Conservation

Conservation

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A New Condor Chick on Condor Cam

There's a new chick on Condor Cam!

There’s a new chick on Condor Cam!

Welcome back to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Condor Cam! The live-streaming camera provides a rare look into an active California condor nest. Over the next five months, you will be able to witness our newest California condor chick grow, develop, and eventually fledge (leaving of the nest).

Another exciting California condor breeding season is upon us. Our first egg of the season was laid on 13 February 2015. The proud parents are Sisquoc (pronounced “SISS-kwawk”) and Shatash (pronounced “shah-TAWSH”). Sisquoc is the male, and he is wearing yellow wing tags (#28). Shatash, the female, is not wearing any wing tags. Also, Sisquoc is visibly larger than Shatash. He is the largest California condor here at the Park, weighing in at 25 pounds.

Sisquoc was the first California condor ever hatched in a zoo (his egg was laid in the wild and brought to the San Diego Zoo for incubation). He emerged from his shell on 30 March 1983, and news of his hatching triggered an outpouring of mail from all over the world. Congratulatory letters were sent by conservationists, zoos, governments, school classrooms, and many individuals, all wanting to help with the condor project.

Shatash hatched at the Los Angeles Zoo, one of our valuable partners in the California Condor Recovery Program. Her father was the first condor to hatch at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (again, from a wild-laid egg), back in 1985. Sisquoc and Shatash have been paired together since 1993. This is their 24th egg. Seventeen chicks have hatched, and Sisquoc and Shatash have raised six of them themselves, including two chicks on CondorCam: Saticoy, who is flying free in southern California, and Cuyamaca, who was released in Arizona. The other chicks were raised by keepers who used a condor puppet so the chicks wouldn’t imprint on their human caretakers. Sisquoc and Shatash have proven to be great and reliable parents.

For the last few years, we have been fortunate to be able to show the condor chicks hatching live on CondorCam. This year was a little different. Sisquoc and Shatash’s egg had some complications during incubation. Early on, we saw signs that the embryo might be in the wrong position inside the egg. We call this a “malposition.” A chick should be in a certain position in order to hatch: its tail should be in the pointy end of the egg and the head should be tucked under the right wing and oriented toward the air cell. The air cell is a pocket of air at the big end of the egg. Next time you crack open a chicken egg at home, look for the air cell.

Our early observations proved to be accurate. After taking the egg to our Harter Veterinary Center for radiographs, we were able to confirm that the chick was upside-down in the shell. This is not always a lethal malposition, but it did give us some concern. Think of it like a breech birth for mammals.

A small hole was drilled in the large end of the egg, and then the egg was propped at an angle in an incubator with the chick’s head angled upward. When the weight of the chick’s body caused it to break through the air cell membrane, the chick settled into the big end of the egg, thanks to the drilled hole. The movement downward into the shell provided the chick with more space and air in the small end of the egg where its head was located. This procedure allowed the chick an opportunity to continue the hatching process on its own, without any invasive procedures on our part.

Much to our relief, the chick broke through the shell – or “pipped” – on its own on April 9! The pip was in a really good spot, considering its upside-down position, and was nice and strong. We returned the pipped egg to the parents at around noon on the same day. We quietly snuck into the nest box while they were out eating in their flight pen to exchange the pipped egg for the artificial egg that they had been tending to while we incubated their real one. Shatash returned to the nest and settled back onto her hatching egg.

Happily, the egg hatched with no complications on April 11 at 1:01 p.m.

California condors tend to be monogamous and share ALL nest duties: incubating the egg, brooding the chick, feeding the chick, and defending the nest. Sisquoc and Shatash will take turns tending to the chick.

Sisquoc and Shatash’s new chick is very valuable to the condor population. California condors are critically endangered. In 1982, they were on the road to extinction, with only 22 birds in the world. Today, through breeding programs at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the Los Angeles Zoo, the Oregon Zoo, and the World Center for Birds of Prey (in Boise, Idaho), as well as intensive field management in the wild, the population is over 430 birds. It’s a nice population increase, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. This chick represents the next step in the California condor story – and you get to witness it on Condor Cam!

Stay tuned for future weblogs describing the growth and development of our new chick. If you have any questions about what you’re seeing, feel free to ask them in the “Comments” section at the end of this post, and we’ll do our best to provide answers. Happy viewing!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, California Condor Breeding Season.

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Gather the Goslings Before the Gale!

Staff used binoculars to get a better look at the nest without alarming the birds. Since the 1940s when there were fewer than 50 nene remaining, this species has made a remarkable turn-around, in part due to captive breeding efforts by San Diego Zoo Global.

Staff used binoculars to get a better look at the nest without alarming the birds. Since the 1940s when there were fewer than 50 nene remaining, this species has made a remarkable comeback, in part due to captive breeding efforts by San Diego Zoo Global.

On a cold and foggy winter morning, a group of Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) staff stood alongside biologist Kathleen Misajon and ecologist Darcy Hu, from the National Park Service. Just a few yards away under the umbrella of a sizable hapu‘u (tree fern) was a nene nest. The nene, (pronounced nay-nay), is Hawaii’s state bird and also happens to be the world’s rarest goose primarily due to excessive hunting and predation by introduced mammalian predators, like feral cats and mongooses. Underneath the incubating female nene we hoped to find four newly hatched goslings. A raging wind storm was headed straight for the Hawaiian Islands that night. If the nene family wasn’t moved that day, we feared the vulnerable goslings might not make it through the night. If any goslings were still in the process of hatching then we would need to postpone the move until the next day. We anxiously waited and watched as Kathleen slowly walked up to the nest…

Life at the KBCC gets a little more interesting when nene breeding season rolls around. Nene territory disputes are a common sight and consist of a lot of raucous honking. Sometimes there are even a few feathers floating around in the aftermath. Over the years we’ve kept close tabs on nene that visit our grounds. Female PA and male FL (named for their leg band combinations) are no strangers here and we have been closely following their interactions. It’s almost like watching a popular reality TV show!

PA hatched on KBCC grounds in 2003 and was moved, along with her previously released parents, to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. She was over a week old when her family was moved, and she returned to nest at KBCC. In an effort to avoid establishing a breeding population amongst the facility buildings, roads and parking areas, nesting families are now moved right after hatch to ensure that the goslings imprint on, and later breed in, the National Park. PA had a mate named FS and in 2008 and they had a nest of 4 eggs that failed to hatch. Unfortunately FS disappeared, never to be been seen again.

Male FL was also hatched in captivity and released into the wild. He originally paired up with a female named FX. Sadly, in 2008, just as FX and FL’s eggs were hatching, FX was mysteriously found dead near her nest and an egg had gone missing! FL was left to be a single dad to the three brand-new goslings. PA and FL paired up later that year and have been inseparable ever since. Last year, they successfully hatched and raised four goslings. (Read Nene Nest Fest 2014 to learn more.) We were anxious to see if they would repeat history this year.

We could tell female PA was about to lay eggs because the white area of her abdomen became much bigger and rounder than the male's.

We could tell female PA was about to lay eggs because the white area of her abdomen became much bigger and rounder than the male’s.

In early November, PA started to look gravid, meaning we could tell that she was carrying eggs. Nēnē don’t start sitting on the nest until they’ve laid all their eggs. This ensures that all eggs develop and hatch at the same time. Over the span of a few days PA would briefly disappear from FL’s side to lay her eggs but we weren’t sure where the nest was.

Eventually, Rosanna, our research coordinator, found the nest in a slightly startling way. Walking down a dirt road that leads to some of our alala aviaries Rosanna saw FL by the road, peacefully nibbling grass. Suddenly FL looked up and quickly took flight—flying low and straight at Rosanna’s head! Luckily, Rosanna has quick reflexes. She held up a clipboard to protect her head and thankfully, FL stopped short of his aerial attack, landing between Rosanna and a hapu‘u just off the side of the road. Nervously, Rosanna called out “I think I found PA’s nest!”

FL weighs in at no more than a bag of flour and stands less than 16 inches tall, but that doesn’t stop him from being a cutthroat protector of PA and her nest. He can instill fear in any stranger that dares to walk by his nest. The staff and interns have learned that FL is more bark than bite, but those less familiar with his antics, like the big burly contractors who have been working on our new alala aviaries, were wary about going down the road FL guarded. It was a funny sight to these grown men shaking in their boots because of FL!

This adorable ball of fluff is a one-day-old nene gosling, peeping loudly for his mother. Currently the wild nene population stands at about 2500 birds.

This adorable ball of fluff is a one-day-old nene gosling, peeping loudly for its mother. Currently, the wild nene population stands at about 2,500 birds.

On that cold and foggy morning, Kathleen slowly walked up to the nest. FL was having none of it. He spread his wings and started angrily hissing. We knew that Kathleen had spotted four goslings when she and Darcy quickly snatched up PA and FL in their arms. With the parents subdued, KBCC team members swooped in to scoop up the four goslings. The family was then gingerly placed in carriers and transported to their new home in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where the goslings would be able to grow up among other nene and become truly wild birds.

That night, intense gale-force winds slammed many parts of the Hawaii islands. The KBCC facility lost power and sustained some tree damage. The aftermath of the storm was hectic, but Kathleen was quick to send us an e-mail update on the nene family. PA, FL, and their goslings were safe and sound in their new home!

The staff eagerly waits for the day when PA and FL decide to come back and visit the KBCC property!

Amy Kuhar and Donnie Alverson are Research Associates at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Hawaii.

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California Condor Breeding Season

In 2013, Condor Cam viewers were able to witness a condor chick hatching. Stay tuned to see what happens this year!

In 2013, Condor Cam viewers were able to witness a condor chick hatching. What will we see in 2015? Stay tuned to Condor Cam!

Breeding season is underway at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s California Condor Breeding Facility!

In order to maximize success for the breeding pairs and their chicks, we try to conduct all of our maintenance work in the “off season,” which only lasts from mid-October to the beginning of December. We don’t want to cause any unnecessary disturbances during egg production, incubation, or chick-rearing. The chicks are usually moved from the parents’ pens by October and the new courtship season is in full swing by December, so during that short 1-1/2 month period we are busy with a multitude of tasks, preparing for the next season.

We made our yearly repairs to our breeding facility: replacing wood that may have been chewed by curious condors, securing perches, fixing leaky pool valves, repairing shift-pen doors, and adding visual barriers to better hide human activity to newly-fledged chicks that may be released to the wild someday. We also try to weed the majority of the flight pens, opening up area on the ground so the parents can forage for food and small bones in preparation for egg-laying. The trees and shrubs also get pruned so video camera access does not become obscured. Our pen and nest cameras also get serviced and cleaned. Lastly, and most importantly, the condors get their routine health exams.

Exams are conducted every two years. This year, 6 of our 28 condors were due for exams. During these exams, a number of procedures are completed. Our veterinary staff draws blood samples to test for any potential diseases that the birds may be carrying. A full body inspection is conducted, examining the tail, wings, feather condition, heart rate, respiration rate, eyes, ears, and mouth. If any wing tags need to be replaced, we do it at this time. A fecal sample is submitted to the lab to test for parasites. And finally, the birds are weighed before being released back into their flight pens.

We also changed the soiled substrate in the nests, so that when the next breeding season begins, the nests are clean. Normally, in the wild, a condor pair can have several nest sites within its breeding territory and they don’t always nest in the same cave every year. By changing nest sites, this allows the used nest to dry out and hopefully eliminate any nest hazards (insects, parasites, diseases, etc.) before the pair decides to nest in it again, preventing any potential health threats to a newly-hatched chick. Since we only have one nesting cavity in each condor pen at the Safari Park, we clean the nests every year: scrubbing and repainting the walls and changing the sand.

This year’s condor season is off to a slower start than usual. Every so often, based on genetic analysis, we receive new breeding recommendations from the California Condor Recovery Program. Of our seven breeding pairs, three are new pairings. It can take a while for the birds to settle in with their new mates, sometimes up to a year. So, we are not expecting eggs from those three pairs this year, but they could surprise us—you never know! One of our other pairs has a young female in it; only five years old. She is close to laying age, but, again, we are not expecting her to lay this season. Our other three pairs are experienced and have been together for a while.

Two of those pairs have laid so far. The first egg—from our well-known Condor Cam pair, male Sisquoc (pronounced “SISS-kwawk”) and female Shatash (pronounced “SHA-tawsh”)—was laid on 13 Feb 2015. It is doing well and is a potential candidate to hatch as the public watched the Cam this year around April 11. Frequent viewers may recall that Sisquoc and Shatash raised chicks on our livestreaming camera in 2012 and 2013. Their 2014 egg unfortunately failed to hatch, so they foster-reared another pair’s egg off camera.

Our second egg—from male Simerrye (pronounced “SIM-er-eye”) and female Ojja (pronounced “OH-jah”)—was also laid on 13 Feb 2015, fifteen minutes after Shatash’s egg! However, it failed to develop past Day 14 and died—an early embryonic death. Although disappointing, this can happen from time to time, just like with mammals. We removed the non-viable egg from the nest in an effort to persuade Ojja to recycle and lay another egg. For condors, it usually takes about 30 days for the female to recycle. If it’s not too late in Ojja’s season, she could lay another egg around April 5. Considering all of the recent activity at our breeding facility, and the number of new pairs, we are only expecting two to three more eggs for this season. Pleasant surprises are always welcome though!

We are not the only condor breeding facility experiencing a slower year. Our partners at the Los Angeles Zoo, the Oregon Zoo, and the World Center for Birds of Prey have some new pairings as well. Despite this year’s smaller batch of eggs, California condor production will still be good. Keep in mind that there are many wild nests already in progress at all five of the condor release sites in southern and central California, northern Arizona, and northern Baja California, Mexico.

Keep checking Condor Cam. We will soon be switching the camera view from our remote socialization pen to Sisquoc and Shatash’s nest as the due date of their egg approaches.

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Condors: Feeding Time Manners.

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Little Green Guards Excitement!

The Little Green Guards were excited by our surprising camera-trap discoveries. (Photo by Lei Shi)

The Little Green Guards were excited by our surprising camera-trap discoveries. (Photo by Lei Shi)

The feeling of love and empathy for animals is very much influenced by one’s culture and upbringing. How can people conserve endangered animals if they do not love them? How do people come to love and appreciate animals? These are the kinds of questions I often ponder, and I am eager to find ways to help people, especially children, bond with animals.

Over the last five years, I have been exploring the topic of love and empathy toward animals and learning how to cultivate these sentiments in children who are in my Little Green Guards program. Little Green Guards are children living in conservation priority areas that have an underdeveloped economy and education system. The goal of the program is to build a strong and lasting love for animals in children, ultimately empowering them to become conservation stewards of their natural heritage.

Because personal experience can create deep impressions, it is important to include many field trip opportunities for Little Green Guards to fall in love with animals and nature. In Fanjingshan, China, my collaborators and I recently used our camera-trap research project as a way to introduce local schoolchildren to wildlife that may be difficult to see in the nearby forest.

Before going to the field we explained the science behind our camera-trap research to the children, how the cameras have helped us understand the “secrets” of many amazing animals, some active in the day and some at night. We then tantalized the children with our best photos and the “surprises” we discovered. The children would “Ooh!” and “Aah!” as they looked at the photos—the excitement for camera-trapping was escalating!

Fanjingshan nature reserve biologist Lei Si showed children how to mount a camera trap on a tree. (Photo by Kefeng Niu)

Fanjingshan nature reserve biologist Lei Si showed children how to mount a camera trap on a tree. (Photo by Kefeng Niu)

Out in the forest, we selected a relatively flat area with a sturdy tree. We then showed the kids how to properly install batteries and the memory card, program the settings, and finally mount the camera. When all the preparation was done, the children practiced taking “selfies,” one by one, by triggering the sensor in front of the camera and saying “Qiezi!” (the Chinese version of “Cheese!”). Beyond just having fun, this Little Green Guards lesson allowed us to teach the children not only about animal biology and caring for their wildlife neighbors but also essential life skills so they can develop healthy self-esteem, despite their rural circumstances.

Two Little Green Guards inspect the camera trap,

Two Little Green Guards inspect the camera trap,

The success of the Little Green Guards program will require long-term efforts and reaching out to as many communities as possible around Fanjingshan and other protected areas in China as well as in Vietnam and Madagascar. As the citizens who live adjacent to natural habitats form the front line of defense in protecting local biodiversity, we imagine that our Little Green Guards program may have a substantial positive influence on people’s attitudes toward conservation. We hope that one day every child in the Little Green Guards program will develop affection for wildlife so that when that day comes, we can all smile and say “Qiezi!”

Chia Tan, Ph.D., is a senior scientist in the Conservation Partnership Development Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Have Camera Trap, Will Travel.

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Watch the Birdies! Open House at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center

Special displays allow curious visitors to understand the "why" and "how" of the program.

Special displays allow curious visitors to understand the “why” and “how” of the program.

Last December, we held our annual open house here at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center. This is our largest public event of the year and always an exciting time for us. Although we are normally closed to the public in order to focus on breeding our rare birds, this even is our chance to open our doors to those interested in learning about our program.

Since we are located on a remote ranch, we can only accept as many people as can fit in our shuttles for each tour—and the tours filled up fast again this year! It was so encouraging to see such an outpouring of interest and support from our local, island, and global community. In addition to many local residents, we had guests this year fly in from other islands and from as far away as Montana!

Our staff met visitors at our outer gate, situated everyone in the shuttles, and then drove guests through nearly three miles of beautiful, restored native forest to the facility. Upon arrival, everyone gathered inside our main office building to learn a little of the history of the program and to admire our fantastic mural depicting the array of unique wildlife and environments found here on the Big Island of Hawaii. We talked about the species we work with—Palila, ‘Alalā, Kiwikiu, and Puaiohi—and the multifaceted pressures they face in the wild.

The author acting as tour guide for a group of interested visitors.

The author acting as tour guide, giving visitors the inside story about the birds being bred at KBCC.

 

Next, everyone gathered around the windows to get a close up and personal view of our education birds, including two ‘alalā, before heading up to one of our forest bird barns to see our species in their breeding aviaries. It was wonderful to see smiles spread across the faces of everyone, young and old, as they watched some of the world’s rarest birds go about their business.

Throughout the tour, visitors demonstrated great interest and concern for the future of these special birds, and many of our staff received excellent questions such as “What can I do at home to help?” and “Is there a way for me to help restore the forests so our birds have somewhere to go?” We encourage people in our area wanting to help to plant native species such as ‘ōhi‘a lehua, in their yards to attract endemic forest birds. Getting rid of standing water on the property is another great way to make life easier for our birds since it eliminates breeding grounds for mosquitoes, which carry dangerous diseases for both humans and wildlife.

Our entire staff was available after the tours to talk with everyone, and it was so heartening to see such passion and respect for the birds that we work with on a daily basis. Open House is an important reminder for us that the work we do is valued, but most significantly it is our chance to give back to our community for their support, interest, and enthusiasm.

For all of you reading this post, thank you. I will say to you the same thing I said to my tours: Your being here (even if it is just through the Internet!) is a vital part of our program. We could breed birds all day long, but without your interest and support it would be for naught. You are an essential part of the future of these birds, and we at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center are proud to have your support and partnership as we move forward together to make this conservation story a success!

Chelsea McGimpsey is a research associate at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center.

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From Conflict to Coexistence: Part 2

There are only about 3,000 of the endangered Grevy’s zebra left in the world, so it was great to see a foal at West Gate Conservancy!

There are only about 3,000 of the endangered Grevy’s zebra left in the world, so it was great to see a foal at West Gate Conservancy!

Read Conflict to Coexistence: Part 1

Christy and I spent a month traveling across Kenya at the end of 2014. We journeyed from the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro at the Tanzania border in the very south, up to northern Kenya and the Mathews Range. Our purpose was to meet with researchers and conservationists in the field who are leading the fight against extinction, battling not only poaching, but also working alongside communities to address localized conflicts and habitat fragmentation. We were inspired by their passion and innovation, and returned to San Diego to start planning several collaborative projects focusing on elephants, lions, rhinos, Grevy’s zebra, cheetah, leopard, giraffes, and other species.

We take a collaborative approach to conservation, which cannot ultimately be successful unless communities support, participate in, and benefit from it. As such, we were lucky to meet with some of the most inspiring communities, groups, and researchers that are working together in creative ways to bring success for people and wildlife. It is alongside these groups that San Diego Zoo Global will stand and partner with as we save species.

We cannot do any of this work without your continue support—thank you so much, because together we can end extinction! Become a Hero for Wildlife and join us in this important work.

Here are some of the groups we met, and are excited to be exploring conservation research partnerships with:

African Conservation Centre partners with communities on conservation initiatives, and is coordinating the Borderlands Conservation Initiative. Saving the richest wildlife populations on earth by working with communities and landowners along the Kenya-Tanzania border between the National Parks to establish viable, interconnected elephant and lion populations by strengthening community conservation capacity, generating jobs and income, and end poaching.

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy:  A 55,000-acre conservancy in northern Kenya. Initially focused on protecting rhino from poaching, it has grown as a leader in wildlife conservation, and spreads the benefits of wildlife conservation through community development programs to 40,000 people regionally.

Namunyak Wildlife Conservation Trust:  Encompassing the unique and bio-diverse Mathews Range, this million-acre Samburu community conservancy is the jewel of northern Kenya. Previously home to an estimated 3,000 black rhino and numerous other species, today wildlife are returning, including elephants, reticulated giraffe, leopards, cheetah. Sarara Camp, a glorious community-owned eco-lodge that gives guests a unique intimate experience, while generating wildlife income for the community It also partners with Samburu leaders on a number of innovative conservation projects.

West Gate Community Conservancy:  Recognizing this Samburu community’s vision for conservation and co-existence, San Diego Zoo Global has supported the 100,000-acre West Gate Conservancy since its inception. Ten years later it is a leader in community-based conservation, battling land degradation, collectively managing grazing, and runs innovative community programs benefitting local people and the growing population of wildlife. West Gate is also home to two extremely effective community-based conservation organizations: Ewaso Lions and Grevy’s Zebra Trust who use innovative, multi-dimensional approaches to conserve lions and endangered Grevy’s zebras and secure wildlife corridors in West Gate and beyond.

The Safari Collection:  Through its four world-class lodges, and in full partnership with the communities, the Safari Collection is a leader and innovator in sustainable ecotourism. At each location, the lodges provide income and employment locally and work collaboratively with community members to enact conservation and capacity-building programs. These include direct conservation research on cheetahs and rhino and community initiatives such as health clinics, education and sport programs. We met with the Owner and Community and Conservation Manager in the elegant Giraffe Manor, to plan potential exciting future conservation efforts.

Save the Elephants is the pioneer group for elephant research and conservation in East Africa. Save the Elephants continues cutting-edge elephant conservation research through its collaring program, and community conservation by reducing conflict and poaching. They are also tackling ivory poaching head-on across Africa and curbing demand in China and Asia.

The Giraffe Conservation Foundation:  Giraffes are the forgotten giants of Africa. They have declined by 40% since 1999, from 140,000 to less than 80,000 today. All nine types of giraffe are in decline, but some are in real trouble. The reticulated giraffe has declined by 80% over the past fifteen years from 28,000 to less than 4,700 today. Most of reticulated giraffe’s range is outside of protected areas, in addition to habitat loss, they are being relentlessly poached for meat, decoration and in response to a recent myth that giraffe bone marrow and brains cure HIV/AIDS. In close partnership with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, we are working to rapidly develop community-based conservation initiatives to stem this decline, before giraffes vanish.

David OConnor is a research coordinator for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Understanding Wildlife Trade in Asia.

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From Conflict to Coexistence: Part 1

A mother elephant and her calf surprised the author in Kenya.

A mother elephant and her calf surprised the author in Kenya.

“Don’t worry”, came the calm tones of my passenger (and Institute colleague) Dr. Christine Browne-Nunez, as my foot pressed hard on the clutch. I had slammed the Land Cruiser into reverse, ready for a rapid retreat back through the weave of Acacia shrubs. However, not without unease, I returned to neutral and shut off the engine.

Staring at us, having emerged from the bush onto the track in front of us, was a mature female African savanna elephant Loxodonta africana and her young calf. Despite being the most massive terrestrial mammals on the planet, elephants are surprisingly invisible in dense vegetation, and momma elephants can be very protective when surprised…

Christine and I have both worked on conservation research in East Africa over the years, but our reactions to encountering elephants in the wild were miles apart. Me: “How quickly can I backup?” Christine: “Let’s be among them, and wait for them to pass.”

The elephants passed peacefully, purposefully going about the business of consuming their daily requirement of 220 pounds (100 kilograms) or more of vegetation. In that moment, we realized that our differing reactions to encountering elephants underscored a much larger conservation dynamic in the region. The very dynamic that had led us to be in the car on that track in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya.

Christine Brown-Nunez, PhD a human dimensions of conservation specialist talking about wildlife interactions with a maasai warrior just outside Amboseli National Park.

Christine Brown-Nunez, Ph.D., talks about wildlife interactions with a Maasai warrior just outside Amboseli National Park.

Christine’s prior research focused on the human aspects of elephant conservation around Amboseli National Park. When inside Amboseli’s boundaries, the elephants are well protected [thanks to the elephant researchers, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), and others]. As a result they are less stressed, and do not feel as threatened in the presence of humans as do elephants in other parts of Kenya. The elephants there accept researchers, who can approach a herd and be among them. This has allowed researchers to gather the most intimate behavioral and social portraits of elephants anywhere—vital knowledge that has informed conservation.

Thanks to the equally pioneering and long-term work of Save the Elephants, when inside Samburu National Reserve, elephants now have a growing sense of security. They know that while within Samburu they are safer from human threats.

Watchful eyes of members of an elephant family group in Amboseli National Park. We know a lot about these elephants thanks to the research of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants.

Watchful eyes of members of an elephant family group in Amboseli National Park. We know a lot about these elephants thanks to the research of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants.

In contrast, my previous experiences in East Africa are among elephants outside of formally protected areas. Where elephants face daily threats such as poaching, harassment, lack of access to resources, spears and bullets—a very negative environment. For instance, while working not far from Samburu, over in Laikipia, when I encountered elephants at such close range either in my vehicle or on foot, they’d immediately charge and I’d have to make a very rapid escape. Those elephants were stressed, feeling threatened, and so they would react in kind. What is interesting, however, is that these aren’t different animals we’re talking about. When the same, calm elephants in Samburu move into less-safe environments, they become aggressive in response to close human presence.

It’s not just elephants that act differently when they know they’re in riskier areas, overlapping with humans. I’ve experienced similar reactions in giraffes. In well-protected areas, they are less concerned about close proximity to humans and livestock, whereas outside those areas, it is hard to get within 110 to 218 yards (100-200 meters) of them, creating quite a challenge for giraffe researchers like me.

One of about 60 endangered black rhino in Lewa Conservancy. Lewa’s work has dramatically reduced poaching in the area, giving these rhino a fighting chance.

One of about 60 endangered black rhino in Lewa Conservancy. Lewa’s work has dramatically reduced poaching in the area, giving these rhino a fighting chance.

This is not to vilify the people who live among elephants and other large wildlife. Living with these giants is challenging. Elephants raid crops and can destroy a family’s livelihood (often their only income for the season) in a few hours. They also damage wells and can injure and kill people and livestock. So like the elephants, people need to defend themselves, their families, and livelihoods.

However, the more concerning threats are caused by the poachers who are responsible for the shocking decline in populations of elephants, rhino, giraffes, and other wildlife for trinkets and traditional medicine. They often mow down elephants and rhinos from a distance with automatic weapons or set neck snares for giraffe. It is these external drivers that cause the most conflict. They are also the reason for plummeting wildlife populations outside protected areas, and explain why wildlife are stressed and aggressive.

Two maasai warriors get some refreshment by the new water pump near their boma just outside Ambsolei National Park, surrounded by a wall to protect against elephant damage.

Two Maasai warriors get some refreshment by the new water pump near their boma just outside Ambsolei National Park, surrounded by a wall to protect against elephant damage.

East African pastoralists, or livestock herders, historically coexisted with wildlife. In fact over the millennia, both wildlife and human systems evolved in synch. Today, pastoralism remains a primary form of livelihood in East Africa. This complementary land use is key to successful wildlife conservation. Pastoralism leaves a porous landscape where herbivores and carnivores can live, access resources, and can travel between parks in search of resources, territory, or mates. Without such spaces and corridors, populations in protected pockets will atrophy and vanish, as isolated parks are too small for large, wide-ranging species.

The downside is that it is also in these vital areas where wildlife encounter their greatest threats, not only from poaching, but also from localized conflicts and ever-increasing habitat fragmentation.

It is in these complex settings that innovative conservation efforts are needed. As conservationists we need to understand not only what is happening with wildlife, but with the people living alongside and interacting with wildlife. This is the reason for our visit to Kenya, to move from conflict to coexistence between wildlife, people and livestock.

To be continued… Check back tomorrow to get to know the groups David and Christy met with, and what the future holds for collaborative conservation.

David OConnor is a research coordinator for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Understanding Wildlife Trade in Asia.

4

Rocky Mountain High: Boreal toads going to a place they’ve never been before

boreal toad

boreal toad

From the window of a fancy trailer I can see the small town of Alamosa, Colorado, and laying just behind it the base of the Rocky Mountains. A gateway to all the many outdoor splendors that the Colorado wilderness has to offer, this small town bustles with the comings and goings of natives as well as passers through. However, Alamosa hides another interesting little secret. The Native Aquatic Species Restoration Facility, known as NASRF, is part of the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife dedicated to the restoration of 10 species of fish native to Colorado. Additionally (and perhaps more importantly for me), NASRF holds one of the largest collections of a single toad species in the US.

The southern Rocky Mountain population (SRMP) of boreal toad (Anaxyrus boreas boreas) is a geographically isolated population of the boreal toad (Anaxyrus boreas). Although the boreal toad is commonly found in the western part of the US, the SRMP is unique due to its limited geographical distribution, which restricts it to high elevations of montane wetland Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and southeastern Wyoming. As part of a comprehensive plan to restore and manage the SRMP, a specialized group known as the Boreal Toad Recovery Team (BTRT) was established in 1995, and a captive population has been housed at NASRF since 2001. Over 600 hundred individual toads from different localities in the wild are held and bred as a genetic assurance colony from which tadpoles are re-introduced annually.

Alaomosa

Alaomosa, Colorado

Amphibians are a curious group of animals. The diversity of physiological adaptations and environmental requirements makes breeding them in captivity difficult. Such is the case with the Boreal toads at NASRF.

One of the most interesting adaptations of the boreal toad is its ability to hibernate. Because they are found at high altitudes and latitudes they have evolved this behavior to cope with long, harsh winters. However, hibernation in amphibians is not exactly the same as in mammals. In fact, the proper term for this behavior in amphibians is brumation. Like hibernating mammals, temperate amphibians lower their metabolic rates in response to falling temperatures in fall and winter. They stop eating and reduce their activity but, unlike mammals, they do not become dormant. At the beginning of spring, as temperatures rise, boreal toads come out of hibernation and immediately begin to breed.

Although temperature appears to be a key factor influencing reproduction in the Boreal toad, we are not sure how important other factors such as light and nutrition affect adult health and reproduction. At NASRF we provide special UV lighting to emulate natural day and night cycles, a diverse diet, controlled water temperature and artificial hibernation during the winter months. In short, we do what we can to replicate the outdoors, indoors.

Sancho

Sancho

In May of 2014 I made the long 1,000 mile drive from San Diego to Alamosa to join the staff at NASRF in preparation for boreal toad breeding season. That’s not me in the photograph, that’s my trusty partner, Sancho. Seventeen hours later we arrived at our new and very swanky home where we would reside for the next 4.5 months. Now I guess I should explain why I told you all about the boreal toad in the beginning, and more importantly, where I fit into the picture. As I mentioned, during the winter months, boreal toads hibernate in the wild. To emulate this at NASRF we use giant refrigerators (the kind you find in restaurants). We box the little toads up with soft, moist sand and peat moss and put them to bed for 5 to 6 months. Odd as this may seem, this period of cold is exactly what these toads need to get them in the mood for love and romance. Emerging from hibernation is like traveling to a sunny beach destination with your partner for a romantic holiday after surviving a long winter.

So where do I come in? I am a reproductive physiologist working for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. About 4 years ago I moved to the US to work on amphibians as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Mississippi. During my post-doc I concentrated on the application of assisted reproductive technologies to promote reproduction in captive amphibians. When natural matings occur in boreal toads we expect to see certain reproductive behaviors such as males amplexing females. This clasping behavior may persist for days while the male stimulates the female to deposit her eggs. When breeding does not occur or a female fails to release eggs naturally, I inject females with hormone treatments designed to elicit egg deposition. I also use the same hormones to induce sperm production in males.

Boreals amplexing

Boreals amplexing

Like in humans, ultrasound helps us monitor female toad reproductive cycles by visualizing the ovary and determining the presence and size of eggs. This helps us know if a female that has not bred is ready to deposit eggs. If so, I would inject her with hormones. Once eggs have been deposited, we count the number of eggs that have been fertilized and are cleaving (dividing). Embryonic development is recorded by looking at embryos every day and cataloging different developmental stages.

We raise tadpoles in captivity until they reach a certain size and have developed back legs before transporting them to the Rocky Mountain National Park for release into the wild. This final stage of the adventure is managed and monitored by the dedicated staff at NASRF and the National Park. Saving the SRMP boreal toad is a collaborative project with the ultimate goal restoring these animals in their natural habitat.

(I’d like to thank all the staff at the Native Aquatic Species Restoration Facility for their help).

Natalie Calatayud is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

 

1

Sweet, Juicy Papaya‚—for the Birds!

What's on the menu? Egg, commercial diet, and juicy, sweet papaya!

What’s on the menu? Scrambled egg, commercial diet, and juicy, sweet papaya!

As people recover from their holiday feasting, now is a nice time to reflect on feeding Hawaiian birds in a captive breeding program.

One of the biggest challenges of managing a captive propagation center for Hawaiian birds is providing a nutritionally balanced diet replicating foods the birds would eat in the wild. Ideally, a captive diet is composed of the exact same natural fruits, nectars, and animal and insect proteins birds forage on while wandering in native Hawaiian forests. But collecting the exact food items these birds eat in the wild is impossible!

Although wild diets cannot be perfectly recreated, we strive to fashion a representation offering the same nutritional components. Prior to working with any new bird species, Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (HEBCP) staff review data on a species’ nutritional requirements and foraging behavior in the wild, to create diets for the birds in captivity. For instance, wild alala historically consumed many native fruits, and supplemented their fruit-heavy diet with invertebrates as well as the occasional egg and nestling of other bird species.

For birds in managed care, we replicate what is contained in wild alala diets by providing apple, melon, mixed veggies, and papaya in place of native fruits. The alala also receive scrambled egg, mealworms, and bird pellets that offer a balance of carbohydrates, fats, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. As you can see, these captive diets heavily feature food items available from commercial retailers.

Unfortunately, even commercially available foods can be difficult or expensive to obtain. This is where we benefit from close relationships with generous local supporters in our communities. For example, Kumu Farms in Wailuku, Maui, regularly donates organic, GMO-free papaya for the birds at the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC). Although the MBCC is a relatively small facility, providing enough papaya for all almost 70 birds (representing 4 species) being bred in captivity is no small feat—but Kumu Farms donates papaya to help make this possible. And all the birds at MBCC eagerly devour Kumu Farm’s sweet, juicy gift!

Joshua Kramer is a research coordinator at the Maui Bird Conservation Center, operated by San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, Maui Bird Conservation Center: Open House 2013.

0

The Amazon’s—and Cocha Cashu’s—Youngest Ambassadors

The enthusiastic participants of the first-ever Tropical Ecology and Field Techniques course held in 2013—where are they now?

The enthusiastic participants of the first-ever Tropical Ecology and Field Techniques course held in 2013—where are they now?

In his blog A Student’s Day at Cocha Cashu’s Field Ecology Trainning Course, Ron Swaisgood, scientific director of the Cocha Cashu Biological Station, wrote : “Our mission includes the goal of recruiting some of the best and brightest emerging young scientists, and sending them off on a life trajectory better suited and more motivated to tackle the problems of understanding and conserving Amazonian ecosystems.”

In order to assess whether we are on track to achieving this goal, we asked some of the Peruvian students who participated in our first three-month Tropical Ecology and Field Techniques Course in 2013, what they have been up to since their Cocha Cashu experience.

Cindy Hurtado, a Biology student at San Marcos University, Lima, carried out a camera trap study at Cocha Cashu, looking into the use of clay licks by large mammals. She tells us that after completing our course she traveled to Costa Rica to work as a teaching assistant on the Tropical Biology Field Course of the Organization of Tropical Studies (OTS). She is now working toward a Masters at Towson University, Maryland, with Harald Beck (a fervent ‘Cashu nut’) as her mentor, and will be working on peccary reintroductions in Iberá, Argentina.

Maite Aranguena was given the opportunity to work within the Peruvian Institute for Oceanographic Studies (IMARPE). She also participated in the 7th International Otter Congress in Brazil where she presented the results of her study at Cocha Cashu: “Habitat use by the giant otter in Cocha Cashu, Manu National Park, during the dry season (August – September 2013).” Maite is currently beginning her graduation thesis with the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) on the behavior of birds using biologging, and is also conducting environmental education workshops.

Nicole Mitidieri enrolled in the Center for International Forestry Research, within the Sustainable Wetlands Adaptation and Mitigation Program; she is studying the effect of the degradation of tropical tubers in the lower Peruvian Amazon (Loreto) on emissions of greenhouse gases at the soil level. She is simultaneously preparing to start her Masters research next year, financed by CIFOR. In September 2014, Nicole returned to Cocha Cashu as a teaching assistant for this year’s field course. She hopes to find funds to carry out a long-term study into the impact of gold mining on ecosystem services provided by wetlands, using Manu National Park as her control site.

Jorge Cabellero is currently working on no fewer than three research projects, including his thesis, entitled “Evaluation of deforestation and carbon emission resulting from land use changes from primary forests to oil palm plantations in the northern Peruvian Amazon.”

Adrian Torres has also been very busy. Not only was he a teaching assistant for this year’s field course at Cocha Cashu (during which he developed the pilot stage of a personal research project looking into the ecology of the Triplaris – Pseudomyrmex system), he was also field assistant in Kirstie Hazelwood’s and Harald Beck’s project on seedling ecology, led by Timothy Paine, another ‘Cashu nut’. He says that acting as T.A. in our course has furthered his interest in bioacoustics and landscape ecology, and he may be hatching a plan on this subject for next year.

Viviana Ramos is a park guard in the Alto Purus National Park and tells us that our course has helped to orientate her ideas towards addressing the problems of biodiversity conservation and management in tropical ecosystems. She is currently working on her thesis project, entitled “Density of mammals hunted by the Amahuaca and Sharanahua ethnic groups, Alto Purus watershed.”

Last but not least, David Chang also returned to Cocha Cashu this year as a teaching assistant, and is now finishing his thesis on stress markers in wild bird populations in Lomas de Lachay, while looking forward to starting a Ph.D. in Ecology.

So, let’s, for a moment, break our mission down into its components. Did we recruit some of the brightest and the best? Most certainly. And are they motivated to continue on a path of exploring, understanding and conserving Amazonian ecosystems? We believe so, judging by their dedication to their ongoing research and the fact that no fewer than three of the course graduates returned to Cocha Cashu in 2014 as teaching assistants. We are proud of our new generation of ‘Cashu nuts’ and will continue to follow their careers with interest.

Jessica Groenendijk is the education and outreach coordinator at San Diego Zoo Global’s Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Manu National Park, Peru. Read her previous post, Welcoming Students to Cocha Cashu.