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San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research

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Drought: Reptiles Don’t Like It, Either!

A cell phone photo taken of the habitat at the Safari Park Reserve in August 2014 shows just how devastating the drought has been on our local habitats.

A cell phone photo taken of the habitat at the Safari Park Reserve in August 2014 shows just how devastating the drought has been on our local habitats.

The drought has been awful for Southern California residents: dry, hot days, water restrictions, and a brown landscape. These are things we can all live with, but for our resident native reptiles and amphibians, drought can be a life-or-death situation. I have been working in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Biodiversity Reserve (a 900-acre area adjacent to the Safari Park) for 15 years studying the reptile and amphibian species that call it home. This year I began a project studying a relatively rare coastal sage scrub species, the coastal patch-nosed snake Salvadora hexalepis virgultea. My plan was to capture at least 10 animals and implant them with radio transmitters so I could follow their movements and study their ecology. On normal rainfall years I see an average of eight of these wonderful snakes, so I figured that if I actively searched for them, I would be able to get a good sample size to study. However, I did not count on the drought being so intense.

Snakes get most of their water from the food they eat, and when there is no water, the food disappears as well. Many of our small, native animals tend to stay underground during such “tough times” and await better weather. Not only did many of the prey species disappear over the spring and summer, but the snakes also stayed deep underground to conserve moisture. Some snakes and other reptiles came to the surface for a brief period during the breeding season (April through June), and I was able to find a couple of patch-nosed snakes for my study. Unfortunately, reptile activity ceased altogether soon after. On a good spring day in a year with normal rainfall, I can find up to 20 snakes belonging to 8 to 10 different species in a single day. This year, in stark contrast to normal expectations, my best snake day yielded just two snakes. In addition, I spent nearly every day in the field for seven weeks in May and June and only saw two rattlesnakes. As the summer progressed and the habitat became more and more dry, very little lizard and snake activity was observed.

A red diamond rattlesnake found during a cover board array survey in 2010 at the Safari Park Biodiversity Reserve shows how lush and green the hills were that year.

A red diamond rattlesnake found during a cover board array survey in 2010 at the Safari Park Biodiversity Reserve shows how lush and green the hills were that year.

August is often our driest month, so we rarely see many animals in the field at that time. We often wait until late September before we start seeing hatchlings and juveniles along with occasional adult animals. This year, the young snakes have been virtually nonexistent, and that makes sense. If the adult female snakes and lizards cannot gain enough body mass, they generally will not reproduce. Since most of our wild animals stayed underground for much of the year, they probably did not feed and therefore were unsuccessful in breeding.

Last week I saw firsthand how difficult the drought has been on our native snakes. While walking through the coastal sage, I found a large, female red diamond rattlesnake Crotalus ruber. She was very thin and could barely move. I presume she had recently given birth (rattlesnakes in San Diego County give birth to live young in August and September) and just did not have enough body mass to make it through her pregnancy. No baby snakes were found in the vicinity, and I can only hope this female pulls through. If she had babies, they will, hopefully, be able to hold out until the rains eventually arrive.

A cell phone photo shows an emaciated red-diamond rattlesnake at the Reserve in September, 2014. Many of our local reptiles and amphibians are suffering from the recent drought.

A cell phone photo shows an emaciated red-diamond rattlesnake at the Reserve in September, 2014. Many of our local reptiles and amphibians are suffering from the recent drought.

In over 30 years of field “herping” (searching for reptiles and amphibians), I have not experienced drought conditions worse than those seen in 2013 and 2014. In fact, the North American Field Herping Association has shown just how bad the drought has been on Southern California snakes. When comparing non-drought year data from July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2012, with drought year data from July 1, 2012, to June 30, 2014, for snakes found in Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, 4,971 snakes (1,055 hatchlings) were found between 2010 and 2012 whereas only 2,888 snakes (680 hatchlings) were found from 2012 to 2014. It is also interesting to note that there were more contributors to the database in the latter years, so roughly half the snakes were found by considerably more field herpers in the drought years than in the normal rainfall years, and roughly half the hatchling snakes were found in the drought years than in the normal years.

Here's a portrait of a healthy long-nosed snake in the Safari Park Biodiversity Reserve in 2009.

Here’s a portrait of a healthy long-nosed snake in the Safari Park Biodiversity Reserve in 2009.

So what does this all mean? Nobody can be certain right now. We do know that our climate has boom and bust years and drought and rainfall totals are very cyclical for most areas of the world. However, our findings to date do suggest that climate change is occurring at a rapid pace, and we all need to do our part to protect the environment and our natural resources, especially the snakes!

Jeff Lemm is a senior research coordinator in the Behavioral Ecology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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Catching Rock Iguanas: Easier Said than Done!

Corinne PisacaneThis year I traveled to the Turks and Caicos Islands to study wild rock iguanas. The Turks and Caicos rock iguana Cyclura carinata is endemic to this Caribbean country and is critically endangered. Our team flew to the island of Providenciales, the main hub for tourist travel. From there we continued in a much smaller plane across the beautiful and shallow waters of the Caicos Bank to our final destination, Big Ambergris Cay. This island, located about 40 miles east of Providenciales, is diminutive in size, measuring about 4 miles (6 kilometers) long and only 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) wide. Its highest point is less than 100 feet (30 meters) above sea level. In addition to the iguanas, this secluded island hosts a number of private residences, and there are plans for a large housing development, which poses a potential threat to iguana habitat on the island.

During my time on Big Ambergris Cay, I was involved with a graduate student’s dissertation project involving iguana capture, relocation, and the subsequent examination of homing abilities (among a number of other iguana-related activities!). Every day we set out after it warmed up enough for iguanas to come out of their nooks and holes. Once we located individuals of interest, we set about stalking them. A number of our team members then attempted to catch iguanas of interest with varying degrees of success. Sometimes the lizards were just too fast and would elude our attempts with ease!

Once caught, our next challenge was to try to take a blood sample from each iguana to measure baseline stress hormones. From the moment we caught each iguana, we had exactly three minutes to successfully collect the blood. Any time over three minutes meant that stress hormones (or glucocorticoids) had already reached the iguana’s circulation, meaning we were measuring its stress response to the capture, which was not our goal. As you can imagine, this made for a very exciting three minutes!

If we were not successful, the iguana would be released and not considered as part of the study. If we did succeed, the iguana was then numbered using a system of color-coded beads strung through Spectra line and placed on both sides of the iguana’s dorsal crest between the shoulder blades. This dorsal skin is similar to that of our earlobes, and the stringing of the beads is thought to feel much like piercing one’s ears. Once we were finished marking individuals with beads, each iguana was also fitted with a small radio transmitter to enable future tracking of their movements on the island.

After the identification beads and radio transmitter were secured, iguanas were released at their point of capture and tracked for two weeks to determine their home range. Then they were recaptured and relocated to a different study site just under a mile away to determine if relocation might be used to successfully mitigate future development. As soon as they were released, the race was on! Equipped with radio-receiver equipment, researchers tracked the movements of the iguanas daily to investigate where they went. It appears that adult iguanas can usually find their way home, although how they do so is still not fully understood. By contrast, the homing skills of juvenile iguanas don’t appear to be as developed, and they usually stay put in their new home. For this reason, juvenile iguanas make better candidates for relocation than adults.

Alongside all the capturing and relocating of iguanas, our team also processed all the blood samples collected. This was no small task, as the logistics of processing blood on a small Caribbean island are very involved and time sensitive. Samples had to be frozen immediately, which required transferring them from a portable mobile cooler, carried by each researcher, to a larger cooler on a golf cart (the only mode of transportation around the island!) and then, finally, back to one of our rooms where we’d set up a mobile laboratory. Overall, this was quite an operation! Picture at least half of a dorm room set up as a temporary lab with collection tubes, a centrifuge, slide-staining equipment, and blood-draw needles.

Having traveled to a number of tropical places, I had expected the Turks and Caicos landscape to be all soft sand and friendly flora, with iguanas living in a beach environment. How wrong I was! All this capturing, relocating, and tracking takes place on volcanic-like ground that can quickly tear up ordinary shoes. The ground is also uneven and makes capture and tracking a slow and strenuous process. In addition, the small shrubs and trees are full of thorns and are quite abrasive. As a result, we always wore long pants and covered up at all times, making the work more challenging as it got extremely hot outside. Thick-soled shoes were also critical if we were to move around quickly enough to capture iguanas and avoid large thorns entering the soles of our feet. While we find it difficult to deal with this kind of environment, the iguanas have evolved to be perfectly suited to it.

This type of research is critical to gain a thorough understanding of the biology and behavior of the Turks and Caicos rock iguana. As with most endangered species, we need to be diligent about setting aside the necessary habitat for these amazing reptiles. Rock iguanas throughout the Caribbean are in danger of losing their habitat as a result of human-related pressures. I learned a great deal while on Big Ambergris Cay and am very grateful that I could be involved with iguana conservation in such an amazing habitat!

Corinne Pisacane is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, ISWE: Cheetah Pseudopregnancy?

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Understanding Wildlife Trade In Asia

A sign outside a store in Luang Prabang, Laos, advertises ivory for sale.

Typing this from a café in Laos, I am thinking about and facing one of the greatest threats to biodiversity: the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife parts. I’m looking at a sign in a shop across the road, advertising elephant ivory for sale. Recently, I walked through the local night markets, with wildlife parts such as muntjac horns, turtle shells, pangolin scales, bear teeth, leopard cat teeth, and wild pig tusks, among others, for sale. Earlier I passed a restaurant that had two macaques in tiny cages. Last week, I passed a house in an upscale neighborhood of Phnom Penh where a brave wild bear cub (its mother killed by a snare in the forest) escaped its tiny cage, scaled the wall, and landed in the pool of the boutique hotel next door. Thankfully, the cub was rescued and is now being rehabilitated in the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre.

Recently, I walked through the local night markets, with wildlife parts such as muntjac horn, turtle shells, pangolin scales, bear teeth, leopard cat teeth, wild pig tusks among others for sale. Earlier I passed a restaurant that had two macaques in tiny cages. Last week, I passed a house in an upscale neighborhood of Phnom Penh, where a brave wild bear cub (its mother killed by a snare in the forest) escaped its tiny cage, scaled the wall, and landed in the pool of the boutique hotel next door (see photo). Thankfully the cub was rescued and is now safe and being rehabilitated in the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre.

A three-week-old Asiatic black bear cub is one of a pair of cubs rescued from the wildlife trade and now being cared for at the Phnom Tamao Bear Rescue Centre in Cambodia. It is destined for a wonderful life in the forest.

Of all the species we work with at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, by far the most complex and dynamic are humans! Numbering over 7 billion, with countless cultures, motivations, and world views, humans are an extremely complex, yet central element in conservation initiatives. Successful conservation requires a multipronged approach, tackling the biochemical, ecological, and behavioral aspects of wildlife and the cultural and economic countenance of humans.Our Conservation Education Division focuses on the socio-ecological aspects of conservation across three main themes: conservation education, conservation social science, and community-based conservation. As a community-based conservation ecologist, I focus on the intersection of wildlife and humans, using both ecological and sociological research methods to inform our projects, which is why I am in Southeast Asia.

Three of the 20 Souphanouvong University students who, after participating in our training workshop, partnered with us to conduct wildlife surveys in Laos. They are conducting surveys at the Tat Kuang Si Reserve in Laos.

With its dense, tropical forests, rich biodiversity, and large human populations, Asia is a center of wildlife trade. Despite many countries having made capturing, poaching, killing, and exporting of wildlife illegal, poaching and consumption of wildlife still abounds. The history of wildlife use in Asia is a long and ingrained one, where for over 3,000 years wildlife has been used for food, traditional medicine, entertainment, and decoration. It’s embedded in many cultures here.

Couple that history to the rapidly developing economies and expanding middle class here, and it has meant a continued (and growing) demand for wildlife products, many of which are regarded as status symbols. Tackling such normative aspects of culture to try to curb this tide of wildlife use, and to eliminate demand, is a big challenge!

The Free the Bears team designs and refines the survey instrument for Cambodia.

Since the beginning of September, I’ve been in the field collaborating with our partners at Free the Bears. They are dedicated to conserving Southeast Asian bears, specifically the Asiatic black bear Ursus thibetanus and the sun bear Helarctos malayanus. These species are poached from the forest and killed for their gall bladders. The cubs are captured and placed in bile-harvesting farms where, confined in small cages, bile is periodically withdrawn from their gall bladder using a large needle over the next 10 years or so. Both species are also killed for their paws, which are used in bear paw soup and bear paw rice wine, and for their claws and teeth, which are used for decoration. Lastly, cubs of the killed parents are taken for the pet trade.

A recently rescued sun bear is in quarantine before being released to the forest enclosures in the Phnom Tamao Bear Rescue Centre in Cambodia

Free the Bears staff patrol for and remove snares from the forest and actively rescue bears from confinement. We are supporting this work by developing and conducting human dimension surveys about wildlife in Cambodia and Laos. Our collaborative project employs a novel approach to understand people’s knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs toward wildlife and to learn about their usage of bears for parts and pets. Understanding how people think about and view wildlife is vital for developing conservation interventions, especially when tackling wildlife consumption. It will also form the foundation of future communication and education efforts about wildlife. People’s attitudes often drive their behaviors; by better understanding attitudes, we can more effectively affect behaviors.

A sun bear does what it does best: living a free life in its native habitat.

In Cambodia, we are conducting face-to-face interviews with people about their knowledge and attitudes toward wildlife. We are using a randomized response technique (RRT) to ask about wildlife usage. Why? When you ask people about illegal activities (such as drug-use, DUI, etc.), they may not answer truthfully, so data may be biased or unreliable. RRT uses a randomizing device (such as dice or coin flip) that allows the respondent to answer truthfully while maintaining anonymity. Even the interviewer does not know their response! For Cambodia, we are basing our RRT around a local dice game called khla-kluk.

Students at Souphanouvong University in Laos are excited to help out conservation after our workshop.

In Laos, we’re using a different approach. We’re asking people to complete a self-administered questionnaire, which we have translated into several languages (see images). We partnered with the Women’s Union and Souphanouvong University students, whom we trained to conduct surveys. With this wonderful team of 30 citizen scientists, we have collected over 700 surveys. By the end, we will have over 1,000. This is a fantastic response and the first of this scale in Laos.

We are grateful to the governments of Cambodia and Laos for their bold action around making wildlife trade illegal and for allowing us to conduct these surveys. We are also grateful to our many local partners, who are doing the hard work of administering the surveys in the coming months. It is hoped that we can adapt this survey for use across Southeast Asia and India in a comprehensive assessment of wildlife usage.

David gives a lecture (via a translator) about conservation in Laos.

It is through efforts like this, and the incredible work of the Institute, San Diego Zoo Global, Free the Bears, and others that I can stay hopeful, even as I look at wildlife products for sale. Why? Because we’ve not given up, and we are working in smart, complementary, and sustainable ways to tackle these threats so that humans and wildlife can co-exist.

Thanks to you for your continued support, which makes this work possible.

David OConnor is a research coordinator for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, World Giraffe Day.

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Who Will Catch Johne’s Disease?

Gina Geiselman works with DNA samples in the Genetics Lab.

Gina Geiselman works with DNA samples in the Genetics Lab.

Wild animals can be endangered for many different reasons, most of them related to habitat loss, poaching, climate change, and pollution. However, disease outbreak in wild and captive animals has also been a factor of major concern to conservationists. Diseases such as Johne’s (pronounced yo-nees) disease have been reported in hoofed mammals at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park, jeopardizing valuable animals designated to specific breeding programs or exhibits. This disease is a bacterial infection that causes wasting and chronic diarrhea, eventually leading to death.

Because of the potentially disastrous effect of Johne’s disease on captive wildlife health and conservation, it is vital to identify those individuals at higher risk or more susceptible to the disease and prevent mortality. This summer, I had the opportunity to work in the Genetics Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research exploring genetic markers potentially associated with species susceptibility to Johne’s disease in various hoofed mammals in our collection, including springbok, water buffalo, and various goat species.

Above is sequenced white-tailed gnu DNA from the gene SLC11A1.

Above is sequenced white-tailed gnu DNA from the gene SLC11A1.

I examined genetic variation in genes that have been used to study Johne’s disease in cattle and a similar disease in humans, Crohn’s disease. These so-called “candidate genes” for Johne’s disease did not show evidence of being associated with susceptibility to Johne’s, as patterns of genetic variation were not correlated with levels of incidence across species. This result was disappointing but somewhat expected, given that genes associated with disease susceptibility are typically very hard to identify, especially among animals in managed care with small population size and related individuals.

Nonetheless, this study was a great opportunity for me to learn new genetic techniques. It opened up a new possibility for evaluating more genes and also additional animals in future studies. Animal care and well-being is a San Diego Zoo Global priority, and using genetics as a tool may help improve the management of these precious and endangered animals.

Gina Geiselman is a 2014 summer fellow at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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Would a 3-month Course in Remote Amazonian Field Site Change Your Life?

Guest lecturer Dr. Harald Beck explains his research on wallows created by peccaries and used by a variety of wildlife.

Guest lecturer Dr. Harald Beck explains his research on wallows created by peccaries and used by a variety of wildlife.

Would three months living and studying in one of the most remote field stations in the tropical rain forest change your life? At the Cocha Cashu Biological Station’s annual field ecology course in Peru, offered by San Diego Zoo Global, that’s our mission—to change lives. With the support of some generous donors, we were able to recruit and fund this exceptional educational opportunity for 10 bright and motivated Peruvian college students. They arrived at the field station full of potential and ready to soak up knowledge and experience like sponges.

A red howler monkey stretches to reach some ripening figs.

A red howler monkey stretches to reach some ripening figs.

Why should this be such a life-changing experience? First, imagine the remoteness. Deep in the heart of Manu National Park, the Station is set in the midst of primeval forest and has the complete portfolio of Amazonian wildlife. Giant otters and black caimans swim in the lake in front of the Station, catching fish and occasionally harassing each other. Peccaries and tapirs visit the mineral licks at night to eat clay (as a digestive aid and to get valuable nutrients). Macaws of all colors fly overhead, and the river is lined with skimmers, Orinoco geese, and horned screamers. Columns of army ants march across the forest floor and, yes, a few mosquitos and biting insects can also be found…but it’s not that bad. And the trees! The magnificent trees soar majestically skyward. So diverse is this forest that a couple of acres contains more than 150 species of trees. Not least, the instructors are well-seasoned biologists with years of experience in the Amazon with an Amazon-sized devotion to the cause of tropical conservation.

One of the students finds a prize, a tapir skull.

One of the students finds a prize, a tapir skull.

I’m here for a two-week visit to check in on the Station and help with the students. I’m not sure what is more rewarding: exploring the forest and its wildlife or seeing these students’ whole world open up as they see new possibilities. Already the experiences they’ve had are remarkable. I would have made great sacrifice at their age to experience something like this. Over the next three months these students will receive expert tutelage on the natural history and ecology of the Amazon, designing and implementing ecological research, and connecting with the wonderful diversity of life found at Cocha Cashu. It’s bound to change lives.

Ron Swaisgood, Ph.D. is the Brown Chair and director of Applied Animal Ecology for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research and the general scientific director of the Cocha Cashu Biological Station. Read his previous post, Bagging Tasmanian Devils: Can We Save a Misunderstood Creature?

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Bagging Tasmanian Devils: Can We Save a Misunderstood Creature?

Devils really are quite cute…and have an undeserved reputation for being vicious. Photo taken at the Tasmanian government’s Taroona Wildlife Centre, which breeds devils for reintroduction.

Devils really are quite cute…and have an undeserved reputation for being vicious. Photo taken at the Tasmanian government’s Taroona Wildlife Centre, which breeds devils for reintroduction.

Tasmanian devils are bedeviled with a most hideous disease, and conservationists are having a devil of a time dealing with it. It would be funny, the devil jokes, if it wasn’t so sad. This magnificent animal, still best known as a Saturday morning cartoon, is facing a severe threat in the form of devil facial tumor disease (DFTD). Almost universally fatal, this strange, contagious form of cancer is marching across the pristine habitats of Tasmania, wiping out the devil population like a giant wave of death. How does one tackle such a monumental problem? The job of a conservationist is never easy, but this one is particularly intractable.

An animal caretaker shows onlookers just how “vicious” devils are. No harm done, but, hopefully, they have a shirt replacement program. Photo taken at Trowunna Wildlife Park, an early leader in the conservation breeding program.

An animal caretaker shows onlookers just how “vicious” devils are. No harm done; hopefully, they have a shirt replacement program. Photo taken at Trowunna Wildlife Park, an early leader in the conservation breeding program.

Exploring answers to the question “How can we do something to help the devil?” was the goal of my recent trip to Tasmania, where I met with the biologists leading the charge to save the devil. One approach is to study the disease and devil genetics, and a number of scientists are doing just that, including a postdoctoral fellow from San Diego Zoo Global. But I’m an ecologist and reintroduction biologist, so I met with the field team biologists working for the Tasmanian government. A talented and passionate group, they opened my eyes to these bedeviling problems.

Dr. Samantha Fox, Team Leader, Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, has found what she’s looking for: a devil in one of her baited traps.

Dr. Samantha Fox, Team Leader, Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, has found what she’s looking for: a devil in one of her baited traps.

First on my agenda was to visit the breeding centers. The idea here is to breed a “clean” population free of disease to reintroduce back to the wild. That program is doing well and already has a population of 600 plus.

Next, I visited Maria Island, where the first group of devils was reintroduced a year ago. This place is “devil heaven,” so full of prey that devils would be hard-pressed to go hungry. With no vehicular traffic and only an on-foot tourist industry, human interference is minimal. I then visited the Tasman peninsula, slated to receive devils next year. Here, it will be a little messier. There are people, roads, and potential conflict with farmers, and it’s a peninsula, not an island. To minimize the chance of reinfection, a fence is being built across a narrow isthmus to keep DFTD devils from entering and spreading disease.

Dr. Fox bags a devil and gently extracts it, teeth and all.

Dr. Fox bags a devil and gently extracts it, teeth and all.

My last stop was the site of the monitoring program to meet with the Tasmanian government’s Dr. David (Doozie) Pemberton and team heading up the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program. This team is trapping and studying devil populations all over Tasmania, and I caught up with them on the northern part of the island. We set traps, and a few devils trickled into them, but it was clear DFTD had wreaked its havoc here already.

The whole process was an eye-opener for me, and I gained a whole new perspective on these devils. At the breeding centers I had seen and heard the ungodly commotion they make when fed a tasty wallaby. It was just what you would expect of an animal named devil (so named by early European settlers listening to the eerie sounds of the Tasmanian night). But these wild, trapped devils were a whole different animal. I watched in amazement as the biologist gently dumped her catch into a burlap sack. Now, I’ve done this with quite a few animals, and all of them go ballistic when they hit the bag. The bag looks like, well, like it’s got a devil in it. But these devils just go keplunk! The biologist gently rolled down the bag, lifted the devil’s head, opened its mouth, and examined its teeth. Yes, examined its teeth, the teeth of the animal with one of the strongest bites for its size in the Animal Kingdom. The devil just stared wide-eyed and put up no struggle at all. These devils were…so sweet.

The gape of the Tasmanian devil, displayed here in threat, seems a wonder of nature. But it’s the closing of the mouth that you have to worry about.

The gape of the Tasmanian devil, displayed here in threat, seems a wonder of nature. But it’s the closing of the mouth that you have to worry about.

This experience gave me a whole new perspective on devils and no small amount of respect for them and the biologists working to save them. We exchanged ideas, and I shared a few lessons learned from reintroducing other species. We’re planning on following up and working together more in the future. I can only hope that Tasmania can save this iconic species, and that our Zoo can play a small part. And, yes, I do have sympathy for the devil.

Ron Swaisgood is the Brown Endowed director of Applied Animal Ecology, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Titi Monkeys and Me.

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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.

 

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World Elephant Day

Christine Browne-Nuñez admires elephants in Amboseli National Park, Kenya.

Christine Browne-Nunez admires elephants in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Photo credit: Richard Nuñez

World Elephant Day, launched on August 12, 2012, is now an annual event intended to celebrate this beautiful and majestic mammal and to bring attention to the plight of Asian and African elephants and the numerous threats they face. Sadly, elephant tusks are one of the major reasons elephants are threatened. Elephant tusks are made into ivory carvings, jewelry, chopsticks, and other such trinkets. Some people in the world believe that elephant tusks fall out, like baby teeth in humans, and, to collect the ivory, all one needs to do is gather those fallen tusks off the ground. The truth, however, is that tusks are permanent and grow throughout an elephant’s lifetime. In order to get the ivory, the elephant is illegally killed. Because of the high demand for ivory, elephants are currently being killed at an alarming rate. According to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 35,000 elephants were poached in Africa last year.

My work with elephants began in 1995 as a manager of a volunteer conservation education program at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya, where local and international visitors came to see baby elephants and learn about elephant ecology and conservation. It was at the Trust that I witnessed firsthand the devastation caused by poaching, as many of the traumatized orphaned elephants had lost their mothers to the ivory trade. The good news is, individuals, organizations, such as DSWT, and governments around the world are working hard to bring an end to poaching by educating people about the real costs of ivory and by enforcing national and international laws that make it illegal to collect, sell, or buy ivory.

Many values are associated with elephants, which is, in part, why conserving elephants is a complex task. From an ecological perspective, the elephant has important roles in the environment. It is sometimes called an ecosystem engineer, with complex effects on its habitat and species diversity. It modifies its environment through activities such as seed dispersal, tree felling, bark stripping, and the creation of waterholes. From a social perspective, the many elephant lovers around the world appreciate that elephants are intelligent, social animals that communicate with others near and far, maintain strong family bonds throughout their lives, and have life stages parallel to those of humans. Additionally, many elephant behaviors, such as those demonstrated in greeting ceremonies or when standing over and covering a dead body or bones, are interpreted as displays of emotion. Elephants also have economic value at the local and national level by attracting tourists for consumptive and non-consumptive use.

An elephant gives itself a dust bath in Amboseli. Photo credit: Richard Nunez.

An elephant gives itself a dust bath in Amboseli. Photo credit: Richard Nuñez

Whereas the elephant is admired by many people around the world, not all people view elephants positively. About 70 percent of the elephant’s range lies outside protected areas on lands often occupied by people, highlighting the importance of maintaining private lands as viable elephant habitat. Therefore, conservation efforts aimed at protecting the elephant and securing habitat for its long-term survival need to be based on both ecological and human-dimensions information.

People and elephants have coexisted for millennia with varying levels and types of interaction, but negative interactions known as human-elephant conflict (HEC) are perceived to be on the rise in some places. Human-elephant conflict can come in many forms and result in property damage and injury and death of both people and elephants. Crop depredation, the most common form of HEC, is a critical issue in elephant conservation, especially as more land is converted to agriculture. In pastoral areas such as Maasailand, where I conducted research, coexistence is threatened as a result of the evolving socio-economic landscape.

The Maasai people living around Amboseli National Park, Kenya, located at the foot of the majestic Mt. Kilimanjaro, are traditionally semi-nomadic livestock herders. This livelihood practice facilitated their coexistence with wildlife, including elephants, in the Amboseli ecosystem for hundreds of years, but changes brought about by government policy, conservation policy, and immigration of peoples from other cultures has had a significant and on-going impact on their way of life. With more land under the plow and increasing competition for resources resulting from population growth, the level of conflict was on the rise.

A Maasai elder is interviewed. Photo credit: Richard Nuñez

A Maasai elder is interviewed. Photo credit: Richard Nuñez

My research found the Maasai were divided in their willingness to tolerate elephants on their lands. At the core of this division were perceptions about costs, resulting from HEC, versus benefits, namely tourist revenue. Conservationists working in this and other ecosystems are continually working to find solutions to HEC in order to secure long-term habitat for elephants. In Amboseli, such solutions include electric fencing around agricultural areas, compensation payments for loss of human life, consolation payments for livestock killed by elephants on private lands, and ecotourism schemes. My research found only a minority of local Maasai were aware of, or fully understood, these interventions, but of those, attitudes tended to be more positive. Conservation education and communication programs, such as those developed by our Conservation Education Division at San Diego Zoo Global, can increase awareness of these types of conservation activities and provide knowledge and skills to empower local people in managing and conserving wildlife.

It is evident that people have and will continue to determine the fate of the elephant. African savanna elephants will become extinct by 2020 if the threats to elephants are not adequately addressed. A vital component of conservation is understanding and influencing human actions. Ongoing ecological and social science research is needed in the varied settings in which people and elephants coexist in order to provide information for developing, monitoring, and adapting methods for protecting both species. Developing community-based conservation programs that include conservation education and communication is one of the many things we do here at the Conservation Education Division at San Diego Zoo Global.

Support the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy in its efforts to conserve elephants and elephant habitat. With your help, we can bring elephants back from the brink of extinction!

Christine Browne-Nuñez, Ph.D., is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

2

Not So Blue: Blue Mountain Koalas

This male was located just on the western edge of the Blue Mountains. Photo credit:  John Eggenhuizen

This male was located just on the western edge of the Blue Mountains. Photo credit: John Eggenhuizen

For the past few years my research with koalas in Australia has expanded to focus on koalas living in the states of Victoria and New South Wales (NSW). These regions are south of Queensland, where St. Bees Island is located, and are at the middle to lower portion of the koalas’ home range. We are studying koalas in these parts to further our knowledge of this species and to really start comparing them across their entire habitat. Their entire home range is about 1,800 miles (3,000 kilometers), and with every new project and section that we venture into we get more data on the interesting lives of koalas.

This past November I had the pleasure of heading off to Australia again to meet with colleagues studying koalas in the wild and to see one of these new locations for our koala research, the Blue Mountains in NSW. The Blue Mountains are a World Heritage Site and historically were home to abundant koala populations prior to the fur trade in the early 1900s. Today, koalas in this region are harder to find but may be a significant and genetically valuable population (and, no, the koalas are not blue!). The rough terrain and sweeping vistas that make this area a wonder to behold also make it difficult to track koalas in traditional ways.

The Blue Mountains are located in New South Wales, Australia. Photo credit: Kellie Leigh

The Blue Mountains are located in New South Wales, Australia. Photo credit: Kellie Leigh

In order to get in and find koalas, we are developing less traditional methods to track them. I went out to the area with Dr. Kellie Leigh of Science for Wildlife Inc so that we could assess the area and see where there would be potential spots for koala research. We didn’t see koalas while I was there, but what we did see were some signs of koalas, like claw marks on trees. On the heels of our trip there was a koala count: they have an app for that—Great Koala Count! This citizen science survey gives locals and visitors alike, in areas such as the Blue Mountains, the ability to record the presence of koalas. Some very interesting results came in with sightings of koalas in areas where koalas were thought to no longer be found. These sightings have helped Dr. Leigh narrow her search of where to begin in this vast koala habitat.

With my collaboration with Dr. Leigh, we hope to use all our knowledge of koalas’ behaviors as well as their scent to start training a koala-tracking dog to further our efforts to find these potentially elusive koalas in the Blue Mountains. This will take the help of our San Diego Zoo colony of koalas, as we are hoping to use their chemical profiles to facilitate the choice scents in order to train this dog to assist researchers in the Blue Mountains. Once we find koalas, they can be fitted with satellite GPS collars so the fieldwork that Dr. Bill Ellis and his team have done on St. Bees and continue to do in the Brisbane Valley area can be expanded. Through this research we are able to further our commitment to ensuring that koalas are around in their natural habitat for everyone to experience for generations to come.

Jennifer Tobey is a behavioral biologist in the Behavioral Biology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, A Koala Career.

4

World Giraffe Day

Rothchild's or Uganda giraffes would often just stare at me for hours during my research.

Reticulated, or Somali, giraffes would often just stare at me for hours during my research.

Let’s give giraffes the spotlight they deserve! Saturday, June 21, 2014, will be the first-ever World Giraffe Day. Finally, the importance of giraffe conservation is recognized! We agree with the organizers: the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere is the most appropriate day to celebrate the tallest animal! Plans are to have an Open House that day at the San Diego Zoo’s giraffe barn for all Zoo guests from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Keepers will be on hand to answer questions and show you giraffe biofacts.

While I may be biased, giraffes are the best animals there are. Giraffes are up there with elephants, rhinos, whales, and lions in iconic status in the minds of the public. However, compared to those species, we know relatively little about giraffes. They are the forgotten megafauna.

Here are just some of the things we don’t know for certain:

How many types of giraffes are there: 6, 7, 8, or 9 subspecies? Consensus is growing that there are 9.

How do we quantify a giraffe herd?
Giraffes seem to have fission-fusion assemblages, with individuals wandering in and out of groups seemingly willy-nilly, without anyone in charge. By the way, a group of giraffes is called a tower—brilliant!

How do they communicate?
They’re basically silent, although some researchers think giraffes may be communicating ultrasonically, and we just can’t hear it.

Giraffes are also good climbers.

Giraffes are also good climbers.

The greatest mystery of them all: Why the long neck?
This hasn’t been fully answered!

How many are there?
This is perhaps the most important question from a conservation perspective. We don’t know for certain, but the current estimate is that there are perhaps 80,000 left in the wild. That seems like a lot; however, that summation glosses over an ominous truth: giraffes are facing dark days and need our attention, research, and help.

Let’s dissect that 80,000 figure and break it down by giraffe subspecies. Please see Table 1 (below), and you can see it is a mixed story.

Giraffe Population Table

Some giraffes, such as the Masai, seem to have relatively healthy populations, while other giraffes are struggling. Especially startling are the West African, Rothschild’s, and Thornicroft’s subspecies population numbers. And Nubian giraffes, unfortunately, may already be extinct in the wild; we’re not sure. This massive rapid decline has occurred just over the past 20 years or so and with very little notice. Giraffes are slipping away in silence.

There are several reasons, we think, for these declines. We need more data, but the main causes contributing to the extinction of giraffes are habitat loss, poaching for food and mythical medical cures, and trophy hunting, to a lesser extent. Since giraffes are little studied, there are likely additional factors that we need to uncover.

But let’s take what we know. Habitat loss is the number one cause of species declines and extinctions worldwide. It is no different with giraffes. As human populations increase, and traditional livelihood and land uses change to being less conducive to wildlife, less room is available for giraffes to live and find food and water. Layered atop this are the climate-chaos induced changes in rainfall patterns. Unpredictable rainfall cycles result in less food resources for giraffes (and other herbivores), leading to a decline in population.

A male Masai giraffe strolls past flamingos in Tanzania.

A male Masai giraffe strolls past flamingos in Tanzania.

The next large driver toward extinction is also a recent development: poaching. Many poverty-stricken regions of sub-Saharan Africa have a hard time finding sources of animal protein. Growing human populations and a decline in traditionally harvested wildlife species have led people to seek new sources of protein. As such, giraffes are being poached in increasing numbers for their meat. Despite their size, giraffes can be easy to kill if you know what you’re doing. All poachers need is a bit of steel wire. A correctly placed leg- or neck-snare can capture a giraffe that is then killed or may be left to die slowly. Unfortunately, such poaching is having an increasingly devastating effect on giraffe numbers.

A third, and perhaps the most infuriating, driver of giraffe decline is poaching giraffes for mythical medical cures. Somehow, a myth began that, if eaten, giraffe bone marrow and brains will protect against HIV-AIDS infection. This is absolutely not true. But this myth has taken hold and created a black market, such that poachers can get U.S. $140 or more for giraffe marrow. This is heartbreaking on multiple levels. Giraffe are being pointlessly slaughtered to obtain a “medicine” that does not work. Add to this the human tragedy—all those who have taken this “cure” and falsely believe they are safe from infection. Thus, they engage in risky behaviors, become infected themselves, and likely further spread the AIDS pandemic.

My research has focused on giraffes in East Africa, specifically human-livestock-giraffe interactions. I studied how reticulated giraffes forage in the wild (what plants they eat and how high up) and how they co-exist with a newly introduced large livestock species, the dromedary camel. I noticed fewer and fewer reticulated giraffes in areas where camels are grazed. Reticulated giraffes have undergone a horrific decline: 80 percent over the past 15 years alone. Since the turn of the century, they have gone from about 28,000 strong to just 5,000 today. At that rate, they will be extinct by 2019. We have to act.

I dubbed this group of males the Tall Boy Gang.

I dubbed this group the Tall Boy Gang.

The underlying theme here is people-wildlife interactions. Successful conservation requires multidisciplinary and multi-pronged approaches that involve local people. If people do not buy into the conservation effort, then ultimately it is unlikely to succeed. So, in addition to better understanding the giraffe, we need to work in partnership with those communities living alongside giraffes to understand their cultural heritage, needs, desires, and goals. We need to offer poachers alternative, robust, and growing livelihoods and sources of income. We need to offer quality education to local communities. We need to offer sustainable sources of protein, and we need to collaboratively develop land and wildlife management plans. The holy grail? Make a living giraffe worth more to local communities than a dead one. By doing that, the rest takes care of itself.

That is what our team of community-based conservation educators with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research does. So, in short, let’s stick our necks out and stand tall for giraffes! In partnerships with local communities, we’ll roll our sleeves up and get about researching and working to raise awareness and appreciation for the conservation of the majestic giraffe.

You can help us bring giraffes back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe. Let’s do this! Happy World Giraffe Day!

Check out a short film from reticulated giraffe conservation fieldwork in Kenya:

David A. O’Connor, M.Sc., is a consultant with the Conservation Education Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, California BioBlitzin’.