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Friday, April 29, 2016

Sporcle Quiz: Reintroduced Species


The list of animals in which captive-bred individuals have been reintroduced to the wild, sometimes saving a species entirely from extinction, is a fairly short one.  Still, it includes, among its roster, some of the greatest conservation success stories of history.  It's been a while since I've made a Sporcle quiz, so here's a brand new own that shows off some of those fortunate few.  Pictures from Arkive.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Return to the Wild

One of the most magical moments of my zookeeping career didn't take place at a zoo.  Heck, there weren't even any animals within eyeshot.  And it was only a month ago, too.  It took place, of all places, in a hotel conference room in Omaha, Nebraska, during the mid-year meeting of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

It was the first day of my first conference, and I was flitting somewhat aimlessly from session to session, really going wherever the wind blew me.  It just so happened to blow me into a meeting of the ungulate working group (ungulates being hoofed mammals), when a speaker came up the podium and made an announcement.  Earlier that day, a small herd of scimitar-horned oryx, a beautiful desert antelope once found across northern Africa, was transferred from a breeding facility in the Middle East to a compound in Chad.  There, they would eventually be transitioned into larger and larger paddocks, until finally they were truly wild.  The species is currently classified as Extinct in the Wild.  That designation may be able to change someday.

The room went nuts.

Zoos and aquariums like to think of themselves as "the modern arks", sheltering animals from the ravages of a human-dominated world - habitat loss, invasive species, overhunting, pollution, etc.  The thing is, an ark-ride isn't supposed to last forever.  For some of our animals, it looks like an existence in captivity might be permanent.  Sometimes, however, we can snatch one species back from the reaper and actually restore it to its true habitat - the wild.

Sometimes wild animals are moved from one location to another.  This is what happened in Yellowstone National Park in the US, where wild grey wolves were captured in one habitat and released in another.  It's easy, in a way, because the wolves in question already knew how to survive in the wild because they were, in fact, wild.  This is not always possible, however, because it depends on their already being an existing wild population that is large enough for you to siphon off animals to release somewhere else without compromising the first population.  A second option is headstarting, which has been discussed earlier this month.  The third option - the most controversial, the most challenging, and in general the last-ditch effort - is the release of captive-bred animals back into the wild.

Reintroduction into the wild is one of the greatest ambitions of zookeeping.  Like any great ambition, it is easier said that done.  First of all, you have to have a sustainable captive populations, large enough and genetically healthy enough to serve as an engine that produces the offspring you will use for reintroduction.  This is essential.  It does no good to put your entire breeding stock out in the wild and loose them all - then you have nothing to start over again with.  The Sumatran rhino is teetering on the edge of extinction.  Before any reintroduction can even be contemplated, the first step is trying to build a breeding population.  So far, success has been very limited.

Secondly, you must have a place suitable for reintroductions to occur.  "The Wild" isn't that wild anymore, and there are very few places where animals can live in a landscape that isn't completely shaped by humans.  Ideally, you would know and understand what factors lead to your species becoming imperiled and then correct those before reintroducing.  Reintroducing zoo-born Guam rails into the middle of Guam, for instance, is basically a form of very-expensive, government-subsidized feeding of brown tree snakes.  Until the invasive snakes are under control, there's no reason to release the birds there.  The same would be the case in the face of excessive hunting, or if there is no remaining habitat to reintroduce animals to.

Thirdly, animals must be prepared for a life back in the wild... usually.  Some species, especially reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates, have a lot of behavior hard-wired as instinct.  Many reintroduction programs are carried out with these species for that reason.  Mammals and birds, however, often undergo lots of learning and social development.  Thick-billed parrots, for example, were bred in captivity and released in the Sky Islands of the Southwestern US.  That program proved unsuccessful.  Some birds failed to learn how to utilize wild food sources.  Others became easy prey for goshawks, having failed to learn adequate predator evasion skills from parents.

Fourthly, the program must be monitored carefully and evaluated, especially as to the survivorship of the released animals.  Program leaders need to how many individuals are surviving, what animals are dying of (and there is always a steep mortality rate), and what factors can be used to improve future success.  Sometimes, that means knowing when to pull the plug of a reintroduction program.  You can release one million Panamanian golden frogs in the cloud forests of Panama, but if every single one succumbs to disease one week later, you might as well have euthanized them yourself and saved yourself the trouble.

Fifthly and finally, a program can only last if it is sustainable.  Some reintroduction programs, such as that of the black-footed ferret and that of the California condor, are starting to get there, as the wild population is growing, though augmented still with the releases of captive-born animals.  Sustainability isn't just an issue of population genetics and demographics - it's also about people.  The most successful programs are those that have the support of the local people behind them.  The red wolf reintroduction program in North Carolina was doing fine at first, largely because biologists cultivated positive relationships with the local people to build goodwill towards the program.  In recent years, hostility has broken out towards the wolves, and now the future of that program is in serious doubt.

There are a lot easier ways to save an endangered species than captive breeding for reintroduction.  Easiest of all is don't let the species become endangered in the first place.  Or you can protect the habitat.  Or stop poaching, or the spread of invasive species.  You could translocate wild animals from one population to start a new one.  In some cases, you can headstart.

Release of captive-born animals into the wild is a major challenge.  It's one of those things that makes me bang my head on the wall whenever I hear snooty animal rights activists demand that animals be released into the wild.  It's not just opening a cage door and letting the animal be "free."  To do so often subjects the unlucky animal to a life of hunger, anguish, and terror in an unfamiliar world - the good news, of course, is that life is apt to be very short.  Don't take my word for it, ask Keiko.

Reintroduction takes lots of patience, organization, training, and, in many cases, sacrifice.  It can stress animals almost to the breaking point, and there is no guarantee of success.  The animal welfare implications are enormous, and as such, it should only be employed as a strategy when the conservation benefit outweighs the cost of the hardship the animals will have to undergo.  It's not pretty to see an animal that's been cared for all of its life have to make it on its own.  In some cases, though, it's the only way to save a species.

As more and more species fade away in the wild, it may become an option that we have to rely upon more and more in the years to come.


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Zoos of the Developing World

At the same time that I was immensely enjoying myself at the Belize Zoo, a much darker scenario was unfolding at a very different zoo across the globe.  Indonesia's Surabaya Zoo has also been known as "The Zoo of Death", where animals - including highly endangered native species - languish and sometimes starve in atrocious enclosures.  The international backlash has been pretty predictable, with calls for the place to be shut down.  You here similar howls of outrage often when zoos of the developing world make the international zoo, especially those that are in areas that are poverty stricken, war-torn, or both.

In recent years, we can look at the zoos of Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine... Does Syria even have any zoos?  I really hope not.

But back to Indonesia and its "Zoo of Death".  Or to Belize, for that matter, and its charmingly beautiful zoo.  We tend to think of zoos as American and European institutions, and they are, but zoos are found across the globe.  Mexico City has an excellent zoo, as does Sao Paulo.  Johannesburg's isn't supposed to be half bad, and there are many excellent zoos in Japan.  Australian zoos make up for their relative paucity in exotic (to Aussies) species by displaying that country's rich, unique wildlife, found nowhere else on earth.

But countries in Africa, in Southeast Asia, in Latin America, what about them?  Sure, we mentioned some big cities in those regions that have good zoos, but in a country like, let's say, Tanzania, is there a need for zoos?  It's a poor country with pressing problems - debt, development, disease, literacy - and while relatively stable itself, it's located amid other countries that are decidedly less so.  Though Tanzania sees its fair share of tourists, a zoo probably wouldn't be that big of a draw to them - they come to see animals in the wild, on the Serengeti or Ngorongoro.  What would the point of a zoo be?  Who would pay for it?  Who would go?

As near as I could figure during my visit to that country, the closest thing to a zoo in all of Tanzania was a snake park located on the outskirts of its safari capital, Arusha.  Some tanks of snakes, pits of lizards, a row of bird cages, and a pool of crocodiles...

So, except for the snake park, I didn't see a zoo in Tanzania.  You know what else I didn't see over the course of five months?  A single large (as in, bigger than a kitten) wild animal living outside of a protected area.  In the parks I saw elephants and lions, leopards and hippos, giraffes and zebras, and even some of the last black rhinos in the country.  Outside... I think I remember seeing some blue monkeys once.  I think.

Of course, I was going to those protected areas on safari.  Most of the local people were not.  I asked many townspeople and city dwellers if they'd ever seen a lion, or a giraffe, or a baboon.  Very few had.  The parks were too far from the cities, too hard to get to, and who had the time or the money?  These were working folks, trying to make a living, they didn't have time for, and here the truth came out, frivolities.  I got the impression that most people tolerated wild animals for the hard foreign currency that they brought to their country.  If they ever thought that tourists wouldn't visit their country?  Then to hell with the wildebeest.

The idea then got planted in my head about the potential value of a zoo in Tanzania.  A few, maybe, scattered around the urban areas - Dar es Salaam, Arusha, Moshi.  They'd be very different from the zoos of the US and Europe; when I saw the Belize Zoo, I realized that that was what I'd been envisioning.  They'd feature native species only - ones that could be housed and fed cheaply compared to imported exotics.   There wouldn't be any studbooks or breeding and transfer plans, just animals taken as pets, or found orphaned or injured.  No especially large animals, either - I'd imagine monkeys, porcupines, mongooses, hyraxes, and some birds and reptiles.  A focus on smaller species would allow for larger, better, more natural enclosures.  Nothing that would dazzle an American tourist, but that's fine.  That's not who the audience would be.

The audience would be the Tanzanian people (or, depending on where you operate, the Guatemalan people, or the Bangladeshi people, or what have you).  It would serve as more of an educational nature center than what we consider a zoo, with the express purpose of introducing people and their native animals.  Children could grow up with an appreciation for the animals of their country, including those species that they seldom see.  It might help foster the growth of a new generation of homegrown conservationists and naturalists.  It would wildlife more firmly on the radar in the parts of the country where political and economic power are wielded.  Perhaps, even like the Belize Zoo, it could become a focal point for research, rehabilitation, and possibly even reintroduction programs.  Given the right local leadership, it could serve as a gadfly for conservation, reminding those in power about the importance of protecting wildlife.

Changes are supposedly underway in Indonesia, with new leadership being brought in to redirect the Surabaya Zoo.  Hopefully it's not too late to turn it around.  A bad zoo is a blight on a culture and a torment for the animals living there.  A good zoo can be a tremendous, positive force for conservation, either on the international scale (such as the Wildlife Conservation Society), or the very local one.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Zoo Review: Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center

When Baltimore-born Sharon Matola came to the newly-independent Central American nation of Belize in 1983, she thought she would just be helping to shoot a nature documentary.  It being too difficult to film many of the rainforest's more iconic animals in the wild, specimens were captured and housed in large, naturalistic enclosures to be filmed, during which time Matola cared for them and the animals became habituated to her.  When the documentary was done, the rest of the film crew left, leaving Matola alone in Belize... alone, that is, except for a dozen or so animals, now too tame to safely release.

The result has been the Belize Zoo, perhaps the most spectacular zoo in the developing world.


Set along gravel trails shaded by giant trees, the zoo, located halfway between Belize City, the county's biggest town, and the capital of Belmopan, features only animals native Belize.  All are either orphans turned in to the zoo, rescued pets, or other non-releasable rescues.  For many Belizeans, the zoo provides their only chance to meet many of the most iconic animals of their country, including the national animal - Baird's tapir, known locally as the mountain cow - and national bird, the keel-billed toucan.

Matola and her team apparently have decided that nature can't be improved upon, and so they don't really try.  Most of the enclosures are just that - enclosed sections of forest.  The effect has been breathtaking, and, for the first time in a lifetime of visiting zoos, I was actually startled when I encountered some of the animals because it looked like they were loose.  This was helped, of course, by the fact that the zoo attracts a lot of wild wildlife.  At the tapir exhibit, for example, the chow bowls provided for Belize's largest land animals were also being snacked on by agoutis, iguanas, and turkey-like chachalacas, while an aviary's worth of brightly colored birds flittered in and out of the pen.  The zoo features special nocturnal hikes, where I'm told the odds of seeing a paca (locally called gibnut) outside the enclosure are just as good as seeing one in it.



You can spend days exploring Belizean rainforests and not see one-hundredth of this wildlife.  I know.  I tried.

The sole focus on Belizean wildlife is a real treat, especially for a big zoo fan.  The collection is pretty complete - you'll see all five of Belize's wild cats (jaguar, puma, ocelot, margay, and jaguarundi), both of its crocodiles, both of its monkeys, and much more.  You won't see lions and giraffes, to be sure, but you can see them anywhere in the states.  What you can see, however, are animals that are either very, very rare or completely absent in American zoo collections.  There were five species of mammal - including white-lipped peccary and jaguarundi - that I had never seen before visiting here.  I'd seen ornate hawk eagle - in my opinion the most beautiful of the birds of prey - once before.  Here, they had a magnificent enclosure where they were hard at work building a nest.  The same could be said about the most famous bird in the zoo, Boomer, the jabiru stork.  Not only was he magnificent, but his aviary was breathtaking - watching a bird as tall as me fly on lazy wingstrokes and land inches from me, separated only a thin wall of wire, was my highlight of the trip (I mean, besides petting the tapirs).



Besides providing an excellent home for nonreleaseable Belizean wildlife (some of which has found sanctuary in American zoos when Belize Zoo's resources are full), the Belize Zoo has been very active in local conservation.  Matola has worked tirelessly to resolve "problem jaguar" conflicts and help ranchers and big cats coexist.  The zoo has been very involved in the captive breeding and reintroduction of the magnificent harpy eagle, two of which resides in two story aviaries, visible from an elevated walkway.  Sometimes her advocacy gets her in trouble, as recounted by Bruce Barcott in his Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw (scarlet macaws also being visible here).

The Belize Zoo has quickly become one of the country's most popular tourist attractions.  Not as glamorous, perhaps, as the beaches of the cayes, or the unbelievable Mayan ruins, but enough to attract many visitors and make local celebrities out of some of the zoo's residents - Buddy the jaguar, Boomer the jabiru, and the late April, the tapir.  Tourists can further their experience with special tours of the nearby Tropical Education Center.  Matola's proudest legacy, however, is doubtlessly been the thousands of Belizeans, including school children, who have visited the zoo and left with a deeper appreciation of their country's beautiful, wild heritage.



One note of warning for visitors, especially those with children.  The Belize Zoo (the whole country, it sometimes seems) has sort of a natural selection policy about tourists.  At the zoo, you get great views of wildlife, mostly because barriers are minimalistic, being just enough to keep the animals in.  They do nothing for keeping you out.  There are almost zero secondary railings or barriers to keep you back from the front of, say, the puma exhibit, or from offering the king vultures a finger.  In your enthusiasm for taking the perfect photo, please remember to be safe and aware of the animals and your surroundings.


Sunday, April 24, 2016

Book Review: The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth's Rarest Creatures

"When seen in profile, the saola's horns merge into one, and the animal becomes single-horned - a unicorn by perspective.  Like that other one-horned beast, it stands close to being the apotheosis of the ineffable, the embodiment of magic in nature.  Unlike the unicorn, however, the saola s corporeal.  It lives, and it can die."

If the scientific community was surprised by the okapi, a solitary forest ungulate related to the giraffe, discovered in the Congo at the turn of the last century, than it was surely dumbfounded by the saola.  Inhabiting only a few slivers of rainforest straddling the border of Laos and Vietnam, the saola (with the secondary, less-elegant name of Vu Quang Ox) is a primitive, wild-cow like creature, only discovered in 1992.  It was never been seen by a western scientist in the wild, with local peoples, camera traps, and a few (very short-lived) captive specimens presenting us with the scant knowledge that we have.

In The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth's Rarest Creatures, author William deBuys isn't the one to break the saola's elusive winning streak.  The animal itself never crosses the authors path as he treks through the Laotian jungles.  Instead, deBuys, accompanied by wildlife biologist Bill Robichaud, seek to explore the haunts of one of the world's least known - and most endangered - animals.  In doing so, they seek new knowledge that may be used to help protect an animal that is at risk of becoming extinct almost as soon as the world learned it existed.

The Last Unicorn is an enjoyable travelogue of life in Southeast Asia, where all recent history (including, it may be, the imperilment of the saola) lies under the shadow of the Vietnam War.  DeBuys offers a fascinating peak of what it truly means to be involved in the study and conservation of endangered species in the wild.  Seldom is it the Jane Goodall world of sitting in a clearing while animals carry on all around you.  Instead, it is often a long, hard, brutal slog through an unforgiving landscape with the faintest of hopes that you will even catch a glimpse of your quarry.

It also provides an insight that many westerners may lack about conservation efforts in the developing world.  When Robichaud visits villages, he wants to talk about saola (several of which, he knows or suspects, are poached by those villagers), but he also knows that conservation of an obscure (though breathtakingly beautiful) animal isn't the top priority of those villagers.  They want to talk about roads and bridges and dams... which could in turn let more poachers have more access to more animals.  Robichaud's challenge is to make the saola worth more alive than dead.

If there was one thing that I found disappointing about The Last Unicorn, it's how little the saola actually appears in it.  I know that the author is largely writing about what he experienced during his trip (which, spoiler alert, does not include a saola), but I was really hoping to learn more about the animal itself.  That being said, maybe I should cut deBuys some slack on the grounds that very little really is known about the saola.  Most of Robichaud's knowledge comes from a captive specimen that lived for a short time in a private collection, and it's those reminiscences that I enjoy the most, as they provide the most insight into the animal.

I recently actually heard Bill Robichaud give a lecture on the saola and found it fascinating.  One of the most intriguing ideas was the suggestion that an emergency captive breeding program be set up in Southeast Asia, similar to the breeding station for okapi that exist in the Congo.  It was a position that I wasn't expecting to hear him take (one that I never had considered, really) considering the poor track record of saola in captivity so far.  Admittedly, those have been wounded, stressed-out animals not being cared for by a professional staff.  Robichaud surprised me, though, saying that, even if poaching were stopped this instant, the remaining populations may be too small and too fragmented to support the species long-term.  Captive breeding and intensive management may be the species' only hope.

Oscar Wilde had an old maxim, one that deBuys trots out and applies to Robichaud - the sign of a first rate mind is to be able to hold two opposing ideas at the same time.  Robichaud - and indeed most conservationists - have to be realistic about the dangers that animals face, while also hopeful that it's not too late and that they can be saved.  The first step towards saving a species, however, is knowing that it needs our help.  We may not really meet the saola in The Last Unicorn, but the tantalizing glimpses of it that we are given still serve as a call to arms.


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Friday, April 22, 2016

A Time to Kill

If I were to name my favorite birds, northern ravens would definitely have to be on the short list.  At first glimpse, they may not be much to look at - just a big, black bird.  They have other attributes than appearance going for them, however.  Their intelligence is legendary, with ravens (and their kin, the crows, jays, and magpies) rivaling parrots as the most intelligent of birds.  Their use of tools, of social cooperation, and of vocalization is extraordinary.  They are superbly adaptable, occupying a range that covers virtually every habitat of the Northern Hemisphere.  They are featured prominently in legend and lore, from Norse and Native American folklore to Poe's most famous poem.  Truly magnificent birds.

Which is why it saddens me so much that sometimes, it becomes necessary to kill them.

There are many reasons why a person may choose to become involved in conservation, many of them boiling down to a love of animals or the natural world.  A desire to kill animals usually isn't high on the list.  Conservation is a balancing act, however; every change to an environment has consequences.  If you want one species to thrive, sometimes it means that it must be at the expense of another.  Sometimes lethally so.

Predator control has been around for as long as humans have managed wildlife.  The idea is that by getting rid of predators, such as wolves and pumas, we make bigger herds of deer, moose, and other animals that humans like to hunt.  No less a conservationist than Aldo Leopold, in his youth, shot up a pack of (now critically endangered) Mexican gray wolves in the belief that fewer wolves would mean more deer, which in turn would equal a hunter's paradise.

In the case of the ravens, it's a question of adaptability... and appetite.  The secret to the raven's success is its ability to find food everywhere... any kind of food.  Sometimes, that food is the eggs (or young) of other, much more endangered species, such as tortoises, eiders, California condors, and sage grouses.  That's lead to culls of ravens in some places to reduce predation pressure on these species.  Ravens, as it so happens, are highly charismatic animals, much more so than, say, Steller's eiders, and have a much broader fan base.  That leads to protests and the inevitable question - how can conservationists advocate killing animals?

"Conservation culling" can take many forms.  It's culling of invasive species, such as brown tree snakes in Guam or, closer to home, mute swans on the Chesapeake.  Sometimes it means implementing contraception of wild animals to prevent their overbreeding.  Sometimes too many of a common native species are threatening to crowd out an endangered native species, and culling is implemented to level the field. Sometimes it's even the culling of endangered species that threaten to overpopulate their small, cramped protected reserves.  Such was almost the fate of the Swaziland African elephants that were recently shipped to US zoos.  The case of the Swaziland elephants, it was reasoned that elephants are endangered, but black rhinos are more endangered.  Too many elephants, the Swazis deemed, were resulting in too few rhinos, the result of the elephants eating the rhinos out of house and home.

Zoos and aquariums sometimes engage in their own conservation culling.  An extreme case would be the incident that unfolded in Denmark back in 2014, where Marius the giraffe was culled to free up space for other animals.  A much simpler, less controversial method would be choosing not to incubate the eggs of a bird that your zoo doesn't particularly wish to breed.

And none of this is even touching that red hot controversy of trophy hunting for conservation, such as when a Texas hunter was able to purchase the rights to kill a black rhinoceros, the proceeds of which would go to fund rhino conservation.  That got ugly really fast...

"Killing for conservation" is always going to be fraught with controversy.  There are endless questions that have to be asked.  Are we sure what we are doing is really in the interests of the ecosystem, and not just an excuse to do what we want while wrapped up in an ecodefense?  How do we weigh the difference between conservation and animal rights?  Are some animals worth more than others?  Who gets to make these decisions, and who are they accountable to?  Most of all, what gives us the right?

Thursday, April 21, 2016

From the News: Central Florida Zoo exhibit to teach about living with bears


"The Wild" as we think we know it is increasingly vanishing.  Which isn't to say that all wild animals are necessarily vanishing as well (though many are).  An increasing number of them are being pushed into close contact with humans, living in agricultural areas, suburbs, and sometimes even cities.  Some, like squirrels, are simply a pleasant distraction or, depending on your feelings about them, a minor irritant.  Some are a little... harder to ignore.  Like bears.

Kudos to Central Florida Zoo for their impressive new bear exhibit.  Zoos should strive to educate visitors, and education, I've always felt, should have a facet of practicality to it.  It's not enough to have knowledge, you have to have something to do with it.  If this exhibit (which houses rescued problem bears) can help lead to a reduction in human-bear conflict, it will be a great asset to the community... human and ursine.

Artist rendering on a new bear exhibit at the Central Florida Zoo.