Jeremy Mallinson, former director of Jersey Zoo and friend of Gerald Durrell – obituary

He believed that the duty of zoos was to protect and strengthen the gene pool, and he played a key role in saving the lion tamarin

Jeremy Mallinson with grey crowned cranes
Jeremy Mallinson with grey crowned cranes Credit: Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust

Jeremy Mallinson, who has died aged 83, became, with no formal training, one of the world’s most successful and respected zoo directors, serving as torchbearer for Gerald Durrell’s pioneering conservation-led zoo established on the island of Jersey in 1959.

Mallinson was born at Ilkley on March 16 1937, but his lifelong enthusiasm for animals began at Harrods. Staying nearby during a school shutdown, he was soon spending all day in the pet department enjoying his first encounters with exotic species of parrots, macaws and a pair of young red-backed squirrel monkeys. Such was his enthusiasm that he was allowed to arrive daily at eight o’clock at the staff entrance to help out before the store opened.

At the King’s School, Canterbury, young Jeremy’s sense of adventure prompted nocturnal outings, among them climbing over the cathedral’s lead roof and placing a chamber pot on top of the flagpole on the Deanery tower.

He was never caught, but his striking mop of unruly blond hair – which earned him the nickname of Prof – led to a beating for talking, as masters and prefects solemnly processed into School Assembly.

Mallinson with cheetah at Jersey Zoo circa 1960 Credit: Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust 

In 1954, at a cricket match in Jersey, where his father had gone to live, he learnt that he could sign up as a trainee for three years with the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland forces – providing the longed-for opportunity to see great mammals in the wild. In his autobiography Mallinson writes of the excitement of “seeing great herds of elephant, buffalo and sable and smaller groups of giraffe zebra and kudu as well as slender agile impalas and the more solitary diminutive steenbok”.

He returned to Jersey to start working in his father’s wine business, but it was not for him, and by great good fortune Gerald Durrell had just arrived at Les Augrès Manor to start his zoo. Mallinson was taken on as a temporary, but was repeatedly allowed to stay a little longer.

When Durrell began in Jersey, many zoos still resembled Victorian menageries. Jersey Zoo from the start was conservation-oriented. Durrell was astute in his choice of people to work for him, and was increasingly happy to hand the running of the zoo and its ambitious programme to Mallinson while he could concentrate on his greatest passions, his expeditions to collect animals and his writing. Mallinson became Deputy Zoological Director and then Director on Durrell’s death in 1995.

Durrell, in his book The Ark’s Anniversary (1990), wrote with affection: “With his buttercup coloured hair, bright blue eyes and Duke of Wellington nose, Jeremy was as committed to the animals in our care as if he had given birth to each of them personally.”

With chimpanzee

He sent Mallinson to Bolivia in search of the mitla, a mythical cat-dog first observed by the famous explorer Colonel Fawcett, though still not confirmed as a living species. Durrell also sent him, in 1971, to Assam to verify the newly rediscovered pygmy hog (smallest member of the pig family, thought to have become extinct) and advise on its conservation.

Mallinson is above all honoured for his key role in saving some of the smallest members of the mammal kingdom, the beautiful lion tamarins, four species of them, in Brazil, on the verge of extinction, in the Atlantic Forest. Foremost was the golden lion tamarin, found in the lowland forests of Rio de Janeiro, whose numbers had fallen to less than 300 as a result of felling.

Following a meeting at the National Zoo in Washington in 1972, in a real life reprise of the famous Disney film One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Mallinson was tasked with retrieving 50 tamarins sold from South America into the pet trade.

The crowning success of his detective work came on November 30 1985 when 16 of them were flown from Amsterdam back to Rio having been traced to a Belgian animal dealer, who had been provided with valid documents from Guyana but agreed to repatriate them.

In his autobiography Mallinson describes how his love affair with gorillas began in November 1959 when Durrell secured a loan of £1,200 from his bank manager to buy a young Western Lowland gorilla from the French Cameroons via a Birmingham pet shop.

N’Pongo had to spend a week in the Durrell’s flat as her accommodation was not ready and Mallinson was entranced by her playful behaviour. No less memorable to Mallinson (who was himself nicknamed “Pongo”) was joining his friend John Blashford-Snell’s expedition to see wild mountain gorillas in Zaire.

The Jersey Zoo provided a heroic answer to many criticisms made of zoos – its purpose was to save species from extinction by captive breeding, campaigns to protect natural habitats and then by running a training school attended by students all over the world who wanted to go back to their own countries to run sanctuaries and nature reserves protecting habitats.

Mallinson nurtured contacts with zoos in Europe with a view to coordinating breeding programmes. He pioneered the important concept that these institutions did not own their animals, which instead belonged to their country of origin. The duty of zoos was protect and strengthen the gene pool by carefully mating animals in different zoos and returning the offspring to the wild when conditions allowed.

Mallinson at Jersey Zoo with red ruffed lemurs from Madagascar

Between 1983 and 2000, 146 zoo-born golden lion tamarins were introduced into the Poco das Antas reserve, Brazil, and some into forests on private land, where the lion tamarins became a status symbol for landowners and locals.

Writing in The Biologist in December Mallinson proudly proclaimed “the golden lion tamarin has become for Brazil what the giant panda is for China.”

Mallinson’s interest in the anthropoid apes underlay Jersey Zoo’s major investment in enclosures for its collection of gorillas including Jambo the silverback, who famously stood guard over a little boy who fell into the enclosure.

Mallinson had a keen interest in the design of the enclosures (his brother Miles was an architect) and astonished everyone when he insisted that the new moated and fenceless enclosure for the orang-utans should be built on top of a hill, creating a grand climax to the zoo tour.

There was a moment’s alarm when the landscape committee learnt that orangs could swim, but some discreet electric wiring solved the problem.

Mallinson ran a happy ship. Every day he would tour the site, visiting all the animals and talking to the keepers. Under his benign authority the zoo became an island within an island, a close-knit dedicated community, with staff often marrying each other.

Inspired by Durrell he became a prolific author, writing Travels in Search of Endangered Species (1989) and some 400 scientific articles, many in Jersey Zoo’s journal The Dodo. He amassed an almost unrivalled collection of the books of both Gerald and his brother Lawrence, many signed.

Mallinson remained active in later life, a keen member of a group of retired British zoo directors known as the Silverbacks. He wrote a new book virtually every year – including novels, autobiography and a history of Les Minquiers, an archipelago of reefs that is Britain’s most southerly outpost.

When earlier this year he was faced with a fourth bout of cancer, he decided to let nature take its course and sat looking at the view of the bay below his window, Noël Coward-like in his silk dressing gown, receiving calls from friends around the world, undimmed to the last.

Mallinson was appointed OBE in 1997 for services to conservation. Among his other honours and accolades, he received the Heini Hediger Award from the World Zoo Organisation; the Wildlife Conservation Award (gold medal) from the Zoological Society of San Diego; the Federation of Zoological Gardens of Great Britain and Ireland Outstanding Achievement Award; and the Ulysses S Seal Award for Innovation in Conservation.

Jeremy Mallinson’s wife Odette, née Guiton, died in 2004; he is survived by their children Julian and Sophie.

Jeremy Mallinson, born March 16 1937, died February 2 2021