been devastating. Fortunately, in Gibraltar, the AWCP’s collection of animals is partially funded by the Gibraltar Government for basic running costs, but the impact will still be felt for many months.

Future contingency planning for zoos is crucial. The AWCP is careful when planning future animal acquisitions. “We are already leaning towards species local to the area, certainly species that require minimal extra heating and lighting, to keep costs of running the zoo down, but also to highlight important species locally,” explains Park Manager, Jess Leaper. The AWCP was created to house confiscated species, most of these are still in the park today. Since then, many acquisitions have been surplus animals from sanctuaries and zoos across Europe. Planning for future possible pandemics is crucial to the survival of many businesses and entities, not least zoos and sanctuaries. A return to nature and a re-focus on the natural world is imperative for the survival of the planet and the species we share it with.

The period of lockdown was tough on the small team of keepers who had the responsibility of maintaining, cleaning and feeding the collection of 161 animals at the park. It was a relief for all as things began to return to normal, especially the return of the team of dedicated AWCP volunteers. Before lockdown, the park also had two Interns, Calvin from Belgium and Nicole from the UK, who had planned to spend a few months brushing up on their animal husbandry skills at the AWCP. Unfortunately, both were forced to return home, due to the crisis and their internships were cut short. It seemed there was little hope for any imminent internships until an email arrived in the AWCP inbox in later April. Anna Merrett had arrived in Gibraltar the day before lockdown. She had finally made the move over to live with her partner who is employed here in Gibraltar. With a background in ecology consultancy and environmental education, and an interest in learning more about exotic animal care, Anna took the plunge and applied to volunteer. With plenty of spare time on her hands, she saw the opportunity to expand on her skills and to offer a helping hand. Great news also for the AWCP team! Anna will be at the wildlife park for a 12-month internship, concentrating not only on animal husbandry, but also helping to develop the Conservation Education programme at the park.

Just as lockdown occurred, the Wildlife Park was expecting its busiest education season ever. All schools in Gibraltar were booked in for educational sessions at the park, ranging from the standard educational tours with Keepers, to specially designed modules on the park’s campaigns: Habits for Habitats and Conscious Eating. “We were geared up and ready for an exciting few months. Conservation Education is one of the primary roles of the AWCP, to inspire the younger generation to care for nature, both at home and around the world. We promote rainforests and habitat protection around the world and help people to make the link between actions (or habits) they take in their daily lives and how these can impact habitats (and species) across the world,” says Jess, Park Manager. “It was a blow to realise that this would not be delivered this year.” To compensate, the team put together a Homeschooling Education Pack that could be downloaded by parents from the website with interactive activities related to the animals at the park. They also kept in touch with the public via Instagram and Facebook, with live-video sessions and info snippets on the animals at the park, including a ‘Facebook-Live, World Otter Day’.

This coming year, the AWCP is in a better position than ever to expand its ever-growing education program for schools. In November last year, Nicola Campbell joined the Keeper team. With a background in Conservation Education and teaching, Nic hopes to help develop these programs further. Nic is also the Training Coordinator for the park, this helps to maintain consistency in training new recruits, staff, volunteers and interns.

10am – As a new recruit, Anna was acclimatised to the role of animal keeper, starting with one of the easiest animals to care for, but also one of the messiest; the rabbits. The AWCP currently has two rabbits and two guinea pigs. These were all abandoned here in Gibraltar. Where possible, the AWCP tries to re-home abandoned pets, but with limited space, not many homes in Gibraltar can accommodate the needs of a rabbit or guinea pig. Although they can be trained to use a litter tray, rabbits can chew wires in the home and need space to express their natural behaviours such as digging and burrowing. The rabbits at the park have been given areas in which to burrow, so one of the first tasks is often to find the rabbits! Anna has also been learning about safe weeds to feed to the rabbits. At the tail end of spring, there is still plenty of vegetation for the rabbits to feast on. If they are really lucky, Christine Gilder from the Botanic Gardens will bring up some carrot tops and bok choi from the Kids Veg Patch as a special treat!

12pm – After a break, Anna has begun her training with Nic, the Primate Keeper, on the primate section. “I love working with these species. Having studied primates at university, this is a great opportunity for me to apply my theoretical knowledge to their real-life care. They show amazing intelligence during their training with Nic, and I love watching them socialise in their family groups. They’re so also super cute – especially our Tamarins and Lemurs!” says Anna.

Over the past few months, Nic hasn’t just been training volunteers, she has also been getting to grips with the training program for the primates. Something that new interns, staff and volunteers can also get involved with. By the end of her training, Anna should be adept at enticing each of the lemurs and small primates to sit patiently on the weighing scales, or to move through catch up tunnels and station on command. These training techniques use positive reinforcement and are an invaluable part of animal management at the park.

2pm – Towards the end of lockdown, the GBC camera crew arrived at the park to begin filming for a new series on the zoo. This 4-5-part show will follow the park from lockdown, through to re-opening and beyond, highlighting the day to day running of the zoo and giving viewers an intimate insight into the lives of the animals at the park. On one of Anna’s first days at the zoo, she was given the opportunity to spend some time in front of the camera. The theme of this episode was ‘Enrichment’. Anna set about demonstrating how enrichment can stave off boredom and helps to draw out the natural foraging behaviours of the animals at the park, even the rabbits!

With just a week to go until the park re-opened to the public, it was time to carry out some routine maintenance that was impossible to do during the lockdown. One of the tasks was re-painting areas of the park. The AWCP was renovated with help from The Parasol Foundation and Gibraltar Government, back in 2013. Seven years on and the specialist painted rock work had begun to fade and benches and metalwork needed sprucing up. Anna was happy to help out and set about repainting the lemur walkway, whilst Head Keeper, Steve Bryant replaced the ropes for the lemurs and macaques to play on. This general maintenance takes place throughout the year, all the ‘furniture’ (logs, platforms and ropes) in the enclosures should be moved around regularly or replaced, in order to keep the enclosures stimulating for the animals, as well as attractive and clean. The rock work was also touched up, giving the park a refreshed look for the summer.

4pm – With the gradual return to normality, the AWCP is hoping to welcome back schools this autumn. After nearly seven months away from school for most, the return to school will take some adjustment. The Wildlife Park will be offering an Autumn Program for schools to help ease the children back into academic work. An appreciation for nature and the outdoors has been a theme throughout the lockdown. With many confined to the 6.8 square kilometres of Gibraltar, families have taken to exploring the unique, hidden side of Gibraltar, often overlooked by locals. This increased appreciation for local nature and biodiversity is something the AWCP want to help nurture in the ‘new normal’ in Gibraltar.

To find out more, visit: www.awcp.gi or follow the AWCP on Instagram or Facebook.

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Jess Leaper has managed the Alameda Wildlife Conservation Park (AWCP) for over 12 years. Having completed her MSc project on the Barbary macaque, she later returned to Gibraltar and was asked to help out at the Wildlife Park. Vowing to somehow improve the enclosures of the primates there before she moved on, she managed that and much more. Now also active locally in sustainability groups and campaigns, raising awareness of Climate Change, particularly in relation to species and habitats.