Published: 20th Sep 2016The lechwe escape - what happened and why.
On the morning of Wednesday14th September a lechwe – a large, horned antelope - was found to have got out of its enclosure at Paignton Zoo. The animal was captured in a garden on Brantwood Drive, adjacent to the Zoo, at approximately 10:15. We are grateful to Devon & Cornwall Police for their prompt response and support during the alert; and to our neighbours for their patience.
The escape was triggered by fighting between males in the herd. People got the idea that the escape was the start of something, but actually it was the end. It all started two months ago, with this male being picked on by the dominant male – his half-brother, as it happens. Then things calmed down again. But this sort of conflict is natural and has to be managed.
Why did we put the lechwe down?
Animal experts immediately looked at what they could do next. They keep their finger on the pulse when it comes to studbooks, other collections and animal moves. In this case, they already knew that the chances of moving this lone male to another herd were zero because Paignton Zoo started the studbook for Kafue Flats lechwe, so our staff were close to and understood the situation completely.
This means a decision could be taken quickly; some people thought this meant that no effort had been put in to finding alternative solutions, which was not the case. It was impossible to return the animal to the herd, or find a suitable new home for him; they had no practical option but to put the animal to sleep. These decisions are hard to take, but sometimes they have to be taken, in the same way pet owners have to take tough decisions about pets. In this instance we were well-informed, so the decision could be taken quickly.
What’s a studbook?
There’s a global network of conservation breeding programmes for rare and endangered species. Paignton Zoo is part of numerous special programmes. Studbooks for zoo animals started as early as 1923 – the idea came out of horse racing. Today it’s all computer based, with ZIMS, the Zoological Information Management System. The aim is to maintain strong gene pools and healthy zoo populations.
The studbook keeper monitors population, collects data on births, deaths and transfers and produces the studbook, reviews the success of the species and assesses management needs. A full studbook is published every three years with an update every year. Studbooks may include natural history details, information on status in the wild, census reports on the zoo population, lists of all the deaths, births and transfers in the year, demographic and genetic analyses and the breeding recommendations.
Why couldn’t he be rehomed?
If the animal had not jumped the fence he would have been killed or horribly injured by the rival male. Ethically, there was no way we could put him back in that group and that enclosure knowing that the fighting would start again.
It’s very easy to imagine that, in a case like this, alternative, positive solutions exist simply because you want them to exist – the truth is that this was the only practical response. People work in zoos because they admire, respect and are dedicated to animals – they don’t want to have to put them to sleep, but managing livestock with finite resources inevitably throws up hard choices.
Occasionally people say we should return animals to the wild, but this is easy to say and much harder to do. As a charity, our job is to help conserve species in the face of sometimes overwhelming odds as humans destroy wildlife and wild places on every continent. We care for the animals in our charge with dedication and compassion, but occasionally humane despatch is the only way to keep a herd or other social group working properly.
Paignton Zoo Environmental Park is a registered charity.