Forty years of saving species at risk

Grevys zebra in Africa. Conservation at Marwell helps protect species around the world
Grevys zebra in Africa. Conservation at Marwell helps protect species around the world

LETTER OF THE DAY: I could have easily dodged the train fare

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It used to be one of the grandest spectacles of nature. Antelope with sweeping horns and distinctive white and rusty coats would migrate across the North African grasslands in their tens of thousands.

It used to be one of the grandest spectacles of nature. Antelope with sweeping horns and distinctive white and rusty coats would migrate across the North African grasslands in their tens of thousands.

These vast herds of scimitar-horned oryx would travel through several countries and create the kind of scene safari tourists now pay packets to see.

But unlike the wildebeest of Kenya and Tanzania, this species of oryx can no longer put on its travelling show.

The graceful and imposing antelope now numbers under 200 in the wild and has only been pulled back from the brink of extinction by organisations like Marwell Wildlife.

The Hampshire conservation charity and wildlife park is at the forefront of a scheme to save the creature that had been wiped out in the wild and only existed in zoos.

‘I find it staggering that a species that’s so large and important, and which used to number over a million individuals would become extinct and almost no-one notice,’ says Dr Tania Gilbert, one of Marwell’s team of conservation biologists, who carry out research into the species that live at the park, manage breeding programmes and work on projects to increase numbers of endangered animals in the wild.

But some people had taken notice. Marwell has had a small number of the oryx in the park since the ’70s.

With their huge horns curved like a scimitar, they have become a familiar sight to visitors who might have cooed over the babies that were born this year.

But the group of about 20 that graze peacefully in their Hampshire field are just a small part of Marwell’s work with the fascinating creature.

The charity manages the species breeding programme across all the wildlife parks in Europe and has been jointly co-ordinating the re-introduction of animals into the wild in Tunisia – one of the countries that was once their natural home.

And this programme is just one important part of Marwell’s conservation drive – both in the UK and Africa.

The charity celebrated its 40th birthday this year and that meant marking decades of helping endangered species.

Many of the animals living in the park near Winchester are in decline in their natural habitat and some have almost been wiped out. The majestic Amur leopard, for example, numbers only about 35 in the wild.

Marwell keeps animals so people can see and learn about them, but is also involved in breeding programmes. And it manages and is involved in projects to protect endangered species in Africa.

‘The extent of our work really sets us apart from many other zoos,’ says Tania. ‘A lot of them give money to projects and employ a conservation biologist, and they might be involved with some things, but Marwell has become quite well-known for its work with endangered species.’

The charity has a director of conservation – Dr Tim Woodfine – and four conservation biologists and also employs field biologists and an assistant in Tunisia and Kenya. The staff in Africa work with many species but focus on projects with the scimitar horned oryx and the Grevy’s zebra – another resident of Marwell which is being supported in its natural habitat in Kenya.

Tania has been working on the project to reintroduce the scimitar-horned oryx into wild but protected areas in Tunisia. The government has been keen to bring back natural species and set up several protected national parks.

‘Even in the ‘60s there were thousands of them,’ says Tania. ‘But part of the problem was hunting. That’s always been the case of course but hunting on horseback with spears was sustainable. Automatic weapons and 4x4 vehicles is what did for a lot of species.’

An increasing human population and the conflict between man and nature over grazing space was also a problem. The scimitar-horned oryx was the last species to become extinct in the 20th century.

Marwell provided some of the animals for the reintroduction of the scimitar-horned oryx into the national parks and others came from zoos in Europe and the US. Tania spent some time working on the project in the North African country.

‘The Tunisian government has done incredible work, re-establishing natural flora and fauna, removing some of the threats and protecting areas. So now they have these large areas of protected steppe grassland {dry grassland} with occasional acacia trees.’

But the work of Marwell, the Tunisian government and other conservation groups has also been with people. Charities are extremely concerned with the fact that local populations are trying to make a living and people have been provided with alternative areas for livestock grazing. The national parks are also great employers.

And the conservation areas, which happily survived the upheavals of the Arab Spring, provide a habitat for many other species of plant and animal.

The reintroduction of captive-bred animals has to be carried out carefully and according to strict international guidelines. Tania says the animals have adapted extremely well.

The scimitar-horned oryx can go for about 10 months without drinking but still might need help finding food and water, so this is provided by the monitoring charities for two years.

‘They don’t touch it any more, they went out and found their own pretty quickly.

‘The best thing is hearing reports that people can’t get within 200 metres of them.

‘They’re not running way, just moving off. That means they’re behaving as animals should in the wild,’ says Tania.

Another of Marwell’s conservation biologists, Tanya Langenhorst, manages the European breeding programme for the rare Grevy’s zebra.

These charming creatures have been hunted for their unusual coats.

‘They are the most beautiful of the zebras.

‘Their coats are quite different because they have narrower stripes, and they have these round ears,’ says Tanya.

Native to Kenya and Ethiopia, there are only a couple of thousand left in the wild.

Tanya joined a search through both countries to find groups in remote places.

Marwell has been working with other conservation groups and local government organisations to try to monitor the animals in the wild.

The charity built a research camp at nature conservancy centre Lewa.

Here, visitors can see Grevy’s and several other animals and many local people are employed.

The camp is used by scientists and experts from all over the world.

Tania Gilbert says Marwell has gathered increasing support over 40 years, but there are many challenges to face.

She explains: ‘There are a lot of people in the world who care about the environment, but it’s also under a lot more pressure.

‘To some it might seem like such a big problem that we can’t do much about these species becoming extinct. But there are a lot of people to help and many things we can do.

‘I think the overall message is positive.’

A history of conservation

Ever since Marwell opened in 1972 it has been concerned with the outlook of animals that are endangered and in some cases on the brink of extinction.

The wildlife park was founded by John Knowles with the aim of conserving critically- endangered species like the scimitar-horned oryx and Przewalski’s horse which became extinct in the wild.

The charity has led or is involved with many conservation projects both in the UK and Africa.

As well as the major programmes with the Grevy’s zebra and scimitar-horned oryx, these include the Dambari Field Station in Zimbabwe and the fight to save the Saharan ostrich.

In 1997 Marwell founded the Marwell Zimbabwe Trust based near Bulawayo, one of the African country’s biggest cities, with the aim of helping rhino populations. This has evolved into the Dambari Wildlife Trust, which looks after many different species.

The Saharan red-necked ostrich has almost disappeared but a number of conservation groups and other organisations have taken action to save the small number that still exist.

Marwell has been helping with a scheme to reintroduce ostriches into a protected wildlife area in Tunisia.

In the UK, the charity restores and manages the ancient woodland around the park. This has helped many rare plants and animals. It has also bred and released threatened sand lizards back into their natural habitat.

Visiting and supporting

Visitors to Marwell support conservation projects as well as the running of the park.

There are several ways to offer help beyond paying the entrance fee, These include making a donation, adopting an animal, buying an annual membership, fundraising and booking a Marwell experience (being a keeper for a day or meeting some of the animals close up).

For further information and to find out more about the work of the organisation, visit