Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 5

This blog was written by Chris Bednarski, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Herpetology Department. Chris received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from his coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for reptiles and amphibians in the Western Ghats region of India. We will be posting a series of blogs as Chris documents his work overseas.  

Chris’s goal is to survey within a section of land purchased by the Tillari Biodiversity Research Trust and document what species are present, as well as discover new species and note their home ranges. These findings will help to strengthen the need to protect this land, and by protecting this land, we save species in the wild!

Day 5:

Tonight was a good night for snakes!  I don’t get to say that often enough…  About 30 feet from where we parked our car I began setting my camera gear up and set up my weather reading device.  I shine my flash light to a spot about 12-20 inches from my bag and I see a snake!  Not just any snake but one of the cutest and most dangerous species in our area, the saw scaled viper!!!!!  All I had to say was the word “saw” and all of my field partners started running to my location.  This is thought to be a very common species in the northern Western Ghats, but I have only seen 6 in my time working here.  This adorable little bundle of venom and sunshine was about a foot long and sleeping nicely on a leaf until it noticed 5 weirdos standing over him.  Once he saw us see him he decided to slither off further into the forest and we were just happy to have caught a quick glance of him.  After that we were all pumped up and ready for a good night of snakes and frogs.  We found a few more wolf snakes of two different species, a large Indian rat snake, several checkered keelback snakes and a bunch of vine snakes.  Finding one or two snakes a night is usually a decent night, but we found a total of 19 tonight! The vine snake is one of my favorite snakes to see in India.  A snake no thicker than a pencil can be 3 feet long!  These snakes specialize in eating lizards and frogs mostly.  You can find them active in the day and night, crossing roads or 50 feet up in a tree.  Beside all the awesome snakes, we found a few frog species and a really cool lynx spider.  Getting asleep tonight will be difficult – we are all pumped up on such a good snake night!

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 4

This blog was written by Chris Bednarski, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Herpetology Department. Chris received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from his coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for reptiles and amphibians in the Western Ghats region of India. We will be posting a series of blogs as Chris documents his work overseas.  

Chris’s goal is to survey within a section of land purchased by the Tillari Biodiversity Research Trust and document what species are present, as well as discover new species and note their home ranges. These findings will help to strengthen the need to protect this land, and by protecting this land, we save species in the wild!

Day 4:

So today we got to visit a property we have never had access to, which I was very excited about.  A friend of a friend we stopped to get chai from told us he knew someone that wanted us to come to his property and tell him what kind of animals he had running around.  Our chai friend assured us his buddy was a good guy and had heard about our project.  Regardless to whether we found a bunch of animals on this property or not this was an important day for us.  Much like the Houston Zoo does for the Houston toad, we want to work on land owner agreements.  What we would like is to have a 33-year lease on the property, with the land owner agreeing to not destroy any more land and to not use any harmful pesticides.

We arrived at our new friend’s house, and in true Indian fashion we quickly sat down for a nice conversation and chai.   After this, he took us around his banana and pineapple groves, eventually leading us to the untouched portion of the property.   He told us about all of the snakes he has seen here including what he believes to be a king cobra.  On our tour we noted a few species of frog that do fairly well in disturbed areas, like the Indian tree frog (Polypedates maculatus).  We found an adorable 3 inch long Roux’s forest lizard (Calotes rouxii) hanging out on a leaf and one Travancore wolf snake (Lycodon travancoricus).  This certainly wasn’t one of our more productive nights as far as a species list goes, but we did make a new friend and a possible property to add to our conservation agreement!  This is one huge step to conserving the land and the species that use it!

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 3

This blog was written by Chris Bednarski, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Herpetology Department. Chris received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from his coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for reptiles and amphibians in the Western Ghats region of India. We will be posting a series of blogs as Chris documents his work overseas.  

Chris’s goal is to survey within a section of land purchased by the Tillari Biodiversity Research Trust and document what species are present, as well as discover new species and note their home ranges. These findings will help to strengthen the need to protect this land, and by protecting this land, we save species in the wild!

Day 3:

Tonight we headed into one of our sites that we have surveyed pretty heavily over the last couple years.  During the monsoon season, we find many species of frogs along this path – there is a large stone wall covered in geckos and usually a few lizard eating species of snake as well. But the monsoon has passed now and it hasn’t rained here in some time.  This is an important time for us to survey because now we get to document what species are active in the drier part of the year.  We can see that a lot of the grasses and smaller shrubby plants have started to dry out and turn brown.   We noted quite a few leaf eating insects getting their last meals in for the year.  One of my favorites is a katydid that looks like it flew 100 mph into a brick wall and wound up with a flat face.  During the earlier part of the dry season, we have seen that the bush frogs (Pseudophilautus) are still around in decent numbers but they are not calling for mates – we assume they are fattening up for the cooler weather coming.  We encountered several forest lizards (Calotes sp.), both males and females, sleeping soundly on the thin ends of branches.  They choose these seemingly uncomfortable limbs for a good reason!  If any snake or bird land on the tree they are on, the branch will move and wake them up in enough time that they can hopefully escape.  On the large stone wall we found a massive species called a Bombay leaf toed gecko (Hemidactylus prashadi).  Over all we had a slower night than usual, but still noted some cool stuff!

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 2

This blog was written by Chris Bednarski, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Herpetology Department. Chris received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from his coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for reptiles and amphibians in the Western Ghats region of India. We will be posting a series of blogs as Chris documents his work overseas.  

Chris’s goal is to survey within a section of land purchased by the Tillari Biodiversity Research Trust and document what species are present, as well as discover new species and note their home ranges. These findings will help to strengthen the need to protect this land, and by protecting this land, we save species in the wild!

Day 2: Cave stream survey

Today we started our surveys around 1:00pm.  Most reptiles and amphibians are not to active during the days in this area but we know of a hidden gem… a cave stream! The land my team has been surveying is a small piece of the Western Ghats that has never been formally surveyed, that being said, the possibilities of finding new species, rare species and documenting range extensions are endless!  Documenting our findings can play a huge role in conserving this beautiful habitat.  That’s what this is all about and what we are all about; conserving the land to conserve and protect the species we are so passionate about. After a short hike over some rocky hills then back down, we enter the mouth of the cave.  For safety’s sake, we only explore the first 100 meters or so inside the cave.  Along this stream we found an adult wolf snake (Lycodon travancoricus), many night frogs (Nyctibatrachus sp.), gigantic Indian bullfrogs (Hoplobatrachus sp.), cave crabs, vinegaroons and cave crickets.  Outside of the cave more Indian cricket frogs (Minervarya sp.) and a ton of spiders.  We also noted hoof prints and mud wallows of an Indian bison called a gaur (Bos gaurus). Not bad for a day time survey in this part of India!

Time for some samosas, chai and data logging.

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 1

Here at the zoo we have over 420 staff members working hard to save wildlife, but our jobs as conservationists don’t end when we leave the zoo for the day. We all want to go above and beyond to do everything we can to save wildlife, and our unique program called the Staff Conservation Fund allows us to do just that! The Staff Conservation Fund was created as a way for staff to participate in wildlife-saving efforts around the globe. Each year, zoo employees can donate a portion of their hard-earned wages to the fund. This fund is then used to provide support to staff members who successfully create or enhance a conservation project and apply for funding to bring the project to life. To date, this fund has made it possible for 63 staff members to carry out 43 projects in 14 countries around the world!

One of the latest projects is being carried out in the northern Western Ghats region of India by Chris Bednarski, a senior keeper in the herpetology department. The Western Ghats is home to one-third of the plants, almost half of the reptiles, and more than three-fourths of the amphibians known in India. Unfortunately, this strip of rainforest is disappearing at an alarming rate due to logging and conversion for agricultural uses. In 2013, the Tillari Biodiversity Research Trust purchased 3500 acres in this region and began implementing several conservation initiatives. Chris’s goal is to survey within this section of land and document what species are present, as well as discover new species and note their home ranges. These findings will help to strengthen the need to protect this land, and by protecting this land, we save species in the wild! Chris has been documenting his trip, and sent us this journal entry to share with all of you about his first day in the field:

“After 22 hours of flights, a quick nap and several cups of chai my team and I were headed to our first survey zone.  It’s a beautiful plot of primary and secondary forest surrounded by several rice fields and pineapple farms.  It is a “sacred forest” that the local villagers have set up shrines and a small temple.  No plants or animals can be removed or harmed within this forest which makes this area so important for us to survey.  Over the years we have documented over 20 species of reptile and amphibian, too many birds to count, leopards, tigers, elephants and amazing invertebrates on this property.   

This is our first survey post monsoon this year and we had high hopes.  Past years have produced well for us and this trip was not a disappointment.  Our searching began at around 6:30pm as the sun was setting and we wrapped up around midnight.  We walked forest paths, streams, and around the temples.  In the lower branches of the trees we documented a critically endangered species of bush frog (Psuedophilatus sp.), in the streams an endangered species of Indian cricket frog (Minervarya sp.), and along the temple walls a plethora of Brook’s geckos (Hemidactylus brookii).  Many other species were found but these were the high lights for sure! 

Time to get all our data logged into our computers and get ready for the next day of surveys!”  

Give the Gift of Grub

You probably know that the Houston Zoo has celebrated many additions to our animal family in 2017. We welcomed the births of two Masai giraffes, a California sea lion, two red river hogs, two jaguars, and even an Asian elephant! We also welcomed the arrivals of two cheetah cubs, and Hasani, a male lion, just joined our pride

All of us at the Houston Zoo are grateful to know that no matter how much our animal family grows, they have your support. One of the ways you can help our animals is by giving them the Gift of Grub. This special year-end campaign directly supports the care and feeding of every animal at the Zoo. As ambassadors for their wild counterparts, Houston Zoo animals deserve the best care possible—starting with tasty treats and nutritious meals! Every dollar you give goes toward our animal care program, and our generous partner, TXU Energy, is doubling the grub goodness by matching $50,000 in contributions to this campaign.

Here’s what your gift could buy for our animals:

$25 could buy five pounds of tempting trout for our otters

$50 could buy 150 pounds of crunchable carrots for our red river hogs

$100 could buy 50 pounds of mouthwatering meat for our jaguars

$250 could buy 27 bales of hearty hay for our Asian elephants

Will you Give the Gift of Grub to Houston Zoo animals this holiday season? This campaign ends December 31st, so please give today at www.houstonzoo.org/grub!

Tackling Plastics Pollution on the Texas City Dike

If you live in the Houston/Galveston area, chances are you have either made a trip to the coast to go fishing, or have friends and family that do. Here at the zoo, many of our own staff enjoy fishing too, and want to make sure that we keep our oceans and beaches clean so we can all enjoy this pastime for years to come! The Houston/Galveston region has several plastic pollution groups that make up the P3 Partnership. Through this partnership, the idea came about to get a number of organizations to team up and identify some of the major threats that plastics pollution poses to our local coastal birds and marine wildlife. This group, made up of members from the Audubon Texas Coastal Program, Galveston Bay Area Chapter of Texas Master Naturalists, Houston Zoo, and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality -Galveston Bay Estuary Program identified discarded fishing line as one of the biggest threats to wildlife like pelicans and sea turtles.

As a group, we felt confident that discarded fishing line was a problem along the Texas coast, but how could we know for sure? You certainly don’t want to work on finding solutions to a problem without knowing if that problem actually exists…so what do you do next? You identify an area to explore and search for evidence! The Texas City Dike (TCD) was selected as the area the group wanted to work in because of its reputation as a prime, year-round fishing spot. Once this study area was chosen, the group decided that the next step would be to take a trip to the dike, and collect discarded fishing line from specific locations along the dike to see just how much line was present. This collection of line took place on December 4th, and Sophie, one of our sea lion staff members, gave this account of her experience:

Over the last three years, the sea lion team has been focusing on the monofilament reduction efforts and cleanups at the Surfside Jetty, and I am so excited to now be a part of our first campaign to reduce the presence of fishing line at the Texas City Dike. Over the three hours that we spent at the Texas City Dike, I noticed a few things different at the dike than what I typically see at the Surfside jetty. The first thing was the lower presence of general litter. When walking the jetty, I typically find lots of beer cans, plastic bags, bait bags, cigarette butts, etc.. It may be the fact that I focused only on a few hundred square feet at TCD, but the presence of these larger waste items was lower. However, we could sit ourselves down in one spot and stay occupied within arm’s reach as we collected all the pieces of line; short, long, monofilament plastic, string, entangled in plant life… the list goes on. It seemed that the nature of the TCD (more natural ground, dirt and grass vs. the cement of the jetty) lends itself to accumulating more line itself, and offers more possibilities of the pieces of line to get tangled instead of just blowing into the surrounding waters. We ended up collecting close to as much line in a hundred square feet as we do on the entire surfside jetty, and in less time.

As we move forward with this project, the next step is to talk to the anglers and find out what the barriers are that stand in the way of containing their fishing line, and ultimately recycling it. I find myself wondering if the anglers at the TCD will say the same thing as the anglers at Surfside, or is there a difference that adds to this seemingly higher presence of line at the TCD? The line at the TCD was also far less encumbered by the man made debris that we normally find it weighed down by at Surfside; weights, hooks, litter… the most common entanglement we found during our TCD survey was line wrapped up in some plant life, possibly some with a few small weights and hooks. Why this difference? As we move through this campaign, and hopefully replicate it at the Surfside jetty, I hope to find these answers and continue to get closer to the successful prevention of monofilament entering our marine environments.

Thanks to an amazing team of volunteers, we were able to collect a total of 21.9 pounds of fishing line at the Texas City Dike on December 4th. Stay tuned for more updates coming in 2018!

How Bees are Helping to Improve Human-Elephant Relationships

In recent years bees have been receiving more and more attention as the loss of pollinators becomes a more pressing concern around the globe. We know that the small but mighty bee is one of the best pollinators around, helping to produce up to 30% of the foods we eat, but it may surprise you to hear that these little guys are key players in helping to protect the world’s largest land mammal – elephants!

Elephants are expert foragers, and because of their large size, they need to eat A LOT of food every single day. As human development continues to spread, the land that elephants use to browse for food often merges with agricultural areas created by farmers. Unfortunately, when elephants stumble onto these crop fields they see the crops as an easy meal, and can cause a great deal of damage to the fields. The damage and loss of crops is a huge blow to farmers’ livelihoods, and as one would expect, this makes farmers very angry. This is where problems arise. To protect their land, farmers will take extreme measures to remove elephants from the area – while the methods may vary, this type of conflict can be very dangerous, and sometimes deadly for both elephants and people. So, how do we protect farmland and protect elephants so people and wildlife can live peacefully with one another? BEES!

Researchers in Kenya working with Save the Elephants were out in the field one day when they noticed that when elephants were around trees with large hives of bees, they would quickly move away. After years of testing and studying these interactions, it was discovered that just the sound of a buzzing beehive will keep elephants far away from an area. At this point researchers had a clever idea – by putting up a rope fence and hanging wooden boxes for beehives across them, farmers could successfully keep elephants away from their crops. Better yet, farmers could also collect the honey produced by the bees and use it for both food and as an extra source of income! A simple and genius solution that is a win-win for both humans and elephants.

Here at the Houston Zoo we help to support the Niassa Beehive Fence Project. Run by the Niassa Lion Project, their programs aim to show communities humane and positive ways to stop human-wildlife conflict. Each time you visit the zoo, you are helping to support projects like this one! We also have a model of one of these fences at the McNair Asian Elephant Habitat here at the zoo – check it out on your next visit! Just like the bees, our individual actions may seem small, but together we can make a mighty big impact – to learn more about what you can do to help save elephants in the wild, click here!

 

Santa Delivers 400-pound Surprise to the Houston Zoo

The Houston Zoo is on Santa’s nice list for the 95th year! The big guy came early to the Houston Zoo and delivered an even bigger guy – a 400-pound male lion. Guests can see three-year-old Hasani most mornings in the lion habitat. While he’s currently getting to know the three lionesses, they’ll be alternating time in the yard until they are all better acquainted.

During Hasani’s first morning in the lion habitat, he took his time exploring the yard, climbing the rocks, and snacking on the special treats left throughout by his keepers to welcome him into his new home. Within the first hour, he found a comfortable position and settled in to take full view of the area from a high vantage point on the rocky boulders.

Hasani was born in an Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited zoo in the Pacific Northwest as a result of the Species Survival Plan (SSP). The mission of the AZA’s SSP is to oversee the population management of select species within AZA member institutions and to enhance conservation of those species in the wild. The Houston Zoo does not have a current recommendation to pair Hasani with one of the females in the pride at this time.

The Houston Zoo’s lion pride are ambassadors for their wild counterparts in Africa and serve to educate guests about the work being done to help save this vulnerable species.  Scientists estimate there are only enough lions left in Africa to fill a football stadium, half the number of 20 years ago, and the biggest reasons for their decline are conflict with people and loss of habitat and prey due to human population growth. The Houston Zoo protects lions in the wild by providing funds for locals to guard lions by teaching people to live safely near lion populations, removing snare wire traps, and arresting poachers. A portion of every admission to the zoo provides direct protection for 20% of the lion population in the wild.

Hasani is the first male lion to reside at the Houston Zoo since the passing of beloved zoo-icon, Jonathan, in September 2016.

Working Together to Save Elephants

By: Dr. Christine Molter

Elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus (EEHV) is a potentially deadly disease that not only affects elephants in human care, but also those living in the wild. Populations of wild Asian elephants are impacted by this disease in addition to threats like habitat fragmentation and poaching. To understand and combat this disease, veterinarians, researchers, conservationists, and elephant caretakers formed a collaborative team, called the EEHV Asia Working Group. The 3rd EEHV Asia Working Group meeting was hosted by Kasetsart University in Hua-Hin, Thailand. As part of the Houston Zoo’s on-going commitment to investigating EEHV and to save Asian Elephants in the wild, I was able to participate in this group.

Traveling to Hua-Hin is a long process. After more than 24 hours in flight from Houston, Texas to Tokyo, Japan to Bangkok, Thailand and 3-hour van ride, I finally made it to Hua-Hin. A total of 70 attendees from 12 countries made similar journeys to be at the meeting.

The two-day conference started with updates from those different countries and included India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the United States, Vietnam, and a summary from all of Europe. Each representative shared their successes and unique EEHV challenges, with common themes of needing more regional laboratories with the ability to test samples for the virus, education for local people working with elephants about EEHV, increased availability of anti-viral medications for treatments, and further wild elephant research. To help address these challenges, discussions and brainstorming sessions took place and the group outlined strategic goals for EEHV efforts in Asia. In addition to defining goals, practical lectures and demonstrations also occurred. I taught elephant blood crossmatching, a necessary step prior to administering potentially life-saving plasma transfusions to elephant calves sick with EEHV, to ensure that the plasma donor and recipient are a good match.

 

At the end of the conference, an excursion to Kuiburi National Park was planned. We spotted two wild female Asian elephants with 3 calves between them. The sight of elephants in the wild was poignant, as it embodied the goal that everyone at the meeting is working towards together – to save elephants.

The Houston Zoo is a leader in global EEHV efforts. The protocol developed at the Houston Zoo, to monitor, diagnose, and treat this disease is utilized by people all over the world. It is humbling to hear directly from those working with elephants in range countries, that our Houston Zoo protocol provides important clinical guidelines for them. It is through our collective information sharing, research partnerships, global meeting participation, and local support that the mission of the Houston Zoo is achieved – to save animals in the wild.

Many thanks to all who work tirelessly for elephants and to those who diligently organized the EEHV Asia Working Group meeting, especially to Dr. Sonja Luz from Wildlife Reserves Singapore, Dr. Supaphen (Amm) Sripiboon from Kasetsart University, and Dr. Lauren Howard from San Diego Zoo Global for their leadership.

Efforts to combat EEHV are on-going and collaborative. More information about EEHV can be found at www.eehvinfo.org. Previous Houston Zoo blogs on the EEHV Asia Working Group can be found here.

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