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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Zoo Review: White Oak Conservation

You don't simply drop into the White Oak Conservation center on a whim, taking a Saturday visit with the family.  Unlike other members of the Conservation Centers for Species Survival, the facility is largely closed to the public.  Special guided tours can be arranged, though they are only set up by appointment on certain days.  The casual visitor would probably be more inclined to visit the Jacksonville Zoo, about an hour away, where a greater diversity of animals can be encountered in enclosures more conducive to viewing with much more ease and flexibility.  For a person interested in wildlife management and conservation, however, a trip to White Oak is an interesting and enjoyable experience.  In some ways, the entire tour is a behind-the-scenes peek at how modern zoos work to save species.

The history of the property, located on the St. Mary's River that divides Florida and Georgia, dates back to the 1760's.  The land was used as a rice plantation around the time of the American Civil War, and some of the architecture from the era remains; while there, I saw a cheetah dozing alongside a shed that our guide said was built in the 1830's.  Temporarily abandoned, it was purchased in the 1930's by the Gilman family.  It was under the management of this family that the center began to work with endangered hoofed animals, first almost as a hobby, later with more scientific management.  Purchased by Mark and Kimbra Walter in 2013, the center has continued its conservation work, dedicating itself to the breeding of endangered wildlife.

The center primarily works with endangered antelope, which are maintained in a series of large paddocks.  The mild northern Florida climate works well for African species, and White Oak is home to flourishing herds of addra gazelle, bongo, gerenuk, giant eland, and roan antelope, among other species.  Some of the antelope bred here have been sent back to Africa to participate in reintroduction efforts in the range countries.  While most of the breeding is done naturally, taking advantage of the large pastures that allow herd behavior, the center has also experimented with reproductive technology; for example, it was the first facility to produce gerenuk calves through artificial insemination, later resulting in second-generation AI offspring.

In addition to the antelope, White Oak boasts impressive herds of African buffalo, Grevy's zebra, Somali wild ass, giraffe, and okapi.  The later especially impressed me - I probably saw more okapi during my one day in White Oak than I have in my entire life.  The shy rainforest animals were all maintained - individually or in pairs for breeding - in large, densely forest paddocks, where they were easily lost among the the undergrowth.  The beautifully lightly-wooded giraffe yard also was spectacular - not just for the number of giraffes (including calves) present, but for the massive trees that dwarfed even the tallest giraffes.

White Oak is also home to three of the five species of rhino - white, black, and Indian.  The white rhinos have been especially prolific, again likely due to their herd management.  Many facilities have two or three white rhinos.  White Oak has dozens.  It's quite a sight to see mothers strolling around with their young calves trotting behind them, or to see three or four female resting in a row beside a mud wallow.

Rounding out the White Oak collection are a few birds in the form of cassowary, cranes, and curassows, as well as a few carnivores - maned wolves, tigers, and, especially, cheetahs (over 100 have been born here).  While not housed here on a regular basis, White Oak also has rehab facilities for Florida panthers. 

Again, White Oak is not a conventional zoo, and I think that a lot of my non-animal friends might not have enjoyed it nearly as much as I did.  There is a lot less diversity of wildlife than you would see at many zoos, instead focusing on the number of individuals. Even I, I'll admit, was starting to get a little restless after my thirtieth white rhino.  Also, because it's generally not open to the public and the emphasis is on breeding, there isn't spectacular viewing.  I was a little frustrated at points when there were animals that I really wanted to see better or photograph but I couldn't because of the rows of wire fencing in the way or the distance.

With that in mind, when you stop thinking of White Oak as a zoo and start thinking of it as a conservation center, your appreciation of it changes entirely.  It's so much more enjoyable to view it as something completely unique - a behind-the-scenes view at how endangered animals are being bred-back from the edge of extinction, and a chance to learn about how efforts undertaken here - or in Front Royal, Virginia, or Escondido, California, or Cumberland, Ohio - are helping to save critically endangered species around the globe.  My tour at White Oak might not have given me a lot of great photo opportunities, and it only added one new species to my life list.  It did, however, greatly expand my understanding and appreciation of the Conservation Centers for Species Survival.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Deep in the Heart of Texas

Calauit, in the Philippines, isn't the only place on earth where a assortment of exotic ungulates has been deliberately released into a new habitat.  I could think of examples far closer to home...

I was in high school when I visited Texas for the first time.  I went as part of a school group, guided by a biology teacher who was from the area.  It was my first time really going on "safari" - traveling a great distance from home for the expressed purpose of seeing animals in the wild.  In many ways, the trip was a success.  Over the course of a week of hiking, we encountered a cross-section of the south-central US bestiary, including roadrunners, collared peccaries, coyotes, and a half-dozen species of rattlesnake.  There was one wildlife encounter, however, which truly surprised me.

I was half-dozing in the car as we bounced along the dirt roads from one site to the next when I was woken by one of my classmates exclaiming, "What a funny looking deer!"  Instantly, I was up, nose against the window, hoping for my first glimpse of a pronghorn.  I didn't get it.  Instead, I saw two small hoofed mammals walking daintily across the prairie.  One, the female, could have passed for a pronghorn at a distance, with her tan coat and graceful frame.  Not the male, however.  His fur was jet black on the top, creamy white on the underside, with a pair of corkscrew horns crowning his head.

They were blackbuck antelope, naturally found in South Asia.  And yet here they were in Texas.

If I'd stayed longer in Texas, I might have encountered any of the other several dozen species of Africa, European, or Asian ungulates - deer, cattle, antelope, goats - that roamed the Texas plains.  Beginning with nilgai, another South Asian antelope, imported to the King Ranch in the 1930s, there are now several species loose on the plains.  Some of the interest has been in farming them - many of the animals chosen for release are species that are well adapted to arid grasslands.  A big part of the appeal, however, has been hunting.

Hunting is a big business in Texas, and when there is a big business, you can be sure that there will be a lot of competition for it.  It's not so surprising that some ranchers decided to take creative steps to boost their success.  Sure, they say, you can hunt white-tails on any ranch in the state... but where else can you get a set of kudu horns for your den wall?

Such exotic hunting has (not surprisingly) earned the wrath of animal rights groups who see people killing wild (and often endangered) animals for sport and profit.  It's not that cut and dry, however.  This is especially evident with three Sahelo-Saharan antelopes - the addax, the dama gazelle (also called the addra gazelle), and the scimitar-horned oryx.  With far more space at their disposal than even the largest zoos could offer, and with incentive to protect them because they were profitable, the game ranchers bred up massive herds of the critically endangered antelope.  Some of these animals are being contributed to reintroduction efforts in their native range.  For many years these ranchers were granted exemption from the Endangered Species Act regulations that limited the ability to buy, sell, and move these animals, but that has been challenged by animal rights groups.

There is no doubt that the conservation of these desert antelope has been positively impacted by their presence in the southwestern United States.  But again, lest things seem too cut and dry, black and white, there always remain the risks that these introduction schemes could pose dire consequences for the native wildlife and their habitats.  Consider the southeastern United States, where wild boar were introduced, also for hunting - and have since torn up the forests and swamps of the south.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Zoo History: Africa Comes to the Philippines

In 1976, Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta gave a speech at a conference of developing nations, imploring the outside world to step up the challenge of saving Africa's imperiled wildlife, threatened by war and drought.  Among those who answered the call, perhaps in an unexpected manner, was Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos.  Marcos issued a presidential proclamation which depopulated Calauit Island (relocating hundreds of Tagbanwa tribesmen to a former leper colony) and replaced them with African wildlife, imported directly from Kenya.  There, the beasts were turned loose.

One hundred African ungulates - includes 15 Grevy's zebras and 15 giraffes - were turned loose on March 4, 1977.  Within five years, their numbers had doubled, with about three-quarters of the animals present having been born on the island itself.  Some of the species proved unsuitable to the islands and went locally extinct, such as impala and topi.  Others, such as giraffe and waterbuck, thrived.  To be clear, this is not a zoo.  These animals are wild, and no one knows exactly how many of them are running around the island.

When the African animals were turned loose, they found themselves mingling with native Filipino wildlife, some of which, ironically, is far more endangered than they species that were transported her for sanctuary.  Rubbing shoulders with antelope and zebras are endangered Palawan bearded pigs and Calamian deer; Philippine crocodiles inhabit the swamps, while binturongs lounge on the tree limbs over the heads of giraffes.  Far from being crowded out, these native species actually appear to be benefiting in some ways from the presence of the illustrious newcomers, especially from the habitat protection and anti-poaching units.

While no one can quite say how the native animals feel about suddenly sharing their homes with African imports, the native people have gotten a chance to make their feelings known... albeit after the fact.  Over 250 families had to be relocated for Marcos' vision, and it's hard to imagine that many people being evicted without being considered a human rights violation.  People have responded by poaching the African mammals which is ironic, because that is one of the exact issues that moving the animals to the Philippines was intended to address in the first place.

At any rate, some hope of a happy ending is underway.  The post-Marcos government has allowed the repatriation of the native peoples to their lands, and while some poaching has continued, there seem to be positive signs of potential peace between Filipino humans and African animals.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Stripes Upon Stripes

Some breeders and keepers use ear tags, tattoos, brands, or microchips to identify their animals as individuals.  Some animals make it easier than others.  Zebras, for instance, have stripes.  No two individuals have the same striping pattern, just like no two humans have the same fingerprints.  In zoos with small herds of zebras, it's usually easiest for the keepers to recognize some small aspect of their animals' stripes - some distinctive whirl or configuration - that sets it apart from the others.

Consider the zebras in the picture below.  Seen together, they just form a wall of black and white, stripes upon stripes.  Look at each individual, though, and you should be able to start to recognize unique attributes.  Can you start seeing them as individual zebras, and not just part of a herd?

Friday, April 13, 2018

Who's Who In The Herd?

The main idea between the Conservation Centers for Species Survival concept is to have large numbers of a species present in one location, often in one or several herds, for ease of introductions, breeding, and social management.  The challenge that can result is telling the members of those herds apart.  Genetic and demographic management of a population requires a keeper to know who is who in their herd, and that can be a mite tricky when you're dealing with, say, thirty antelope in a pasture.

Ideally, there would be enough variation between individuals - a twisted horn, a peculiar marking, a difference in size - that a keeper would be able to know their animals easily by sight.  And that does happen... when you're a conventional zoo and your "herd" consists of three or four individuals.  When dealing with larger numbers (especially in large enclosures), different steps might be taken.

One solution is to ear tag your animals, each tag having a number and possibly using different color combinations.  Males can be tagged in the right ear, females in the left.  It sounds simply... and it generally is.  Still, ear tags can fall off, and they can be difficult to read from a distance (a reason that it may be ideal to rely on color rather than just number).  Many zoo professionals find themselves shying away from these, mostly because of aesthetic.  It can be hard to convince your visitors of the majesty and rarity of your exotic ungulates when they look like a bunch of Bessie's, grazing ear-tagged in a field.

Other options include tattooing, freeze-branding, and ear-notching.  In the later, a series of small notches are made in the ears of the antelope or deer (ears are large, erect, and often visible), with the sequence of notches representing different numbers.  The process should inflict no pain or damage to the animal's ear, being comparable to a human having his or her ears pierced.

The fanciest, most high tech methods is microchipping animals.  Like most fancy, high tech methods, I find it to be the one that works the least.  For one thing, you can't read the chip from a distance.  Secondly, the damn things always seem to move under the skin, meaning that they are never where they are supposed to be, and you spend forever searching for increasingly irate animal with a scanner, hoping to hear that tell-tale "beep.

All of these methods are also used in various combinations to study animals in the field, if any reminder was needed that the management of animals in zoos and in the wild is becoming increasingly blurred.  Many hoofstock keepers I know, even those at the C2S2 facilities, are still able to identify their animals as individuals at a quick glance.  For records and for confirmation, however, especially during moves between facilities, sometimes a more intrusive approach is needed.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

From the News: First Renderings of St. Louis Zoo Expansion

Last month, the St. Louis Zoo announced its acquisition of a 425-acre tract of land in north St. Louis County.  This week, zoo officials unveiled their first glimpses of the plans for the new property. 

Essentially, the St. Louis Zoo hopes to create in the surrounding county what the San Diego Zoo has in its San Diego Zoo Safari Park - a large satellite facility which supports its mission with that most precious of commodities - space.  Included in the master plan is a 100 acres of safari-style exhibits, where large ungulates will roam on public display and, perhaps more importantly, 250 acres of off-view breeding and holding space, what the zoo is dubbing its "Conservation and Animal Science Center."  The facility will also support visitor activities, such as luxury camping ("glamping"), nature play, and outdoor adventure activities like zip-lining.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Species Fact Profile: Southern Pudu (Pudu puda)

Southern Pudu
Pudu puda (Molina, 1782)

Range: Southern Chile, Southeastern Argentina
Habitat: Temperate Rainforest, Bamboo Forest
Diet: Leaves, Twigs, Fruits, Bark
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Mating takes place in the fall, with a single fawn being born after a gestation period of about 210 days.  The fawn is weaned at 2 months and is fully grown at 3 months.  Females are sexually mature at 6 months old, males at 8-12 months
Lifespan: 8-10 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Vulnerable, CITES Appendix I

  • Along with its cousin, the northern pudu (Pudu mephistopheles), it is the smallest deer species in the world.  Adult are 85 centimeters long, 35-40 centimeters at the shoulder, and weighing 6.5-13.5 kilograms.
  • Coat is short and glossy with a red-brown color, slightly lighter on the underside and legs.  Fawns are covered with white spots.
  • Males possess short, spike-like antlers, growing 7-10 centimeters long.  They are shed in July.
  • Due to their small size, it can be challenging for these deer to reach vegetation.  They compensate by standing on their hind legs or climbing on top of fallen tree trunks
  • Capable of obtaining most of their moisture from the plant they eat
  • Occupy home ranges of 16-26 hectares, linked by a series of trails and tunnels through dense vegetation.  Leave dung piles on the sides of these trails
  • Predators include pumas, foxes, small cats, and large birds of prey.  Also preyed upon by feral dogs
  • Threats include habitat loss due to logging and ranching, road collisions, and competition with introduced species, which may also spread diseases.  Sometimes taken from the wild as a pet.