Sabinga's Updates: Wildlife Protection Efforts Near the Ocean

Sabinga-Profile-ResizeThe Houston Zoo is excited to welcome a new intern who comes to us all the way from Kenya, in East Africa. Sabinga is in the United States participating in the Community College Initiative Program (CCIP). The Community College Initiative Program is a program of the U.S. Department of State, administered by Northern Virginia Community College on behalf of the Community College Consortium (CCC) in partnership with Houston Community College. While participating in this program, he will join us at the zoo as an intern to learn all about what a modern-day zoo is like! Sabinga is already part of the conservation community as he has been working with Save the Elephants in Kenya for over 8 years. He will be documenting his experiences at the Zoo and we will share his thoughts with you here on our blog! Stay tuned for more!

Sabinga writes:
Do you know that Houston Zoo also doing their part to bolster dwindling populations of animals still living free in the wild? The sea turtle is an example. The green sea turtle gets its name not from the color of its shell but from the greenish shade of its fat. A saw-like beak helps these herbivores tear through vegetation. Their shells, which are lighter and more hydrodynamic than those of terrestrial turtles, allow them to glide easily through the water, while flippers enable them to swim long distances. Male sea turtles spend their entire lives at sea, but females return to the same beaches they were born on, once every two years or so, to lay eggs. It’s a unique creature!!


Just a few days ago I was busy working on my computer when I heard a voice behind me asking me if I wanted to go into the field with Martha (Conservation Education Coordinator) and sea lion staff on the following Tuesday. I quickly realized the voice was Renee! (Conservation Programs Manager) But it took me lot of thinking to manage and organized my thoughts about word “field” in the zoo as I turn my chair to face her slowly buying time for my thoughts, the only thing running in my head is back in Kenya, in Save the Elephants where we go to the field on daily monitoring, community outreach and anti-poaching campaigns for wildlife. I turn to face her and still have no clue what she meant. My thoughts fail me. I repeated the same statement to her. “Field?” Maybe she though I repeated a word to her for confirmation, not knowing there was so much going in my head. And that was where my new lesson started about what field work with the Houston Zoo meant.

The 16th of December, 2014 Tuesday morning was our mission day of Surfside beach clean-up to protect animals like sea turtles, it took us approximately one hour, was a long drive but was a journey with lot of fun, lots of laugh and a great way to get a word out about the sea Turtles! Aiming to talk to beach residents in an effort to monitor, preserve and protect sea turtle and their vicinity as well as to educate the local residents on the plight of sea turtles and other marine animals, it is the same way Save the Elephants approaches the community on elephant poaching.

Martha had lot of responsibility; she was our team leader, driver and main spokesperson to the community although Sophie Darling and Heather Crane contributed too to the effort. I was keen to learn about how they approach the community! From my heroes (Martha, Sophie and Heather), my first impression was the sea turtle sign at the entry of the beach, this sign was made by the Houston Zoo graphics team in collaboration with  NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric administration) which is also the same way that Save the Elephants collaborates with the Kenyan Government -Kenya Wildlife Service.

NOAA & Houston Zoo staff put fishing line recycling bins on a long jetty for fishermen to put their broken fishing line that is dangerous for the sea turtles and other marine animals.  We started cleaned the jetty from the far end coming where we began by collecting common marine debris items including things like cigarette butts, cans, plastic bags and bottles, styrofoam, balloons, lighters, discarded or lost fishing gear such as lines, nets and anything else dangerous to sea life. This is hard work but there is still a lot to be done.  We still need to do a lot of collecting and messaging to win this, we cannot give up!!!!


Sophie and Heather’s comments on their experience, “It feels so good to be out and actively participating in such an important mission, I just wish that I could get every piece of monofilament out there! That was the hardest part, like you said, was having to come to terms with the fact that I couldn’t get everything.  I cannot wait to spread this to the community here at the Zoo and all over Houston! I feel extremely proud to be a part of all of this.”

The total amount or marine debris the sea lion team has collect this fall is:

  • 34.1 lbs of rope
  • 11 lbs of recycling
  • 26.4 lbs of trash
  • 2 lbs of monofilament (fishing line)

Why should we care about sea turtles? Just like other species, sea turtles are also important to the economy. Some fishermen depend on fishing for their jobs and if sea turtle go extinct, the underwater ecosystem would be unbalanced. Why? Sea turtles are one of the only animals that eat sea grass, and sea grasses need to be kept short. Why? So it can grow across the ocean floor. Why? Without the sea grass the species of fish that live there will be lost, the people that fish for them couldn’t anymore. What if that was YOU?  Some just think,  “oh well other people will care for them”; others may say, “I am busy with my business”  – yeah well many other people may be thinking other things – that is why we have this problem. So do your part. Please join us to save sea turtles by reducing the use of plastic bags so that they don’t end up in the ocean and cleaning the beach. It is of great value to our community and the world. We need to take action together, and spread the news! Your actions today affect tomorrow’s outcomes!

Sharks: They’re Not So Scary

Sharks, stingrays, whale sharks and anything ocean-related are near and dear to my heart. I’ve had a love for the ocean and water for as long as I can remember, so for me to pick an ocean related conservation project was a no-brainer. When Dr. Rachel Graham with MarAlliance came to the Zoo in May as part of our Wildlife Speaker Series, I knew that I wanted to help them out in anyway I could!

We have an awesome program here at the Houston Zoo called the Staff Conservation Fund. Every year the staff can donate money to the fund, and then staff can apply for funding to assist or develop a suitable conservation effort of their choice. I did just that, using my photography skills to help MarAlliance spread the word about shark and stingray conservation!

The view from below the water at Shark Ray Alley.  The object in the middle is called a BRUV (Baited Remote Underwater Video).  It attracts the sharks, rays, and fish so they can be viewed at a safe distance and also records the feeding for scientific analysis later.
The view from below the water at Shark Ray Alley. The object in the middle is called a BRUV (Baited Remote Underwater Video). It attracts the sharks, rays, and fish so they can be viewed at a safe distance and also records the feeding for scientific analysis later.

MarAlliance is a marine conservation group based out of Belize that focuses on sharks, stingrays, sea turtles and large finfish. The meaning of their name has two parts: Mar means “sea” in Spanish, and they are also “allied for marine wildlife.” A lot of people, maybe even you, are afraid of sharks. When you hear the word shark, most people think “shark attack!” The truth is, the shark’s reputation is far worse than its bite, and a misunderstanding about their nature has overshadowed the truth about why shark attacks happen.

In reality, sharks have more to fear from humans than we do of them. Each year, millions of sharks are killed by the fishing industry either as intentional or unintentional bycatch, which is catching marine species that are not your intended target. Bycatch can affect many other marine animals besides sharks such as, stingrays, sea turtles, whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, other fish species and many more. That’s why it’s very important for fisheries to use a proper and sustainable type of fishing to avoid as much bycatch as possible.

The other main threat to sharks is the consumption of shark fin soup, which is a delicacy among the Chinese and has grown ever popular in recent years. But it is not only served in China: The soup is served all around the world including the US. Fishermen from around the world catch up sharks by the millions specifically for their fins in the use of this soup. Often times the rest of the body is not used, just discarded. And the fin itself does not actually taste, it’s more just for texture.

Consuming this soup in large quantities, and shark in general, can be hazardous to our health as well. Sharks absorb a lot of mercury from the water and the fish they eat, which we put into our body when we eat the shark. This can be a very serious health risk for mercury poisoning.

With growing demand for this delicacy, sharks are being fished at an unsustainable rate, meaning we are catching more of them than they have time to reproduce. Sharks have a slow rate of growth, late maturity or birthing age and they don’t produce many offspring at a time. All those factors make it hard for the shark population to make a recovery from over fishing.

So why are sharks so important? Because “Many Sharks = A Healthy Reef”. If you’ve ever seen a healthy reef system, there’s a good chance that there were sharks in the area as well. Sharks prey on fish and other sharks, and specifically sick and injured ones. When the sick and injured are taken out of the ecosystem, that makes room for the healthy ones and prevents disease spread. If sharks are disappearing from an area, then that part of the food chain is disrupted and things begin to fall out of balance.

Reefs are like little bustling cities in the ocean. Many different aquatic life use them as homes and feeding grounds. So having healthy reef systems in our ocean is very important to the overall health of the ocean and the animals that live within it.

Part of the conservation work MarAlliance does is educating the local community about sharks and rays. A large group of the Belizean people are fishers, so educating them is key.

MarAlliance staff educating children in Belize City on the importance of sharks and rays.
MarAlliance staff educating children in Belize City on the importance of sharks and rays.

One of the ways they do this is with their Kids Meet Sharks project. It introduces children and adults to sharks and rays and encourages a positive shift in attitudes towards these threatened animals. They first go to local schools and do a presentation about sharks and rays, educating the children on the biology of them, what threats they face, sustainable fisheries and how to appropriately interact with them when you encounter them in the wild.

Belize is home to at least 42 species of sharks and rays, so if you get in the water, you’re more than likely to encounter one. Proper etiquette is to view them from a distance, do not touch, and if there is food, stay at a distance from that food.

After the presentation, the children write a report on what they learned, the teachers grade them, and they pick the top 20. Those children and their teachers then get to go out with MarAlliance to visit Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley, which are protected marine reserves.

Children and teachers from Belize City enjoying the Kids Meet Sharks snorkeling trip at Shark Ray Alley.
Children and teachers from Belize City enjoying the Kids Meet Sharks snorkeling trip at Shark Ray Alley.

Even though they live in Belize, most of these students don’t know how to swim, let alone have ever seen a shark or stingray, so this is a real treat for them! Some were scared at first but with gentle encouragement, they all got in the water and were amazed at what they saw!

By the end of it, we could barely get them out of the water! It was truly amazing to see the wonder, joy and excitement the children and the adults alike all had!

A Baby Mandrill Is Only Part of Our Primate Baby Boom

November has been a big month for the primate team at the Houston Zoo. Three brand new babies were born during the course of one month, including a rare mandrill.  At 2 a.m. on November 29 the hugely pregnant mandrill Louise delivered a baby. Mandrills are known for their striking facial features including blue-colored ridges on the sides of their muzzles and a brilliant red stripe down the middle. The gender of the new baby is still unknown, but the prominent muzzle ridges can already be seen. Louise has fully embraced motherhood, and has carried and nursed her new baby like a pro. Guests can watch Louise cuddling and caring for her new baby at Wortham World of Primates.

On November 1 a De Brazza’s monkey was born to Amelia who had just given birth to her first baby, Ruby, in January.  The little one is stunningly gold colored and is already beginning to get off mom and explore the yard. The expanding family lives at the Wortham World of Primates and can be seen daily in their lushly planted exhibit.


A pair of Goeldi’s monkeys that had not been successful in the past gave birth to a new baby on November 10. Peach, a young female, bred immediately with Andy, a more mature male, but sadly, their first baby was stillborn. The second time they conceived, the pregnancy ended in a Cesarean section, and again, that infant did not survive. The veterinarian team gave Peach a “time out” with a contraceptive implant, to give her plenty of time to heal and recover from both those ordeals. After a year, that implant was removed and she was healthy enough to try again. Lo and behold, with very little fanfare, a comparatively large baby was discovered on Peach’s back on November 10. Goeldi’s monkeys are different from the closely-related tamarins, because they usually have just one baby at a time, and the mom carries it for a month before dad joins in to help. The jet black infant is hard to distinguish on the parent’s back but a tiny face can be discerned in amongst the fur.

Sam, the "People" Steer

Just four years ago this month, a small baby steer arrived at the Houston Zoo. His name was Sam – Sam Houston to be exact. At about the same time, a wide-eyed new zookeeper named Emma started in the John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo.

Sam Houston the steer, as a baby, right when he got to the Houston Zoo
Sam Houston the steer, as a baby, right when he got to the Houston Zoo

Emma was sitting in a meeting one day when one of her supervisors asked, “Does anyone want to train Sam?” Emma, not having any training experience, was eager to take on her first challenge, so she raised her hand. From then on, Emma and Sam were learning from each other.

When Sam first got to the Zoo, he, like all the other animals, spent 30 days in what we call “quarantine” – it’s an area separate from the other animals where residents get their vet checkups and we make sure they are healthy enough to enter the Zoo.

Sam was pretty skittish at first, but Emma and the other keepers worked tirelessly with him during those first 30 days to get him comfortable with a halter and lead using food, toys, love, and affection. At the end of his quarantine, Sam was proudly walked over to his new home in the Children’s Zoo on that halter and lead, with no issues at all. From then on, Sam was what you would call a “people” steer.

It's pretty obvious that Sam likes people!
It’s pretty obvious that Sam likes people!

While Sam enjoyed Zoo guests and especially loved his frequent walks with Emma and the other keepers behind-the-scenes, he also had another friend at the Zoo: Zamir the zebu.

Zamir the zebu as a baby - he's a lot bigger now!
Zamir the zebu as a baby – he’s a lot bigger now!

“Zamir and Sam were best buds. When we went on a walk with Sam and returned back to the yard, Zamir would moo at Sam, and then Sam would moo back at Zamir,” said Emma. They would also play and give each other baths.

Over the past year or so, it became apparent that Sam was getting a little too big to stay at the Zoo. He grew and he grew and he grew until he was over 1,250 pounds! While Sam still enjoyed his frequent mud baths (his favorite) and walks behind-the-scenes, it was time to find a new home for him that gave him more space to stretch out.

At about the same time we were trying to find a new home for Sam, an incredible place in the hill country called Camp For All was looking for a steer.

Started in 1993 just outside of Brenham, Camp For All hosts campers with cancer, autism, muscular dystrophy, epilepsy, severe burns, sickle cell, cerebral palsy, veterans with post-war challenges, and so much more. Most of the campers come from the greater Houston area and southeast Texas.

The camp is barrier-free, which means that campers can participate in things like archery, aquatics, ropes courses, horseback riding, and dozens of other fun activities, and those activities are specially designed to make sure each camper can reach their individual potential and have lots of fun in the process. There is also a Small Animal Farm where campers can learn about and enjoy their favorite barnyard animals, and it had been a while since Camp For All had a steer there.

Because Camp For All is such a special place for all kinds of campers, they couldn’t just bring in any steer. This steer had to be a “people” steer.
Kelly, the Equestrian Supervisor at Camp For All, came to the Zoo to put Sam to the test and make sure he’d be good with the campers. Sure enough, Sam passed with flying colors. It was time for Sam to head to his new home.

There were plenty of tears shed as Sam’s trailer headed out of the Zoo, particularly by his trainer Emma, but Sam didn’t seem to mind – he had more alfalfa than he’d ever seen in his life to keep him company until he got to his destination!

Now that Sam is at Camp For All, he’s stepping into his new role seamlessly.

Sam in his new home at Camp For All, just in time for the holidays
Sam in his new home at Camp For All, just in time for the holidays

“With Sam Houston’s big personality, he is going to fit right in with our very hands-on barnyard program where our campers will brush, pet and adore the big guy. He has made friends with all the barnyard pals, and he enjoys the pasture life as well as his people time,” says Kelly. “We love him.”

Learn More About Our Newest Baby Bongo

This post was written by Kendall Thawley & Mary Fields.

The Houston Zoo is proud to introduce the newest member of our bongo herd! Sheldon was born on November 2, 2014 in the late afternoon. He is Penny’s third calf, her second son. This wonderful addition brings our bongo herd up to 3.


We are especially happy about this birth due to the fact that Eastern Bongo (like Penny and Sheldon) are Critically Endangered. It is estimated that less than 140 individuals remain in the wild in small, isolated populations. The forests that they live in are disappearing because of illegal logging activity, and they are facing increasing hunting pressure as the human population in the area grows. The Houston Zoo works with other conservation institutions all over the world to ensure that this species continues to thrive, both in captivity and in the wild.

So the next chance you get, come visit the Houston Zoo to see Sheldon and learn more about the Eastern bongo.

sheldon bongo 2

Discover What Makes the Houston Toad So Unique

IMG_9112The Houston Zoo is excited to welcome a new intern who comes to us all the way from Kenya, in East Africa. Gilbert Sabinga is in the United States as participating in the Community College Initiative Program (CCIP). The Community College Initiative Program is a program of the U.S. Department of State, administered by Northern Virginia Community College on behalf of the Community College Consortium (CCC) in partnership with Houston Community College. While participating in this program, he will join us at the zoo as an intern to learn all about what a modern-day zoo is like! Sabinga is already part of the conservation community as he has been working with Save the Elephants in Kenya for over 8 years. He will be documenting his experiences at the Zoo and we will share his thoughts with you here on our blog!

Sabinga writes:

Sabinga blogHouston Zoo is the nature in it’s wildest. Every day coming to the zoo it offers me a new chance to get up close from wildlife around the world, and learn close facts about the animals. This time I was introduced to toads!!!! The little I knew about the toads is valuable part of our outdoor heritage. Most of people probably don’t give them much thought, and rarely credit what we consider lesser life not with emotions big as ours; but we need these amphibians to control destructive insects and to offer their voices to the sounds of spring and summer nights. Just hearing or seeing them adds to our enjoyment of outdoor joy and makes our environment beautiful. I visited and got to help in the toad department under the instruction of Tyler Parker, who never get tired of me asking questions about toads. He really taught me much on toads and expanded my knowledge about the toads especially Houston toads.

Sabinga blog2Today, with species threatened and habitats disappearing worldwide, the Houston Zoo  is playing a new role in conservation: the Zoo is expanding their efforts far beyond keeping animals alive in captivity. An example of this is the toad quarantine facility that serves as a location for captive breeding and head- starting of Houston toads eggs stand for release in to the wild, and this facility is managed full-time by Houston toad specialists who care for the toads and work closely. I never thought of how great this is wow! Credit to toad keepers.

The best part is that we would all love to think that wild animals in reality are at least a little bit like they are in National Geographic movies – cute, cuddly and happy to be in human company. Certainly toads can get used to human caretakers. Dr. Lauren Howard held one told and I was surprised that the toad did not struggle and even closed its eyes! I was wondering is it love? Or, the warmth of Lauren’s hand, or cues from the toad that it enjoys the care.  We all need to care for these magnificent local Texas creatures.

Sabinga blog3
Amphibian species are now on the verge of extinction. How do we save them?

– Toads like to take their time crossing the road…give them a brake! Roadkill is a significant cause of toad and frog mortality in many parts of the world. So drive slower on wet nights. Help a frog or toad cross the road (careful: don’t cause an accident or get squashed yourself).

– If you are building a pond, and want to support a healthy toad community, do not stock fish in it–even native species. Fishless ponds always tend to have a higher amphibian biodiversity than do ponds with fish.

– Most of the products we use in our daily life, and even the things we take for granted (food, water, electricity) have been removed from their natural place in the environment. We therefore offer the following suggestions on how you can reduce your ecological footprint: Turn off your air conditioning when it’s not in use. Take a shorter shower. Put a lid on that pot of boiling water. Turn off your lights. Print on both sides of the sheet of paper. Turn your jacuzzi off when it’s not in use. Going for a picnic? Don’t use styrofoam plates; most supermarkets sell biodegradable corn plates.

For more information visit;

Point to remember; Toads may be begging for their environmental freedom!!!

Guest Blogger Carolyn Jess Explains How You Can Help Save Animals in the Wild

We have invited Carolyn Jess back to help us out as guest blogger in 2014 with a focus on native wildlife. Jess is a 13 year old student who has agreed to be our special guest blogger about wildlife conservation. We first met Carolyn in October 2011 when she came out to the Zoo to meet our special guest Jack Hannah. If you would like to contact Carolyn or have comments, you may send them to

The holidays are quickly approaching and soon you will start buying gifts for loved ones.  Remember to include the ones that you love at the Houston Zoo, or the animals out in the wild! I’m sure that if these animals could ask for something for Christmas, it would be for you to remember them and to spread the word about the reasons why they are endangered.   There are many great  people and organizations that are working hard to protect the animals that are struggling to survive out in the wild.

You’ve heard of the Houston Toad.  It actually used to live in Houston, but is now only found in East Central parts of Texas.  It is endangered due to habitat loss.  Its habitat is being cleared for housing or other buildings.  Sometimes their woodland areas are being turned into man-made, permanent ponds, which actually is not good for the Houston Toad. When that happens, the toads have a greater chance of being eaten by other predators, such as snakes.  The ponds also increase the competition for food sources for the Houston Toad. The Houston Zoo works very hard to increase the population of the Houston Toad by breeding and then releasing the toads.

ocelot-bloggThen there is my favorite, the Texas ocelot.  This cat  once roamed plentifully in south Texas. Their beautiful coat blends in perfectly with the shrub land they like to live on, but there are not many of these beautiful cats left here in Texas.  They don’t have a lot of land left to roam on due to habitat loss and more roads are being built around their habitat.  Scientists at Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute radio collar these cats and study their movements.  Work is being done to build fences to keep the ocelot from getting injured on the roads, but these cats have a long way to go still.  It is estimated that there are less than 100 ocelots left in South Texas.

apcThe Attwater’s Prairie Chicken is an endangered Texas species that once roamed freely on the Texas coastal prairies.  In the early 1900s, there were about 1 million Attwater’s Prairie Chicken and now there are less than 100.  This too, is due to habitat loss.  This bird, which is not actually a chicken, but a grouse, needs prairie to live on.  Due to new buildings and construction, much of the prairie land is just not there anymore.  There is much work being done to help this species come back, but they need your help.

The last one I would like to remind you about is the Texas Blind Salamander.  This endangered animal lives in the Edward’s Aquifer area around San Marcos. There used to be plenty of these interesting salamanders around, but due to a massive population increase in that area, water gets used up faster and the groundwater levels fall.  Along with falling water levels, more pollution is being introduced.  The salamanders need clean water to live in.   Dr. Glenn Longley, at Texas State University, monitors the Blind Salamander population and conducts research to help the salamander’s population.

These are some of my favorite animals that I  like to help.  There are many ways you can help these animals as well.  Just being aware of these animals is the first step to saving them. Visiting the Houston Zoo is another step.  If you would like to give these animals some Christmas cheer, you can donate to The Houston Zoo. They are working now to increase the populations of all these animals and they are working directly with the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken and the Houston Toad.   If you would like to help the ocelot, you can donate to the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute or if you’d rather help out the Texas Blind Salamander, you can get in touch with Texas State University and contact The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment.

Search Blog & Website
[jetpack_subscription_form title="Subscribe to the Blog" subscribe_text="Enter your email address to subscribe and receive new blog posts by email."]
Houston Zoo Facebook Page
Animals In Action

Recent Videos