Writing the History of Conservation

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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!

cameron_W6_picContrary to what her friends allegedly believe, Torrey Pillsbury does not spend her days feeding the inhabitants of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s mixed-species field exhibits—or at least, that’s not nearly all she does. As I saw during an amazing tour of her unconventional workplace, Ms. Pillsbury’s job is deeply entwined with conservation. Be it the survival of the entire Arabian oryx species or the life of a single newborn waterbuck calf, Ms. Pillsbury and the Safari Park are constantly working towards a brighter future for animals. 

As a Senior Mammal Keeper, Ms. Pillsbury’s day starts out with a morning meeting. She and the rest of the regular staff discuss and plan the day’s itinerary. An animal can make their check up list for a variety of reasons, including if it was observed having some physical problem, if it just gave birth or if it was just born, or if it is scheduled for some sort of medication or translocation. Ms. Pillsbury’s job in particular focuses on the animals at the north end of the Safari Park, including the Arabian oryx. These Arabian oryx, in addition to many of her other charges, are a part of a Species Survival Program (SSP). SSPs match up breeding pairs of animals to produce the most genetic diversity possible in captive populations. They also try to reintroduce animals to their natural habitats around the world. There are SSPs for over 300 different species, including the Arabian oryx. An SSP often requires animals to be sent to other zoos for breeding, and so these animals are quarantined before and after their transfer to prevent the possible spread of illnesses between zoos.

The Zoo has aided the reintroduction of the Arabian oryx to protected areas in Saudi Arabia and Oman since the 1980s, but the animals have encountered some unanticipated obstacles. As they were extinct in the wild only a few decades ago, the Arabian oryx is still quite rare in the Middle East. They are so rare, in fact, that they are considered valuable and a prize to own. Wealthy individuals have been hiring hunters to essentially kidnap the reintroduced oryx out of the wild for their private menageries. This and other factors have lead to a serious decline in their populations, but the Zoo and its counterparts in the SSP are determined. As of 2010, there have been 342 successful Arabian oryx births at the Safari Park, and the Zoo’s herd shows no sign of slowing down thanks to the SSP!

Speaking of births, my fellow interns and I got to watch the exciting rescue of a newborn waterbuck! On our way into the field, we saw the still-wet calf and his mother in one niche of the field exhibit. On our way back around, however, the mother waterbuck was a distance away, and instead there were several rhinos and another keeper truck right next to the newborn. The other keeper told us that one of the rhinos was being very aggressive, and had actually picked up the baby waterbuck. She was trying to gently push them away with the truck, but was being outmaneuvered by the rhinos. We parked our truck right next to the newborn, protecting it so that the other keeper could focus on the rhinos. In the end, she had to herd the whole group of nearby rhinos to another part of the exhibit with her truck. The waterbuck, safe and unharmed, curled up against the wall for a nap.

Hearing about the Arabian oryx’s story and watching the drama of the baby waterbuck and the rhinos play out right before my eyes made me realize that the people at the Zoo and Safari Park do much more than just feed the animals under their care. Day in and day out, they are actively writing the history of conservation through their caring actions. In the long term, the Arabian oryx is in its natural habitat thanks to their efforts. If you want to see the short-term effects of their everyday conservation work, you can go to the Park and see the baby waterbuck!

Cameron, Conservation Team
Week Six, Winter Session 2013