Search This Blog

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

From Prying Eyes

When I visited the White Oak Conservation Center in Yulee, I was one of the only humans, apart from the members of the staff, that the animals would have seen that month.  Visitors to the center are allowed only by appointment at select times.  The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute is closed to the public on a even stricter basis.  Other members of the Conservation Centers for Species Survival coalition, such as the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, are fully open to the public.

There are tremendous advantages to a C2S2 center being closed to the public.  For one thing, the facility can devote its resources solely to the animals, without having to think about visitors.  Animals can be left in relative peace and quiet to reproduce and raise their young without the disturbance of the public.  This is of obvious benefit to shier species.

By not having the public interests to satisfy, the facility can focus on conservation priorities.  Zoo visitors enjoy seeing some species of ungulates, such as camels and American bison, and many zoos comply by exhibiting those species.  In contrast, many species of high conservation value are less impressive exhibit animals.  They may be smaller, or less attractive, or more cryptic.  Reptile houses in conventional zoos place emphasis on alligators, giant tortoises, large snakes, and other impressive "show" species.  If zoos were to devote themselves solely to conservation breeding, most zoos would feature an entire house devoted to freshwater turtles.  Similarly, the value of the C2S2 centers is in having large numbers of individuals of a species to facilitate breeding efforts.  In a zoo, however, the attraction of the facility is in having a wide variety of species on display.  In that case, a large tract of land which might be used for a single herd at a C2S2 center might be split up among several exhibits at a zoo.

Lastly, critics of zoos often disapprove of zoos displaying animals to the public, thinking that it turns the animals into props used for entertainment.  Additionally, charging admission leads to accusations that zoos profit off of their animals, even though most AZA-accredited facilities are non-profits.  Being closed to the public reduces the impact of those charges.

Despite these many benefits, I wouldn't rush to recommend that every zoo and aquarium close its doors except by appointment.  One of the major benefits of zoos and aquariums is their ability to reach a larger audience to teach about conservation issues and raise support for saving species in the wild.  As wonderful as White Oak and Front Royal are for a conservation breeding perspective, they can't do that alone.  Nor can they do it without one of the most important parts of the zoo - the visitors.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

This Bachelor Life

The social structure of a mountain zebra isn't that different from that of most ungulates you'll see in zoos.  A single male leads a herd that consists of several females, all of which he will mate with until such a time comes as he is overthrown by a new male.  Male offspring are tolerated in the herd until reaching sexual maturity, at which point they are run off.

There is no magic difference between the sex-ratio at birth of zebras or gazelles as there is with people.  About half the babies born will be males.  If one male possesses many females in a herd, it stands to reason that there are a lot of males at any given point who don't have any females.  What's their story?

In the wild, these surplus boys have three options.  Firstly, they can... die.  It's hard, but true, that young males, pushed out and forced to find their own way, suffer high mortality.  Secondly, they can go it alone, living a solitary life until they eventually find their own social group.  The third option is that the boys can band together.  These social groupings are called bachelor groups.

A typical antelope herd exhibit in a zoo, Zoo Miami in this case.  A single male greater kudu poses with his herd of females and their calves.

Bachelor herds have become something of a trend lately in zoos.  The problem of surplus males exists there as in the wild, but without the likelihood of predators or natural disasters thinning their numbers (at least we would hope so).  Some zoos have tried to even up the disparity between males and females by putting their animals in a somewhat more monogamous relationship - one boy, one girl - just to make sure everyone has a partner.  This may actually discourage breeding in some species, as it's not a natural grouping.  A bachelor herd is.

Bachelor herds provide a reservoir of young males which can be switched out for breeding programs.  At the same time, they'll be kept in a socially appropriate group where they can demonstrate appropriate behaviors and skills.  The concept of bachelor herds is spreading beyond ungulates, now being used with a variety of other mammals, such as elephants and gorillas, in which the "one male, many females" social grouping applies.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Species Fact Profile: Mountain Zebra (Equus zebra)

Mountain Zebra
Equus zebra (Linnaeus, 1758)

Range: Southern Africa
Habitat: Mountain Plateaus, Slopes, Grasslands, Desert Edge
Diet: Grasses, Leaves, Stems
Social Grouping: Herds of 1 male, 1-5 females, and their young.  Herds are not territorial and overlap in home ranges, sometimes merging into larger herds.  Young males form bachelor herds.
Reproduction: Polygamous.  Breed throughout the year, but with some seasonal peaks.  Breed every 1-3 years, with 1 year gestation period.  Young usually driven off at 14-16 months old
Lifespan: 25 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Vulnerable, CITES Appendices I and II (by subspecies)

  • Smallest of the zebras.  Head and body length 2.1-2.6 meters, shoulder height 1.15-1.5 meters, tail length 40-55 centimeters.  Weight 240-370 kilograms.
  • Black and white stripes, extending onto thick, short mane.  Differs from other zebras in having a pattern of narrow stripes across the rump and having a dewlap, or flap or skin, dangling from the throat
  • Good climbers, have especially hard, pointed hooves to assist in climbing mountains
  • Predators include lions, hyenas, wild dogs, leopards, and cheetahs.  Fleeing is most common form of defense, but will turn and fight if cornered.
  • Often graze in association with different antelope species, taking advantage of mutual warnings of predators
  • Two subspecies: Cape mountain zebra (E. zebra zebra) and Hartmann's mountain zebra (E. z. hartmannae).  Cape mountain zebra is smaller with thicker striping; Hartmann's mountain zebra found in more arid habitats.  Some taxonomists suggest that the two should be listed as full separate species
  • Historically were harvested for their hides.  Major threats today are habitat loss due to animal agriculture, persecution by farmers viewing them as competitors for resources

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Zoo Review: White Oak Conservation

You don't simply drop into the White Oak Conservation center on a whim, taking a Saturday visit with the family.  Unlike other members of the Conservation Centers for Species Survival, the facility is largely closed to the public.  Special guided tours can be arranged, though they are only set up by appointment on certain days.  The casual visitor would probably be more inclined to visit the Jacksonville Zoo, about an hour away, where a greater diversity of animals can be encountered in enclosures more conducive to viewing with much more ease and flexibility.  For a person interested in wildlife management and conservation, however, a trip to White Oak is an interesting and enjoyable experience.  In some ways, the entire tour is a behind-the-scenes peek at how modern zoos work to save species.

The history of the property, located on the St. Mary's River that divides Florida and Georgia, dates back to the 1760's.  The land was used as a rice plantation around the time of the American Civil War, and some of the architecture from the era remains; while there, I saw a cheetah dozing alongside a shed that our guide said was built in the 1830's.  Temporarily abandoned, it was purchased in the 1930's by the Gilman family.  It was under the management of this family that the center began to work with endangered hoofed animals, first almost as a hobby, later with more scientific management.  Purchased by Mark and Kimbra Walter in 2013, the center has continued its conservation work, dedicating itself to the breeding of endangered wildlife.

The center primarily works with endangered antelope, which are maintained in a series of large paddocks.  The mild northern Florida climate works well for African species, and White Oak is home to flourishing herds of addra gazelle, bongo, gerenuk, giant eland, and roan antelope, among other species.  Some of the antelope bred here have been sent back to Africa to participate in reintroduction efforts in the range countries.  While most of the breeding is done naturally, taking advantage of the large pastures that allow herd behavior, the center has also experimented with reproductive technology; for example, it was the first facility to produce gerenuk calves through artificial insemination, later resulting in second-generation AI offspring.

In addition to the antelope, White Oak boasts impressive herds of African buffalo, Grevy's zebra, Somali wild ass, giraffe, and okapi.  The later especially impressed me - I probably saw more okapi during my one day in White Oak than I have in my entire life.  The shy rainforest animals were all maintained - individually or in pairs for breeding - in large, densely forest paddocks, where they were easily lost among the the undergrowth.  The beautifully lightly-wooded giraffe yard also was spectacular - not just for the number of giraffes (including calves) present, but for the massive trees that dwarfed even the tallest giraffes.

White Oak is also home to three of the five species of rhino - white, black, and Indian.  The white rhinos have been especially prolific, again likely due to their herd management.  Many facilities have two or three white rhinos.  White Oak has dozens.  It's quite a sight to see mothers strolling around with their young calves trotting behind them, or to see three or four female resting in a row beside a mud wallow.

Rounding out the White Oak collection are a few birds in the form of cassowary, cranes, and curassows, as well as a few carnivores - maned wolves, tigers, and, especially, cheetahs (over 100 have been born here).  While not housed here on a regular basis, White Oak also has rehab facilities for Florida panthers. 

Again, White Oak is not a conventional zoo, and I think that a lot of my non-animal friends might not have enjoyed it nearly as much as I did.  There is a lot less diversity of wildlife than you would see at many zoos, instead focusing on the number of individuals. Even I, I'll admit, was starting to get a little restless after my thirtieth white rhino.  Also, because it's generally not open to the public and the emphasis is on breeding, there isn't spectacular viewing.  I was a little frustrated at points when there were animals that I really wanted to see better or photograph but I couldn't because of the rows of wire fencing in the way or the distance.

With that in mind, when you stop thinking of White Oak as a zoo and start thinking of it as a conservation center, your appreciation of it changes entirely.  It's so much more enjoyable to view it as something completely unique - a behind-the-scenes view at how endangered animals are being bred-back from the edge of extinction, and a chance to learn about how efforts undertaken here - or in Front Royal, Virginia, or Escondido, California, or Cumberland, Ohio - are helping to save critically endangered species around the globe.  My tour at White Oak might not have given me a lot of great photo opportunities, and it only added one new species to my life list.  It did, however, greatly expand my understanding and appreciation of the Conservation Centers for Species Survival.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Deep in the Heart of Texas

Calauit, in the Philippines, isn't the only place on earth where a assortment of exotic ungulates has been deliberately released into a new habitat.  I could think of examples far closer to home...

I was in high school when I visited Texas for the first time.  I went as part of a school group, guided by a biology teacher who was from the area.  It was my first time really going on "safari" - traveling a great distance from home for the expressed purpose of seeing animals in the wild.  In many ways, the trip was a success.  Over the course of a week of hiking, we encountered a cross-section of the south-central US bestiary, including roadrunners, collared peccaries, coyotes, and a half-dozen species of rattlesnake.  There was one wildlife encounter, however, which truly surprised me.

I was half-dozing in the car as we bounced along the dirt roads from one site to the next when I was woken by one of my classmates exclaiming, "What a funny looking deer!"  Instantly, I was up, nose against the window, hoping for my first glimpse of a pronghorn.  I didn't get it.  Instead, I saw two small hoofed mammals walking daintily across the prairie.  One, the female, could have passed for a pronghorn at a distance, with her tan coat and graceful frame.  Not the male, however.  His fur was jet black on the top, creamy white on the underside, with a pair of corkscrew horns crowning his head.

They were blackbuck antelope, naturally found in South Asia.  And yet here they were in Texas.

If I'd stayed longer in Texas, I might have encountered any of the other several dozen species of Africa, European, or Asian ungulates - deer, cattle, antelope, goats - that roamed the Texas plains.  Beginning with nilgai, another South Asian antelope, imported to the King Ranch in the 1930s, there are now several species loose on the plains.  Some of the interest has been in farming them - many of the animals chosen for release are species that are well adapted to arid grasslands.  A big part of the appeal, however, has been hunting.

Hunting is a big business in Texas, and when there is a big business, you can be sure that there will be a lot of competition for it.  It's not so surprising that some ranchers decided to take creative steps to boost their success.  Sure, they say, you can hunt white-tails on any ranch in the state... but where else can you get a set of kudu horns for your den wall?

Such exotic hunting has (not surprisingly) earned the wrath of animal rights groups who see people killing wild (and often endangered) animals for sport and profit.  It's not that cut and dry, however.  This is especially evident with three Sahelo-Saharan antelopes - the addax, the dama gazelle (also called the addra gazelle), and the scimitar-horned oryx.  With far more space at their disposal than even the largest zoos could offer, and with incentive to protect them because they were profitable, the game ranchers bred up massive herds of the critically endangered antelope.  Some of these animals are being contributed to reintroduction efforts in their native range.  For many years these ranchers were granted exemption from the Endangered Species Act regulations that limited the ability to buy, sell, and move these animals, but that has been challenged by animal rights groups.

There is no doubt that the conservation of these desert antelope has been positively impacted by their presence in the southwestern United States.  But again, lest things seem too cut and dry, black and white, there always remain the risks that these introduction schemes could pose dire consequences for the native wildlife and their habitats.  Consider the southeastern United States, where wild boar were introduced, also for hunting - and have since torn up the forests and swamps of the south.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Zoo History: Africa Comes to the Philippines

In 1976, Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta gave a speech at a conference of developing nations, imploring the outside world to step up the challenge of saving Africa's imperiled wildlife, threatened by war and drought.  Among those who answered the call, perhaps in an unexpected manner, was Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos.  Marcos issued a presidential proclamation which depopulated Calauit Island (relocating hundreds of Tagbanwa tribesmen to a former leper colony) and replaced them with African wildlife, imported directly from Kenya.  There, the beasts were turned loose.

One hundred African ungulates - includes 15 Grevy's zebras and 15 giraffes - were turned loose on March 4, 1977.  Within five years, their numbers had doubled, with about three-quarters of the animals present having been born on the island itself.  Some of the species proved unsuitable to the islands and went locally extinct, such as impala and topi.  Others, such as giraffe and waterbuck, thrived.  To be clear, this is not a zoo.  These animals are wild, and no one knows exactly how many of them are running around the island.

When the African animals were turned loose, they found themselves mingling with native Filipino wildlife, some of which, ironically, is far more endangered than they species that were transported her for sanctuary.  Rubbing shoulders with antelope and zebras are endangered Palawan bearded pigs and Calamian deer; Philippine crocodiles inhabit the swamps, while binturongs lounge on the tree limbs over the heads of giraffes.  Far from being crowded out, these native species actually appear to be benefiting in some ways from the presence of the illustrious newcomers, especially from the habitat protection and anti-poaching units.

While no one can quite say how the native animals feel about suddenly sharing their homes with African imports, the native people have gotten a chance to make their feelings known... albeit after the fact.  Over 250 families had to be relocated for Marcos' vision, and it's hard to imagine that many people being evicted without being considered a human rights violation.  People have responded by poaching the African mammals which is ironic, because that is one of the exact issues that moving the animals to the Philippines was intended to address in the first place.

At any rate, some hope of a happy ending is underway.  The post-Marcos government has allowed the repatriation of the native peoples to their lands, and while some poaching has continued, there seem to be positive signs of potential peace between Filipino humans and African animals.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Stripes Upon Stripes

Some breeders and keepers use ear tags, tattoos, brands, or microchips to identify their animals as individuals.  Some animals make it easier than others.  Zebras, for instance, have stripes.  No two individuals have the same striping pattern, just like no two humans have the same fingerprints.  In zoos with small herds of zebras, it's usually easiest for the keepers to recognize some small aspect of their animals' stripes - some distinctive whirl or configuration - that sets it apart from the others.

Consider the zebras in the picture below.  Seen together, they just form a wall of black and white, stripes upon stripes.  Look at each individual, though, and you should be able to start to recognize unique attributes.  Can you start seeing them as individual zebras, and not just part of a herd?