In August 2009, Houston Zoo CEO, Deborah Cannon, visited Rwanda to see gorillas in the wild. Below is an excerpt from her travel journal…
I had the extraordinary privilege this month of visiting Rwanda. During that visit I was able to spend two days trekking to see the gorillas in the wild, visiting the orphanage for the babies saved from poachers and spending time with an incredible individual who has devoted a great portion of the last 20 years of his life to saving the mountain gorillas, Dr. Michael Cranfield.
He is at once one of the most interesting, humorous and dedicated individuals I have ever met and one whose stories are absolutely riveting. The Houston Zoo is very pleased to be able to bring him to Houston on the evening of September 10 to share his photographs and his story. As you may know the mountain gorillas are critically endangered with only about 740 left on earth. They are amazing animals who really touch your heart and soul. Being able to see them in person is an experience I will never forget; but seeing Dr. Cranfield’s presentation is the next best thing. I highly encourage you to take advantage of this unique opportunity and join us on the 10th.
This is what you have all been waiting for, I know. A blog series on the importance of worm composting and how you can have your very own composting bin at home. Well, people, you have waited long enough. You ask, you shall receive. (Ok, no one asked, but I know you just have not had time to ask).
Introducing a three part blog series with the easy step by step process. You will reap juicy red tomatoes, your greens will be greener and your flowers will be brighter! You will also be helping the planet by keeping more paper and organic materials out of landfills!
What is worm composting you may ask?
Worm composting uses worms to turn food scraps, newspapers, and cardboard into rich compost that can be added to potted plants , lawns or gardens. It is convenient, and you can do it indoors (even in apartments) or outdoors. Some people who make leaf compost in their backyards also use worms to compost their food scraps and paper.
Why compost with worms?
Worm composting has several advantages over composting in a pile.
– It takes up less space. You can do it in 10 gallon containers
-It is less work. You dont have to build big piles and turn them. Even if you have limited capabilities you can worm compost.
-It is a faster way to compost paper. It is not easy to compost paper in a compost pile.
-It creates richer soil. Your plants will get more nutrients and will get them faster.
Tune in later this week for detailed instuction on the worms you will need to get, the materials, containers you will need, what materials to avoid, and how to get started.
Are there any composting aficionados out there? I would love to hear from you!
“Did you hear that?” It was the heat of the afternoon, the worst time of the day to see wildlife, and Martina and I had retired for a post-lunch nap to our room at the guest house of Danau Girang Field Centre.
I did hear it. “Maybe Ian’s home.” A bird researcher named Ian Vaughan, the only other occupant of the four bedroom cabin, was rarely there and, in our previous dealings with him, had not seemed prone to making loud cracking noises.
We decided to go check it out.
Thwack! At first the sounds seemed to be coming from a bedroom on the other side of the cabin but, as we headed that way, we heard a loud Crack-crack! Smack! from the small sitting room behind us. We looked at each other, eyebrows raised. The sitting room was empty.
Crack! We looked up in unison. The sounds were coming from the roof. Outside the screened windows lining the back of the cabin, the trees were full of long-tailed macaques. Now, unlike silver leaf monkeys and proboscis monkeys, long-tailed macaques are widespread in Southeast Asia and relatively common around the Kinabatangan River. Most of the residents and researchers get about as excited about a long-tailed macaque as a Houstonian gets about a squirrel. But I don’t think I could ever get tired of watching these scrappy monkeys. Their slender gray shapes weaving in and out of the trees, they crashed from branch to branch as they made their way toward a fruiting tree that stretched high over our cabin. Crack! The rowdy monkeys were dropping fruit and pits on the roof. Mystery solved.
Martina and I were more than happy to give up nap-time to snap photos to watch the macaques negotiating with each other for the best foraging spots. Periodically, one of them would notice us moving behind the window screens and would pause, surprised, trying to see inside.
After about an hour, Benoit showed up with his head of facilities, a Malaysian man named Zainal, to plan some work at the cabin. We surrendered the living room to get ready for our evening boat trip to look for wildlife on a nearby ox-bow lake.
A few minutes later, Benoit called us back. “Listen.”
And I heard a sound I knew well from my days as a primate keeper but that was, for me, completely out of context in a forest: the high squeals of an irate baby orangutan. These were followed closely by the low gutteral utterings of a placating adult. We couldn’t see them so we hurried outside to the back of the cabin and peered through the foliage at our first wild orangutans, just a few yards away, a dark red female with her baby, about a year and a half old, a bright ball of fluff. The ball of fluff was having a little bit of a meltdown.
We were soon joined by practically everyone in camp, maybe ten people including Marc Ancrenaz, the Scientific Director of Hutan and the visionary behind the Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Project. Based on years of experience observing wild orangutans, Marc interpreted the scene. The mother orangutan was trying to make her way through the trees and underbrush to the fruiting tree over the cabin but the baby was justifiably alarmed by the twenty-odd macaques scattered across the intervening space.
Rachel Henson, one of two Danau Girang research assistants, put some names to what we were seeing. The two orangutans tended to visit the field center about once a month. They had named the mother “Phoebe” and the baby, a little female, “Pisang,” Malay for “banana.” The tree attracting all the wildlife was locally known as sengkuang (Dracontomelon costatum). We picked up one of the unripe fruits the primates had allowed to fall to the ground, a marble-sized pit, covered by a thin layer of fruit and a tough brown skin. It tasted like lemon.
As we watched, Phoebe moved a short distance from one sapling to the next, about twelve feet up from the ground. Pisang whined shrilly in protest. Phoebe turned back, croaked comfortingly, and held her hand out encouragingly.
“She’ll cross there,” Marc predicted, pointing to a thick branch arching over the undergrowth separating the orangutans from the sengkuang tree. He was right. We watched as they made their way, Pisang gradually calming, the scary macaques having backed off somewhat in the face of the crowd of human spectators.
Soon the spectators faded away in their turn, returning to their own pursuits and eventually even Martina and I decided to return to the cabin and let Phoebe eat in peace.
But the forest held one more surprise. We heard a crunching sound, as if someone was outside crushing cans. We went back to the windows in the sitting room to find that the clean-up crew had arrived. A handful of bearded pigs, so named because of a row of white bristles running down each side of the snout, were milling around under the sengkuang tree, wagging their tails, happily munching the unripe fruits, pits and all, dropped by the primates. The macaques had returned in force and were moving around over the pigs with their characteristic lack of subtlety. Phoebe and Pisang stayed out of sight high above the cabin in the sengkuang tree.
The Houston Zoo supports wildlife and habitat conservation through our Conservation Department. Our partners at Association of Zoo and Aquariums institutions (www.aza.org) spend upwards of $15 million combined every year on projects around the world. Many include the Great Apes. Our funds support the range country researchers and educators who live day to day in Rwanda, Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, Zaire, and Uganda. You can pick out the countries on the map. Specifically, this year we are supporting Gorillas and Chimpanzee efforts in the Republic of Congo and Orangutans in Borneo.
On August 3rd we showed these gorilla populations:
–Western Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) contains between 125,000 and 200,000 individuals remaining in the wild
–Cross River Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli) only 250-300 individuals remain
–Eastern Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla beringei) may be as low as 5,000 individuals, down from 17,000 in 1995.
Look at the bottom three populations. Genetic viability and reproduction is at risk with numbers this low. The Orangutan on Borneo and Sumatra are at critically low numbers as well but why should they race to become the first subspecies of great ape to go extinct in our lifetimes?
What can North Americans do? We are not in Africa; we cannot change the behavior of a country and its people. Yes, we can.
– Pay attention to news from the region and put pressure on corporations working in the Central African countries to support protection of wildlife and habitat.
– Support zoos, aquariums and other non-profits dedicating conservation resources to these areas.
– Remember the blog on Coltan, mining and cell phones. It is for real, and your use of this resource makes a bigger impression than you think. There are more than 150 million cell phone users in the United States alone. With technology changing, the average lifespan of a cell phone is 14 months. There may already be 500 million unused cell phones in the United States, with as many as 100 million added each year. Capturing the components from these phones will make a difference.
– Travel. Experiencing nature inspires us to protect it. Cannot travel abroad? Here at home there are many wonderful places to visit and species that could use your support. It is much easier (and less costly) to keep a common species common than bring it back from the brink of extinction.
We wrote a few months ago that Africa has a mystique. It is awe-inspiring, a living place yet dark and formidable. We can never know Africa. It is full of cultures and heritage, wildlife and wild places. But, Deepest Darkest Africa is in danger. There is a Congolese proverb which says you do not teach the paths of the forest to an old gorilla. But what if those paths are gone forever? How will the gorilla find its way? And worse, what if the old gorillas have gone away, lost to humans? Who will show the young the paths of the forest?
200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote for if one link in nature’s chain might be lost, another might be lost, until the whole of things will vanish by piecemeal. If we have the opportunity to protect and hold dear this chain; wildlife, habitat and human communities, then we must take that opportunity and act while the old gorilla can still teach the young, his forest path.
I was trying to think about how to briefly write about the civil unrest in many parts of Central Africa and the toll it takes on not only the wildlife, but the stability of human communities, the setbacks in economic developments, the cultural divides. The tragedies which unfold in countries under conflict. But, we are a zoo and focused on wildlife so let’s try not to stray too much from the path.
There are people in this world that are wildlife heroes beyond our comprehension. They stand behind their beliefs in the face of incredible danger and some even die protecting the wildlife they have dedicated themselves to. Not only in Africa, but with gorillas as the focus, let’s stay in Africa for now.
I was reading a new book recently: Mountain Gorillas: Biology, Conservation and Coexistence. I went back to look for some material and on the first page is a dedication to the men and women of the Protected Area Authority (and I quote directly) “organizations in Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the field staff from the Karisoke Research Center who lost their lives while protecting the areas gorillas…” The names to date are listed and I stopped counting at 138. The wars and conflict continue and the loss of human life unfortunately continues. These dedicated people fight the war for wildlife on our behalves. They are rangers, scouts, camp staff, anti-poaching units and many more. In other countries we support Rhino Protection Units, Elephant Conservation Units and similar groups who want nothing more than to protect their natural resources.
In this case, that natural resource is the gorilla. Not at odds with humans but living on the landscape we have moved onto, people have forced a conflict onto the gorillas and yet we are the only ones that at the same time can protect them. The Rwandan genocide in 1994 killed nearly 800,000 people in three months forcing refugees to move across borders and into the Congo by the millions. The economy in shambles, political instability, people trying to survive and the forests and wildlife became an invaluable resource. Yet the gorillas hung on in the mountains of Rwanda and Uganda. Today the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to Eastern Lowland Gorillas, is once again caught in civil unrest. Yet the population is hanging on but this time just barely with numbers plummeting to only 5,000 individuals.
This blog is rambling a bit longer than usual but the point is there are people in this world that are fighting a war but on the side of wildlife. They are heroes in the truest sense of the word. The gorilla is now a natural resource; it has to be to survive. In 10 short years, Rwanda has climbed out of their tragic past and turned the viewing of these gentle animals into an economically viable venture. They, for once, are more valuable alive than dead in the marketplace. It has come to this to protect the gorilla in Rwanda and Uganda. In the rest of the countries, we depend on the dedicated rangers to protect the gorilla until their countries are strong enough to follow the Mountain Gorillas lead in being more than a natural resource; a international asset.
Tomorrow’s Blog: A Final Thought on Gorilla Conservation
The Houston Zoo is hosting Dr. Michael Cranfield, Executive Director of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project as part of our Call of the Wild Lecture Series September 10th, 20009. Please go to https://www.houstonzoo.org/lectureseries/ for ticket information.
This is part 9/10 in our Mountain Gorilla Membership Giveaway. Post a comment here and on 2 other mountain gorilla blogs to enter to win a free membership.
After a few minutes on the river, all the time crunched up on airplanes was already worth it.
We were sitting in a boat under a big tree of wild long-tailed macaques, at least twenty of them – lithe grey shapes moving along the branches of a tall tree overhanging the water. We could see mothers with clinging infants. Goofy juveniles scattered along the branches and banks, watched us unconcernedly, curiously. They were our first wild monkeys in Malaysia, my idea of heaven.
When you think about it, a day is an amazingly short span of time to travel from one point on the globe to the point almost directly opposite. It still feels like a long time when you’re doing it. Martina and I had flown from Houston to Chicago, from Chicago over the Bering Strait and down to Soeul, and from Soeul to Kota Kinabalu, a large city (“Kota” means city.) by the standards of the Malaysian state of Sabah.
Since then, we’d had a night’s sleep and a day-long car ride that took us from the foot of Mount Kinabalu to a small eco-tourism village on the banks of the Kinabatangan River. There we met a young Malaysian man named Salen and he and our host, Benoit Goossens piled us and our luggage into a small blue motor boat for the last leg of the journey to Danau Girang Field Centre. Owned by the Sabah Wildlife Department and supported by Cardiff University, the new field center provides resources and a home base for research that will contribute to the conservation of the Kinabatangan region of Borneo. Benoit had come up with the idea after hearing about an education center that had been built in the forest near the river and then fallen into disuse. Now, Benoit directs the research facility out of those buildings. Our visit fell just as the first year of active research was coming to a close.
The river was wide, the water approximately the color of chocolate milk. The fresh, cool air felt great. Trees lined both banks, mostly natural forest but on the hills to our right, the green patchwork gave way to a uniform canopy of palms. To the naïve eye, the palms are pretty but we’d already spent hours that day driving past them, oil palms planted in row after row after row, the monotony broken only by the occasional sign, in English and Chinese, declaring the name of the plantation. A guard shack. A cluster of scenic wooden houses on stilts, a smattering of fruit trees, a little mosque with a metal dome on top – a village for the workers. It’s a pretty crop, dark green fronds shading light green ferns that grow across the ground and up the trunks. But it creates a monoculture where few animals can survive for long. Smaller scale, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing. It doesn’t deplete the soil terribly. Many animals can move through it for short distances. But they sell the palm oil all over the world. In the United States, we eat it in our snack foods. It’s in our lotions, our cosmetics. So there’s a strong incentive to plant palm and now it covers about 16% of Sabah state. Elephants are killed to keep them from eating the new palm chutes. Orangutans venture in and get lost. And starve. So I was concerned to see the palms even here in the wildlife sanctuary so close to the river that forms the backbone of the ecosystem.
But soon we had passed the palms and five minutes later, we were at a tree full of silver leaf monkeys, harder to find and more on their guard than the macaques. As our boat approached, they ran nimbly to the safest spots at the very ends of their branches where they perched regarding us with a certain amount of suspicion.
Sunrise and sunset are the best times to see wildlife on the river. Monkeys and other animals like to sleep over the water where they have a clear vantage point to spot potential predators. The river also provides a built in escape route. However, dropping into the water and swimming to safety is a strategy of last resort. The river is full of crocodiles.
We saw so many animals – several more troops of macaques, a rare storm stork, it’s dark, graceful form silhouetted overhead, and a rhinoceros hornbill, the first of four types of hornbill we’d see during our stay.
There were big white egrets that looked, to my untrained eye, like the ones on Armand Bayou back home. Finally, we saw proboscis monkeys, distinctive even from a distance because of their large size and tawny color. Benoit had spotted them with obvious relief, having put pressure on himself to find some for us to see. The first ones we saw crashed away from us, arms and legs spread as they soared from one branch to another. As the sun sank further, the proboscis settled down in their trees. The next troop let us come closer and we got a good look at arguably the strangest looking monkey in the world. They have long fleshy noses and big round bellies full of leaves. The young ones have a round-eyed, perpetually startled look. Benoit pointed out the breeding male, distinguished not only by his size but also by having the squishiest nose and the roundest belly of all.
By the time Benoit and Salen helped me and Martina carry our bags up the ramp from the boat, the sky had darkened to a deep cornflower blue. As we walked up the path toward the lights of the field center, I still couldn’t believe it – Borneo!
No pictures today as we will touch briefly on the issue of illegal bushmeat and gather much of the information from the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force (BCTF). This will be just an introduction and then we can steer you to more detailed websites for information.
Bushmeat is simply defined as meat that comes from the “bush” and in Africa this means the forests. For generations, local communities carried out subsistence hunting, gathering animals as needed as a vital protein source. But at some point the hunting of bushmeat went from sustainable to the “Bushmeat Crisis”. It is defined on the BCTF website as “Commercial, illegal and unsustainable hunting for the meat of wild animals is causing widespread local extinctions in Asia and West Africa. It is a crisis because of rapid expansion to countries and species which were previously not at risk, largely due to an increase in commercial logging, with an infrastructure of roads and trucks that links forests and hunters to cities and consumers.”
Gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants, forest antelope, crocodiles, monkeys, birds, buffalo, hippo’s…are all taken as part of the trade, endangered species – protected or not. Again directly from the BCTF website: Though habitat loss is often cited as the primary threat to wildlife, commercial hunting for the meat of wild animals has become the most significant immediate threat to the future of wildlife in Africa and around the world; it has already resulted in widespread local extinctions in Asia and West Africa. This threat to wildlife is a crisis because it is rapidly expanding to countries and species which were previously not at risk, largely due to an increase in commercial logging, with an infrastructure of roads and trucks that links forests and hunters to cities and consumers. The bushmeat crisis is a human tragedy as well: the loss of wildlife threatens the livelihoods and food security of indigenous and rural populations most depend on wildlife as a staple or supplement to their diet, and bushmeat consumption is increasingly linked to deadly diseases like HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and Foot and Mouth disease.
Simply stated – if one village or community hunts wildlife as a sustainable resource, there are opportunities to protect endangered species and protect habitats. When wildlife is taken illegally, in mass quantity not for personal use but to sell for profit, and shipped across country borders, it is no longer sustainable.
Take a few minutes to learn about the issues facing wildlife not in only in Africa, but Asia and other developing nations at the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force website http://www.bushmeat.org
I will just add here that last year, nearly 300,000 pounds of Bushmeat was confiscated being flown into the US illegally. The problem is not simply related to only developing nations.
Tomorrow’s Gorilla Blog : A War for Wildlife
*This is part 8/10 in our Membership Giveaway. Post a comment here and on at least 2 other mt gorilla blogs to enter to win a free Zoo membership.
One of the highlights of SOS Cheetah was the lure course – here you can see some great footage of the world’s fastest land mammal…But first, its never-before-seen footage of the cheetah exhibit’s fastest canine:
The lure course is an important part of our Enrichment Program for the cheetahs and dogs. Not only is it great exercise, its an opportunity for them to exhibit a behavior that they would do in the wild – chasing down prey. Of course the prey in this case is a toy, which they gladly trade for some meat at the end of the run.
#1: You have seen it on the blog everyday, come on out to the zoo on September 10th and hear firsthand from a wildlife veterinarian who spends a good portion of his time treating injured Mountain Gorilla’s in Rwanda . The Houston Zoo is hosting Dr. Michael Cranfield, Executive Director of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project as part of our Call of the Wild Lecture Series September 10th, 20009. Please go to https://www.houstonzoo.org/lectureseries/
#2: Back in May, we hosted a very special art gallery event called Images of Africa with local Houston photographer Paul Swen. Here is an opportunity to not only support wildlife conservation, but get a very special signed and limited edition photograph of some of the most unique views of Africa you will ever see. To view the photographs available for sale ttp://www.houstonzoo.org/imagesofafrica/.
#3: Recycle your unwanted electronic goods. That includes cell phones, laptops, pagers and other electronic devices. We mentioned last week Coltan ore also called Columbite-tantalite. This is a dull metallic ore found in major quantities in the eastern areas of the African Congo. It is used in cell phones, laptops, pagers and other electronic devices. When refined, coltan becomes metallic tantalum, a heat resistant powder that can hold a high electrical charge. Some types of Coltan mining may occur illegally in protected lands all across the Congo which in turn put wildlife such as Elephants and Gorillas of the Congo region at risk. Eighty percent of the world’s known coltan supply is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There, it is mined by hand by groups of men digging basins in streams, scraping away dirt to get to the muddy coltan underneath. Recycling unused cell phones can help protect the wildlife, since reuse of the phones results in the need for fewer new ones, which reduces the need for coltan mining. The Houston Zoo accepts cell phones for recycling by mail or at our gift shop https://www.houstonzoo.org/Recycling/
#4 Want to step out on a limb? Our travel partner Terra Incognita Ecotours leads trips to Rwanda to see Mountain Gorillas in Volcanoes National Park a number of times a year. Actually, we are there right now (yes – I pre-scehduled this blog). Experiencing nature inspires us to protect it so take a look at our travel program https://www.houstonzoo.org/safari or Terra Incognita at http://www.ecotours.com/dest_rwanda.html
#5) Library, Bookstore, DVD, Online??? Take a few minutes and watch or read: Mountain Gorillas: Biology, Conservation and Coexistence, Gorillas in the Mist, Goodnight, Gorilla or even Gorilla Gorilla, In the Kingdom of Gorillas: Fragile Species in a Dangerous Land, Saving a Species: Gorilla on the Brink (DVD), No One Loved Gorillas More: Dian Fossey-Letters from the Mist, The Year of the Gorilla, Mountain Gorillas: Three Decades of Research at Karisoke. You get the point…
Sigh… everyone goes through life feeling sorry for themselves every once in awhile. Sign, I don’t have this; sigh, I don’t look like that. But how often do you ever see a giant anteater feeling bad for itself? Granted, it isn’t like you just see these guys walking down the street like Fifi the poodle or Patchy the kitty-cat, but still, don’t you think having an enormous protruding jaw that looks like a nose, no teeth, poor eyesight, and two-foot-long tongue would be enough to depress even the most confident person…or animal?
Well, the giant anteater must know something that we all don’t about the secret of true beauty, for this five-to-seven-foot-long South American citizen knows and acts as though it has everything it needs to ensure itself a long and happy life…and, in fact, it does.
Nature has purposely configured the apparently odd features of giant anteaters’ bodies in order to assist them in the hunt for their main sources of food, termites and ants. Giant anteaters’ elongated jaws are extremely efficient at poking around anthills and termite mounds, and their extra sticky saliva and 24-inch-long tongue are perfect for lapping up little scrambling insects. And even though they have poor eyesight and no teeth, their fantastic sense of smell and muscular, food-grinding stomachs are able to take over and compensate for the features they lack.
Despite its exotic appearance and strangely-functioning body parts, the anteater maintains an optimistic outlook on life and shows ill-will toward none. While munching on ants or termites, it never destroys the insects’ mounds – it just uses its long jaw to carve an opening large enough to slurp out some supper before moving on to another anthill or nest. Anteaters lack the ability to bite (no teeth, remember?), and aren’t aggressive animals. When threatened, however, they are able to fight off predators, such as jaguars and cougars, with their sharp, four-inch-long claws.
All that said, at the end of the day, perhaps we should take a moment to study the giant anteater’s example and understand that we were all made to look the way we do for a purposeful reason, for true beauty is written on the heart, not on the face.