I’ve been an avid animal and nature lover as far back as I can remember, having fond memories of childhood visits to places like the Centre for Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) in Durban, the Umgeni Valley Nature Reserve in Howick and various other wildlife sanctuaries. However, despite its close proximity to Pietermaritzburg I had never paid a visit to the Natal Zoological Gardens, until recently that is.
Situated in the Lynnfield Park area, just 25km away from the Pietermaritzburg CBD, the Natal Zoological Gardens offer visitors the opportunity to view over 44 different animal species, many of them exotic and some even rare. Friends Mary-Anne, Peter and Sarah had accompanied me for this outing and we were all looking forward to a great time, observing and interacting with nature.Upon entering the premises we were greeted by the resident fossas who stared at us from behind the bars of their cage. Since I had never heard of a fossa, let alone seen one, I was most taken back by its rather peculiar and fearsome appearance.
Found only in Madagascar (an island located off the south-eastern coast of Africa) the fossa is a sleek, furry carnivore that resembles a cross between a cat and a dog. Living predominately in rainforests and wooded savannas, they are fierce hunters and the largest native predators in Madagascar.
Fossas consume a variety of prey such as lemurs, rodents, reptiles (including snakes), insects and even domesticated animals like chickens and small pigs. Due to habitat destruction they are now listed as a vulnerable species and if something is not done to curb this destruction, they could face extinction.
A little further on were a pair of leopards who entertained us with a mock display of aggression that included a series of rather fearsome grunts and growls. Following the encounter the clearly heavily pregnant female decided to climb to the top of her closure and leave the rather skinny looking (by comparison at least) male to ponder his next move.
Leopards are expert hunters, making use of camouflage and stealth to sneak up on their prey before pouncing and delivering a lethal bite to the throat. They are certainly majestic looking animals and considered by many to be the most beautiful of the big cats.Just around the corner from the leopards were a number of black swans, crowned cranes, peacocks and blue cranes all of which possess a combination of beauty and grace only found in the bird kingdom. I was especially intrigued by the crowned crane with its striking facial features and frizzy ‘crown’ – a creation even the most flamboyant hairdresser would be proud of.
After quickly passing by a number of enclosures housing a variety of primate species ranging from the fearsome looking Hamadryas baboon to the rather timid Mongoose lemur, I was greeted by a cacophony of sounds emanating from cages containing a host of parrots, macaws, cockatoos and kookaburras.
While I marvelled at their bright colours and huge beaks I was more than happy to move on as I quickly tired of their loud squawks and screeches, which can be rather trying for even the most ardent nature lover.
Situated just a stone’s throw from the parrots were a couple of magnificent Bengal tigers who were pacing up and down their cage, obviously frustrated at their confinement. These massive animals are some of the largest land predators on the planet, with males usually weighing around 220 kg and attaining a length of anything between 2.5 and 3m.
They are capable of bringing down prey as large as a water buffalo and have even been known to attack and kill crocodiles when the reptiles come between them and their prey.Next up were a couple of white tigers (also Bengal tigers but sporting an unusual white colouration) and a camera shy liger, which was sunning itself on a huge rock well out of effective shooting range. A hybrid cross between a male lion and a tigress, the liger is the largest of the big cats with adult males usually weighing between 320 and 340kg and attaining a length of just over 3m.
While I wasn’t able to determine the size of the liger in question he certainly seemed like a rather large fellow especially considering he was still a juvenile. Ligers have massive heads and long bodies and, unlike a lion, do not have a main. They were first documented around the early 19th century and have been known to live as long as 24 years in captivity.
After having a quick look at the lion and cheetah enclosures my attention was drawn to a peculiar looking animal which was lazily grazing in a nearby enclosure. Also known as the Brazilian Tapir or Lowland Tapir, the South American Tapir is a large herbivore that resembles a wild pig except that it has an unusually long mobile snout which it uses to feed.
It looked harmless enough so I decided to feed it some grass which it delicately removed from my hand, placed in its mouth and consumed within a few seconds. Like many other animals at the zoo, the South American Tapir is an endangered species with poaching and habitat destruction having reduced their numbers in the wild considerably.
Adjacent to the tapir pen were two of the most unlikely companions you could ever hope to find, namely a rather curious emu and an extremely nonchalant llama. Native to Australia the emu is the world’s second largest bird, smaller only than the ostrich and the cassowary. Although they cannot fly, emus are fast runners, attaining speeds of up to 50km/h, faster than even the most rapid Olympic sprinters. This particular specimen seemed to take a fancy to me and stuck its head through the fence to pose for a picture, while the llama grazed lazily in the background.
With the sun beginning to set it was time to head off home, but not before I encountered a giraffe that towered over me as I walked next to the perimeter fencing. These graceful animals are famous for their long legs and necks which they use to reach leaves atop even the tallest tress.
The one in question was a fine looking specimen and, as with the tapir, was quite happy to eat from the hands of passers by.
We enjoyed our time at the Natal Zoological Gardens although there are definitely areas in which improvements can be made. Rather than merely operating a simple tuck shop, the zoo should invest in a restaurant that serves basic fare such as toasted sandwiches, burgers and French fries.
Guides should also be on hand to answer any questions visitors might have since not everyone will be content to just look at the animals. Disabled visitors will be pleased to know that the zoo is wheelchair friendly and with an entrance fee of R40 for adults and R25 for children, family visits are certainly affordable.
Discounted rates are available for educators and their learners, creating a perfect opportunity for a really fun school trip.
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Natal Zoological Gardens Contact details:
Telephone +27 (0)31 785‑4707 or cell +27 (0)83 640‑2641
Address: Umlaas Road, Lynnfieldpark, Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu Natal