Formerly known as the Marwell Zoological Park, Marwell Wildlife is best known for its significant collection of African antelope and unique style of enclosures. From the beginning it had the Scimitar horned oryx as the symbol of its purpose, animal conservation with special focus on ungulates (hoofed animals). And so it was one of the first zoos in Europe to place an emphasis on animal conservation. Its efforts helped to reintroduce two species of antelope to their former ranges in the Sahara desert. The scimitar-horned oryx (Oryx dammah) became extinct in the wild due to unsustainable hunting and habitat fragmentation. For the same reasons, the addax (Addax nasomaculatus) is now one of the most critically endangered mammals in the world, restricted to very small populations in the Southern Sahara. Both species have now been returned to national parks in Tunisia where their progress will be continually monitored.
The Zoo’s founder, John Knowles, an only child from parents with no particular interest in animals, was an obsessive animal-lover from childhood. He left school at 16 to work on a farm, attended agricultural college and became a farmer himself. Spotting a gap in the market for chickens bred for meat, he contacted and became involved with the breeders of the Cobb chicken in the US. The venture flourished and provided John ample opportunity to indulge his passion for wild animals and zoos on his worldwide business travels. It also provided the much-needed finances to turn his passion into a way of living. He bought an estate and established a zoo.
The energy of John Knowles to proceed with his idea of establishing a zoo of his own is reflected in the purchase of several animals prior to the County and City Council’s decision to allow building a zoo on the Marwell Hall estate. He even purchased two Amur (Siberian) tigers — two-year-old hand-reared half-brother and sister, whose parents were part of a circus act in America, but registered with the studbook keeper — before the purchase deal on the estate was closed. Fortunately, Knowles received good support from several zoos in the UK, which provided temporary housing for his timely purchases.
The zoo did not make a smooth start. The idea and planning application for opening a zoo at the Marwel Hall estate (Hampshire), in 1970, was encountered opposition from the local community. Especially the people from the parish of Owslebury, in which Marwell lies, were not amused, and they expressed so at the public participation exercises which represented the democratic decision making. Nevertheless the Hampshire County Council and Winchester City Council decided to support the application. And so, the Zoo opened to the public in May 1972, although according to the founder, this should have been postponed. Because he will always “look back on that summer of 1972 with a degree of horror”. As “on 22nd May 1972 …… the much publicised Marwell looked more like a recreation of a World War I battlefield than a brave new breed of forward-looking zoo” with conservation and education as major goals. But postponement was not an option because the opening enabled them to generate the much-needed money from admission charges and from retail and catering sales.
Did the date of opening turn out bad, so did the decision to allow people enter the premises by car. As the grounds were quite large and with some elevations, it seemed like a good idea to have people use their car to cover the distances. But they cruised the grounds without getting out of the car, because they thought it was like in a safari park. This resulted in disappointments, because to see animals they had to leave the car, which they didn’t.
Nevertheless, within a few years of its establishment, the Zoo overcame its initial flaws and difficulties, and became a major touristic attraction in the region. More importantly it became an important breeding centre for several species, some (e.g. the Przewalski horse) already extinct in the wild, others (e.g. the Snow Leopard and Amur Tiger) close to extinction.
In the beginning Knowles and his team were already pleased to have sufficient housing for the animals and did not bother too much about zoogeographical distribution in the park. On opening day people could see, if they were lucky, Giraffe, Nyala, Ellipsen waterbuck, Cheetah, Impala, White-tailed gnu, Blackbuck, Nilgai, Goral, Przewalski’s horses, Kulan, Grevy’s zebras, Hartmann’s zebras, Chapman’s zebras, Tarpan, Scimitar-horned oryx, African crowned crane, Jaguars, African leopards, Amur tigers, European lynx, Clouded leopards, Llamas and Guanaco, Rheas, Emus, Cassowary, Ostriches, Lilford cranes and Kori bustards. Dispersed over the grounds this represented an interesting collection of endangered animal species. In the years to come more thought was given to how the animals should be displayed, with much focus on geographical distribution. The major exhibits at the moment for example are ‘into Africa’, ‘heart of Africa’ (Congo themed), ‘tropical world’, ‘roof of the world’, ‘world of lemurs’, ‘penguin world’, ‘Australian bush walk’, and other themed exhibits of which everybody can imagine what kind of species to expect there at display. The African Valley has to be mentioned, as it was opened in 2009 after much planning, and the first phase has Giraffe, Grevy’s Zebra, Ostrich and Waterbuck roaming free in 10 hectare of land centred around a waterhole. In the future a further 8 hectare will be added to the valley, the range and number of species will be increased, a second viewing area will be built near ‘into Africa’ and a Safari Tour may be added. A new cheetah exhibit will be built with funds from the 2009 cheetah conservation campaign and is due to open towards the end of 2010. This will also enable a larger area to be given to the management of these wonderful and charismatic animals. Other projects to materialise in the current masterplan involves rearranging the park zoogeographically, and include a new entrance and shop complex at the top of the park and a gorilla exhibit.
The zoological park is situated in the estate of Marwell Hall. The Hall is a Grade I listed building, which opened the door for grants from English Heritage to preserve the building. It was once the residence of Sir Henry Seymour (brother of Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife) so it is likely that Henry visited on several occasions. There is a local tale that Henry and Seymour were married in a private ceremony, either at the hall or in nearby Owslebury, very soon after news arrived from London confirming the death of Anne Boleyn. And it’s believed that Henry and Jane spent their wedding night in Marwell Hall and enjoyed many strolls along the yew tree walk during their courtship. Knowles and his family lived in the Hall themselves at first but this wasn’t very comfortable during the winter with the inadequate ancient central heating and pipework. And as soon as they moved out, the white elephant, as the Hall was called, became more integrated with the Zoo’s function by using it for education purposes. Hampshire Education Authority (HEA) soon recognised the importance of these efforts for the county’s young people, and in 1985 a formal relationship between Marwell’s Zoo and HEA was established, including financial support.
A remarkable but negative highlight noted in October 1999 should be mentioned. Not only as a reminder of the impact that infectious diseases can have on animal collection, but also of the possibility of spreading of such diseases in zoos to and from domestic herds. The UK’s penguin population was hit by a brain disease believed to be linked to an outbreak of bird malaria. All 27 penguins at Marwell Zoo in Hampshire died, Edinburgh Zoo reported the loss of several birds, and Bristol Zoo said eight of its birds succumbed. When thinking of foot-and-mouth disease a disaster can readily be introduced when the necessary precautions (like quarantine) are not taken. Therefore John Knowles’ ruminant free zone, a cordon sanitaire, around his zoo was therefore not a bad idea. He was able to realise this zone because he owned the grounds.
(Sources: ‘My Marwellous Life’ by John Knowles; website Marwell Wildlife;Marwell Wildlife guidebook 2011; Wikipedia)