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Friday, April 27, 2018

Square Ungulates and Round Holes

The Conservation Centers for Species Survival could definitely be said to have a type.  If you look across the board at the species that these facilities work with, they tend to be large, highly social antelope from grassland and semi-desert regions, mostly from Africa. 

These species work well in the kind of settings that C2S2 facilities allow.  They are herd animals and can be maintained in large groups on large pastures.  They are accustomed to open spaces, which works well for managing them, as it makes it easier for caretakers to observe them in large enclosures.  They tend to be hardy in a variety of weather, also an advantage in the large enclosure set up - it doesn't matter how big your pens are if your animals have to spend half the year cooped up in barns.  The results of these facilities are showing in the increased breeding and management success of herds maintained at these facilities.

The problem is that not all ungulates fit this formula.  Many of the most endangered ungulates - both in the wild and in AZA collections - would not thrive under the current C2S2 model.  There may be any number of reasons why. 

  • They may be too small to safely house in the semi-supervised wide open spaces of a large pen.  Oryx and kudu and eland are rather large.  A pudu isn't much bigger than a Jack Russell terrier, so you can imagine how small its fawn is.  Coyotes and other predators could pick them off easily.  
  • They may be too solitary or asocial to work being managed as a large herd.  A reserve in Asia tried breeding banteng, an endangered forest cow, by placing them in a large herd in a large pen.  Before they knew it, the aggressive, territorial animals had killed each other off.
  • They may be too cold-sensitive.  Some animals from tropical climates are surprisingly tough in the face of winter and may only require a simple shelter.  Other animals may require much more expansive (and expensive) winter holdings
  • They may have habitat preferences that are not conducive to being worked in a large paddock.  Perhaps the animal is a mountain dweller, like a markhor or an urial - they would require large rocky outcrops, which could be difficult to enclose on a large scale (most zoos that display these species make artificial mountains).  The species could be semi-aquatic, like pygmy hippopotamuses.  Or, the species could be a rainforest dweller, only comfortable in dense foliage which may make it difficult for caretakers to monitor it in a large paddock.  At White Oak Conservation Center, the okapi enclosures were all lush and heavily wooded.   Caretakers had to carve paths out of the foliage to check on their animals
None of these problems is insurmountable.  Indeed, they will probably all need to be surmounted, one way or another.  Maybe smaller, solitary species are best maintained in a traditional zoo where huge spaces and lots of members of the same species would be a liability, not an asset.  Maybe new C2S2 facilities can be planned to take advantage of habitat preferences of other species.  For example, one could be established in the Rockies of Colorado or New Mexico to focus on ibex, takin, and other mountain-loving ungulates.  A second could be established in southern Florida to improve breeding among hippos (pygmy and Nile), tapirs, marsh antelope, and the various wild pig species.

In recent years, zoos have shown an impressive willingness to adapt in order to face the challenges posed by conservation and sustainability issues.  It's important that, as C2S2 centers continue to grow, that no ungulate be left behind.

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