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Conservation

29

World Orangutan Day

Today is World Orangutan Day! On this day, organizations around the globe are highlighting the plight of one of our closest living relatives, the tree-dwelling “person of the forest.” These special creatures are not important just because they are large mammals, or because they remind us of ourselves, but also because they are so integrally connected to the forests they inhabit. With more than 500 known plant species encompassed by their diet, this red ape is a significant factor in seed dispersal in the ancient forests of Indonesia and Borneo.

But the forests, and the orangutans that depend on them, are dwindling. Habitat loss is occurring in Southeast Asia at an alarmingly rapid rate, with Indonesia and Malaysia losing more than 6.5 million hectares (more than 25,000 square miles) in the last few decades. As a result of this habitat loss, the two orangutan subspecies are experiencing a steep decline. The Sumatran Orangutan is critically endangered; the IUCN estimates that no more than 7,300 remain in fragmented patches of forest, primarily in Aceh, Indonesia.

Forest loss in orangutan habitat has a number of causal factors: mining operations and tree harvesting for the pulp and paper industry are two of the usual suspects. But one of the most significant reasons for deforestation over the last twenty years was the rampant growth of the palm oil industry. Production of oil palm, an agricultural commodity that grows only in tropical regions, has skyrocketed: between 1990-2010, Indonesia experienced a 600% increase in land dedicated to the crop. To protect and preserve orangutans, and other species dependent on these forests, conservation biologists have been searching for a way to stem the tide of deforestation due to palm oil expansion.

San Diego Zoo Global has joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), and has been working with other North American zoos and RSPO stakeholders to strengthen and improve its efforts to move the palm oil industry toward sustainability. Along with other members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the accrediting body for North American zoological institutions, we are exploring ways to ensure the preservation of biodiversity in areas impacted by oil palm.

Today, on World Orangutan Day, the AZA has announced its support for the development of a sustainable palm oil marketplace.  AZA member zoos, including San Diego Zoo Global, collectively educate and entertain 180 million guests each year. That is a significant audience that can help push for change that will “break the link between palm oil and deforestation,” a move necessary to preserve orangutans and other wildlife into the future. As RSPO members, SDZG stands alongside the AZA in recommending that North American consumers help to increase the uptake of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) in our supermarkets. Currently, there is more CSPO produced each year than is purchased for consumer goods. Since CSPO is produced in accordance with sustainable principals and criteria as set forth by the RSPO, orangutans would benefit if demand for CSPO were to rise. You can learn more about CSPO, and the product lines containing it, here.

We have a long way to go to ensure that the beautiful, long-haired “person of the forest” remains in wild places in the future. On World Orangutan Day, we ask you to consider how you might actively participate in efforts to preserve our red-haired cousins by beginning your own journey to sustainability. A good first step? Find ways to modify your habits to include more CSPO in your purchases. Together, we can help secure the forest home for the orangutan, and all its jungle brethren.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

 

2

Upcycling: Recycling at its Finest

These colorful critters are made from upcycled flip flops!

These colorful critters are made from upcycled flip flops!

Upcycling reduces waste by using existing resources to create products rather than harvesting new raw materials. Think of it as converting trash into environmentally friendly products or art. How is this relevant to San Diego Zoo Global? We are a conservation organization dedicated not only to protecting wildlife and plants, but natural resources as well.

For instance, our gift shops promote upcycling and sustainability by carrying Ocean Sole’s statues of rhinos, elephants, and giraffes made from upcycled flip-flops. Ocean Sole collects 400,000 discarded flip-flops per year that litter Kenya’s coastline and refashions them into colorful, hand-made statues. Ocean Sole reduces oceanic pollution AND fosters a connection between Kenyans and their surrounding marine ecosystem. Ocean Sole also improves the quality of life for the women who make the statues. By earning their own incomes, they can afford to send their children to school. Some even save money to start their own businesses.

It's amazing what crafters can make with old aluminum soda and beer cans!

It’s amazing what crafters can make with old aluminum soda and beer cans!

Similarly, our gift shops sell animal statues made of upcycled beer and soda cans as part of a GreenZoo initiative. Every ounce of aluminum recycled is an ounce of bauxite, an ore in aluminum, that doesn’t have to be mined. Bauxite mines are located in prime wildlife habitat in South Africa, South America, Russia, the West Indies, and the United States. The mines disrupt wildlife habitat, and chemicals from the mines often pollute waterways. The GreenZoo animal statues available in our gift shops were hand-made in South Africa by local artisans.

My favorite example of upcycling is elephant PooPooPaper. An adult elephant eats up to 300 pounds of roots, grasses, and bark each day. That’s a lot of fiber. Most of it passes undigested into 100 pounds of poop per elephant per day. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park sends the bulk of its manure to a farmer across the street who grows hay for the animals at the Park. The PooPooPaper we sell in our gift shops is made from elephant droppings in Thailand. PooPooPaper processes the fibers in elephant poop into paper with environmentally friendly methods to clean, boil, mix, blend, color, screen, dry, and cut the fibers. Poop has actually been upcycled for centuries as fertilizer, fuel, building material, and insect repellent. PooPooPaper takes this idea to the next level, upcycling waste materials and supporting our involvement with Elephants Without Borders, an organization dedicated to studying the migration routes of the 220,000 endangered elephants in southern Africa. Buying paper made of elephant poop saves both natural resources and elephants! Gift shops at the San Diego Zoo also sell giant panda PooPooPaper that upcycles and help saves giant pandas.

These whimsical animals are made from snare wire.

These whimsical animals are made from snare wire.

Upcycled products are often colorful, creative, inexpensive, and environmentally friendly. But you don’t have to shop at a zoo to upcycle. You can save the planet’s resources by upcycling at home. Turn old glass bottles into hanging lamps. Use an old computer tower as a mailbox. Make a bookshelf out of a ladder. Turn an old musical instrument into a fountain. Or create a recycling can from old water bottles. The next time you get ready to throw something away, ask yourself if that trash can be turned into treasure.

For more information about upcycling, and for additional creative upcycling inspirations for your home, school, and community, visit the following websites:

Our gift shops also sell items made to support South America's only bear species.

Our gift shops also sell items made to support South America’s only bear species.

1. San Diego Zoo Global Green Practices
2. Upcycling Re-values and Re-purposes Trash
3. Upcycle That—Upcycling Ideas and Inspirations
4. Here are 30 Brilliant Ways to Use Old Stuff You’re About to Throw Away
5. 10 Ways to Reduce Ocean Plastic

Elise Newman is a Caravan Safari guide at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Hide & Seek: Followers and Tuckers.

18

On the Palm Oil Path: A Journey to Sustainability

Making informed palm-oil decisions can help Indah and Aisha's wild brethren.

Making informed palm-oil decisions can help Indah and Aisha’s wild brethren.

When you watch the San Diego Zoo’s orangutans brachiating from branch to branch, it’s easy to picture the movement of wild apes through the canopy of those big trees in Borneo and Sumatra. Watching our sun bear Marcella sleep high in her climbing structure, you can envision a wild sun bear resting up in the canopy close to the fruit of a monstrous tree. There are a number of species that depend on the lush forests of tropical Southeast Asia, and these species are now at risk due to rampant deforestation and loss of habitat. As mentioned in a previous post, The Palm Oil Conservation Crisis, one of the major drivers of that deforestation is unsustainable palm oil cultivation.

The palm oil conservation crisis is a highly complex problem that cannot be solved overnight. However, San Diego Zoo Global has waded into the issue and hopes to contribute to a solution that can preserve forests and the wildlife that depends on them. Our first step was to join the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a multi-stakeholder organization that has produced a series of criteria aimed at altering the palm oil supply chain to produce a sustainable crop. (See press release Three US Zoos Take Leadership Role in Supporting Sustainable Palm Oil Practices.) The goal of the RSPO is to make certified sustainable palm oil the norm, thus ending the unsustainable practices that endanger forests. The RSPO is a young organization, and though it has made great strides in its 10 years, there is still a long way to go toward ensuring that palm oil is deforestation-free.

This is the reason North American zoos and aquariums are stepping up to address this issue, too. As conservation entities, we want to ensure a wild future for the species many of our guests see at our facilities. I just returned from the first Sustainable Palm Oil Symposium, hosted by the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado. Cheyenne Mountain was the first North American zoo to join the RSPO, and in hosting this symposium they helped to facilitate a dialogue among concerned zoos about what we can do, collectively and as individual institutions. We got an on-the-ground perspective from attending NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that work in Malaysia and Indonesia, and this allowed us to have a better understanding of what parts of the industry are likely to be most responsive to our efforts. It was really inspiring to be surrounded by like-minded folks who are as passionate about the palm oil conservation crisis as we are. Zoos around the world are raising awareness of the problem and are trying to encourage the transformation of the palm oil industry to sustainability. At the symposium, we realized that we might wield a powerful voice if we unite in our efforts.

That is very much our goal now. I hope to share with you some of our efforts and accomplishments over the next several months. In the meantime, you can help by supporting the RSPO’s vision to transform the palm oil industry. Think of this transformation as a journey toward sustainability. Zoos, corporations, and even the RSPO are on a journey, each of us in a different place, but the goal is clear. San Diego Zoo Global supports those companies that are making progress toward a sustainable palm oil industry. We encourage you to support the RSPO and those RSPO-member companies that are taking steps along their journey to sustainability, too.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

200

Yi Lu Ping An (Have a Good Trip), Yun Zi

The time has come to say goodbye to our good-natured young panda, Yun Zi. Yesterday, January 9, 2014. He embarked on his most momentous adventure yet—a move to his homeland. After crating up easily, our boy was loaded into a vehicle for the trip to Los Angeles, where he caught his flight to China. Thanks to the diligence and careful planning of our staff, he is well prepared for his journey.

The keepers worked to ready Yun Zi for all of the transitions he is about to make. He began crate training some weeks ago, getting used to the transport crate he will live in for a few days as he hops across the pond and heads up to the mountains of his ancestral homeland. As anticipated for such a smart and easy-going boy, he adapted to his new crate easily, spending time feeding inside it and accepting treats from his keepers through the openings of the crate.

Yun Zi Throughout the Years

Yun Zi Throughout the Years

Keepers have also been preparing him for the dietary transition he will undergo. In China, the pandas are not fed the low-starch, high-fiber biscuits and kibble they are used to getting in San Diego but instead receive a specially made formulation of bread that is foreign to our bears. Our keepers have access to that bread recipe and for some time have been whipping it up in our on-site kitchen so that Yun Zi could adapt to this new culinary staple. Thankfully, he had taken to the new bread, perhaps better than any of our returnees ever had.  This means dietary changes in China won’t be a big deal for our boy.

Since he is traveling in winter, staff wanted to prepare Yun Zi for the big change in temperatures he will experience. Keepers had been fattening him up a bit, and he has little rolls of flesh that will serve as extra insulation against the cooler mountain air. He looked nice and robust.

Staff has also prepared videos to leave with Yun Zi’s new Chinese handlers that detail aspects of the training he has received. This will help his new keepers to better understand the commands he has been taught, and, hopefully, will enable them to continue to use his training to facilitate future husbandry and veterinary procedures. Our video contains shots of Yun Zi sitting quietly while having his blood drawn, for example; his training allows this procedure without the use of anesthetic. This is a highly desirable, low-stress way to get biomedical data from him, and we wanted to be sure his new handlers are aware of his capabilities.

Yun Zi isn’t traveling alone on this voyage. He is attended by his primary keeper, Jen, who has been with him from birth. She had been actively engaged in his training, both during and prior to his preparation for departure to China. Yun Zi knows and trusts her, and this will be a comfort to him on his journey. In addition, a veterinarian is accompanying our boy on his flight, should there be any medical concerns to address. We anticipate that will be unlikely.

On Wednesday, the keepers began preparing his food bundles for the trip, and I know they were selecting choice bamboo culm to keep him content on the flight. Jen will ensure he receives regular munchies throughout the trip and will regularly refresh his water and clean up his crate to keep him comfortable. All of the plans and preparations are in place.

All that’s left now is to wave goodbye. 

Farewell, Yun Zi. You were a fun and exciting part of our panda research program. Even from far away, you will always be a member of our San Diego Zoo giant panda family. Yi lu ping an.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

 

4

For the Love of Lemurs and Monkeys

Black and white ruffed lemur

Black and white ruffed lemur (photo by Rose Marie Randrianarison)

I recently returned to Madagascar after a five-year hiatus. Even though these days I am steeped in research and conservation work in Asia, I was thrilled when the opportunity arose for me to revisit the island. As a scientist, I am not embarrassed to profess my fondness for lemurs because there is nothing embarrassing about transforming one’s passion into action. And lemurs are the reason why I became a primatologist in the first place.

I still vividly remember my very first lemur encounter. It was with a group of sifakas. In the lush rain forest, enveloped in a shroud of mist and fog and breathless from hiking up what I thought was the steepest trail in the world, I was astounded by the sheer beauty of these animals. There I stood, quietly watching the sifakas move about from tree to tree, so elegant in their posture, like ballet dancers pirouetting across an emerald stage. By the end of my field season, despite all the rain and leeches, I was absolutely hooked on lemurs!

Fast-forward 20 some years: Madagascar still excites me in the same way and my fervor for lemurs has not waned. At Maromizaha, which I visited on this trip, I was enthralled by the myriad of creatures that call this forest home. On my first morning walk, 6 of the 13 species of lemurs greeted me. Maromizaha, like many rain forests along the island’s eastern strip, is a true naturalist’s paradise!

Brown lemurs

Brown lemurs (photo by Zafison Boto)

The most impressive lemur is the indri. Weighing about 17 pounds, it is the largest living lemur species in Madagascar. Indris are known for their operatic singing ability. Often in the morning, male and female indris can be heard singing duets to announce their presence in their territory. There is another lemur in the forest with a well-endowed voice, the black and white ruffed lemur, although its vocalization is more a cacophony than a melody! Lemurs are so interesting to me because of their biology, and through this exploratory trip I hope to learn more about the lemur community in Maromizaha.

North of Maromizaha is a famous national park called Mantadia. Just a little to the west is another well-known preserve called Andasibe (also known as Perinet). These three forest parcels at one time were connected and quite large—but today they appear as isolated specks on a map. Slash-and-burn agriculture, logging, and mining are the main contributing factors to these ever-shrinking forests. From one of the highest points in Maromizaha, I could see where this paradise ends. Beyond is a much different world—a barren landscape devoid of all vegetation and lemurs. How do we protect a paradise like Maromizaha?

Diademed sifaka (photo by Chia Tan)

Diademed sifaka (photo by Chia Tan)

The answer is conservation partnerships with a focus on scientific research, local capacity-building, rural development, and education. So when my colleague, Professor Cristina Giacoma from the University of Torino, Italy, learned about the successes of our camera trap research, in-country training, and education program for schoolchildren in Fanjingshan, China (see posts What Might Monkeys Be Up To?, Monkeys, Leopard Cats, and Bears, Oh My! and March of the Little Green Guards), she invited me and San Diego Zoo Global to partner with her Biodiversity Integration and Rural Development (BIRD) project in Maromizaha.

This approach to biodiversity conservation is not new but it has been proven effective. Our initial camera trap work in Maromizaha and a survey of Malagasy children’s preferences and knowledge of wildlife have produced very promising (not to mention some surprising!) results. Cristina and I will soon meet in China where our partnership continues, and she will witness firsthand the ongoing conservation and research projects we have with partners in Guizhou and Beijing. There, our labor of love will help conserve leaf-eating monkeys, such as the highly endangered Guizhou snub-nosed monkeys and François’ langurs.

Chia Tan, Ph.D., is a scientist in the Behavioral Biology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

 

 

1

With a “Headstart,” Local Turtles Make a Comeback

Researchers carefully placed radio transmitters on five western pond turtles to keep track of them after release. (Photo by Ken Bohn)

Researchers carefully placed radio transmitters on five western pond turtles to keep track of them after release. (Photo by Ken Bohn)

Barely bigger than an English muffin, the dark-shelled turtle flails his webbed feet, and cranes his neck to peer at the people carefully applying epoxy to his shell. Usually a reclusive conservation celebrity, this pint-sized reptile is one of five turtles being released into a San Diego watershed to bolster wild populations of California’s only native freshwater turtle species. For western pond turtles (aka Pacific pond turtles) Emys marmorata the team of federal, state, and zoo scientists releasing the juvenile turtles into the Sycuan Peak Ecological Reserve is a much-needed effort to prevent their extinction.

Three years of collaboration between the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), California Department of Fish and Wildlife, San Diego Association of Governments, and the San Diego Zoo are invested into this pilot project to “headstart” pond turtle youngsters and remove nonnative species from their habitat. “We have raised these turtles at the Zoo to get them large enough to avoid predation after release,” explained Thomas Owens, San Diego Zoo senior keeper. “It’s been like reverse quarantine for them. They are isolated from animals in the collection and we make sure they are handled according to protocol to ensure we will not transmit any diseases to wild populations when we release them.” With a three- and four-year “headstart,” the juveniles are no longer bite-sized morsels for other animals.

Two days before the release, staff gathered at the Reptile House at the Zoo to test and attach the radio transmitters. Clean and dry (unusual for a turtle), each turtle was weighed before the three-gram “radio pack” was attached and then weighed after it was attached. The rule of thumb is that radio packs or GPS devices should not exceed five percent of the animal’s body weight. “Large species like elephants and crocodiles, among others, have been tracked using GPS devices,” said Thomas. “But with these small turtles, which only weigh about 300 grams, it’s necessary to use tiny battery-operated devices like these radio packs. These weigh one to two percent of the turtle’s body weight.” The battery will last about three months. The antenna is carefully glued to the turtle’s scutes to not interfere with its shell growth. After much measuring and trimming of the wire, it was carefully held in place until the epoxy hardened. The first four turtles stayed safely tucked inside their shells throughout the procedure, but the last one was more rambunctious and dared to look around, urinate, and squirm in the scientist’s grasp. “The turtles all have their own personality,” said Thomas. “Some are shy and some are more assertive.” That also explains the significant size difference between them: the oldest is not the biggest, but rather a more aggressive feeder. When they hatch, the pond turtles are about the size of a quarter, so they can be easily predated by a variety of other animals. Now, at three and four years old, these guys are past the appetizer size and appear robust and healthy; they won’t go down without a fight.

Release Day

Brandon Scott (L) and Thomas Owens, reptiles keepers at the San Diego Zoo proudly hold their headstarted turtles. (Photo by the author)

Brandon Scott (L) and Thomas Owens, reptiles keepers at the San Diego Zoo proudly hold their headstarted turtles. (Photo by the author)

We met up with Thomas and two other reptile keepers, Rachel and Brandon. The five pond turtles were secured in a box with a wet towel, ready for their journey to East County. After close to an hour’s drive, the road turned dusty and wound through rustic riparian forest dotted with car-sized boulders: we entered the Sycuan Peak Ecological Reserve. Staff from our partner organizations joined us at the gate to the reserve. Another short drive and a short hike landed us at a pool with all the things a pond turtle loves: logs and granite rocks for basking, fresh, cool water for swimming, cattails and willows for shade, and plenty of insects and invertebrates to eat. Placed gently on the water’s edge, each turtle swam swiftly into the murky pond to begin its life anew.

USGS Zoologist Denise Clark released a western pond turtle. (Photo by the author)

USGS Zoologist Denise Clark released a western pond turtle. (Photo by the author)

The released turtles will be checked on daily by USGS and Zoo staff will radio track them three times a week. “Once they have established their mircrohabitat, they won’t have to be monitored so frequently,” said Thomas. Shortly before the transmitter batteries run down, scientists will catch the turtles again, give them an exam, and attach a fresh radio pack. Nonnative predators like bullfrogs and sunfish have been removed from the area to improve the turtles’ survival. “It’s exciting to partner with organizations to help restore native species to local watersheds,” said Thomas. For the mysterious western pond turtles, the project is going swimmingly!

Karyl Carmignani is a staff writer for San Diego Zoo Global.

4

Birds of the Past Reveal Genetic Secrets

Paquita examines samples of archived bird specimens.

Paquita examines samples of archived bird specimens.

The smell in the collections room immediately brings back very good memories. When I first visited the California Academy of Sciences in 2007, their collection was temporarily housed in a different facility. Now I am standing in a room of a spectacular modern building in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. The location may be different, but the smell hasn’t changed. Ten thousands of bird and mammal specimens from all over the world are stored here.

My mission is also almost the same. I am here for the Galápagos mockingbirds, the birds that have been the center of my scientific interest for many years now. Moe Flannery, the collections manager, guides us through the narrow hallway lined with massive cabinets. I am accompanied by my friend and colleague Tandora Grant. We need to find a very specific drawer, one that carries the tag ‘Mimus parvulus’ and contains the specimens of the two Galápagos mockingbird subspecies ‘wenmani’ and ‘hulli’. Moe successfully locates a few ‘Mimus parvulus’ drawers, but as we look through the nametags of the specimens inside, we read ‘personatus’, ‘barringtoni’, ‘bauri’… Not the right ones. I am still delighted by their sight; it feels a little bit like seeing old friends.

When I came here in 2007 as a Ph.D. student, I spent a few days with these birds, working on 349 of them. Some of them look different from each other. Millennia of living on isolated islands have shaped these birds into different species and subspecies – like the Darwin’s finches that have become a textbook example in evolutionary biology. But it was actually the mockingbirds’ distinct look on different islands that gave Charles Darwin his first vital clue for his theory of speciation under natural selection.

Tandora helps sleuth out  genetic mysteries of the birds of the Galapagos.

Tandora helps sleuth out genetic mysteries of the birds of the Galapagos.

The birds we are looking at, lined up side-by-side, belly-up and legs crossed, are all well over 100 years old. The nametag on their legs specifies their origin and species’ name. Because the taxonomic knowledge has changed since their collection, many actually carry two or three tags with updated information. We can’t see ‘hulli’ or ‘wenmani’ anywhere. “Every once in a while we get unlucky,” Moe says before she takes off to get a tall ladder on wheels that resembles a portable staircase. She climbs to the very top and pulls out the top drawer. Back down on safe ground she asks, “Is Culpepper what you’re looking for?” I feel immediately embarrassed—I’ve forgotten the islands’ old names! Like the birds, the islands were renamed several times over the last century. Tandora grabs her iPhone and Google’s Culpepper. Yes, it is Darwin Island, and birds from Wenman, now called Wolf Island, lie in the same drawer. We found what we came for!

Darwin and Wolf islands are the most remote of the Galápagos Islands, separated from the rest of the archipelago by a stretch of almost 100 miles of open ocean. For a somewhat flight-lazy bird, like the mockingbirds, such vast open water with no other islands in sight is probably quite an effective deterrent to emigration. That’s at least my hypothesis and the reason why these specimens, now neatly placed in front of us, are of so much interest to me.

Galapagos mockingbird species from 100 years ago awaiting sampling.

Galapagos mockingbird species from 100 years ago awaiting sampling.

I’ve studied these birds for many years now. I spent many months in the Galápagos and visited almost all islands to collect blood samples from the different mockingbird species and populations. A little drop of blood from a couple of dozen birds from each island was all I needed to let them tell me about their interisland traveling habits. The birds’ genetic information gave me insights into their population sizes and their relationship between different islands. The analysis of the historic specimens that I sampled at the Academy in 2007 added an interesting timely perspective; it revealed which island populations have changed the most over the last century.

I take out my sample collection material. These specimens from Darwin and Wolf escaped my scalpel blade last time. At the time, it was uncertain whether I would be able to obtain contemporary samples of their subspecies. Now their time has come. I pick up the first specimen and cut a tiny piece of tissue sample from one of the toe pads. One specimen down! The spot on the foot where the sample was taken is barely visible. Minimal damage to the specimen, but lots of new information to be gained.

The historic samples we’ve just collected are the first step in the discovery of the genetic secrets of these two remote populations. Together with collaborators, I am planning to climb onto Darwin and Wolf islands early next year to collect blood samples from living birds. The islands are infamous for their inaccessibility, but we’ll have an excellent team at hand. Let the adventure begin!

By Paquita Hoeck, Ph.D., San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

5

It’s (Almost) Black Tuesday for Bees

The damaging effects commercially managed bees experience from pesticides are also suffered by native bees.

The damaging effects commercially managed bees experience from pesticides are also suffered by native bees.

Yes, I mean the catastrophic crash of the stock market in 1929 and the economic Great Depression that followed. As I listened to today’s stock market gains and losses on PBS’s “Marketplace,” I was struck by how closely our society follows this information. We pay attention because it affects our lives directly. The situation with pollinator decline is no less critical yet is barely on the radar of most. Since we have not hit bottom yet, it seems like a problem for another day—and there is no index to tell us how close we are.

Still, the warning bells are ringing. Pollinators like bees, butterflies, beetles, and flies are in crisis worldwide, suffering from pesticide exposure, habitat loss, and disease. Pollinators make fertilization possible for many plants; without them, food as we know it would simply not exist: no fruits, veggies, peanut butter, or chocolate—and that’s just a start.

If this suddenly sounds like the same old story you hear about humans and nature, stay with me a little longer. It’s more than another wildlife-in-crisis story, and I can guarantee that it will affect you personally—and definitely financially—if we keep the current course.

So, in the spirit of “Marketplace,” let’s do the numbers!

Visit the San Diego Zoo’s Pollinator Garden.

30% of the food we eat results from insect pollination.
This includes everything from cucumbers to squash, coffee to basil, strawberries to cantaloupes, cashews, and everything in between. It doesn’t include the insect-pollinated foods like alfalfa and clover that we feed to our livestock (where we get milk, eggs, and meat), so the percentage is likely much higher.

There is a 59% decline in overwintering monarch butterflies in the Central Mexican butterfly preserves since 2012.
75% of the Earth’s flowering plants depend on insect pollination to set seed or produce fruit.
The value of insect-pollinated crops in the US is $27 billion.

US beekeepers experienced a 30% decline of managed honeybee colony winter losses in the 2012-2013 year.
This number is far greater than the acceptable range of losses and only represents winter loss, not total loss. There are only about 2.5 million commercial honeybee colonies in the US. For perspective, it takes 1.6 million colonies to pollinate the annual almond crop alone.

THREATS TO POLLINATORS
Pesticides
All insects are affected by contact with insecticides. In particular, a newer class of systemic insecticides called neonicotinoids has been shown to severely affect bee health. In agriculture, this type of insecticide is most often applied as a seed coating, and the insect nerve poison is subsequently expressed in every tissue as the plant grows; leaf, stem, pollen, and nectar.

As a result, though the insecticide is targeted at “pest” insects, there can be serious consequences for any insect that visits the plant for nectar or pollen. Some need only be present when the planting occurs, as some of the chemical seed coating is released in a crop “dust” in agricultural plantings. The effects of these pesticide exposures include immediate death by contact, but some are sub-lethal, meaning that the animal does not die right away but experiences disorientation, loss of navigational ability, paralysis, and even memory loss as the result of contact.

Though there are federal regulations governing the concentrations of these poisons in agriculture, there are none for home use. Many products containing this type of insecticide can be found in local home improvement stores for landscaping use. Consumers often do not follow the instructions for application, and the concentrations can be many times higher than federal regulations allow. This means more of the poison will find its way to bees and other insect pollinators through gardens and runoff from irrigation.

It is important to note that the majority of research on pesticide effects in pollinators has been conducted in honeybees, because they are managed commercially and are thus more accessible and measurable. Since their biology is very similar to that of native bees, it is safe to assume that the damaging effects they experience from pesticides (and other sources) are also suffered by native bees.

Habitat loss
As human populations grow, less space remains for native pollinators. Overgrown spaces with wildflowers, weeds, and nesting sites are disappearing, making way for manicured lawns that eliminate key nectar and pollen sources like dandelions and encourage pesticide use. Agricultural practices claim land that was once suitable pollinator habitat with a diversity of nectar and pollen sources and replace it with insecticide and herbicide-laden monocultures.

Genetically modified (GM) crops
Two types of GM crops are routinely used in agriculture. One is an insect-resistant type, where a bacterium that is lethal to certain insects is incorporated into the genome of the plant, and the target insect species are killed upon feeding on the plant.

The second is an herbicide-resistant variety and is definitely of concern for pollinators, especially butterflies and bees. In herbicide-resistant GM crops, the plants are engineered to be resistant to applications of certain herbicides. As a result, the crop can withstand repeated applications of herbicide, which in turn kills all the flowering weeds surrounding the planted area.

This is of particular concern for monarch butterflies, whose larval host plant is milkweed, which thrives in disturbed habitats and has historically been found adjacent to crops. Most people are familiar with the epic migration of the monarch butterfly to the oyamel fir forests of Central Mexico. This year, the count of overwintering monarchs in the protected reserves revealed a catastrophic drop—down an incredible 59 percent from that of 2012 and standing at an all-time historical low since the migration was discovered in the 1970s. Lack of available host plants due to GM-related herbicide application has been identified as a significant contributor to this staggering decline.

Diseases
There are a great many parasites and pathogens that burden pollinators such as bees, and the ones causing the most damage are introduced species. Native bumblebees suffer from a nonnative fungal disease, while honeybees struggle with introduced ectoparasites such as Varroa mites and fungal infestations from Nosema spores.

A combination of all these and probably other factors has created the phenomenon Colony Collapse Disorder, which is decimating honeybee colonies in the US. The precise cause is unknown, because the bees simply disappear, thus taking the evidence with them. But one thing is clear—life is hard for commercial honeybees these days.

Pollinator gard_1

A native bee house for mason and leafcutter bees in the Pollinator Garden provides holes to make nests.

WE ARE HERE FOR THEM
At the San Diego Zoo, we are committed to helping pollinators recover:

Providing a safe haven
We have a pollinator “way station” at the Pollinator Garden, located at the entrance to Elephant Odyssey. This space is dedicated to helping sustain pollinators by providing a steady supply of pesticide-free nectar and host plants, as well as suitable living spaces for native bees. We have a large section of milkweed available for monarch butterflies to lay eggs on from spring through fall, helping to boost the West Coast population.

Educating our guests
Our Education Department is working with Zoo Corps kids to help raise native milkweed for monarch butterflies in our Pollinator Garden. Staff have also incorporated the garden as a teaching tool for various curricula.

Live and let live
Where possible on Zoo grounds, we allow honeybee swarms to move on in their own time and only actively remove established hives when either human or collection animal health is clearly at risk.
National Pollinator Week awareness
The Entomology Department participates every year in National Pollinator Week, with the help of many departments. During the entire week, the insect keepers are giving daily presentations on bees and other pollinators at the honeybee display in the Insect House at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 pm.

HOW ABOUT YOU?
A steady wave of small choices can help turn the tide. Here are a few ways you can help:

Buy organic
If you don’t currently buy any organic foods or clothing, think about picking even one item the next time you visit the store. For one, you could potentially lower the demand for crops produced using pesticides and reduce the overall application (over one MILLION pounds yearly) of these chemicals in the US. This alone will help pollinators.

Secondly, even if you don’t care about whether or not you eat GM crops, buying crops that are genetically modified supports the practice of widespread herbicide application in agriculture and the decimation of pollinator habitat that results. Organic items cannot intentionally include GM crops; those labeled “No GMO” have been positively determined not to contain them. One item in your basket is a small step in the right direction for pollinators.

Build your own way station
Plant some milkweed! Create a habitat in your yard, garden, or flowerbox that invites pollinators. Some great planting information can be found at www.xerces.org, along with more details on the status of pollinators and insect conservation in general.

Avoid pesticide use at home
If you really, truly must use pesticides, read the manufacturer’s instructions on recommended concentration, and only use it at or below that level.

Let part of your lawn go wild for pollinators
Long, overgrown grasses create a perfect habitat for nesting and overwintering native bees, and flowering weeds are a staple nectar and pollen source for bees and butterflies alike. Keep in mind that most native bees are solitary and do not sting readily. They are good, safe neighbors—especially if you have a garden.

Tell your friends
Most people have no idea that the sustainability of food as we know it is so tightly linked with the health of pollinators. Share what you know!

UNDERWRITE THE FUTURE FOR POLLINATORS
This week, June 17 through 23, is National Pollinator Week. It is the perfect time to visit the Zoo’s Pollinator Garden and spend some time watching monarch butterflies laying eggs, and bees and hummingbirds finding a nectar or pollen meal in a beautiful flower.

But it is an even better time to act. If we can all make one small change in our habits this week, we could make a big difference for pollinators. To bring it back to our financial analogy, it has been said that if more people knew the current status of pollinator decline, they would be more concerned with that than with the ups and downs of the NASDAQ or S&P 500.

So now you know the stakes—and you are definitely a stakeholder. Will you invest in the solution?

Paige Howorth is an animal care manager at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, The Queen Will Not Be Denied!

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Panda Cam Brings Healing

Our animal cams aren’t just for fleeting entertainment. As a wildlife conservation organization, our mission is to connect people to wildlife and conservation, and our live cams are incredibly powerful tools that allow us to connect people to wildlife worldwide in real time. With the birth of our sixth panda, Xiao Liwu, Panda Cam has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. We get comments from people all over the world about Panda Cam, but one in particular touched us, and we wanted to share it with you. Enjoy.

“My sister and I began watching these bears when our little gift was born. Then I took them to the hospital where I work and began sharing. For all of my patients and our nursing staff from Sutter Cancer Center in Northern CA, I say THANK YOU to all at SDZ. Your Panda cams and blogs have made a difference in how our very ill patients cope and get through their medical processes.

I am an Integrated Therapist & Medical Aromatherapist. The first thing I do for a new patient who will be staying for awhile is show them how to log on to the Panda Cam. We have all watched our “little gift” be born and grow & now make his debut. He is a wonderful deterrent to pain, depression, loneliness and hopelessness. We all thank you so much for providing this wonderful gift for us and our patients. It speaks to the Quality of their Life as they go through treatments.

This is something that should be put in all hospital long-term care and critical-care units. In the love of this little fuzz ball, my patients need less medication for coping and sleeping. I have been known to turn off their computer as they fall asleep with Xiao Liwu sleeping quietly on the screen in their lap. [All hospitals] should consider using this in their critical care and long-term care facilities.

We all love you Bai Yun and our little healing bear, “little Wu.” Happy anniversary to Gao Gao! Forever fans, Robin Gayle & Dixie Lee.”

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global.

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Starting the New Year Healthy: 20th Exam

Giant panda cub Xiao Liwu was a very busy boy during his weekly exam at the San Diego Zoo. When brought from his den, the rambunctious cub went straight to his toys, climbing headfirst into a doughnut-shaped plastic ring, playing with a ball, and frolicking in a tub while chewing bamboo. He quickly indicated, by running off and squirming from his keepers, that he wanted to play versus being weighed and measured.

The cub’s 20th exam showed the five-month-old panda is healthy and developing well. He is stronger, more agile, and continues to erupt baby teeth and is mouthing, chewing, and teething a bit. The young cub weighed in at 16 pounds (7.3 kilograms) and measured just over 30 inches (76.5 centimeters) in length from nose to tail tip.

 

 

“Xiao Liwu was very active, very strong, and very exploratory during his exam this morning,” said PK Robbins, senior veterinarian at the San Diego Zoo. “He is moving about very quickly and exhibiting great confidence in his strength and climbing abilities. At this rate, I think we will see him venturing into more areas of the giant panda habitat very soon.”
Click on chart to enlarge.

Click on chart to enlarge.

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global.