Counting the animals at Belfast Zoo might not seem like such a challenge. After all, how long can it take to add up four elephants?
But spare a thought for the unlucky keeper who gets to carry out a headcount of all the stick insects in the annual stocktake.
Zoo manager Mark Challis says the stocktake is carried out at the start of every year — even though the keepers count their charges every morning as part of the daily routine.
“We carry out a headcount every day as part of the routine to make sure every animal is fit and well and we link that through to a central database in America connecting more than 400 zoos,” he explained.
“This is a more formal approach. We count everything, check it off against our computer records and formally make sure the two marry up 100%.”
However, as each new year dawns curators and keepers get down to the painstaking task of going through their charges with a fine tooth-comb.
“The elephants only take a couple of seconds as it doesn’t take long to count four elephants,” Mark said.
“But when you have 50 flamingoes and 60-plus penguins, that takes a little longer.
“We also have aviaries full of little white birds and counting them takes forever.
“The prairie dogs can be tricky, and some of the big birds are as well. We have walk-through aviaries full of pigeons and ibises.
“Some things are counted two to three times by different people to make sure we’ve got it right.
“We have to go and count all the stick insects. We count every living specimen.”
While the audit was still continuing yesterday, Mark said he wouldn’t expect the stocktake to throw up anything very unusual.
“This is a job that we would carry out every day, so we never expect to find four lions and then find we have five, or anything like that,” he said.
Last year the zoo celebrated more than 90 births, including those of a Malayan tapir, a blesbok, three capybaras, two Rothschild’s giraffes, a meerkat, five gentoo penguins, two California sea lions, a crowned pigeon, twin Visayan warty pigs, a lion-tailed macaque, two white-belted ruffed lemurs, eastern bongo, vicuna and many more besides.
2012 also saw the addition of a male maned wolf, a red panda, white-rumped sharma, orange-headed ground thrush, 10 great white pelicans, two giant anteaters and 36 Chilean flamingoes.
On St Patrick’s Day, the zoo welcomed Lucy, the first chimpanzee to be born in Belfast since 1997.
Another conservation success story was the birth of the two red-backed bearded sakis in October 2012, which were the first of their species ever to be born in Europe.