Taking you behind the scenes at Fota Wildlife Park

Taking you behind the scenes at Fota Wildlife Park
Fota Wildlife Park announced the birth of an endangered male Sumatran tiger cub last year, born to second-time parents, eight-year-old mother Dourga and father Denar. Pic Darragh Kane

THE FIRST episode of a new documentary series about Fota Wildlife Park aired last night, giving an incredible behind the scenes look at the popular tourist attraction.

Fota: Into the Wild aired last night on Virgin Media, the first in the four-part series which follows Fota’s staff as they care for the animals in the 100-acre park, many of which are endangered in the wild.

One of the red Panda's in Fota Wildlife Park. Pic Darragh Kane
One of the red Panda's in Fota Wildlife Park. Pic Darragh Kane

The four-part series is presented by Andrea Hayes of Animal A&E fame.

Fota Wildlife Park was created after Dr Terry Murphy, director of Dublin Zoo, proposed in 1979 that a new wildlife park should be built, as Dublin Zoo had reached capacity.

Fota Island was proposed as a location by Prof Tom Rafferty, UCC vice-president. UCC had bought the island in 1975.

The proposal was accepted and Fota Wildlife Park opened its doors in 1983. The park has expanded since and is constantly building new habitats.

Willie Duffy, head ranger, says the programme will be able to give viewers an idea of the conservation and education work they do.

A baby Agile Gibbon. Pic Darragh Kane
A baby Agile Gibbon. Pic Darragh Kane

“We are closely linked to Dublin Zoo and other European zoos with various projects,” he says.

“The fundamental thing is that we have a zoo operating licence for conservation and education.”

Willie says that Fota Wildlife Park has been involved with conserving the rare natterjack toad in Ireland, in conjunction with Dingle Aquarium in Kerry.

All of the money made from the duck feeder machine by the duck pond goes towards conservation efforts, in particular in Madagascar.

“The Madagascan pochard is a little bird that was practically extinct, there were only 12 known to be left in the wild, and their conservation is spearheaded by Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Jersey,” says Willie.

Matheo the sloth at Fota Wildlife Park. Pic Darragh Kane
Matheo the sloth at Fota Wildlife Park. Pic Darragh Kane

“We have been a financial partner for many years. Our director went out to see how that project is going and that is featured in the show.”

Fota Wildlife Park is known for its free-roaming animals. There are lemurs, kangaroos, and wallabies across the park, as well as a sloth in the tropical house that can roam freely.

“He creates a panic when he comes down because people think he has escaped,” says Willie.

Fota’s rangers specialise in looking after different species.

Ranger Kelly Lambe looks after the lions, tigers, and cheetahs as well as other carnivorous animals.

In the first episode of the show, the male Asiatic lion Shanto and sisters Gira and Gita are featured.

The trio was brought to Fota in 2016 to start a new breeding programme. This lion is considered endangered, with less than 500 remaining in the wild.

Less than a year later, Gira became pregnant for the first time, giving birth to three healthy cubs, who appear on the show.

Fota: Into the Wild presenter Andrea Hayes with rangers and giraffes at Fota Wildlife Park
Fota: Into the Wild presenter Andrea Hayes with rangers and giraffes at Fota Wildlife Park

Ranger Kelly says it is hard saying goodbye to the animals who move to another zoo or are released back into the wild to repopulate.

Fota also breeds endangered Sumatran tigers. 

One of these tiger cubs, Dharma, now lives at Edinburgh Zoo, where it is hoped that she will become an integral part of its breeding programme. 

Kelly says it was an emotional goodbye.

“We drove her over and took the ferry across,” she says. 

“The whole story of the two years we had her will be on the show. 

"I am still in contact with the keepers over there and they send me pictures of how she is getting on. When you have them from birth, you have a bond with them.

“Sumatrans are endangered because their habitat is suffering from deforestation due to palm oil production. 

"We can raise awareness of palm oil with consumers, and people can make an informed choice. Sumatra is an island so there’s nowhere else for them to go.”

Fota head ranger Willie Duffy has been protecting wildlife for thirty years
Fota head ranger Willie Duffy has been protecting wildlife for thirty years

Fota also has bison in its park and Cork rangers were involved in reintroducing European bison to Russia, Poland, and Romania. These animals will also be featured in the Virgin Media show.

Some European bison live on a reserve in the Białowieża National Park in Poland. Fota’s Ranger Aidan Rafferty went out to see if he could find any of the animals that used to live in Fota, and he was successful.

“Some of the bison have collars on them with GPS, so you can track them,” he says. 

“They also have certain feeding areas and come down from the mountains.”

Aidan and the rest of the team spent days tracking the bison through the snow, trying to get close enough to film.

“It was to see the benefits of what we do here and how it translates into the wild.

“The reintroduction is in its infancy in Romania with 100 animals; in Poland they have 1,900 bison now.

“It is important to talk to the people living in the villages and get them onboard, otherwise you’ll face all the same problems as before with hunting and poaching. This is what made them extinct in the first place.”

Moving on to reptiles and fish, Ranger Julien Fonteneau works in the Tropical House and is in charge of many breeding programmes.

“We clean a lot of windows here,” jokes Julien. 

“We have a few species of fish that were extinct in the wild and [their breeding programme] will feature in the show.”

Show presenter Andrea says the feature on the tortoises was particularly hard to film, as the mother abandons her eggs and the babies are essentially orphaned.

“It’s quite common with the reptiles that they just leave the nest and the babies are left on their own,” says Julien.

Tree time at Fota Wildlife Park
Tree time at Fota Wildlife Park

“But there’s a genetic memory in their DNA. Everything they need to know they do already, they don’t have to learn anything like primates do.”

Moving back to the furry creatures, Eibhlín Foley is another ranger at the park who looks after the lemurs.

Eibhlín travelled to the Maromizaha Project in the Madagascan rainforest. Her experience will feature in the TV show.

“We were lucky enough to find some black and white ruffed lemurs,” she says. 

“It was a fantastic experience, we had to trek right into the middle of the forest. We saw more species along the way.”

The lemurs now have a new indoor home in Fota with the Madagascan Village, which opened just before Christmas. In the show, viewers will see two baby lemurs being born.

The staff at Fota are incredibly close, and they say it is due to the nature of their job.

“Everyone mucks in, it’s very hands-on, you can’t be squeamish,” says Kelly.

Fota Wildlife Park opens Monday-Saturday from 10am to 4.30pm, and Sundays from 10.30am to 4.30pm. Last admission is one and a half hours before closing.

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