Okapi Conservation Day July 1st

If you have been following the zoo’s website or facebook page or even those of our friends at the Wildlife Conservation Network’s, you have seen the news about the crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the attacks on the Okapi Conservation Centre and the The Institute in Congo for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN).

These attacks on June 24th took the lives of 6 people and the rebel group completely destroyed and looted the program, killing 13 of the 14 captive managed Okapi’s at the Centre. By June 26th, the Congolese Army had moved in to secure the area and now the hard work of putting peoples lives back together and supporting these efforts begin. It is important to note that the attack on the Epulu Station was in retaliation for recent engagements by ICCN rangers that disrupted poaching and mining activities in the Southern part of the Reserve. The rebels want to be free to reopen the illegal gold mines and poach wildlife without interference. The rangers and conservation personnel who work in these regions literally put their lives on the line every day to protect wildlife.

On Sunday July 1, 2012 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. the Houston Zoo will join with other zoos and conservation organizations to raise relief funds for the ICCN’s recovery efforts.  Learn more about illegal poaching and its impact on endangered species in Africa and around the world. Proceeds from the sale of elephant trunk prints, coloring books, paintings by the Houston Zoo’s okapis, and raffles at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. for ‘day of’ behind the scenes okapi tours will benefit Okapi Crisis Relief.  Donations may also be made on line at https://www.houstonzoo.org/okapicrisis/.

Want your very own Okapi painted painting? Then you can go to Ebay and bid now on your very own Okapi Kwame’s work of “art” at http://www.ebay.com/itm/261055676084?ssPageName=STRK:MESELX:IT&_trksid=p3984.m1586.l2649#ht_630wt_1139

You can also join our partners at the Wildlife Conservation Network in support of this effort:  http://hosted.verticalresponse.com/355747/b9b6035211/1446536659/212ee14728/

The Children's Zoo Says Goodbye to A Beloved Animal

He has been a part of the Children’s Zoo since August of 2001.  He grew up here.  He has been a favorite of both staff and guests.  He is Big Al.

Big Al – Photo by Henry Siwek

With our regular guests, all you have to say is that name.  Big Al. It always brings a smile to their faces.

When Al came to the Houston Zoo, he was part of a group of 5 Nubian goats.  Nubians are large goats usually raised for dairy.  They were only 6 months old and Al weighed in at just 24 kilograms (about 53 pounds).  As he grew and thrived, he became a very impressive and handsome goat, reaching over 90 kilograms (about 198 pounds).

In the early years, all 5 of the Nubians  gained a reputation for being rather mischievious.  They were pushy at mealtimes and big enough to reach over your shoulder for the food bucket.  More than once they left hoof marks on a keeper’s back.  Once they even pushed a gate open so hard it hit one of the keepers and gave her a black eye!   Their mischief making came to an end when 3 of the 5 were sent to live on a farm (the last straw being that they had learned how to open the gate and let themselves out).

Over the years, the last 2 Nubian goats grew out of their trouble making ways and became favorites of both staff and guests.   Several years ago, Sampson, the other remaining Nubian, died from age related complications –  leaving only Big Al

Al adjusted quite well to being the only Nubian goat in the yard.  He learned how to win hearts and gain attention.  He could make a face that could only be described as the goat version of puppy dog eyes to get people to pet him and get  the occasional stolen treat.   If you scratched just the right spot on his hips, he would throw his head back letting those long ears flop.  If you scratched his chin, he would often nuzzle against you and push his head under your chin.  Where you  once heard something like “that goat makes me crazy”,  you now heard “I love that goat – he is so sweet”.

As he got older he did develop some issues with his hooves along with old age issues such as arthritis.  He managed to hold his own day by day until recently when tests revealed a mass on his heart.

While we will mourn Al’s passing, we also hold on to many fond memories of his playful youth, his affectionate nature and the wonderful zoo ambassador he became.

The Galapagos Loses Lonesome George

On Monday, June 25, 2012, Lonesome George, the last remaining Pinta tortoise, passed away in his enclosure in the Galapagos Islands at more than 100 years of age. Weighing 200 pounds and measuring 5 feet long, Lonesome George was a site to behold and a beloved symbol of species conservation efforts in the Galapagos Islands and across the world.

Lonesome George was found on the Galapagos island of Pinta in 1972 where it was thought that his species of tortoises from this island were completely extinct. Upon his discovery, he became part of a rearing program in captivity at the Galapagos National Park. There were several initiatives with the intent of reproducing him, however after being placed with females of a species found on Isabela Island the eggs that resulted were infertile. Another effort used females from the island of Espanola (closest genetically to the type from Pinta) however the eggs produced were also infertile.

In 2010, the Houston Zoo’s Head Veterinarian, Dr. Joe Flanagan took a trip to the Galapagos to work with Lonesome George and other tortoises like him. Dr. Joe participated in the release of the females from the island of Espanola, assessing their health prior to their introduction to their new habitat with Lonesome George.

Since his passing, conservation officials in the Galapagos are conducting an autopsy to determine his cause of death, though they suspect he may have suffered a heart attack.

Time Article: Lonesome George

The World Has Gone Crazy

Africa is figuratively on fire these days. Last year over 400 rhinos were confirmed killed in South Africa alone for the wildlife trade and elephant poaching was reaching new highs for the ivory market. In 2012 rhino deaths continue to soar and elephants are fairing no better. In my last set of blogs during my visit to Niassa Lion Project in Mozambique we noted 7 elephants killed within a 30-40 mile radius of camp and news of a bull elephant killed yesterday adds to that number. If that many elephants are killed in such a small area you can imagine what might be happening in the rest of the 16,000 sq. mile reserve.

Last month there was news from our gorilla project partners that rebel activity in the Democratic Republic of Congo was threatening the gorillas, staff and local communities as a never-ending game of “cat and mouse” plays out between the Congolese army and rebel groups in the area. But yesterday when news of an attack by those same rebel groups on the Okapi Conservation Center in Epulu of the Democratic Republic of Congo came in, we were shocked.

The Okapi Conservation Project was initiated in 1987, and is located within the Ituri Forest, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the most biologically diverse country in Africa. The objective of OCP is to conserve the okapi in the wild while preserving the cultural and biological dynamics of the ecosystem. This is supported by the OCP program areas of agro-forestry, conservation education, alternate livelihoods, and community assistance, coupled with direct support for the Institute in Congo for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) to protect the wildlife and forest of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. In 1992 the Okapi Wildlife Reserve was created to provide shelter to the okapi in its native habitat and safeguard the incredible diversity of species found in the region.

Early in the morning on Sunday, Simba rebels (Mai Mai) attacked the Institute in Congo for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) and headquarters for the Okapi Wildlife Reserve near the village of Epulu in the northeastern area of the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to the Okapi Conservation Project, at least five guards were killed, and destruction of buildings and looting has occurred. Fighting his way past the rebels, the reserve’s Conservator Gishlain Somba escaped and walked through the night to Mambassa, where he is coordinating with the Congolese Army (FARDC) being deployed to the area, along with top rangers from Virunga National Park. “We are gravely concerned about the fate of our 100 staff members and the 14 okapi at the breeding and research station,” said John Lukas, Founder of the Okapi Conservation Project. “As soon as the area is safe, we will go and provide whatever help we can.” The Okapi is the flagship species for one of the most biologically diverse spots on Earth—the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Ituri Rainforest. Today, there are approximately only 10,000 – 20,000 okapi in the wild.To make a donation to help the local people, rebuild the conservation station and provide assistance to the ICCN to continue to protect the wildlife of the Ituri Forest, please visit http://www.okapiconservation.org/uncategorized/update-on-crisis-in-dr-congo-and-okapi-wildlife-reserve-june-26-2012/. You may also follow the Facebook pages of the Okapi Conservation Center, Houston Zoo and Wildlife Conservation Network for updates and information on this unfolding tragedy.


Pollinators get you Points!

This weekend, Saturday June 23 and Sunday June 24, the Houston Zoo will be celebrating Pollinators Day.  There will be booths, keeper chats and activities for the kids.

The Naturally Wild Swap Shop will join in the fun.  Any nature journal on pollinators or pollination will get double points!  Topics can include (but are not limited to) bats , bees, butterflies, or the plants that they pollinate.  Journals might also cover the many  products collected or manufactured thanks to the hard work of these and other pollinators.  Don’t know about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop?  Click here for more information.

Pollinators help us with many products from honey to tequila.  They provide something for everyone.  Some Pollinators are at risk and their numbers are dwindling.

Come join us for Pollinators Weekend and learn more about these amazing animals.



The Trouble with Elephants

The trouble with Elephants is two-fold. First, they carry very expensive pieces of ivory around with them that are valued as trophies and ornamental carvings. Second, they invade peoples crops making it even more difficult for villagers to feed their families through the dry season. Both of these add up to the elephants in the region being very nervous and even sometimes aggressive in their interactions with people.

Three days ago, two of he Niassa Lion Project (NLP) staff went out to gear about a report of two elephants killed about 2-3 weeks ago near the village and they found carcasses with the tusks hacked off. Two days ago, there was a report of poachers in the next concession who killed 2 elephants.  Fortunately, an anti poaching unit was able to get to the scene thanks to a small aircraft in the area that spotted the actives and chased off the poachers while they were trying to bundle up the ivory. Unfortunately, no poachers were caught and two elephants were dead, but at least all the ivory was recovered.

This is playing out constantly across Africa and it is putting serious strains on elephant populations.  Persecuted elephants create dangerous situations where it is difficult to protect both the village people and the elephants. NLP will be looking at new models to approach human-wildlife conflict involving both elephants and lions in the future.

Update: We received a message that on June 15th that 3 elephant were shot in the night behind the NLP camp but by the time they were able to get out to the field with scouts, the poachers and ivory were gone. Nobody lives here except the ~10 NLP staff. The closest village – Mbamba Village – is an hour plus walk away and due to their fear of lions and elephants at night, it makes it all the more likely that these poaching syndicates are now reaching into areas from distant villages in the reserve.

 The photo below was not from a poached elephant but from a ~1 year old predated on by lions. The belief these days is the more adults that are being killed, leads to more orpahned elephants which are being taken by predators rather than being protected by the herd. The value of this ivory in the local village is very small – maybe $30USD but once into a larger city its value is around $400 and then internationally that price can double. These tusks were deposited with the National reserve which maintains a vault to keep confiscated and found ivory.

Our Sea Lions Have Moved! (Just for a bit)

At the Houston Zoo, we are constantly working to improve our facilities for both the guests and animals. We put an immense amount of consideration into providing the most comfortable and natural living conditions possible. In the coming weeks, you may notice that our sea lions are missing! Fear not, the sea lions have made a temporary move from their exhibit so that we may make some very important enhancements to their area.

Because of the work being done in the sea lion area, it was necessary to move the sea lions away from the construction. The three sea lions will be residing in a specialized space inside of our veterinary clinic, located across the Zoo. As easy as it is to say that they are now moved over to their temporary home, it was not so easy in practice.

After learning about the renovations, our incredible keepers had a very short time to plan, practice, and execute the plan to safely and comfortably move the sea lions. When moving an animal of this size, every detail must be strategically planned before any training begins. Timing, social behavior, back-up plans, safety, and animal comfort are just a few of the many considerations that went into our move of the sea lions. The primary goal was for the entire event to be as minimally stressful on the animals as possible. This goal was to be the foundation around which all other planning would occur.

Our sea lion keepers spent countless hours deepening their relationships with the sea lions as they introduced a specialized cart that would eventually be the ride to their location during exhibit renovations. It can take years for an animal to learn an activity of this nature. Our keepers had four months to teach and develop this behavior.

At first, familiarity was key. Helping the sea lions understand that the cart was a safe place for them would reduce stress and allow them to relax during the ride. Soon, they were practicing getting on and off without the cart going anywhere. After this, it was time for test runs! One at a time, the sea lions would get on the cart, and our keepers would take a short practice lap with them to solidify confidence. This activity was repeated multiple times over a number of days. As the days passed with more practice, the official moving day had arrived! It was finally time for all that training to be put to the test….

We are extremely happy to announce that all three sea lions have safely and comfortably arrived at their summer home! We look forward to the completion of the exhibit renovations and we will keep you updated as we near the conclusion of the exhibit updates. Stay tuned for more!

Texas Rare Bird Alert!

Yesterday, a coworker asked me if, after work, I would like to drive almost two hours to Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge on a wild goose chase.  My answer, “I’m there!”

Technically, we went on a wild Godwit chase.  Brazoria NWR is currently playing host to a very rare visitor, the Black-tailed Godwit. This large shorebird is typically found in Asia, Europe and Africa, and this is the first time it has ever made its way to Texas.

The Gulf Coast, particularly the Texan Gulf Coast, is a wonderful place to be a bird watcher.  From South Padre Island, and all the way up the shore, each year Texas gets more than its fair share of migratory misfits and accidental visitors, making us one of the best birding spots in North America. There’s even a website devoted entirely to rare birds spotted in Texas.

Brazoria NWR is a pretty large place, so we were literally looking for one bird among hundreds of ponds and thousands of birds.  Our plan, look for the group of people on the side of the road staring through binoculars and spotting scopes.  The plan worked perfectly, and we got a spectacular view of the singular bird from no more than 100 yards away.  The friendly group of bird watchers consisted of several Houstonians, a couple who had driven 4 hours to see the bird, and a man from California who flew out specifically to see this rarity.

While seeing such a rare bird (at least for this part of the world) and adding another count to my ‘life list’ is wonderful, the best part of the outing was speaking to the ranchers and locals driving past on their way home from work.  Severals stopped and asked if the bird was still there, and smiled and shook their heads, telling us to have a great day. One man said he’d be by again tomorrow and hoped the Godwit was still around.

Maybe they don’t understand the point of standing around and watching a brown bird bathe and flit around a pond, but they certainly were happy we were there, and hopefully that makes them a little more appreciative of our remaining wild places, and the strange birds (and people) who visit them.

If you’re interested in starting a new hobby, why not try bird watching?  There’s no better way to start than a weekend day trip to the beautiful Brazoria NWR and a glimpse of a very rare bird!  Just look for the group of binocular-faces on the side of the road. Don’t have binoculars? Don’t worry, you won’t be there for 30 seconds before someone offers you the loan of their binoculars or spotting scope!

One last look at the lions

I am visiting the Niassa National Reserve in Mozambique to better understand how the Houston Zoo can assist with the conservation of lions in the park.

It is June 10th, and we have headed back out to the Inselberg Lipumbulu , the mid size of the three we have climbed, to find a signal for the lions we have not seen. There is quit a bit of roaring around us at night and it could be a new male across the river moving in or the females Flavia and Fatima behind us who have been moving about lately. We picked up a distant signal on James again as well as Akomwana but that was all. Akomwana and her cub had moved between 6-7 miles since yesterday and we were hoping she had caught up with her sister, who is not collared, so we headed in her direction.

Let me start by saying that Land Rovers are the equivalent of a tank without the turret. The one thing private foundations, grants and awards rarely cover are vehicles and salaries. Without vehicles and salaries how can you even have a project? This 1997 Land Rover went places you would not think possible, nearly vertical drives into and out of riverbeds, through acacia thorn scrub brush habitat, over elephant made pothole covered grasslands and 45 minutes later we reached a strong signal point where she was most likely resting among boulders with her cub. We got a GPS point, but no visual but in this landscape seeing her once this week was lucky enough. If anyone is interested in helping fund a new “used” Land Rover, give me a call, the project cannot grow with only one field vehicle capable of following lions and visiting villages.

Work continues on the layout of the environmental center housing for the workers Niassa Lion Project are bringing in from the community for construction. There was a visit to the village by one of the staff to advise a villager on better goat-corral construction now that one of his goats was taken by a leopard. Now that the NLP camp has been up and running for over a month, everyone is becoming very busy on top of tracking lions.

Tomorrow we will spend some time back at environmental education center and see what else the Houston Zoo can do to help from funding salaries and bush meat surveys to equipment for lion tracking and educational materials for the new center.


Red Panda Ultrasound

While visiting the Houston Zoo you may have had an opportunity to view the occasional animal training session. Training can be observed daily during our Sea Lion shows and Elephant baths, but did you may also see it happening in any of the animal sections of the zoo? A vast majority of the training takes place behind the scenes and it is critical for helping us to take better care of the animals that live here.

The PVC perch that was made to help orient Keti for the ultrasound.

For the past six months, keepers on the Natural Encounters team have been working with Keti, a female red panda, to train her for voluntary ultrasound. This way we will be able to easily determine if she is pregnant and monitor the development of her cub(s). To begin this process, keepers had to train Keti to accept them touching her on her back and belly. Wild animals are not usually tolerant of being touched, and a high level of trust needs to be established between the keeper and animal. Once this behavior was established, keepers progressively added in all the other factors that might be involved in an ultrasound procedure.

Mock up of a portable ultrasound machine to be used in training.

Members of the veterinary team came by so Keti could learn they were friendly treat dispensers. Practice ultrasound equipment was fabricated from cardboard boxes, aquarium tubing and the casing of a tube of deodorant! A PVC perch was made which would help Keti line up into the perfect position to obtain a great ultrasound image. One by one, Keti was introduced to these items and learned to associate them with treats. It’s a slow but effective process. Below, you can see the results of six months of hard work.


This video was taken at her third ever ultrasound exam. Although we have not yet seen a fetal image, we will continue to monitor her weekly and keep our fingers crossed.

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