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Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Right Decision

"Make no choice, and you have chosen.  Failure to decide, because you lack the right, is itself a decision, First Councilor. In abstaining, you vote."

- George R. R. Martin, Tuf Voyaging

Confining animals to parks and other protected areas, which increasingly require our direct management.  Moving animals from one pocket of habitat to another to hold back the specter of inbreeding.  Traipsing through the jungles with our radio collars and camera traps and DNA samplers.  Culling some species to improve the odds of survival of others.  Taking animals into captivity, either to headstart the young or to breed for future reintroduction programs.

So much for "The Wild."

"Back off!" the armchair activists shout!  "Leave it alone," howl the sunshine environmentalists.  "We don't have the right," complain the overly-idealistic conservationist.  We don't.  But we must act anyway.

We're reached a point where many endangered species will only continue to survive because of the same species which is imperiling them in the first place - us.  Many are too far gone to hold on with anything other than our support and direct involvement.  It may not be truly "natural", but little left in this world truly is.

We can decide to use every tool in our toolbox to save an endangered species, or we can decide to do nothing.  But in deciding to do nothing, we are recognizing that we do, in fact, have the power to act, but have opted not to.  In human law, that could be described as criminal negligence.  Should we treat our interactions with the natural world differently?

When the California condor teetered over the edge of extinction, there were those who denounced any effort to directly intervene to save North America's biggest bird.  Better death with dignity, they proclaimed, than an existence in captivity, with every bird banded and tagged.  But there is no dignity in death, and even less in extinction.  There is, however, dignity in the sight of a California condor taking to the air, soaring over the Grand Canyon, or gliding over the forests of Big Sur.  Whether the condor in question was born in a zoo or hatched in the wild from zoo-born birds isn't the issue.  It's still a condor.

And right now, it's as close to wild as we've got.

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.

Horse Querida, born in Prague Zoo in 2012, jumped out of her transport crate upon arrival at the nature reserve
Horse Querida, born in Prague Zoo in 2012, jumped out of her transport crate upon arrival at the nature reserve.  Read more about the Mongolian wild horse reintroduction program - and see more pictures - here.

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.,204,203,200_.jpg

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.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Species Fact Profile: Visayan Warty Pig (Sus cebifrons)

Visayan Warty Pig
Sus cebifrons (Heude, 1888)

Range: Visayan Islands (Philippines)
Habitat: Dense Rainforest
Diet: Invertebrates, Roots, Tubers, Fruit
Social Grouping: Family Groups, Bachelor Groups
Reproduction: Litters of 2-4 piglets born after 118 gestation period, usually in the dry season; piglets begin eating solids at one week and are fully weaned at six months.  Piglets are born striped but acquire adult coloration at 1 year old.  Reproductively mature at 2-3 years old (earlier in captivity).
Lifespan: 10-15 Years (Wild)
Conservation Status: IUCN Critically Endangered

  • Body length 1-1.25 meters, 30-65 centimeters tall at the shoulder, weigh 20-40 kilograms, but occasionally as much as 80 kilograms.  Males larger than females
  • Typical pig build with short necks, longish heads, and prominent snouts.  Both sexes covered with sparse, bristly gray or black fur, including a tuft on the crown of the head.  Three pairs of fleshy facial warts present on males.  White stripe runs over bridge of nose behind mouth
  • One of only two pig species with only three sets of teats - smaller litter size than many species
  • Males can erect their crests to look bigger when in conflict.  The facial warts may protect the face from tusks during sparring matches
  • Two subspecies recognized - the nominate, from the island of Cebu, and S. c. negrinus, from Negros Island.  Other islands may have had additional subspecies
  • Threatened by habitat loss, hunting, and  persecution from farmers in retaliation for crop-raiding.  Now extinct on 3 of the 6 islands where it was previously known
  • Additional threat has been cross-breeding with domestic pigs; Visayan warty pigs killed by poachers often show evidence of being hybrids with domesticated pigs, sometimes even piebald coats
  • Breeding programs in the Philippines attempt to maintain pure breed stock of the species
  • Latin name translates to "Pig from Cebu", where the first specimen was collected

Monday, April 18, 2016

Off to the Right Start

There are few pleasures of being a zookeeper more enjoyable than feeding an animal that really, really wants to be fed.  Whether it's a baby sucking on a bottle or a big cat tearing into an entire carcass, it's impossible not to smile when you watch an animal enjoying its favorite meal.

Two of the most enthusiastic (and entertaining) feeders I ever dealt with were a pair of loggerhead turtles at an aquarium where I volunteered.  The brothers, the size of a soup plate each, would lunge towards the water's surface when they'd see me, beating their flippers frantically and pushing each other out of the way as I offered pieces of fish impaled on the end of a fork.

Feeding the boys was fun, but it was also very satisfying for a different reason.  Unlike virtually every other animal in our collection, their days in the aquarium were numbered.  They'd been brought into captivity at a very young age, perhaps even the day they'd been born.  Life as a hatchling loggerhead turtle is precarious.  As soon as you dig out of the sand, you are beset by an army of gulls, vultures, crabs, and other predators, none of which cares the slightest that you are an endangered species.  They care that you are edible.

So, a small number of those endangered turtles - small in overall number, large compared to the number of other turtles that actually survive the day - are removed from the beach and taken into captivity.  They are reared to a certain size - at least until they are too big for most predators to tackle - and then released.  Essentially, it's allowing these animals to skip the part of life when most of them tend to, well, die, and then reenter the population with a better chance of becoming breeding adults.  It's called headstarting.

Headstarting allows scientists and conservationists to manipulate a population so that more members escape the vulnerable phase and are able to reproduce.  It's similar to captive breeding for reintroduction, but differs in that the only members of the population that are ever in captivity are the young ones - the adults are left loose to breed.  This works well for species that might prove difficult to breed in captivity, such as ones with very specific environmental requirements, or with food requirements that are too difficult to replicate in a zoo.  Or, say, large marine turtles.

The downside of headstarting, however, is that it only works on a select group of animals.  Specifically, it works with animals that don't require much in the way of parental care.  Fish and invertebrates, reptiles and amphibians all fit that bill, and all require very little learning to survive. A baby Komodo dragon or a newly hatched Chinese alligator are all born hunters, ready to fend for themselves once they hatch.  It's not too difficult to see, then, how a reptile egg, hatched in a zoo, could then be turned loose and able to survive.

Mammals and birds, in contrast, are not born so ready-to-go.  They require a mother, sometimes a father, sometimes even siblings or an extended family group, to teach them how to survive - how to hunt, how to feed, how to avoid danger.  A whooping crane chick needs someone to teach it how to migrate.  A thick-billed parrot chick needs to learn how to open pine cones.  A mandrill needs to learn how to navigate the complex social structure of a primate.

I moved on from the aquarium before the turtles had reached the point at which they would have been deemed ready for release.  Once they were sent out, more young turtles would be brought in to be raised in their place.  I like to think that they were released and are swimming out in the sea, along with the very few of their brothers and sisters that survived the carnage of their birthday.  Maybe, someday they'll have their own offspring, which will spend some time in a tank before returning to the ocean.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Tragedy and Loss

I never knew Stacey Konwiser, tiger keeper of Palm Beach's Dreher Park Zoo.  In the last few hours, however, I have learned that several of my friends and colleagues did.  They've spoken of a warm, caring, talented individual, devoted to her animals and always striving to do her best for them.

Besides the sadness, there's a pervading sense of fear.  It's a reminder that, if a tragedy like this could happen to such an experienced, talented keeper, it could also happen to me, or my best friends, or anyone else who works with big cats for a living.

I'm so sorry for this loss, to her friends, her family, and her coworkers, including her husband, a fellow trainer.  There's nothing more I can say....

EXCEPT this - wow PETA, way to try to capitalize off of this woman's tragic death to promote your agenda.  Whoever thought that was even remotely an appropriate idea, you're a terrible person, and shame on you.  I have no idea why the media even interviews you when things like this happen.  That is all.

Ecotourism: Coming to the Dark Side?

Is social media having a detrimental impact on our wildlife?

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Camera Traps

After yesterday's post, here's some footage from actual camera traps in the wild, around the world:

Monday, April 11, 2016

Studying the Unseen
This Sumatran tiger was snapped by a camera trap in Indonesia by Steve Winter, a National Geographic wildlife photographer.

Recently, the world of big cat conservation got some rare good news.  For the first time since scientists actually started counting a century ago, the number of wild tigers in Asia has actually increased.  A good-sized majority of wild tigers are in India, with most of the others in the immediately adjacent countries.  These represent the Bengal tiger subspecies, which has always been the most common... not the being the "most common" tiger is anything to brag about.  It's sort of like being the wettest desert.  Amid all the good news, there was a bit of a damper.

Cambodia, it seems, is now tigerless.

Now seriously, you may wonder, how can you tell?  I could have spent a decade living in Cambodia and never seen a single one.  The tigers of Southeast Asia are cats of the rainforest, and even though rainforests are full of animal life, you almost never see it.  I've spent a week hiking through an African rainforest, and I saw wild mammals once - a troop of black-and-white colobus - for all of sixty seconds.  I recently visited a Central American rainforest and had slightly - slightly - better luck, but only because I spent most of my time along a river, and animals have to drink.  The truth is that, except for large grassland mammals, wild mammals are extremely hard to find.  Especially when they go out of their way not to be seen, as tigers are wont to do.

Not only are they hard to see, but even if you do see them, they can be difficult to tell apart.  You drive to work one morning and see a herd of deer in a field alongside the road.  On the ride back home that evening, you see a herd of deer in that same field.  Are they the same deer, or different ones?  Without knowing, it can make it very hard to determine how many members of a population there are.  And without even knowing how many animals there are, how can you know which species are even endangered?

For some species, especially those living in open areas and congregating in large groups, scientists have the luxury of going out and actually counting.  The hope of many scientists is to capture a few members of their target species and radio collar them, which will allow the scientists to track the movements of the animal and understand how it uses its environment.  Especially important to learn from this - how much space does the animal require, and therefore how many members of that species can a protected area sustain.  Actually getting your hands on an animal also provides opportunities to collect physical data, such as weights and measurements, as well as DNA samples.

In other cases, alternative methods of study have to be employed.

A popular tool is the camera trap, a motion-sensitive camera that can be left out in the wilds.  When you go back to check on it, you can see what creatures came and went while you were gone, including animals far too wary to come anywhere near a blind.  It had the advantage of recording everything that comes by, so you may get images of animals that you totally weren't expecting to see.  You'll also get people - poachers and illegal loggers have been caught in the act on these camera traps (which is why they tend to destroy them if they find them).

With pictures, it becomes possible to start to identify individual animals based on their size, sex, markings, patterns, and scars.  Field biologists collect their photos in books that resemble those which police officers used to house mug shots in.  When they sight an animal, or get an incomplete image from a camera trap, they can compare them against these photo books to try and identify it.  Knowing how many members of a species are frequenting an area tells us a lot about population density and social organization.  Having images of mothers with offspring, or of courtship and copulation, can help us understand the relatedness of individuals in the population.  Keeping track of individuals over periods of time can tell us about survivorship.

Some animals are too wary, too elusive to even be caught by the camera traps.  For those, scientists can use indirect methods of monitoring the species.  Footprints, fecal samples, and other markings - such as the claw marks that forest cats often leave on tree trunks - can provide some information.  For some species, especially birds, recordings of vocalizations can be played in hopes of getting hidden animals to call back and reveal themselves.  Footprints tell us how big the animal was, and sometimes can be used to identify individuals.  Dung tells us what the animal has been eating, as well as serving as a source of hormones and DNA samples.

A fancy new tool that some scientists are employing - including in Southeast Asia, where tigers still roam - is the humble leech.  Many animals are good at avoiding scientists but no one is good at avoiding leeches.  Leeches, of course, suck blood, and blood has DNA.  Biologists have learned that by collecting leeches and extracting blood from their guts, they can determine what animals the leeches have been feeding on; collect enough leeches and you get a decent DNA sample of the species that frequent that area.  It sort of reminds you of the whole mosquito-in-amber bit from Jurassic Park.

The only leech exhibit I've ever seen, at Oglebay's Good Zoo

Zoos and aquariums have assisted field biologists by offering up their animals as test subjects.  Have a radio collar that you plan on using on bush dogs, virtually neck-less wild canines from the jungles of South America?  Before you put one on a wild bush dog and turn it loose, uncertain as to whether it will stay on, or get chewed off by the rest of the pack, or fizzle out as soon as the dog enters water (as they love to do), test it on zoo specimens.  Need DNA samples of various species to have a baseline to compare the findings from your leech study with?  Zoo and museum specimens can help!  Best method for sedating a rhino?  Ask a zoo vet!  Need an audio library of tiger vocalizations to help with your study in the wild?  Go to the zoo!

By collaborating, zoos, aquariums, museums, and conservations involved in field research can use their combined expertise to learn more about animals in the wild and how to protect them.  In turn, knowledge gained by studying animals in the wild can be used to help zoos and aquariums improve care for their animals.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

From the News: Rare Sumatran Rhino Dies Days After Being Rescued

Looking back over the blog, I realize that I've probably written more about the Sumatran rhinoceros than any other individual animal.  Part of that may have been the impression that my meeting with Harapan, at the time the only member of his species in the US, had on me when I visited the Cincinnati Zoo.  A bigger part of it is probably my fascination with the fact that this prehistoric, iconic species is very likely to go extinct... pretty soon.

When I first read this article at a different site, it occurred to me that a fitting subtitle would have been "Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't."  Lots of commenters (why do I torment myself) denounced WWF and the Indonesian government for moving the animal, claiming that that is what killed it.  And that possibly played a role.  However, I'd ask them to consider.  First, the animal was wounded when found and likely would have succumbed to infection anyway.  Secondly, even if this individual rhino survived where it was originally found... would it have made a difference?

A lone rhino, isolated from the rest of the species, might as well be dead.  It only matters, so to speak, if it can contribute its genes to the population.  The means being with other rhinos and that means being where they are.  Situations like this are what got me thinking about the increasing zooification of the wild.  For some animals these days, the ones that are now tap-dancing on the brink of extinction, "hands-off" isn't a viable option anymore.

Cincinnatti Zoo?s Baby Sumatran Rhino Makes First Public Appearance
This is a photo of a Sumatran Rhino in the Cincinnatti Zoo. (Photo : Mike Simons/Getty Images)

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Islands on Dry Land

One of the biggest problems of romanticizing "The Wild" is that is overlooks the fact that it doesn't exist anymore.  That is, it doesn't exist in any appreciable amount, if you think of "The Wild" as a place were animals live free of human influences.  Centuries ago, the planet consisted on broad expanses of nature with small pockets of human civilization here and there.  Now, we have a planet of human civilization, with small patches of wildlands scattered haphazardly.

These wild patches vary in size from hundreds of square miles to tiny plots of woodland and meadow.  Standing in the middle of the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania, or Manu National Park in the Peruvian Amazon, you might think of yourself in the wild... and in a sense, you are.

The problem with many of these wild areas is that, as big and inspiring as they are, they are much too small for their stated purpose: protecting wildlife.

Confused?  I'll turn it over to Bill Conway, formerly of the Bronx Zoo, who summed it up perfectly in his book, Act III in Patagonia:

"'Deep Thought,' the pensive computer in Douglas Adams's 1978 Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, explained, 'The answer to the The Great Question... Of Life, the Universe, and Everything is forty-two,' an agreeably brief reply.  However, several wildlife population biologists have concluded that the answer is closer to seven thousand.  The 'Great Question' that those scientists are trying to answer is, How big of a wild, free-living, adult population of a species is needed to ensure its long-term persistence?  Consequently, how big should we make its reserves (as though we have much of a choice)?

Essentially, the problem is that most protected areas are too small to support viable populations of the animals that live there.  Animals may want to leave the protected area to colonize other wild areas, or to find mates, or whatever the reason, but they can't.  People are in the way... and their farms, and their factories, and their roads.  Roads.  That's right - plenty of animals will refuse to cross roads.  Especially arboreal animals that would have to come to the ground.  You can have a ribbon of road between two patches of jungle, and for some species it might as well be the Great Wall of China.

Some barriers are a little more obvious than others.  Not to get too political, but if a certain presidential candidate gets his way and builds a wall on the US-Mexican border, there are a lot of animal populations which are going to be cut off.  So much for efforts by ocelots, jaguars, and pronghorn, among other species, to move back and forth.

So what to do about these small pouches of wildlands?  Animals can't move between them.  In some cases, the answer is to try to play connect-the-dots with these protected areas by establishing corridors.  A corridor is a strip of habitat that joins two habitats, allowing animals to move safely between the two, effectively making them one habitat.  A great case study of that is the work that Alan Rabinowitz and Panthera have been doing in Central and South America, trying to create one continuous corridor of jaguar habitat down the spine of the continent.

The problem is that some species are very sensitive and won't use these corridors.  So, sometimes, that necessitates people to do the moving for them.  With some endangered species, particularly large ones that occur at lower population densities, it may be necessary to capture animals from one mini-population and transfer them to another... just like how zoos move animals around to promote genetic diversity.  In fact, it's in this area that zoos are best able to contribute in some cases by applying their expertise of animal capture, restraint, and transport to make these animal moves feasible.

To some people, it seems perverse to watch wild animals get darted, blindfolded, trussed up, put on the back of a truck, blood and DNA sampled, ear-tagged, and then turned loose in a totally new area.  It speaks against their core belief that nature should be natural, and wildlife should be left wild.  Ideally, that's how things would be.  The fact is, however, that for some wild species, we've just let things get too far gone for that.  Some species will not survive unless they are managed.  Their populations are too small, too scattered, and too isolated to remain viable.

It's a nice thought that wild animals should be left wild.  But here's another thought - we got these species into this mess.  We should be willing to get them out of it.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Species Fact Profile: Coquerel's Sifaka (Propithecus coquereli)

Coquerel's Sifaka
Propithecus coquereli (A. Grandidier, 1867)

Range: Northwestern Madagascar
Habitat: Dry Deciduous Forest
Diet: Leaves, Flowers, Fruit, Bark, Buds
Social Grouping: Female-Led Family Groups of 3-10
Reproduction: Breed January-February, females breed every other year.  Usually 1 (sometimes 2) offspring born after 162 day gestation period; infants cling to mother until they are 3-5 months old, infants weaned at 5-6 months old, sexually mature at 3.5 years
Lifespan: 30 Years (Maximum, Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Endangered, CITES Appendix I

  • Body length 92-110 centimeters (including 50-60 centimeters of tail), weight 3.5-4.3 kilograms
  • Fur is predominately white with brown markings on the arms, thighs and chest; back may be a pale gray or brown.  Small black ears and black face.  Males differ from females in have throat gland
  • Primarily arboreal; when they come to the ground, they maintain a vertical posture and move using a series of powerful leaps with their back legs, which may carry them 6 meters per jump
  • Groups are led by females; females remain in their birth group while males disperse at the age of maturity, and may change groups throughout their lives
  • Groups maintain territories, with a heavily used core-area in the center where they spend most of their time.  Territories are only rarely aggressively defended
  • Predators include birds of prey, large snakes, and fossa, as well as introduced species (dogs, cats, civets, mongooses).  Traditionally, it was fady (taboo) for humans to hunt sifaka, but this tradition is disappearing in recent years
  • Malagasy name "sifaka" comes from the animal's call "shif-auk!"
  • Previously considered a subspecies of Verreaux's sifaka (P. verreauxi), the two can interbreed
  • All Coquerel's sifakas in the United States are owned by Duke University, but are on loan and distributed to zoos throughout the country

Zookeeper's Journal: It's impossible to watch a family group of Coquerel's sifakas and feel depressed.  They are some of the most active, engaging, and playful primates that you'll see in zoos... and I'm not even a huge primate fan.  They are always on the move, but rarely touching the ground, richocheting from tree to tree.  It's almost a pity that they don't come to the ground more often, because their characteristic leaping - hind feet striking the ground, arms held elegantly up over their head - seems more like a ballet than a zoo animal's locomotion.  Even visitors who have never heard of sifakas will probably have at least met one pop-culture reference to them - a Coquerel's sifaka served as the mascot of the children's nature show Zoboomafoo.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Into the Wild

There's a popular article from The Onion that I see floating around now and then among zookeepers.  It's called "Progressive Zoo Houses Animals In Natural Destroyed Habitats"; it was actually one of the first pieces of Zoo Satire I shared on the blog.  “Ensuring each animal is as miserable as it would be in the wild is our ultimate goal," the fictitious zoo officials are quoted as saying the article, cheerfully describing how their tigers are forced to fight viciously for a tiny allotment of meat, thus emulating the severe, human-induced prey shortages that they would face in the wild.

It's a fairly depressing article... but also pretty funny.  It's especially funny if you've ever had to have a conversation with an angry or upset zoo visitor about "The Wild."

"The Wild," as I've been given to understand, is some magical paradise where animals frolic happily, away from the tyrannical fist of man.  There is plenty to eat, plenty of room to roam, and everyone is happy as can be, spending their days running and playing and swimming in family groups.

About that...

"The Wild," first things first, is a pretty miserable, brutal place.  Yes, animals survive, but it's not like they were given a say in the matter.  Given a choice, I'm sure an addax would like to live somewhere with more standing water, an emperor penguin somewhere a little warmer, and maybe a bullfrog in a pond with fewer herons or snapping turtles.  There's a reason we have so many geriatric animals in zoos, animals that live for far longer than wild counterparts.  Animals in the wild face disease, starvation, and predation; if they are freed from some of those constraints, they may choose to behave differently.  As evidence, consider how many solitary animals, like tigers and orangutans, will happily live in groups if provided with enough resources in a zoo.

That's also not to undersell the greatest threat or stressor to a free-living wild animal - its own kind.  Sometimes even its own family - in many birds, for instance, larger, stronger older siblings will kill their weaker brothers and sisters, sometimes by hogging all the food, sometimes directly, a practice known as Cainism.

A less gruesome example occurred recently at my own zoo, when a female bear decided she'd had enough of her year-and-a-half-old cub and ran her off (or at least as well as she could in a zoo enclosure), forcing us to separate them.  Visitors who had been accustomed to seeing mom and cub all lovey-dovey were upset that they weren't together anymore.  We had to repeatedly remind people that this is what occurs in the wild - mom chases off her kids when they are old enough so she can breed again.  What also often happens in the wild is that many of these inexperienced cubs go off and die, from starvation, from injury, or from misadventure ("Hey, a farmer's orchard!  That's a great place to find food!")

None of this is meant to suggest, of course, that there is anything wrong with wild animals living naturally - it's their ideal state.  It's just that I get very irate by this whole mysticism that "The Wild" is some perfect place, and that all we need to do is back off and animals will be fine.  That's the mentally the leads people to obsess over the perceived plight of a few orcas at SeaWorld, but ignore the conditions that are harming thousands of wild orcas - armchair activists can tell themselves that "The Wild" is fine, and only pick small-scale fights with small-scale consequences.

The real wild is beautiful, but mostly from a distance - up close it's brutal, ugly, and most animals survive on the narrowest of margins.  What can push them over that edge, of course, is us.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Our Zoo Planet

If the two brother cheetahs were at all concerned about the approach of our land rover, they didn't show it.  The one continued napping, the other merely turned and acknowledged our presence with a quick glance.  Thus emboldened, our driver edged us closer, then closer, and then closer still.  The only sounds were the clicking of cameras and the hushed whisper of our voices as everyone angled for the best view.  It wasn't hard to get one.  All that was between us and the cheetahs was about thirty yards of African sky... and a wire fence.

This was a few years back, on a safari to Madikwe Game Reserve, located in South Africa's unimaginatively-named North West Province, near the Botswana border.  It was my second excursion to Africa, and while it was much shorter than my first - a week versus a college semester - it was already full of new wildlife encounters.  In some ways, Madikwe - which I had never even heard of before this trip - was rivaling, even surpassing, Serengeti, Ngorongoro, and other parks I'd visited in East Africa in terms of wildlife viewing.  

Which is all the stranger, considering that just a few years earlier, none of these animals were here.

Madikwe became a game reserve in the early 1990s.  Before that, it was poor, run down farm land. The government decided that it would better serve the nation as a game reserve, and so it was declared.  The only problem, of course, was that all of the animals that had once lived there had been killed off or driven away years ago.  The result was "Operation Phoenix", an ambitious plan to restock the new park with lions, buffalo, elephants, black AND white rhinoceros, and the remainder of the South African bestiary - some 60 species of large mammal, in all.  

The cheetahs were the newest residents to the park during my visit, still in their transition pen.  Importations of animals were selected for the genetic diversity that they would bring to the current populations.  Of course, our guides told us, the lion population was too high to sustain cheetahs at this point, so already the reserve management was catching up surplus lions - carefully selected - for transfer to another park in order to aid the cheetahs.  Sable antelope were a species that they hoped to add soon, they continued, but the species hadn't done as well as they would have liked in the past.  Maybe some habitat management was in order...  and might as well get those park fences fixed up before adding such a valuable (read: poachable) animal to the mix.  

So much for Wild Africa, I thought.

In recent years, zoos and aquariums have made efforts to make the lives of their charges more closely resemble that of the wild - better habitats, more appropriate social groupings, mixed-species exhibits, behavioral enrichment, etc.  What often goes unnoticed, however, is that the lives of wild animals are more and more closely resembling those of zoo animals, the protected areas increasingly becoming large, complex, multi-species enclosures set in a human-dominated landscape.  

This month, we'll look at how the lines between Zoo and Wild are becoming increasingly blurred.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Satire: National Geographic to Stop Publishing Nude Animal Pictures

Dammit, these animal rights' activists just don't know when to quit, do they?  In all seriousness, I was going to use today to be the springing-off post for another themed month of seriousness but, you know what?  You only get one April Fools Day a year... or at least that's what everyone in the zoo administrative office is hoping, as the phone rings off the hook...