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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Book Review: A Certain Curve of Horn: The Hundred-Year Quest for the Giant Sable Antelope of Angola

"Five years later, the IUCN still had not undertaken a giant sable survey.  It had been postponed every year for 'security reasons' until it had been permanently shelved in disgust at the turn of events.  But I was going to Angola anyway."

When many people are asked to name the most majestic wild animal on the African continent, they probably think of lions or elephants.  My vote, however, goes to a considerably less-famous animal - the giant sable antelope, a heraldic black-and-white beast found only in the miombo forests of central Angola.  The sable may be relatively unknown to many Americans, but I know I'm not alone in my vote.  Since its discovery (to the western world, anyway) in 1916, the sable - especially the males, crowned with sweeping horns that may surpass five-feet in length - have been one of the most desired, sought-after animals in the world.  That has become their downfall... and it might be their salvation.

In A Certain Curve of Horn: The Hundred-Year Quest for the Giant Sable Antelope of Angola, John Frederick Walker explores our shared history with the most spectacular subspecies of what many consider to be the world's most spectacular antelope.  The sable was first described by British engineer Frank Varian, who was building a railroad through the then-Portuguese colony of Angola.  As soon as word of the antelope spread, it quickly became the most coveted trophy animal in Africa, with hunters from around the world coming to Angola to get a record-setting pair of horns.  

The giant sable occurs only in Angola, and so the story of this antelope is also a story of that country.  Walker weaves the history of Angola effectively through his narrative, from the Kongo Kingdom which predated European settlers to, most importantly, the long, bloody, and chaotic civil war which ravaged that country for decades and drew in such disparate players as Cuba, South Africa, the Soviet Union, and the United States.  Caught in the middle of the war was the giant sable, the home range of which lay smack-dab in the middle of the lands ruled by rebel warlord Jonas Savimbi (natural history aside, the biographical elements of the brutal, mercurial Savimbi alone make this a worthwhile read).  

Throughout the war (which resulted in an explosion of poaching as armies sought to fund their operations and feed their troops), the question that circled around the conservation community, in Africa and abroad, is "Could the giant sable have survived?  And if so, how much longer can it hold out?"

I won't give away any endings, but Walker's book captures the struggle of different groups, all of whom want to save the sable (if it's still out there), but can't agree how.  Strict preservationists, who want to try and salvage the habitat?  Zoos, who advocate captive breeding programs safely removed from war-torn Angola?  Trophy hunters, who claim that only the revenue they bring can fund conservation?  Angolan politicians and generals, who want to relocate sable to lands firmly under their control?  And atop all of it, a geneticist who drops a major bombshell - there might not even be such a thing as a giant sable!

A Certain Curve of Horn offers up one of the most common conundrums concerning high-profile endangered species.  Everyone wants to possess it... but who can actually save it?

A Certain Curve of Horn at


Saturday, November 21, 2015

Horn and Bone, Egg and Tusk

There's a room at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore that visitors typically don't get to see.  It's not that impressive in itself, more like a big walk-through closet lined with shelves.  Tucked away on those shelves, in tupperware tubs and plastic crates, swaddled with bubble wrap or sheets, neatly catalogued for easy reference, is an astonishing collection of skulls, horns, tusks, egg shells, and other remnants of the zoo's past occupants.  Some were relics of the zoo's care of animals - the cap that an elephant wore on her tusk, or a cast that was worn by a polar bear with a broken arm.  These treasures reside here until they are called into use, when a volunteer or docent may check one out and take it out to use in education programs.

There are similar collections at zoos and aquariums around the world.  These items are called "biofacts", as in "biological artifacts."  They are prized among zoos for their educational value, as well as for the impact they can have on visitors.  An obvious benefit is that they are touchable.  It's one thing to see a grizzly bear's claws on a computer screen, another still to see them tapping on the glass that separates the two of you at a zoo.  To really appreciate their size and power, however, nothing matches being able to hold one in your hand... without the bear being attached, of course.

One biofact that I remember well was the first rhino horn that I held.  It was the smaller of the two horns from a white rhinoceros, an animal I've since seen several times in zoos and in the wild.  Holding that horn in my hands, however, I saw and felt something new which made a major impact on me.  I'd known that rhino horn is made of keratin, the same protein as our hair and fingernails, which makes the whole supposed medicinal value of it seem even sketchier.  With that horn a few inches from my eyes, however, I was able to notice something very interesting - frayed ends.  There were areas where the highly-condensed hair of the horn was coming loose, and I was able to run my fingertips over a rhino's split ends.  It was then that it dawned on me that people were slaughtering rhinos for that... a mass of hair.

A colleague at another facility told me about a less enlightened biofact moment.  He was working at an aquarium that featured sea otters, a species which had almost been driven to extinction by hunting for its pelt.  You see, sea otters have incredibly luxorious pelts of dense fur - they need it to keep warm in the waters of the North Pacific - and their fur is unbelievably soft.  This colleague was standing outside the sea otter exhibit with a pelt that he was allowing people to touch.  Most people did so, then stayed to listen to him talk about the otters.  Some, however, became fixated on it, stroking it over and over again with a look on their faces that he described as "borderline-aroused."  They began to ask him where they could get coats of this from.  He tried explaining that it took several otters to make a coat, that they were an endangered species, etc.  Didn't care - they wanted coats.

Biofacts are an amazing draw for visitors, and can help zoo educators open up conversations about the animals.  I feel like there is such potential for sensory-overload in a zoo that visitors flit from animal to animal, distracted by the next glimpse, the next sound, that it can be difficult to engage them if there isn't a way to slow them down.  Seeing a hippo skull perched on a cart, or a docent cradling a blown-out ostrich egg in her hands, can hold a person's attention long enough for education to have an opening.

A problem with biofacts is that many of them come from deceased animals, so their supply is limited.  A few companies exist which produce replica skulls and horns of museum quality, though I always prefer the real thing if possible.  People always ask if something is real; if it's not, I feel like they lose their connection with it.  That being said, if it's an object that you're going to allow huge numbers of people to touch, especially in an unsupervised atmosphere, a cast or replica can be for the best.  They tend to made a little sturdier than the real thing.  I think I'd have a heart attack if I saw a priceless skull tipping over and shattering on the floor because someone bumped into it carelessly.

Tucked away in a shoebox in my room is my own little biofact collection, assembled over the years with odds and ends picked up from around my life in zoos.  A claw from a two-toed sloth, a souvenier of a female who seemed to always be growing and breaking claws.  The fang of a black mamba, found when I was cleaning its cage after my boss had removed it.  A tuft of pungent-smelling lion's mane that was snagged on some brush.  An infertile emu egg of an astounding blue.  Clipped beaver teeth.  My own treasure chest.

There's nothing too incredible - the good stuff I leave with the zoos for use in their education programs.  Certainly I make sure I'm not bringing home anything illegal, like eagle feathers.  But these bits and pieces, along with photographs, video clips, and the odd animal painting or two, are enough to remind me of some of the great animals I've gotten to share my life with.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Penguins on the Run

Call them mint jelly, because they're on the lam!  A flock of gentoo penguins at the Odense Zoo in Denmark decided to go for a little bit of a stroll... well, maybe "run" would be a better description.  I think someone's been watching Madagascar a few times too many (I know, I hate myself, everyone's made that joke after seeing this... but it works so well!)

It's not uncommon for zoos with penguins to take them for strolls through public areas - Edinburgh Zoo is famous for its "Penguin Parades", and I saw a much smaller-scale, but still very cool, version at the Newport Aquarium last year.  Of course, those were more planned excursions.

I mean, seriously, imagine being the keeper who walked in on this little fiasco.  "Smile and wave, boys, smile and wave..."

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Species Fact Profile: Atlantic Sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus)

Atlantic Sturgeon
Acipenser oxyrinchus (Mitchill, 1815)

Range: Atlantic Coast of Canada and United States
Habitat: Coastal Waters, Estuaries, Rivers
Diet: Crustaceans, Worms, Mollusks
Social Grouping: May congregate during migrations, at food sources
Reproduction: Reproductive maturity dependent on body size (fish breed based on when they reach a certain size, not a certain age), spawning begins in spring, traveling into rivers to lay up to 8 million eggs.  Males breed every 1-5 years, females every 2-5 years
Lifespan: 60 Years
Conservation: IUCN Near Threatened, CITES Appendix II

  • Body length up to 4.3 meters, weigh up to 370 kilograms
  • Dorsal (back) surface is blue-black or olive-brown, while ventral (belly) side is white.  The back is covered with five major rows of hard scales.  Heavy cylindrical body with an elongated, pointy snout
  • Anadromous - meaning that adults spawn in freshwater, but spend most of their lives in saltwater (likely that cold, clean freshwater is needed for larval development)
  • Sturgeon are occasionally seen breaching (jumping out of the water) - the reason why is unknown, but it may be an attempt to ride themselves of parasites
  • Two subspecies: A. o. oxyrinchus (Atlantic) and A. o. desotoi (Gulf of Mexico)
  • Historically have been threatened by overfishing, largely for meat, roe (caviar), and oil, as well as habitat degradation through pollution, dredging, or dam construction.  
  • US Atlantic sturgeon fisheries have been closed since 1997; fishing is regulated but allowed in Canada.  Sometimes accidentally captured by fishermen targeting other species

Monday, November 16, 2015

From the News: Don't Bother the Animals... Or Else.

Thousands of visitors come through the gates of our little zoo every year, and the vast majority of them, I'm happy to have.  There are always a handful that cause trouble, though.  I don't mean the ones who say annoying or ignorant things - those we can live with.  I mean the ones who are actually just... bad.  Rock throwers.  Fence jumpers.  Spitters (especially directed towards llamas and camels).

We run them off when we see them, sometimes throwing them out when it seems appropriate.  Occasionally one or two will talk back, and a quick threat to call the police has always gotten them to change their tune.  I'm honestly not 100% sure what, if anything, would happen if I did call the police on someone bothering animals; the only time I've ever actually called them was on a brawl that broke out in the parking lot one day.

The Sequoia Park Zoo in Eureka, California, has decided that they're not going to hold back when visitors torment zoo animals anymore.  A new law put to the city council makes harassing a zoo animal a criminal offense.  I think it's a great idea - the welfare of their animals should be the top priority of any zoo, and sometimes you need teeth to help enforce their protection.

I would, however, hope that there's a little structure and leeway into what constitutes harassment.  It's important to remember that, when visitors annoy zoo animals, plenty of them do it without realizing that they are doing so - few people understand how annoying glass-banging can be, for example.  Hopefully the zoo will continue to educate and (gently) correct visitors who are acting out of ignorance, while now having the authority to punish those who act out of malice or who put the safety of the animals in jeopardy.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Zoo Review: Brandywine Zoo

It's not a far drive from the Philadelphia Zoo to the Brandywine Zoo, Delaware's only zoological park.  While Philadelphia is a vast, sprawling zoo, as one would expect in such a large city, Brandywine is a rather tiny zoo, easily one of the smallest in the AZA.  After passing through the front gate, it took me all of five minutes of strolling to reach the end of the single path that the exhibits are arranged off of.

The best exhibit at Brandywine is probably the first one of the most visitors will see - a towering, sprawling flight cage for Andean condors.  The craggy enclosure is fronted with a covered seating area, and on the slow, rainy day when I visited, I could easily imagine large groups of school children being funneled through the gates and directed to this seating area, watching the giant vultures perch above them as their teachers and chaperones made last minute counts and plans.

The worst exhibit at Brandywine is almost certainly the tiger exhibit.  It really doesn't have much in the way of redeeming qualities.  It's small.  It's ugly.  It's unnatural.  And it doesn't even offer that great of a view of the tigers.  It occupies some of the key real estate in the zoo, and I imagine that, with sufficient funds, the zoo could do a lot with it - maybe try another cat species, like snow leopard or puma, which would allow for the exhibit to use vertical space more effectively.  As it stands, I would recommend the zoo either phase out the tigers or go all-in and commit to a better exhibit... and if they're going to do that, then they should communicate to the public that they're working on it.

The rest of the exhibits, scattered along the path that begins at condor and meanders past tiger, are a mixed bag of decent to mediocre.  Animals exhibited include bobcat, capybara, rhea, and toucans.  Some of the nicer habitats are the (new) red panda, bald eagle, and North American river otters exhibits, the later with underwater viewing.  The shabbiest are a few small bird cages which housed kestrels and parrots, wire closed in with Plexiglas.

I know this review probably comes across as pretty down on Brandywine, but I like to think that their star is on the rise.  The zoo suffered a major blow in 2013 when their Monkey House, the zoo's biggest exhibit area, was destroyed by a falling tree (thankfully no staff or animals have been hurt).  Since then, the zoo has been working on reinventing itself as a smaller, better zoo... which isn't to say that there hasn't been growth and change.  The new eagle and red panda exhibits are nice enough, as is a bee exhibit.  The zoo has been playing catch-up as far as the old Monkey House goes, hurrying to get small primates and reptiles back on display.  The longer term plan calls for a new rainforest building to be erected as a replacement.

I've worked in big zoos and small zoos over the course of my career, with a definite tilt towards more time in the smaller ones.  Small zoos have obvious disadvantages over big zoos - less space, less staff, fewer resources, and often smaller communities to draw support from.  That being said, they also have opportunities to show creativity, flexibility, and ambition that larger, more cumbersome facilities sometimes lack.  Brandywine definitely faces some challenges, but it also has great opportunity to became a great little zoo.  Steps taken over the last few years have been promising.  It'll be interesting to see where the future takes it.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Prusten Project

"[Richard Parker] made a sound, a snort from his nostrils.  I pricked my ears.  He did it a second time.  I was astonished.  Prusten?  Tigers make a variety of sounds... I had heard all these sounds growing up.  Except for prusten... Prusten is the quietest of tiger calls, a puff through the nose to express friendliness and harmless intentions."

- Yann Martel, The Life of Pi

Saving endangered species can't be done just in the zoo or aquarium - it requires collaboration with partners in the field, especially those working to protect the habitats where animals naturally live.  Over the past several years, I've been able to work alongside several such partner organizations (albeit often in the less-glamorous but highly important role of fundraising).  Some have been enormous organizations with budgets and staffs straddling continents, others have been very localized and grassroots-based.  

Recently, I began hearing a lot about one such grassroots-project, one which has its origins in zoos and sanctuaries - The Prusten Project.

Caring for rescued tigers at the National Tiger Sanctuary, Courtney Dunn noticed that she could identify individual tigers by their calls.  If it was possible to identify captive tigers individually, she reasoned, it could be possible to identify wild ones, thereby aiding in their study and conservation.  For all of their dominant presence in a zoo, tigers in the wild can be notoriously difficult to find, let alone track, and scientists studying them often have to use other, indirect observations to learn about them.  Camera traps.  Tree markings.  Poop.  So why not vocalizations?

Keepers at different zoos and sanctuaries record the vocalizations of their tigers, which are then submitted for acoustic analysis.  Not only are different vocalizations pinned to different individual tigers, but, using data collected on known, captive animals, scientists can then establish whether tiger vocalizations vary by age, sex, or other traits.  The idea is that scientists may not see tigers, but by identifying their individual roars and other calls, they may be better able to map out a wild population, determining how many tigers inhabit a patch of forest and collecting data on them... even if they remain unseen.  

Meredith Pennino, a volunteer for the project and keeper at Big Cat Rescue, records Bengali as part of our ex-situ study. (Photo Credit: Michael Kennedy)

Earlier this year, the wild-phase of the project was put into practice in Indonesia, home to the endangered Sumatran subspecies.

The most remarkable thing about The Prusten Project isn't the work that it's doing (though that is pretty awesome).  It's that it was begun and is being carried out by caretakers who work with tigers in captivity and want to save them in the wild.  It goes to show what kind of an impact a group of dedicated people, spread out across the country and across very different institutions, can have when they work together to save a species.

Learn more about The Prusten Project at their website