The Conservation Question

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Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

Jennifer Minichino, mammal keeper, and Torrey Pillsburg, senior mammal keeper, welcomed the interns just outside the Safari Park’s Forage Warehouse. Right now, they are responsible for the East Africa Plains area and the North Run holding pens. In these areas, animals intermingle in a huge expanse of land. Many of these animals are either threatened or endangered. We got the opportunity to ride along with Ms. Minichino and Ms. Pillsburg in one of their keeper trucks to get a close-up look at some of these amazing animals.  

As we drove out, I started thinking about how the Park acquires its endangered animals and what kinds of qualifications enable the Park to hold them. According to Ms. Pillsburg, who was riding with us in the back of the truck, there are several ways that the Park gets its animals. Most notably, the SSP, or Species Survival Plan, keeps track of endangered species at zoos and coordinates the circulation of specific animals around zoos so that they can maximize breeding success. Sometimes, the Park acquires an endangered animal through confiscation. For example, when people don’t have permits for the animals they keep or sell. Some animals come from private collections where people are not equipped to take care of the animals. Endangered species can also come to the Park straight from the source: their natural habitat. For example, some of the elephants at the Park came from Africa as part of a rescue effort. Getting the animals is one thing; caring for their health and safety is another.

The San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park is a member of AZA, the American Zoological Association. The AZA, along with other associations like FWS, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, set specific requirements for zoos across the country that they must adhere to while holding endangered species. Some of these standards include transportation methods, crate sizes, enclosure sizes, the number of animals per enclosure, and breeding requirements. Also, if the Park is taking care of a species whose numbers in the wild are low and continuing to decrease, the Park will create a rehabilitation program for that species and sometimes be able to reintroduce it to the wild. In the past this has happened with the Park’s California condors and Arabian oryx. In these programs, a species is carefully bred so that it has genetic diversity and doesn’t become accustomed to humans, and subsequently reintroduced into the wild, usually in a preserve so that its population can be protected. Being in a preserve is important because most of these animals’ populations are decreasing from habitat loss. In fact, while we were riding through the enclosures, Ms. Pillsburg pointed out some of the endangered species that we were getting a close look at: black rhinos, Indian rhinos, Grevy’s zebra, addax, and Arabian oryx; and explained that most of them are endangered from habitat loss. Unfortunately, some are also hunted for either the bush meat trade or for parts of their body believed to have medicinal qualities, like the rhino’s horn. Though the Park is involved with programs that help conserve these animals in their natural habitats, a very important part of why these animals are at the Park is to raise awareness to guests about their situations, and prompt them to help. Luckily, guests can help easily just by going to the Park and paying admission or making donations.

Our experience of being able to feed a giraffe and a rhino is something anyone can get to do. It’s formally called the Caravan Safari where guests can actually feed an Indian rhino and a group of Ugandan giraffes! It goes without saying that it is quite an amazing experience to get so close to such beautiful, wild animals. Seeing them so close made me wonder if people in places of Asia and Africa are actively conserving the beautiful animals in their backyards. But then I realized that we, here in San Diego, have some amazing animals in our backyards too, that also need help. We may not have zebra, but we do have mountain lions and the coast-horned lizard. Maybe we should also focus on conserving these amazing creatures just by getting involved in our local communities.

Caroline, Conservation Team
Week Six, Winter Session 2012