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Friday, February 10, 2017

A Species Hidden In Plain Sight

I really should be writing about Packy, today.  The famous, 54 year old Asian elephant, a life-long resident of the Oregon Zoo, passed away today.  He was euthanized after vets decided that his years-long struggle with tuberculosis was degrading the quality of his life.  I just couldn't make myself do a FOURTH famous zoo animal celebrity obituary already, it being only mid-February (though I guess I kind of just did).  I'm sending my best wishes and condolences to the good folks at Oregon Zoo in what I know must be a hard time for them, having just made one of the most difficult decisions a zoo can make.

Anyway, I thought I'd shoot for some happier news.  At least, happier than the death of a beloved elephant.

So there's nothing "new" per se about the West African slender-snouted crocodile.  I mean, it's not like the people in Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire just looked down one day and said, "Huh.  Honey, did you ever notice that there were crocodiles here?"  What is "new" however is the realization that they are a separate species from the slender-snouted crocodiles of Central Africa.  What that also means is that, instead of one large population, slender-snouts are now two smaller ones.  In the case of the West Africans, only 1500 remain.

An effort is underway to save the species, and captive-breeding and reintroduction is going to be a vital part of the strategy.  The zoo that is leading the charge to save these reptiles, however, isn't an enormous western facility with a huge budget and lots of staff.  It's a small local zoo that, until very recently, was smack dab in the middle of a warzone.

A West African Slender-snouted Crocodile (Mecistops cataphractus) is pictured in its enclosure at the zoo of Abidjan, Ivory Coast September 9, 2016 (Reuters, Luc Gnago)

When I say "middle of a warzone", I'm not being overdramatic.  Active gun battles were raging in the streets around the Abidjan National Zoo, located in the capital of Cote d'Ivoire.  Only a handful of staff members were able to weather the civil war, and equipment and supplies were in short supply.  The war ended, however, and the zoo has survived and is rebuilding... and is rebuilding the population of crocodiles.

The world's largest captive colony of West African slender-snouts is here at the zoo, and more are being bred constantly - 40 so far, which is a heck of a lot when you consider that only 1500 are found wild in the whole of Africa.  The zoo, supported with funds and expertise from zoos abroad, is planning a reintroduction program, both in Cote d'Ivoire and across the species range.

The story of the slender-snout is still in the early stages.  It's a great reminder, however, of why zoos and aquariums have a role to play in countries around the world, not just rich westernized ones.  It's also a great testament to what even a small, poor facility can accomplish with a dedicated staff.

Seriously, I want to go to work tomorrow and ask my coworkers, "A few keepers fresh out of a warzone are saving a species on a shoestring budget.  What have we done lately?"... and then do something.

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