Saving the World’s Most Endangered Antelope

Written by John Scaramucci

Ali meeting the Houston Zoo Admissions team

This month the Houston Zoo had a very special visitor from the Hirola Conservation Program (HCP), Dr. Abdullahi H. Ali. He is one of our conservation partners that is doing incredible work in an effort to save the world’s most endangered antelope, the hirola.  He met with several members of the Houston Zoo staff that work on the advisory board of the HCP and others that manage the Hirola Facebook Page to discuss various technical strategies in growing the program and updating them on the work being done in Kenya.

In order to save the hirola, it will take strong leadership and heavy community involvement. There are only about 500 hirola left in the wild, and they are considered critically endangered.  All of the hirola occur outside of federally protected land in Eastern Kenya near the border with Somalia, making it very challenging for anyone to study them.

This has been the mission of Dr. Ali ever since he began his efforts to save hirola in 2005. Dr. Ali is a native born Kenyan of Somali descent. He was raised in a traditional pastoral community, in the heart of hirola country, where their livelihood is tied to herding livestock such as goats, cattle, and camels.  He retained strong ties to his local community even after leaving to attend school and earning his PhD in Ecology.

Hirola, Image Credit Hirola Conservation Program

Through engaging local communities with educational opportunities and inclusion in decision making, Dr. Ali has created a culture of conservation in the region. HCP has established anti-poaching ranger units which employ locals and help protect all the other species which live in the hirola’s habitat, such as cheetah, painted dogs, and gerenuk.

Over the past three decades, hirola populations have declined at an alarming rate. Scientists and field researchers believe habitat loss to be the most significant contributor to the hirola’s weak numbers, as the lush savannah grasslands preferred by this species have grown over with scrub forests due to the disappearance of elephants. Through the assistance of local communities, habitat restoration projects are underway to remove large tracks of invasive scrub forest and replant native grasses.

Dr. Ali and the Hirola Conservation Program are dedicated to protecting and increasing the numbers and distribution of hirola through participatory conservation, education, community involvement and international support.

The international support is where the Houston Zoo community plays such a strong role. From each guest that walks through our gate to the many departments that make up our staff, we all have made a difference.

Ali with the Hoofed Stock keepers that manage the HCP Facebook page, Memory and John.

Registration for Camp Zoofari is Open!

Summer vacation just got wild! Public registration begins Monday, Feb. 27 for Camp Zoofari at the Houston Zoo. Camp Zoofari is a summer camp experience for children ages 4 through 16 that features fun and educational activities among an array of exotic wildlife. Running May 30 through Aug. 11, 2017, Camp Zoofari offers an exciting lineup of programs that have been specially created to teach children about animals and the natural world.

Camp Zoofari has listened to feedback from past camp participants and added several new and exciting programs in 2017.  Teens, ages 13 through 16, will have a new way to interact with our animal collection in two camps specifically created for them.

Each day of Camp Zoofari is action-packed to keep kids moving and stimulate an interest in the amazing species that call the zoo home. The expert zoo team takes summer camp to the next level and helps each camper create happy memories that make them eager to learn more about nature.

The zoo has added 11 brand-new camp programs for summer 2017. Themes like Wild Arts, Wild Survival, and LEGO join returning favorites that help kids make friends and have fun at camp while learning about wildlife. These new themes expand the zoo’s already-diverse collection of educational programs, giving parents and children more ways to connect with nature while at camp.  Before and after care has also been added to help families.  Finally, many of our camps are so popular, they sell out fast!  This year, the zoo has added a waitlist to immediately notify families of a vacancy.

“We are really looking forward to welcoming campers back to the Houston Zoo this summer,” said Melanie Sorensen, senior director of conservation education. “Our team of professional educators work throughout the year to improve and build exciting experiences into each camp session. With such a fascinating collection of animals only steps away, Camp Zoofari creates a unique connection with wildlife to inspire action to save animals in the wild.”

Camp Zoofari is operated by the Houston Zoo conservation education department. To complement the zoo’s 11 full-time educators, each week-long session is supported by 26 contracted teachers, and nearly 50 members of Zoo Crew, the organization’s teen volunteer initiative. Camp Zoofari staff maintain an 8-to-1 student-teacher ratio, surpassing the 10-to-1 ratio mandated by the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Registration and additional information can be found at

Crab Trap Clean-Up 2017

By Heidi Garbe,  Colleen Cavanaugh, and Houston Zoo Volunteer Penny O’Neal

The Houston Zoo teamed up with the Galveston Bay Foundation and Texas Parks and Wildlife on February 18th to help pull abandoned crab traps from Galveston Bay waters. We pitched in at two locations:  Bolivar Peninsula (at Stingaree Restaurant) and Fort Anahuac Park. The event was a success with teens, staff, and adult volunteers from the Houston Zoo coming together at these locations. In total, over 300 traps were pulled from the bay and are no longer a threat to other animals.

The group at Bolivar began the day by pulling up several crab traps that had been in the water near Stingaree Restaurant. The traps had become encased with pounds of mollusks and the group had to be creative in saving these creatures before removing the traps.

Teens participating in our new Adventure Programs spearheaded the on-land clean-up around the shore at Fort Anahuac Park. The collected five bags of trash, six bags of recycling, and removed two old tires from the marsh. When boats came in with traps, they helped to smash them and put them in the front loader to be thrown in the dumpsters.

Community members also volunteered their time and their boats to bring in crab traps to be smashed and thrown away. This work is crucial to support healthy Galveston area waters and to remove abandoned traps that catch more than the intended crabs. Additionally, it helps to protect blue crab populations. By removing these traps from the water, it is estimated that we helped save over 5,000 blue crabs that would otherwise perish in these old traps.  The removal of crab traps is only allowed for a short period of time every year, so it’s important to make a massive effort when we can.

The Houston Zoo informally presented on plastic pollution and sustainable seafood, too. Several people stopped at our table to get more information on these issues and what they can do to help clean up the beach and save marine life from damaging fishing practices. In addition to educating the public and helping to clean up the bay, the beautiful weather and good company made the entire effort fun! Want to get involved, too? You can learn more about the crab trap removal program here.

Special thanks to Stingaree Restaurant for their support and delicious food, and to the Galveston Bay Foundation for coordinating our efforts at these two sites! Amazing things happen when we come together as a community.

*Photos courtesy of Gene Fissler, GBF, and our volunteers!


Houston Toad Breeding Season Begins

Written by Amie Bialo

Over in the Houston toad facility we certainly do get excited about Texas-sized things. After counting our egg strands from the 2016 breeding season, we found we had something big to celebrate. During week 6 of breeding, we had a pair of toads produce over 15,000 eggs. Collected from previous years, our data shows us that on average our females lay around 7,000 eggs per strand. In 2016 we had 12 females produce strands that contained more than 10,000 eggs. There are many variables that impact egg production, though – even the weather.


While 15,000 eggs certainly sounds like a lot, it’s important to consider why toads produce that many. The Houston toad is an r-strategist species when it comes to reproduction. What this means, in general, is that they produce a large number of offspring, but don’t put very much effort into caring for them. The offspring of r-strategist species are often small, and quick to mature, with a low percentage chance of survival, and this is definitely true of the Houston toad. To contrast, a species that uses a K reproductive strategy will generally have offspring that is larger in size, slow to mature, and their parents will put in a lot of care to help them survive (think elephants).

As the 2017 breeding season begins, our hopes are high that we’ll see many large egg strands. Ideally, we hope we can combine the toads’ r-strategy with the extra care of our keepers and partners who help release the strands in the wild, and let the toads see some of the benefit of K-strategy leading toward higher offspring survival numbers than they would see alone in the wild.

What a Cute… Watermelon?

Written by Memory Mays

We’ve got a new cute addition to our Hoofed Stock Department at the Houston Zoo. This is Antonio, a baby Baird’s tapir.

After a 13 month gestation period, our female Baird’s tapir “Moli” experienced a short labor before birthing our newest baby male tapir. The calf was quickly on his feet and walking only about 20 minutes after being born! At birth he weighed 20 pounds and has been gaining weight over this past week at a normal growth rate.

You may notice the calf has a different coat color than his mother. Tapir calves are known for this coat pattern where the white stripes and spots covering their bodies resemble the stripes of a watermelon. This coloration helps the calves camouflage into the bushes and shrubs of the forests in Central America. These markings will slowly fade into the adult coloration after about a year.

With only about 5,500 Baird’s tapirs left in the wild, this birth is very important to help save this endangered species. On your next visit to the Houston Zoo, make sure to stop by our Tapir yard to see this amazing Baird’s tapir!

Pen Pals to Save Okapis: Conservation in the Ituri Forest

Written by Mary Fields

Last time we were in contact with our pen pal, Jean Paul, he told us all about what he does to help okapis in the wild. This time, he told us about the Okapi Wildlife Reserve and how it helps with conservation!

So what is the Okapi Wildlife Reserve? It is a world heritage site located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that helps protect the Ituri Forest and its inhabitants. The Ituri Forest is one of the last reservoirs for biodiversity in Africa and a refuge for okapis, chimpanzees and forest elephants.

It is not just plants and animals that the OWR helps preserve; they help preserve the lifestyle of the indigenous people living in the forest. The Ituri Forest is home to the hunter-gatherer and deep forest-dwelling Mbuti and Efe pygmies.

The OWR focuses on working with the communities within and surrounding its boundaries. They provide zones for hunting, agriculture and full conservation. They also provide outreach programs for the public, schools and the government to help educate them on the importance of conservation and the reserve.

So how can you help okapis in the wild? By recycling your cell phones and electronics! You can recycle your cell phones at the Houston Zoo’s entrance and the African Forest. Make sure to follow our blog to continue learning about okapi conservation and hear more from Jean Paul!

Sea Lion Keeper Reflects on Her Inspiration

By: Heather Crane

The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever. – Jacques Yves Cousteau

It was August and I was approaching my 13th birthday. I had never seen or experienced the ocean before. As I sat in the back of my mother’s blue Toyota Camry sedan, I wondered what it might feel like to see, smell, and hear— to experience the ocean for my first time. As we drove from Oklahoma on a two-week road trip, I passed the time looking at a National Geographic map. As we neared the Oregon coast, I followed the routes of the highway with my finger. This activity didn’t seem significant at the time, but a pinpoint on the map was about to change my life forever. I remember the text being so small I could barely read it. As I looked a little closer I read aloud “Sea Lion Caves.” I hardly knew what a sea lion was, hardly knew what to expect, but I knew I had to go. My mom and my stepfather, Lee, told me that if I could help navigate using the map, we could take the detour to visit. So, I figured it out and we were on our way!

I remember walking down the long sidewalk, hoping I might catch sight of a whale like the signs indicated. I didn’t see one, but the anticipation as I walked to the elevator entrance was exciting enough. I took the ride down the elevator, and as I meandered through the cave, I felt my excitement building. There, at the end of the path, I could see sunlight shining through and could hear the sound of waves crashing into a rocky wall. And then I heard it: the sound of a colony of sea lions. All that separated me from these giant and curious creatures was some old chain link to protect them from us and us from falling. As I watched, it felt like time stopped. All that mattered to me was taking in every precious moment. Even as a kid, I knew this experience was special. I found treasure in the Sea Lion Caves that day. I watched the sea lions exhibit their natural behavior and as I did, I was overcome with true and pure joy. I could think of nothing that made me any happier in all of my 13 years. Eventually, I had to leave, but that experience made its way deep into my heart and forever changed who I was and who I would become. It cast an eternal spell of wonder. At the time, I already wanted to be a veterinarian. But after seeing sea lions, I knew they were important to me so I thought I might grow up to be a sea lion veterinarian.

When it came time for college I studied pre-veterinary medicine. Just 20 days before I graduated, I realized maybe that wasn’t for me after all. I had lunch with E.O. Wilson, a prominent biologist, a hero that further inspired my interest in conservation. After listening to my story he suggested that perhaps veterinary medicine was not my destiny. He told me the world needed me to help conserve, and I believed him. Lucky for me, paths are not set in stone and when I applied I was not accepted into vet school. Unsure of where my life would lead me next, the one thing I knew for sure was my passion for sea lions was unwavering. But where does one find sea lions in Oklahoma? I looked to my community zoo, the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Gardens, for volunteer opportunities. Not long after, I was hired to work with the training department. I had proximity to sea lions, but I was still missing the conservation piece. Within the year, I got married and moved to Houston, where I was hired as a full time sea lion keeper at the Houston Zoo.

A primary goal of the Houston Zoo is to connect communities to inspire action to save animals in the wild. Experiencing the Sea Lion Caves inspired me to work with sea lions in human care so that I could further spread the importance of conserving wild animals. I continued to graduate school to receive my master’s degree in wildlife science so that I could further contribute to wildlife conservation. As I have watched my career develop over the years, I am always brought back to my memory of the day I experienced the Sea Lion Caves and how I felt so moved from awareness to action from that single experience. My hope is to share this passion that was inspired all those years ago for this magnificent species. I find the most rewarding part of working for the Houston Zoo (outside of working directly with the sea lions) is inspiring others to take simple actions that contribute to saving animals in the wild. People find connections in their experiences at the zoo and I am humbled to know that my work can play even a small part in changing someone’s life, as the Sea Lion Caves visit did for me. Working with and caring for California sea lions brings me much joy. This year, the Houston Zoo welcomed a female pup. TJ was born to Jonah and Kamia and is a pleasure to watch as she masters new milestones. TJ is the first sea lion pup born at the Houston Zoo in 22 years and it is my great fortune to watch her grow and contribute to the education and awareness of many to come. I am thankful to our sea lions: Cali, Kamia, Jonah, Rockie, and TJ for making my dream possible.

I credit my single experience at the Oregon Sea Lion Caves for inspiring me to actively participate in conservation actions. It shaped my life and career. Our California sea lions at the zoo are ambassadors for the Houston Zoo’s plastic pollution and ocean-friendly seafood Take Action initiatives. As a sea lion keeper, I am able to live this mission of saving animals in the wild and use the zoo’s platform to influence and inspire others. I feel forever grateful that fate would have it for me to discover the Sea Lion Caves as a tiny spec on the map that day. Many thanks go to all involved in operating the Caves and sharing its beauty so others may have experiences similar to my own.

Originally written for Oregon Sea Lion Caves.

Valentine’s Day Keeper Showdown – Who Makes the Best Enrichment?

Written by Nina Russo

Roses are red
Violets are blue
This Valentine’s Day
I’ll be at the Zoo!

What’s going on this Valentine’s Day that’s fun for the animals, zoo keepers, and you? The animals are getting wildly fun Valentine’s Day themed enrichment this year. Enrichment is anything added to the animal’s environment or routine that encourages natural behaviors, more choices, and novel challenges.  Dried treats inside a papier-mache Valentine’s heart was certainly novel for our resident chimpanzees the past.

Enrichment keeps the animals mentally engaged, physically active, and happy. It’s something keepers work into the animals’ daily routine; but sometimes we like to put our creative enrichment skills to the test! The Houston Zoo’s Primate Department is holding an enrichment contest for the keepers. The rules: the enrichment has to be Valentine’s Day themed, animal safe, and completely fun!

Stop by the Houston Zoo with your Valentine and see all the wild things the animals will be getting!

You are Saving a New Species of Lemur in the Wild

Ring-tailed Lemurs at the Houston Zoo

If you have been to the Houston Zoo lately, you may have seen our ring-tailed lemurs. These are the lemurs most people picture when they think of lemurs. But did you know there are over 100 known species of lemurs in Madagascar?
Houston Zoo conservation partner GERP protects lemurs and other animals in Madagascar through empowering local communities to conserve and protect their forests that house lemurs.

GERP works to improve not just the lives of lemurs, but of the human populations living in or around protected primate habitat. They are also saving the newly discovered species of lemur, the Sheth’s dwarf lemur, one of the smallest of the dwarf lemurs. This discovery helps show the importance of Madagascar as home to a great variety of unique animals.



Sheth’s Dwarf Lemur, Image credit: Richard Randriamampionona

To give you an idea of how big, or should I say how small, the Sheth’s dwarf lemur is, let’s compare it to a ring-tailed lemur, which is about the size of a house cat. A ring-tailed lemur can be up to 17 inches long, not including its tail. That is almost a foot and a half! The Sheth’s dwarf lemur can be up to 7 inches long, not including its tail. That is almost a foot smaller than the ring-tailed lemur and smaller than some people’s hands!

The next time you visit the Houston Zoo be sure to stop and see the lemurs. When you do, try and picture how small the newly discovered Sheth’s dwarf lemur is and know that by visiting the Houston Zoo you are saving lemurs in the wild!

New Year, New Chickens

Written by Stephanie Turner

January 28, 2017 marked the beginning of the Year of the Rooster in the Chinese animal zodiac! To celebrate, the Houston Zoo would like to introduce two of our newest animals, the chickens Chanticleer and Marilyn! Both were hatched here at the zoo on October 24, 2016 and have since taken on their roles as ambassador animals.

Chickens were first domesticated over 7,000 years ago in eastern Asia from a bird called the red junglefowl, which is still found in the wild today. The chicken has since spread around the world and is now the most numerous species of bird on the planet. There are over 100 chicken breeds recognized by the American Poultry Association, and they are kept by people as a source of food as well as for companionship.

Meet Chanticleer

Chanticleer is a salmon Faverolles rooster. This breed originated in the city of Faverolles, France and is known for their feathered legs and fluffy “mutton chops” or cheek feathers.

Meet Marilyn

Marilyn is a blue Andalusian hen. This breed comes from the Andalusia region of Spain and gets its name from the typical bluish grey color of the feathers. Not all blue Andalusians are blue though; about half are either black or white.

Look for Chanticleer and Marilyn on your next visit to the Houston Zoo!

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