Conservation Education at Its Best

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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 jobs, and the blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

Maggie Reinbold is the Associate Director of Conservation Education at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. She is a talented educator, teaching people about how they can help to preserve the environment. Mrs. Reinbold facilitates teacher and student workshops and we had the opportunity to take part in an actual lesson she teaches about the amazing California condor.

These magnificent creatures, known for their black feathers, baldhead, and a wingspan of over nine feet, used to range from British Columbia, Canada all the way down to Baja California, Mexico. However, in 1987, only twenty-two were left on the entire planet! The decline of the condor was narrowed down to three main reasons: lead poisoning, habitat alteration, and poaching. As you can see, these are all man-made issues. Ironically, if humans had not intervened, condors would have gone extinct and the ecosystem would be cluttered with carcasses.

Condors are scavengers, meaning they search for dead animals and eat the remains. One of the ways condors get their food is by consuming an animal that was left by hunters. Unfortunately, sometimes these animals still have a lead bullet left in them. This can result in lead poisoning and ultimately death for the California condor. Fortunately, laws have been passed in California, which require fines and even jail time if a hunter is caught using lead bullets. Arizona is using education as a major component to help the hunters understand the risk of using lead bullets. Copper bullets were handed out to try as an alternative. The trial bullets, along with the education of the hunters have helped tremendously with increasing the size of the condor population.

In order for the condor numbers to reach the “not endangered” zone, a captive breeding program had to be established by San Diego Zoo Global other wildlife organizations. The California condor is sexually monomorphic, meaning that you cannot see the difference between a male bird and a female bird. Once the twenty-two California condors were genetically analyzed to determine who was female and who was male, scientists found distinct families among them. This means that these families were genetically different enough to reproduce while having viable offspring. However, only nineteen “founders” were able to successfully reproduce as some were too old or did not have enough genetic diversity to be mated with another condor. Even after the chicks are hatched, the “match making” continues; the scientists must make sure these offspring will have another condor to mate with. They do this by analyzing the genes in the blood and match one condor with another. This condor population continues to grow with over 450 breeding pairs today!

As more and more condors can be reintroduced into the wild, Mrs. Reinbold looks forward to the birds sharing their genes and creating genetic variety to ensure the survival of the California condor. As humans, we too can assist with the continuation of these impressive birds. Hunters could search for alternative bullets without lead to avoid the spread of lead poisoning. Though some may be more expensive, the preservation of the ecosystem is worth the cost. We only have one planet to live on and if we all work together to save one species at a time, like the California condor, we can succeed.

Isabella, Conservation Team
Fall Session 2014