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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Zoos and Conservation

From the CharlotteObserver
N.C. Zoo works without borders
Animal conservation efforts send researchers across the state - and all the way to Africa

Watching a 400-pound gorilla lollygag in his habitat at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, visitors can see up close how the zoo preserves and showcases natural wonders. Not as evident are the thousands of wild animals in the zoo's care that live far beyond the park's managed grounds. "What most people see when they come to the zoo are the animals and the rides and the restaurants. But what's less visible is the research that goes on behind the scenes," said Rich Bergl, N.C. Zoo curator of conservation and research.

The N.C. Zoo spends approximately $400,000 each year on field conservation programs, both in Africa and closer to home in North Carolina. More than 5,000 miles away in the African countries of Nigeria and Cameroon, for example, N.C. Zoo researchers are using remote sensing and satellite tracking tools to bring endangered animals back from the brink. Tracking tools provide vital information for the conservation of animals in the wild, not only species such as gorillas and elephants that are star zoo attractions, but also other animals and plants that share their homes. "When those areas are protected, the elephants are just the tip of the iceberg," said Mike Loomis, the zoo's chief veterinarian, who leads a project that uses satellite tracking collars to monitor elephants' movements in Cameroon. Bergl agrees. "When you conserve a population of gorillas in an area, you're not just conserving the gorillas. The gorillas act as umbrellas for the rest of the plants and animals in the forest as well."

The work is a testament to how far zoos have come from the menageries they once were, said Bergl: "Conserving animals in their natural habitats is a key part of a zoo's mission."

Rediscovering rare apes
In one project, the zoo is collaborating with New York's Wildlife Conservation Society to protect the critically endangered Cross River gorilla, one of the world's rarest and least-understood apes. Named for the river that flows through their forest home, Cross River gorillas were thought to be extinct until the mid-1980s, when they were rediscovered in a remote region along the Nigerian-Cameroon border. Current counts suggest there are fewer than 300 Cross River gorillas left in the wild and only one known in captivity. Due to their low numbers, their remote highland habitat, and their wariness of people, Cross River gorillas are extremely difficult to study, Bergl said. "In the 10 years that I've been working on these gorillas, I've probably observed them for a total of 10 seconds," he said.

Instead, Bergl and colleagues rely on clues the great apes leave behind. Researchers can tell how many gorillas are in a group, what they eat, and where they go by analyzing their trails, dung and nests - the beds of leaves and twigs the animals make each night for sleeping. Much of the work revolves around a hand-held computer system designed to help researchers and park rangers gather information about gorillas and other wildlife as they patrol the forest. "We're using exactly the same GPS technology many people have in their cars or cell phones," Bergl explained, pointing to a photograph of a black-and-yellow device that looks like an oversized iPhone.

Rangers enter their observations and hit a button to register the latitude and longitude via satellite. They then download the information to a central database, where it can be used to create computerized maps that allow scientists to better monitor the elusive animals. "We've found gorillas in at least two areas not previously known to be inhabited," Berg said.

Keeping the peace

In addition to monitoring the Cross River gorilla, researchers at the N.C. Zoo are working to protect an animal that is much less wary of humans, but just as tricky to track.

In partnership with other conservation organizations and the government of Cameroon, Loomis, the zoo veterinarian, uses satellite tracking collars to trace elephants' movements in and out of Cameroon's national parks. They share data with nearby farmers and communities when elephant herds may be heading toward crops. The aim is to ease conflict between humans and the roaming animals.

The world's largest living land animals, elephants need a lot of space. At the recently expanded African elephant exhibit at the N.C. Zoo, for example, seven elephants roam a 7-acre enclosure. In the wild, elephant herds can travel tens of miles each day in search of food and water. "Though Cameroon has a nice series of parks and preserves, it's almost impossible to make sure elephants stay within protected areas," Loomis said.

Elephants in search of an easy meal raid farmers' fields and trample crops. Farmers sometimes kill them in retaliation. Elephants also occasionally kill or injure people with their sharp tusks, Loomis said. Satellite collars can provide an early warning system when the animals are on the move, transmitting their comings and goings back to researchers.

"I get the location for those animals every day by e-mail on my computer," Loomis said. "By setting up this early warning system, we've been able to reduce the number of elephants killed, the number of people injured, and the amount of crops destroyed."

A big, dangerous job
Putting a tracking collar on a 10,000-pound elephant is no easy task. The work requires a team of trackers, porters, veterinarians and biologists, hauling heavy loads over difficult terrain, sometimes for days at a time, Loomis said.

"It's a matter of trying to get close enough to the elephant, quietly enough, and downwind from the elephant so we can get in a position to dart the animal," Loomis said.

Once an elephant has been anesthetized, the team fits a tracking collar around its neck, reverses the anesthesia and releases the animal.

For the collaring team it's treacherous work.

"We're working with really large, really dangerous animals in remote areas. A few injuries goes along with the territory," he added.

The researchers have succeeded in collaring 35 elephants since the project began in 1998. Most are larger, older females at the heads of their herds. By targeting matriarchs, researchers can follow an entire herd - as many as 250 elephants - for up to 16 months, Loomis said.

The data help wildlife managers identify key migration corridors to focus their conservation efforts more effectively. This also helps the Cameroon government identify priority areas for protection when creating or expanding national parks. One of only four species of elephants still alive, the African elephant is threatened throughout its range by illegal hunting for meat and ivory, Loomis said.

"By understanding elephant movement patterns," he said, "anti-poaching patrols can concentrate on areas where elephants are more likely to be."

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