Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Top 5 Unlikely and Unusual Animals That Can Be Easily Spotted In London

5) Okapi


Ok so this one is a bit of a cheat; there aren't now, and have never been, herds of okapi roaming the streets of London. However, it's still an incredible animal and completely possible to easily view in our great city - albeit at the Zoo! 
So, it looks kind of weird, sure; a strange mix between a zebra, a giraffe and a donkey, indeed the okapi is most closely related to the giraffe, and together they are the only living members of the giraffidae family which is pretty cool, but why does it deserve a place on this list when London Zoo is full of so many awesome animals? Well, mainly due to its former status as a cryptid! This strange beast, endemic to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, had been described for centuries by both the Ancient Egyptians and central African tribes but was rejected by Western science as a myth. It was dubbed "the African unicorn" and was seen as little more than a fantastical hybrid belonging firmly to the realm of legends. 
This changed in 1901 when the British governor of Uganda, Sir Harry Johnston, after whom the animal was finally named okapia johnstoni, acquired skins, a skull and finally a live specimen.
It wasn't until 2008 that the first full photographs of a wild okapi were snapped! These pictures are available to view on the London Zoo website.
So, how had it remained hidden for so long? Mainly because okapi are stealthy, solitary animals, which inhabit the deepest, most remote parts of the Congolese rainforest, and rarely venture into gallery forests or areas disturbed by human habitation. 
They are now classified as endangered due to threats such as logging and hunting for bushmeat, and are fully protected under Congolese law, making the London Zoo examples even more precious. 
So, definitely go and check out these mysterious, and persisting icons of cryptozoology at the Regent's Park Zoo, there was even a baby born there in 2013 - a real rarity! Loving these stripey fellas!

 Pic: Londinium Now - A stuffed example at the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill

4) Pelicans


 Pic: BBC

Now onto the weird and truly wild unlikely critters which really do freely roam the capital...
It's mindblowing to think that the pelicans at St James' Park were originally given as a gift to King James II by the Russian Ambassador in 1664. They aren't the same ones that you can see in the park today of course! but during this 400 year period over 40 pelicans have made London their home. Occassionally fresh blood is brought in to maintain a healthy population; the newest of which arrived in 2013, as a gift from the City of Prague. There are actually eight types of pelican in the world, the ones in St James' Park being Great White pelicans which can be found throughout Eurasia and in patchy locations in Africa, south of the Sahara.
The pelicans really are a city staple, and incredibly easy to spot; usually they'll be lounging on Pelican Rock on the park's lake or somewhere near Duck Island Cottage. 
A pelican's diet normally consists of fish, as well as amphibians, turtles, and crustaceans which they gulp down whole using those incredible bills. However, occassionally they'll decide to snack on their fellow bird bros as well. Just check out exhibit A; video evidence, taken in St James' Park itself, featuring a pelican going all National Geographic of an unexpecting pigeon, in front of horrified children no less! Gruesome!

Vid: Solidworksmagic 

Pelicans are clearly awesome, if a little brutish, but they only feature at number four on this list due to the fact that most people already know about them; let's crank it up a notch...

3) Terrapins & Turtles 


Pic: Hackney Gazette

I have never witnessed these critters myself, so maybe they shouldn't be included on a list of animals easily spotted in our fair city? You decide!
Reports of them are widespread, and it does seem that oweing to the fact that I live right next to Regent's Canal, supposedly their number one haunt, it is simply a statistical inevitability that I will spot them in due course, or at least that is if pictorial and anecdotal evidence is anything to go by! 
Evidence such as this awesome little number published on Reddit, which appears to depict a terrapin riding on a dead fox! 

Pic: Bloxie

And this video which allegedly captures the moment a spot of night fishing produced a snapping turtle from the canal's murky depths.

 Vid: Tonymorris1991

And, in true British tabloid fashion the Daily Mail managed to brew up a mild scare piece about them after a baby terrapin was netted in 2013.
The BBC have also reported on them, as have the Express, the Guardian, the Canal & River Trust, and many others. In fact a quick google search of "turtles regents canal london" will produce about 19,600 results, as of 2016; they are definitely here, and due to rising temperatures, probably here to stay. 
All criticism of tabloid journalism aside, this is of course a major problem for native wildlife. A sustained population of these aquatic North American reptiles will chomp their way through our domestic fauna and flora, including fish, frogs and ducklings. This possibly makes them the sole entry it'd be preferable not to have had to feature on this list at all! 
So, where exactly did they come from in the first place? Well, similar to the origins of the Sydenham Beast and other British big cats, as featured in my Top 5 London Monsters article, it is possible, if not highly probable, that they are the result of domestic animals being released into the wild. 
Believe it or not some actually think that the 1980s-90s popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in Britain is to blame! This is due to the fact that many kids wanted to keep turtles as pets, or more specifically the red-eared slider terrapin with their distinctive coloured "eye masks", which the characters were based on. After the cute, baby terrapins inevitably grew too big for the fish tanks they were being housed in many were set free in lakes and rivers. Of course for the most part the UK climate is too chilly for turtles and terrapins to survive in our waterways. However, as summers grow longer and hotter, and winters more mild who knows what the future holds... The recent discovery of  hatchling in the Regent's Canal is certainly a worry as it could prove that the cold-blooded pests are indeed breeding in the wild.
Please do let me know if you manage to spot them, snap a picture if you can, and then get in touch with the RSPCA or the Canal & River Trust!

2) Rose-Ringed Parakeet



These exotic little green parrots, native to South Asia and a broad belt just below the Sahara, are a truly unexpected addition to the London flora and fauna, and there are some really cool theories as to their backstory which have become part of London lore. Ideas behind their introduction range from them being escapees from a damaged aviary during the 1987 hurricane, to them being the descendents of a pair released by Jimi Hendrix in Carnaby Street in the 1960s. As a film fan my favourite theory, and the one that I actually heard first, was that the original flock escaped from Isleworth Studios, a branch of Ealing Studios, during the filming of The African Queen starring Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in 1951.
However they managed their great escape they seem to be here to stay, and doing extremely well! There are established populations to be seen in and around Crystal Palace Park, Battersea Park, Richmond Park, Wimbledon Common, Greenwich Park, and Hampstead Heath. I've also seen them screeching through the trees in the borough of Bromley on many occassions, where they land on the side of my brother's building and peck at the ventilation grilles.
Basically if you want to witness these cheeky little green invaders then keep your eyes skinned the next time you are wondering through one of the capital's many leafy areas and the chances are you may just catch a glimpse.
But what is the environmental impact on having such an alien species establish itself here in London? Well, very little apparently; the RSPCB don't seem particularly concerned and actually state on their website that they are against the culling of these beaky little bros. They do however stress that it is important to keep their rapidly expanding numbers closely monitored to ensure that there is no long term negative impact on native bird species. For example woodpeckers make use of the same nesting holes and could potentially suffer from the competition. For now however there doesn't seem to be any real government effort to push the newcomers away, and the RSPCB state that all wild birds, their nests and eggs, are protected by law, includes the non-native parakeets.
These feathery fellas are really awesome, colourful additions to our city and I hope you manage to spot them!
It's worth noting that feral populations have established themselves in many other cities across Europe, including in Paris; I used to see them regularly in the suburb of Antony. Check out the photo I snapped there last year whilst out strolling.

Pic: Londinium Now

1) Red Deer & Fallow Deer


 Pic: BBC - Yes, those are council blocks in the background!

Finally, my top pic for the most unlikely and unusual animals that can be easily spotted in London are the deer; both red and fallow deer.
It's easy to forgot that we have some absolutely massive parks in and around our even more massive city; for example, Epping Forest in the north east is a truly immense 21.5 square miles (34 square km), and the Royal Park of Richmond in the west which is a more managable but still impressively large 3.69 square miles (5.94 square km) - both of which are full of wild deer!
It's staggering (pun intended) that such large animals, the red deer is in fact our largest native land-mammal, can be found happily living in such close proximity to people within the confines of the 32nd most populous urban centre on the planet! They really aren't shy either, arguably they're the most easily spotted animal on this list. In the East End they've even been known to wander out into residential neighbourhoods for a late night binge of manicured council lawn (see pics below)!
Fun fact: there are actually more than 2 million wild deer in the UK, which means that the deer population is only about a million short of matching the number of Welsh people!
In London you'll see both red and fallow deer; the red, which are chunky and rust coloured are a species native to Britain whereas the fallow, more willowy and spotted like bambi, were introduced from western eurasia.

 Pic: Daily Mail

For deer watching at its best definitely head out to Richmond Park, which was actually established as a deer hunting ground in the 17th century by Charles I, here you'll get a bit of peace and quite to reflect on just how incredible these animals truly are! The countryside there is tranquil and beautiful, full of birdlife (the odd parakeet swooping overhead if you're lucky) and herds of wild deer roaming well with camera range. You could almost feel yourself being transported back to the medieval era of the hunt if it weren't for the fact that the grand spires and skyscrapers of the modern city were clearly visible just beyond the trees. 
Grasp the opportunity by the antlers and take the occassion to go and see these ordinarily secretive, evasive creatures in a setting that doesn't entail tramping for half a day through the back of beyond just to catch half a glimpse in the very distance; you'll definitely thank me for it!

 Pic: Daily Mail

Have you witnessed any of the animals in this list during your trip to London? Are there any other critters that you feel should have made it into the article? I'd love to hear from you and see your pictures!