Bornean Elephant, Kinabtangan River
This week we will begin featuring updates from two very important projects on the island of Borneo focusing on Bornean elephants and a wild species of cattle called Banteng. These two species along with the Rhinoceros are the three largest animals on the island and act as “landscape architects” for the forest and surrounding wetlands.
The Houston Zoo has worked with the Danau Girang Field Centre in Sabah (Borneo), Malaysia since 2009 in support of a program to determine the social structure, migration corridors and habitat use of the Bornean Elephant. The field researcher, Nurzhafarina (“Farina”) follows radio collared elephants and their herds as part of the effort and this week, we follow Farina:
Farina radiotracking along the river corridor
Warm greetings from Sabah, Malaysia.
Usually my working hour will start at 7am, depending on the elephant location and sighting from the previous day. If the elephant are in Abai that is 33 km or 45 minutes from Sukau, we will go for an expedition where we will camp along the river to save some travelling time and fuel. We will use the latest position from the satellite to find out the elephant’s position and we will start tracking them from there. I would say the chances of finding the elephant in the forest is 70% except if they decided to go into swampy area or behind the oxbow lake. There are two females that are collared for now, Aqeela and Liun. We are still identifying Aqeela’s group and for Liun, we are sure that she has a juvenile female and a sub-adult male that always move along with her.
It is flooding in most parts of Lower Kinabatangan this time. Villages such as at Pengkalan Bukit Garam that is situated upriver Kinabatangan is the most heavily flooded part and many have been evacuated from their homes as the water has reached a dangereous level. Although Sukau is not as bad, it is still affected by the flooding and most part of the forest is covered with water. So, this means another wet week for my friends from Elephant Conservation Unit (ECU) and myself.
Did you know that Texas has the largest bat colony in the world? Bracken cave, just outside of San Antonio, is home to 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats from March until October. Yet another thing for Texans to be proud of!
Mexican free-tailed bat
We had the opportunity to watch the bats emerge this week. We attended an urban wildlife conference that offered a trip with the folks from Bat Conservation International (BCI) to Bracken cave to see the bats. The cave is not open to the general public, so we felt very privileged.
We pulled up to the site at around 6:00pm. As we exited the bus, although we were a distance from the cave, the distinct smell of 20 million bats filled the air. We walked up to the mouth of the cave that is surrounded in 697 acres of Texas hill country and sat for a while to listen to the BCI interpreter talk about the bats and the history of the cave.
If it wasn’t for BCI Bracken would have been surrounded by subdivisions by now. And, BCI is protecting more than just the bats, they are conserving all the wildlife in the area, restoring native vegetation and removing invasive species.
At around 7:30pm we sat quietly by the opening to the cave and eagerly awaited the bat emergence. At 8:20pm the first bats began to spiral out of the cave. It wasn’t long before they peppered the sky. Two birds of prey swooped down and snatched a few of the bats out of mid air. When you cupped you hands behind you ears the millions of wings sounded like rushing water. Bats were everywhere! I have never seen or felt anything like it! Just to give you an idea of the mass quantity of bats, it takes four hours for all the bats to stream out of the cave in the evenings.
Thank you BCI for all of your dedicated work and protection of this natural wonder of the world!
Last month I attended a Painted dog workshop at the Pittsburgh Zoo. Zoo professionals, researchers and conservationists met to discuss the sustainability of the captive and wild Painted dog population. With a total population of less than 3000 in the wild, the Painted dogs are in a very vulnerable state. The population is in serious need of new genetics in most of the ranges. Zimbabwe has the biggest genetic diversity, but at the rate the population is decreasing this can change quickly.
Field biologist Dr. Greg Rasmussen of Painted Dog Conservation in Zimbabwe was in attendance at the workshop, and has been working with Painted dogs for almost 20 years in the wild. The genetic diversity of the dwindling population has always been a concern of Greg’s, but recently he uncovered a wildlife trade in the dogs that significantly increased his concern. He discovered that pups were being dug out of dens in the wild to feed an underground international demand for this species. He took immediate action to lobby for the dogs to be protected from international wildlife trade, but he knew that he had to do more if he was going to save them.
Greg was a zoo keeper when he was young, so zoos have always been near and dear to his heart. He has worked with many zoos from all over the world and knows they have a tremendous ability to educate, empower and inspire armies of people about wildlife conservation. However, this lack of genetic diversity concern opened Greg’s eyes to something else zoos possess that he hadn’t thought of before – a protected genetic pool of animals. Fortunately, geneticists and other zoo professionals have worked hard to maintain a diverse genetic pool for species kept in captivity in order to ensure a healthy captive population. But unfortunately, African exporters haven’t always given reliable reports on the origins of the animals that were imported. So, Greg proposed that a DNA study of the entire captive population be conducted.
This workshop had zoo representation from Australia, Europe and North America. The European Zoo Association reported that they had already collected DNA from all of the dogs in Europe last year, and their DNA study revealed that they actually had a larger diversity than they realized. It was agreed that the rest of the zoo world would participate in this study to get a clearer understanding of what we really have in the captive population.
This workshop gave a tangible example of how the roles of zoos are changing. It was inspiring to be engaged in discussions about how the captive population of this species could contribute to restoring the wild one. It is a truly an exciting time to be a part the zoo world!
You come to the zoo with family and friends for relaxation and recreation. It is an easy drive, visit at your own pace, see everything or just your favorites. You come to the front gate excited because you are not sure what you will see first. You leave a few hours later with memories and a few new favorite animals. Hopefully, you also leave inspired to want to learn more abotu what is outside our doors – the wildlife of Texas, Africa, Asia and the America’s.
African Elephant, Zimbabwe 2011
It is that simple. Our job here is not only to provide a fun, safe and relaxing environment for your visit, but too also inspire you to want to care about what you have just seen. And if that care turns to action, then we are doing our job.
Bison on the Snake River, Yellowstone 2010
But what if you are interested in stepping outside our doors with us? Then the zoo can take you there as part of our special tour program with specialized guides and zoo staff to make your trip even more memorable. You visit the zoo to see wildlife. In 2011 and 2012 you can also visit them in the wild. Yellowstone, Alaska, Borneo, Rwanda, and Botswana are all zoo tours you can sign up for now. Polar Bears of Churchill, Manitoba and the wildlife of Zimbabwe are 2012 tours which are under development.
You can learn more about these very special trips at http://www.houstonzoo.org/safari/ and you may contact us at email@example.com for more information.
Puffin, Glacier Bay, Alaska 2011
We wanted to send a few photos of the Painted Dog translocation we talked about around April 29th. A pack of 6 rehabilitation/sanctuary dogs were put together by the Painted Dog Conservation project over the past 6 months and prepared for the move 2 hours west to a 2,800 hectare private reserve outside Victoria Falls. After the 2.5 hour drive, the Painted Dogs began to settle right in:
Visit their page at http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Painted-Dog-Conservation/189193720940 for updates on the move
First out of the trailer
Special radio collars protect their necks from snare entrapment and have reflector tape to prevent car mortalities at night
Houston Toad release
So, what has the conservation department been up to over the past year? I am sure you hear snippets here and there about the work we do, but we wanted to make sure we had a way for people to get a full scope of what the Houston Zoo is doing around the world to ensure that the endangered species we house here at the zoo will continue to thrive in the wild. With the help of our partners we are endeavoring to ensure the security of the planet’s biodiversity.
Attwater's prairie chicken chick
Our report tells of a lot of great progress in wildlife conservation this year. You can read about the observation of female captive bred Attwater’s prairie chickens raising their chicks in the wild. The goal in wildlife conservation is not just to save species, we also seek to improve the lives of the local communities. You will enjoy the story of how children in Rwanda love to dress up and learn about wildlife through plays and dance. This report will inspire you and bring you up to speed on the depth of our efforts.
“This report is full of human partnerships and friendships that give us hope for the future, as science alone cannot save a species“ a quote from the Houston Zoo Director, Rick Barongi.
Click here to read the Conservation Annual Report.
The Houston Zoo’s Conservation Director, Peter Riger concludes his African adventure in this blog. Enjoy previous posts of this series here or scroll down.
The stars may be bright Deep in the Heart of Texas but you have not seen anything like the night sky over the Kalahari. Most of us living in and around Houston see a few stars at night but our light pollution blocks out the majority of them. Next time you find yourself an hour or two outside the greater Houston area you will notice the difference.
The Kalahari night sky is one gigantic light show even without the moon. Millions of stars clustered as far as you can see. The population density of Botswana is typically less than 1.5 people per square kilometer and thus the lack of city lights in the towns we visited have left the stars visible every night.
We will be developing ways to do updates on Facebook, blogs, our website and email’s on both Painted Dog Conservation and Cheetah Conservation Botswana. Over the next few weeks we will plan for our next visit in late August to begin some of the work we have touched on over the last 2 weeks. You can drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like us to keep you in the loop. Follow our blogs and Facebook page for more information on how you can help support these field programs. We will start uploading trip photos to these sites as well.
It is Saturday May 7th and our 1:30pm flight from Botswana will take us on to Johannesburg, South Africa and then through connecting flights arriving home mid-afternoon on May 8th. A mere 23 hours in the air plus a few minor layovers for plane changes. This is the best time to catch up on all the good and bad movies I’ve missed the past year since as soon as you nod off, the airline staff wake you for a drink of water or a meal looking like something that has been trapped in old Jello since 1974…
By Peter Riger
If you would like to read more about this African adventure click here or scroll down for the previous posts.
Farmers in Botswana
The Houston Zoo’s conservation director, Peter Riger is in Africa visiting some of the Zoo’s wildlife conservation partners. Enjoy this update from the field.
A good portion of May 3rd and 4th have been spent visiting a local farmer managing one plot of land which is 24square miles, Botswana is one of the least populated countries per square mile of space with less than 2 million residents. We also visited a cattle post which is like communal land where multiple families run their cattle, goats and sheep together. We have heard stories of 3 cows lost to brown hyena, 3 cows lost to lions, and losses to leopard, and cheetah all this week. At one farm today the owner was out looking for painted dogs that had presumably chased down a yearling cow across the main road just a few hours earlier. We found the cow on our way out but whether it was painted dogs or not is left to be seen.
With so much loss to personal property, you can see why people would jump to retaliatory killings of predators without looking for alternative solutions to the human-wildlife conflict issue. On the communal lands, Cheetah Conservation Botswana is working with four cattle posts to develop model kraals which are thorn covered corrals basically to protect livestock at night from predators. Once completed, they will. Take this idea out to other livestock owners in the area.
We also showed one family how to hoof trim one of their lame goats. A weak goat in the pasture trails behind and is an easy meal for a predator.
The jackals are yipping around the tents again tonight and the temperatures drop quickly here to the mid 40′s overnight, so time to get settled. We are off across Botswana to Mokolodi in the morning to CCB’s headquarters and education station.
By Peter Riger
Read previous posts about Peter’s wildlife conservation trip through Africa click here or scroll down.
The Houston Zoo’s Conservation Director, Peter Riger has traveled to Botswana. Read about his experience with Cheetah Conservation Botswana.
Our first thought once we set out this morning was that there is no way anyone would ever see a Cheetah chase down an Impala at 60mph here. There are no flat open spaces, everything is thorn-scrub, short acacias and 3-5ft. tall grasses. To hunt here, cheetahs have adapted to stalking their prey. The one thing Cheetahs have going for them here are there are more lions to compete with. Against them is the privately owned land, goat and cattle farms that stretch out and completely covering the landscape.
Cheetah Conservation Botswana is working closely with local farm holders to prevent conflict between wildlife and livestock which includes loss of cattle and goats to predators such as the cheetah. Other predators in the area include Leopards, Brown Hyena,Painted Dogs and Jackal.
Today was a fairly easy day checking camera traps on what they would call marking or scenting trees which the males use to mark their territories. Sounds simple enough except for there are almost no trees over 6-8ft. tall here and Cheetahs prefer the larger trees so they can get up in a lower branch and have a look around before leaving their urine and marks behind. The other issue is the 8 or so taller trees that are being used are all on private lands, accessible with permission of the landholders, and can be hours apart by car.
We managed to check 3 of these trees in 4-5 hours and sure enough there were cheetah photos on each of the camera and fresh cheetah marks and spraying only a few hours old on one tree. Other wildlife caught on camera included warthog, eland, kudu, and even the little seen African Wildcat which is quite small. Each of the cameras are checked once a month and cheetah photos compared to get an idea of how many males are moving through the different areas.
By, Peter Riger
Come back for more on Peter’s experience in Africa. If you have missed his previous posts about this trip click here or scroll down.
Enjoy Peter Riger’s (Houston Zoo’s Conservation Director) concluding blog post of his Painted Dog Conservation experience. To read his previous posts click here or scroll down. Stay tuned for more from Peter in Botswana.
Saturday April 30
Last full day in Zimbabwe begins at 8:00am as we head back into Hwange National Park to check on the camera we set up a few days back at the waterholes and to visit a few of the others to see which birds and mammals may be using them throughout the day.
- Greater kudu
The time lapse camera takes a photo every 6 minutes between sunrise and sunset so we can get an idea of who, and how many, are visiting the waterholes each day. This small trial went off without a hitch taking 500-600 daylight photos at the Manga waterhole. We will purchase another 10-15 pentax cameras and cards when we get home to bring back to Zimbabwe and begin a full monitoring program of 15+ waterholes over the next few months. Manga 1 provided a large number of elephant photos as expected and giraffe, zebra, kudu, warthog, ostrich, guinea fowl and ground hornbill.
Southern ground hornbill
The rest of the day was spent inside the park and we came across a few animals we had not seen up to thus point including a male Sable Antelope, Common Waterbuck, Snake Eagle and the more common elephants and giraffes we see every day.
We have already begun to discuss a return date to continue work on both the livestock and water issues we discussed with the local community and PDC on this short visit, so it may be a very busy summer.
Sunday May 1st is a travel day with a 5:00am drive to Kasane, Botswana. Then a 11:30 flight to Maun, Botswana, 2+ hoer drive to Ghanzi arriving around 4:00pm which begins our visit with Cheetah Conservation Botswana through May 7th.
By Peter Riger