All members of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) participate in various European breeding programmes for endangered species. 'European population management programmes for endangered species' is actually a more fitting term, as there is much more to it than just breeding. This series of articles analyses the challenges biologists face concerning various specific animal species. In this article: the aardvark.
Aardvarks are unique mammals; they have been around for millions of years in more or less the same form and have no close relatives in the animal kingdom. The elephant, manatee and hyraxes come closest in terms of kinship. These nocturnal animals mainly eat termites and ants in the wild. Although aardvarks are not endangered in the wild, few aardvarks live at zoos. Burgers' Zoo has coordinated the European population management programme for this species for many years and has a lot of successful breeding experience.
In Arnhem, the aardvarks' menu consists of dog food, minced fruit, mealworms, and vitamin and mineral supplements. The food is mixed with lukewarm water to make a kind of porridge, which the animals gulp down eagerly.
Aardvarks are not easy animals to keep, as they are quite demanding in terms of habitat and nutrition. In Arnhem, they live in an enclosure in the Bush, the covered tropical rainforest. In the wild, aardvarks are found both on the African savannah and the edges of the African rainforest. During the day, they usually rest in self-dug burrows that can be up to metres deep. When an aardvark feels threatened, it can disappear underground within minutes, digging furiously.
Sixty-six aardvarks live at 27 different European zoos at the time of writing. There are many pending requests from zoos that want to keep this species. In the Netherlands, aardvarks can only be found at Burgers' Zoo. Of the 66 aardvarks in Europe, 25 are boars, and 41 are sows. There are currently three aardvarks living in Arnhem: two sows and one boar. One of the sows is still quite young and was brought to Burgers' Zoo specifically to produce offspring.
The biggest challenge in breeding aardvarks is keeping the cubs alive. When a cub is born, it is quite vulnerable. It must find its mother's nipples in time to drink; once it does, however, there is a real danger that the mother will turn in her sleep and accidentally roll onto her young. When the cub is still very small, it may suffocate. The mortality rate among newborn aardvarks is, therefore, quite high.
For this reason, zookeepers take the newborn under their care for a while until it is big and strong enough not to be crushed by its mother's body. In some cases, they even take the cub home with them, depending on how experienced and calm the mother is and how agile the cub is. The decision also depends on the birth weight.
If a cub is taken home, the zookeeper returns it to its mother during the day, and they put it on its mother's teat at set times to drink as much as possible to develop further naturally. However, sucking on the teat does not mean that the cub is ingesting milk. The milk ejection reflex can sometimes take quite a long time to get going, and the cub has to work hard for it. Zookeepers will feel the cub's throat to see if it is swallowing and, especially during the first ten days, make sure that it empties all four teats, as the milk ejection reflex only lasts a few minutes at a time.
As soon as the cub is big and strong enough, it stays with its mother in the enclosure at night as well, and the zookeeper's extra help is no longer necessary. However, they will still regularly weigh the cub before and after it feeds from its mother to measure exactly how much milk it has ingested and whether that is sufficient according to the normal growth curve of an aardvark cub.
Burgers' Zoo has a successful history of breeding aardvarks using this method of extra care and attention. Knowledge and expertise are gladly and frequently shared with international colleagues because a healthy and genetically diverse zoo population is in the interest of every zoo with this unique species in its collection.