conservation work


With a Little Help from Our Friends

Boy Scouts Orlando Arnold, Jr. and Cory Chatterton are hard at work making artificial burrows for our tortoises.

I’ve spent over 10 years working in conservation, and no matter where in the world you end up, whether it’s here in the States, down in South America, or halfway around the world in New Zealand or Australia, one thing is painfully clear: there’s a lot of important conservation work that needs to be done and there never seems to be enough resources to get us to where we want to be. Though the budget shortfalls sometimes make the work a bit more difficult, one area in which I’ve been repeatedly amazed is the great support we often receive from members of the community and enthusiastic folks who come out and donate their time and a bit of sweat helping us get our work done. Conservation and the science behind it is not a solitary endeavor. Many people go into making every project succeed, and I just wanted to take this opportunity to remind all of you who may have helped with a conservation project (with San Diego Zoo Global or otherwise) or are thinking about volunteering that your time and enthusiasm really do make a huge difference!

Volunteer Simon Madill works on some fence repair for our on-site tortoise research.

Here at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas, spring is standing on our doorstep, and we’re all preparing for the start of a new field season. Our research team is getting ready to embark on some new projects here on site, one of which required us to fix up some old tortoise pens that had fallen into disrepair over the past 10 to 15 years. This was a HUGE undertaking and one that would have taken me months of digging artificial burrows and fencing ditches as well as updating and fixing the fences for over 20 100-foot-long pens. A couple of months ago I was beginning to wonder how I was ever going to get it all done and if we’d have anywhere to put our tortoises in the spring. But the world works in mysterious ways, and just in the last month we’ve had some amazing volunteers lend a hand.

Members of the Nevada Conservation Corps after two days of fixing fences in our experimental tortoise pens.

Troop 336 with the Boy Scouts of America, Las Vegas Area Council, led by Cory Chatterton, some members of the Nevada Conservation Corps, and one of our long-term volunteers, Simon Madill, came to my rescue. Nearly 40 people came out over several days, and after some long hours of swinging shovels and pick axes in the desert sun and hours of cutting and tying up fencing, we have finally finished 20 tortoise pens!

All the enthusiasm and hard work of our volunteers mean that this spring we are able to start our tortoise behavior study. I am hopeful that the things we learn will help to improve our future reintroductions of animals back into the wild.

Jennifer Germano is a postdoctoral researcher at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Tortoises and Their Amazing Feats.


Listening for a Kiwi

Steph holds Tweety. The black tape around his feet prevent him from injuring himself or the researchers.

A season of kiwi conservation work has begun! After graduating from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF), I’ve made the journey down to New Zealand to work with postdoctoral researcher Sarah Jamieson of San Diego Zoo Global and Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand.

Let me introduce myself: my name is Steph Walden, and I’ve spent the past two summers doing biology fieldwork on Alaska’s North Slope (2009) and St. George Island in the Bering Sea (2010). Now I’m volunteering for about nine months to learn more about the nocturnal North Island brown kiwi.

Graduate student Alex Wilson and volunteer Katy Gibbs measure Gotham, a 7-month-old juvenile. Alex's project, through Massey University, focuses on kiwi chick behavior. She collects radio-tagged juveniles each month to document their growth and monitor their health status.

My supervisor, Sarah, is a Canadian researcher studying North Island brown kiwis on a private island in the Hauraki Gulf. Most of our work is done with the use of radio telemetry, which is essentially listening to sequences of beeps coming from radios on the kiwis. We’re studying about 40 kiwis on the island, and each bird has its own name. The beeps are transmitted on individual stations for each bird, and they translate to indications of activity levels during the night. Studying this activity and making note of where the kiwis burrow before, during, and after their breeding season will, we hope, give us a better understanding of their breeding ecology.

Sarah and I spent the first few days on the kiwi island getting me acquainted with the farm we live on and the gullies in which our kiwis live. That involved some training with radio telemetry, which is a new skill for me. I can tell it will involve some seemingly aimless wandering as I “follow” signals, but at least I get to be in a beautiful location!

I got to see a kiwi for the first time after about four days in New Zealand. I watched Katy, an experienced volunteer, roll up her sleeves and stick her arm down a hole in the ground where we thought “Tweety” was sleeping. She worked to get her hand around both legs before feeling confident she had control of the bird and could pull it out safely so we could verify whether it really was Tweety. I was surprised to see that kiwis don’t try to bite, unlike the other birds I’ve worked with. In fact, once the kiwi was out of the burrow it was somewhat content to try to tuck its head under Katy’s arm!

Sarah uses radio telemetry to track a male kiwi in a nearby burrow.

That was one of my first unique experiences, and I’m sure there will be plenty more to come. I’m looking forward to helping out with some farm work for Dave and Ros, the farmers who own the island and allow us to work there. Some friends back at UAF wondered why I’d volunteer on a project for nine months, but I think it’s already pretty obvious that this is a fantastic opportunity! It’s really neat being here in New Zealand to study one of its national symbols. Apparently kiwis are so rare that many Kiwis (the people) have never seen one. I’ve already had the chance to hold one and to see a few running around at night!

Steph Walden is a volunteer for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.


Neighborhood Creek to Zoo

Ron and his family on a nature hike.

October was Kids Free Days at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Our Institute for Conservation Research staff shared their interactions and connections with nature at a young age and how these connections put them on their career paths. Read a previous post, Desert Memories.

It’s a little sad to see Kids Free month—and our renewed focus on getting kids and their families out in nature—come to a close. Every day of every month should be kids in nature day! That’s how I remember my childhood—the long summer days spent exploring the local creeks and woods, the afterschool afternoons spent building forts and treehouses, the weekend camping trips to the beach and the mountains. I grew up in suburban North Carolina, but there was plenty of nearby nature to sink my muddy feet into. The thing is, you don’t need a National Park to experience nature, you just need a canyon, a creek, or a vacant lot to cultivate some nature rituals.

The greatest gift my parents gave me was freedom, a freedom to roam and experience nature, hands on and unstructured. They set geographical boundaries, but really, as long as I got home before the streetlights came on, I was good. Those days are gone, I know, but I hope parents can be convinced once again that nature is not that dangerous a place—it is a rich and wonderful place, and free time in nature can do wonders to make children more healthy, happy, and creative.

Nature also provides those transformational experiences that bring many of us to a career studying—and trying to save—nature. Nature is frequently a transcendent experience for me, and I’ve had the good fortune of spending time in some pretty inspirational places, ranging from my own backyard to the pristine wilderness of the rain forests of the Amazon. A single experience does not, cannot, stand out for me, in part because I have spent a great deal of my life searching out these transcendent experiences. I am a nature transcendence junkie.

A young Ron enjoys a local creek.

I’ve always had a love affair with trees and creeks. As a child, my mother tells me that she used to go out and call me, craning her neck up to scan the trees to find where I might be. I built tree houses, simple platforms, or just crawled out on a limb. I stayed for hours, surveying the world below, imaging myself as some more arboreal animal. (The other day I asked my oldest son, Owen, five years old, what superpower he would choose if he could have any. Without missing a beat, he said “super climbing powers” so he could really master his tree climbing. I’m sure I would have made the same choice at his age.) I even broke my arm falling out of a tree when I was seven and nearly gutted myself on a sharp stick when a vine swing over a small ravine snapped and sent me free-falling into the creek below.

The other transcendent experience from childhood came at a local creek, just two short blocks from my house. I built hundreds of dams along that creek, captured frogs, tadpoles, and crayfish, then re-liberated them and never failed to come home wet, muddy, tired, and happy. I was a high-energy kid and have little doubt I would have expressed all the signs of ADHD-type personality if I had been cooped up with digital media hours a day.

A young Ron and his collection box.

Collecting was another natural endeavor that engaged me and at times neared obsession. On trips, my father finally got fed up with me filling the car with all the nature odds and ends I pulled out of the woods and insisted on carting home, so he gave me a shoebox, with a string run through it for a strap, and said, “You can bring with you anything that you can fit in there.” And invariably I filled it with magic—bird feathers (I still vividly remember finding the tail feather of a red-tailed hawk), bits of mica, bones of all sorts and sizes, all kinds of rocks, gnarled sticks, fall leaves, textured bark…anything I could fit into that box.

Checking out a panda scent mark in the Foping Nature Reserve, China.

These experiences profoundly shaped who I am as an adult. It came as no surprise to my family when I decided to pursue my Ph.D. in animal behavior at the University of California, Davis, studying the dynamics of ground squirrel-rattlesnake interactions, then moved on to “give back” to nature by coming to the San Diego Zoo, where I began my conservation work, first with giant pandas and rhinoceroses, and, these days, with about anything that walks, crawls, slithers, or flies.

I am trying to pass this gift on to my own children now, giving them every opportunity to hike, camp, and explore our nearby nature. My wife and I have founded our own family nature club, and we are helping other families get nature “back on the to-do list.” We’ve also joined the national movement to reconnect children to nature and serve on the steering committee of the San Diego Children and Nature Collaborative (for more ideas about how and where to go to experience San Diego nature, visit http://www.sdchildrenandnature.org/).

Collecting rhino dung samples in iMfolozi Park, South Africa.

Where will the next generation of environmental stewards come from if this generation does not experience nature? Respect for nature comes from the heart, and to have nature in your heart you need to experience it, not just observe it on TV. For the health of our planet, we owe it to ourselves and our children to “just step outside.” It’s easy, it’s fun, and it’s what you’re looking for—quality time with your loved ones.

So, Kid’s Free Month at the Zoo and Park may be finished for the year, but we hope kids and families will keep getting outside to explore the great outdoors—at the Zoo, the Safari Park, and the canyons and parks around your home!

Ron Swaisgood is the Brown Endowed Director’s Chair of the Applied Animal Ecology Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Manu National Park: Worth the Bites.