Texans are Protecting Federally Endangered Ocelots

Come meet our resident ocelot on your next visit to the zoo

Here in Houston we are all very familiar with the presence of Cougars – if the mention of this species doesn’t bring a certain university to mind, the name Shasta just might! While Shasta is quite the local celebrity, there is another Texas cat making the news a few hours south of us – the ocelot. The city of Brownsville is leading the charge to save the federally endangered ocelot, and thanks to your visit to the zoo, we’ve been able to lend a hand by providing 10 refurbished tracking collars that will help local programs keep tabs on their ocelot population.

Ocelots are endangered within the United States with less than 100 individuals in one region-south Texas. Their main threats include habitat loss (more people means more land used for agriculture, oil/gas, homes, etc.) and collisions with vehicles on roads.

Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge is where many endangered ocelots go in search of a safe place to live

One method to save ocelots in south Texas is to create roads that are safe for both animals and humans Several years ago, in an attempt to make roads safer for Brownsville locals and visitors headed to vacation on South Padre Island, concrete barriers were put in place to separate cars traveling in opposite directions. This measure helps protect drivers on the road, but unfortunately made it difficult for ocelots to cross to the other side of the road to get to remaining patches of habitat (their small size makes it difficult to see cars on the other side of the barrier, so they aren’t sure when it’s safe to attempt to cross). When it became clear that the barriers were a hazard for the ocelots, the people of Brownsville came together and asked the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to come up with a way to keep both humans and local wildlife safe.

In response to the public’s concern for the ocelots, TxDOT has joined forces with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to build 12 tunnels beneath two roads that cut through or border the Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge, where many of the endangered cats go in search of a safe place to live. On these tunnels, chain link fencing extends from above the underpass and along the sides to help funnel the cats to the under-the-road crossings, which are large enough for the cats to see what’s on the other side. This is a huge undertaking for TxDOT, who is both building the tunnels and helping to monitor their use, in order to determine what species in the area actually choose to travel via the underpasses. While it is too soon to tell which species are using the tunnels most frequently, TxDOT did spot an ocelot on one of their motion sensor cameras by a tunnel opening just last month, which has sparked excitement and hope for what is to come.

Guests attend a talk at the 2018 Ocelot Conservation Festival

There is a lot of love for ocelots in south Texas, which is evident through the community’s effort to make these wildlife underpasses a reality. The ocelot is even celebrated annually at the Ocelot Conservation Festival and Ocelot run – events that are organized by the Friends of Laguna Atascosa and hosted by Gladys Porter Zoo. Many landowners are also actively involved in saving ocelots by setting aside land that serves as preserved natural habitat for the cats. We may be a 6 hour drive from Brownsville, but despite the distance you’re saving ocelots too each time you visit the zoo! On your next trip make sure to say hello to Jack, our resident ocelot.

For the 11th annual Wildlife Conservation Gala at the Houston Zoo, we’re shining a spotlight on the species and habitats of the Lone Star State! We’ll come together as Texans to raise the funds our Zoo needs to keep saving Texas wildlife like ocelots.

Gorilla Guardians: Houstonians are Protecting Gorillas through Electronics Recycling at the Zoo!

What do the zoo, cell phones, and Grauer’s gorillas have in common? YOU! Each year, the Houston Zoo runs the Action for Apes Challenge, in which community groups and organizations can sign up and compete against each other to recycle the greatest number of cell phones and small electronics by the end of April.  These electronic devices contain a material called tantalum that is mined in areas where gorillas live – if we reuse and recycle these items, we can decrease the amount of mining that takes place in these vital habitats. The good news doesn’t stop there – you have the opportunity to recycle these devices on zoo grounds year-round each time you visit, and just through the purchase of your admission ticket you are helping to support our partners at the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center (GRACE) in their work to save the critically endangered Grauer’s gorilla in the wild!

Located in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), GRACE is the world’s only sanctuary for rescued Grauer’s gorillas. While nursing orphaned gorillas back to health and reintroducing them into the wild is the ultimate goal for the team at GRACE, their work extends far beyond that. GRACE works with local communities on conservation education and forest protection, as well as helping Congolese communities develop long-term solutions that will allow for them to live and work peacefully alongside neighboring gorilla troops. Working with a critically endangered species in a country that has a long history of war and insecurity comes with its own unique challenges, but the success that GRACE has seen speaks volumes to the importance and power of community involvement in saving wildlife.

Despite the return of political instability to the DRC in 2017, GRACE was able to not only continue their day-to-day operations but also launched projects that provided employment for more than 250 people. In addition, they were able to invest in projects like tree planting, village clean-ups, and starting vegetable gardens at local schools to help get communities through these hard times. GRACE hosted the first annual World Gorilla Day celebrating gorillas and their importance to the community, and had a turn out of over 3,000 people – the largest local gathering in recent memory! The team was also able to expand the forest habitat for the 14 orphaned Grauer’s gorillas in their care, giving these gorillas an additional 15 acres to practice skills needed for life in the wild.

This year, GRACE will open the newly expanded gorilla habitat and complete its Community Education Center, which will become a central meeting place for education activities and community collaboration. Thanks to new partnerships within the DRC, the education program will expand, reaching more individuals living within the gorilla home range and spreading awareness and encouraging peaceful coexistence with these non-human primates. GRACE will also launch an exciting new project with local communities in the coming months – a fuel-efficient stove project. By reducing the amount of wood used to fuel cooking fires, this project will help save trees that make up vital gorilla habitat!

Our partners at GRACE are doing amazing work that is a win for both people and gorillas, and we could not be more proud to be a part of their extended family. By visiting the zoo you are helping to support the work of GRACE and our other partners around the globe that are working non-stop to save wildlife. Remember, you can help great apes like gorillas and chimpanzees directly by recycling your old cell-phones and small electronics on your next visit to the zoo, and challenge others to do the same!

Gorilla Doctor Noel Reflects on His Time at Houston Zoo

The following post was written by Dr. Jean Bosco Noheli (Dr. Noel), a Rwandan field veterinarian for Houston Zoo wildlife partner Gorilla Doctors, and 2017 Houston Zoo Wildlife Warrior. As part of his Wildlife Warrior award, Dr. Noel spent three weeks in Houston this February receiving training at the Houston Zoo. The Wildlife Warrior program recognizes outstanding staff employed by the Zoo’s existing wildlife conservation partners. Our Admissions’ team raises funds through the sale of colorful wildlife bracelets, and the funds from these bracelets then go to our Wildlife Warriors to receive a training of their choice. The award is designed to increase the recipient’s conservation community network and inspire empowerment by providing opportunities to gain further education through training or experiences.

 

“Last year, I was chosen as a Houston Zoo wildlife warrior by the Admissions team.  As part of this award, I was given the opportunity to train with Houston Zoo veterinarians.  In addition to zoological medicine skills, I gained so much inspiration for the conservation of wildlife sometimes forgotten or ignored in some societies across the globe.

Dr. Noel destroying a crab trap after releasing animals that were accidentally caught

On Saturday 17th February 2018, I was lucky to be part of Galveston Bay Foundation’s Crab-Trap Clean-up at the Galveston beach. To me this experience was equivalent to our “Umuganda” which means “community work”. In Rwanda, every last Saturday all our communities come together to perform a selected activity of public benefits or use. Many thanks to Martha Parker, Conservation Impact Manager at the Houston Zoo for driving me all the way to and from Bolivar. With people from Dallas and Houston zoos, we all gathered to clean up the beach and collect and destroy illegal and/or abandoned fishing tools.

Martha Parker shows the team how sea turtles feed on plastic bags

 

 

 

 

 

Once every February this activity is organized as a way to protect and conserve sea animals; mainly sea turtles. My team went to remove garbage from the beach and Martha took the opportunity to talk to the team about how sea turtles are attracted to white plastic bags and will feed on them, which can have fatal consequences.  It was a little bit discouraging being on the beach because by the time we were removing garbage, some visitors who were at the beach were littering – this shows why an education around pollution is needed. My advice to these visitors would be “Enjoy the beach but make sure you keep it clean to protect water and its community”.

Dr. Noel and the team cleaning up the beach

During my stay in Houston; I also realized that people spend most Saturdays working on their gardens, but it seemed very few care about the cleanliness of the city. With my experience with Rwandan Umuganda, I was asking my Houston friends why they couldn’t expand efforts to their neighbors and beyond to make it something to bring people together for a common activity. Umuganda is not only about cleaning or making roads – it is very important for bringing people together, educating one another, and building love.

 

For example; that Saturday one could not tell who is from Rwanda, Dallas, Galveston or Houston because we were one great team for one great cause.”

A great team for a great cause

Protecting Kenya’s Endangered Wildlife: How you are Helping Giraffes and Hirola Survive in the Wild

Have you heard of the hirola? Found only in northeastern Kenya and southwest Somalia, the hirola is a critically endangered species of antelope. Hirola are not in zoos so you won’t see one here on grounds, but you can visit and even have a special face-to-face encounter with giraffes here at the zoo, who are neighbors to the hirola in the wild! Both of these species are currently being protected in the wild through your visit to the zoo, with a portion of your admission fee supporting the work of our friends at the Hirola Conservation Program (HCP) in Kenya.

The Hirola Conservation Program aims to save hirola in Kenya through scientific research, habitat restoration, and strengthening community-based conservation and education efforts. Like many of our partners, the team at the HCP know that there is power in community when it comes to saving wildlife, and as a result, their focus is not just on the hirola – it is on the people that live alongside them. For example, while speaking and writing in Arabic is easy for most locals along the Kenya-Somalia border, reading and writing in English is an ongoing challenge since learning how to raise and take care of livestock takes priority over a more formal education. Realizing that this makes it difficult for younger generations to become involved in alternative livelihoods like science and conservation, the HCP has created adult literacy classes for their ranger staff. By providing rangers with this training, doors will open for community members as new knowledge is shared, representing a unique opportunity towards improving citizen science. In December, rangers were also taken on a camping trip where they learned more about shelter building, wildlife tracking, and foraging. This training not only helped to build ranger skill sets, but also served to enhance team work and give the rangers the opportunity to get to know one another better.

The HCP serves as an important resource for many members of the community, and as a result, was the go-to for advice when locals began to run into trouble with giraffes. With recent draught conditions, the local communities have moved their farms closer to water ways in areas that overlap with the paths that giraffes take to drink.  This move made it impossible for giraffes to reach their water source without trampling local community’s food sources. To help reduce mounting tensions, the HCP began work to revitalize the Garissa Giraffe Sanctuary, located near communities experiencing conflict with giraffes. In 2017, the team at HCP was able to restore old watering troughs and provide new sources of water for giraffes in the area, while also creating giraffe awareness in 5 surrounding villages. Through raising awareness and working directly with members of the community, the team in Kenya hopes to generate renewed levels of enthusiasm among locals, government agencies, and the international conservation community, which in turn, will help to protect species like the hirola and giraffe for years to come.

We are amazed by how much our family in Kenya were able to accomplish in 2017, and we can’t wait to see all of the amazing things they are able to do in the new year. We’d like to thank all of our guests for supporting projects like this one through the purchase of your admission ticket here at the Houston Zoo. Two of our team members will be traveling to Kenya this year to help produce a documentary on the hirola for the HCP, so stay tuned – exciting updates are headed your way!

Toothbrush Recycling at the Houston Zoo

Did you brush your teeth this morning? Use floss?  I did!  What do you do with that toothbrush when you get a new one?

We all need toothbrushes but, they cannot be recycled with general recyclables. Over 1 BILLION toothbrushes are thrown away in the US every year!     Here is the good news, the Houston Zoo is offering you an alternative to just throwing it away.  You can now recycle toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes, floss containers and toothbrush packaging at the zoo.

Colgate has partnered with Terrracycle to offer a program to turn these objects into school supplies for the Kids in Need Foundation! The items they collect are used to make bags, folders and other supplies.

The Children’s Zoo recently collected items like these from staff for a “Plastic Free July Challenge”. They collected 31 toothpaste tubes, 6 empty toothbrush packages, 4 floss containers and 50 toothbrushes.  That came to 2.5 pounds of plastic that didn’t go to the landfill!  If the Zoo Staff can collect that much in just one month, just think about the impact we could have if we ALL recycle our toothbrushes and dental hygiene items.

Even better news, there is an added bonus. If you bring your items to the Naturally Wild Swap Shop, you will get points to spend in the shop!  It is suggested that you replace your toothbrush every 3 months, so if you are due for a new one this month the timing is perfect!  You can drop off your items in the designated recycle bin in the Swap Shop.  Please cut toothpaste tubes down the side with scissors and rinse out any toothpaste residue prior to bringing them in.  (please note that electric toothbrushes and battery toothbrushes are not recyclable with this program)

Another way to help keep this extra plastic out of the trash is to buy an eco-friendly toothbrush, such as the “Humble Brush” or another bamboo toothbrush which can be found online at humblesmile.org or Amazon.com.

Don’t know about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop?  Click here for more information.

Whooping Crane Festival Brings Hope to Storm Ravaged Town

On the last Saturday in February, Houston Zoo staff rose before the sun and piled into a zoo van to make the 4-hour journey south to Port Aransas. While most would be sleeping, the van was full of excited chatter as the team neared its destination – the 22nd annual Whooping Crane Festival! The festival celebrates the yearly return of the whooping cranes to their wintering habitat. Due to Hurricane Harvey, the International Crane Foundation wasn’t sure if the festival would take place this year, but knowing how important this festival is for both the birds and the community, several local partners including the Houston Zoo were able to lend a helping hand to make sure it happened!

Weighing around 15 pounds, the whooping crane has a wingspan of more than 7 feet and is as tall as many humans, reaching a height of around 5 feet, making it the tallest bird in North America! Whooping cranes are best known for their courtship dance, finding mating partners through an elaborate display of kicking, head-pumping, and wing-sweeping. Adult whooping cranes can be spotted fairly easily thanks to their bright white feathers and accents of crimson red on the top of their head. This section of the Texas coast is the only place where you can see the world’s last naturally-occurring population of Whooping Cranes.

At the festival, zoo staff got to spend the day with Corinna Holfus, the new Whooping Crane Outreach Coordinator whose position is being funded by the Houston Zoo. Corinna, a Houston native, was well aware of the post-Harvey struggles Port Aransas was facing when she joined the team in October of 2017. She didn’t always plan on working with Texas species, but when the opportunity arose she recalled how excited she was at the prospect of becoming a “craniac” – a designation shared among crane lovers within the birding community. Since landing the job, Holfus has been working with hunters, landowners, and other members of the community to develop awareness and caring for whooping cranes with the hope of fostering their commitment to safe guard these unique birds. You might think that saving wildlife is the last thing people want to add to their plates when recovering from a natural disaster, but Holfus has found the community’s response to be nothing short of inspiring. “With everything that has been happening here, the whooping cranes have actually become a symbol of hope for the community. So many things feel out of your control, but people realize that they can do something to help these birds, and they have started to rally around them which has been really special to watch.”

While the storm negatively impacted human communities, it actually did a lot to help clean debris and pollution out of whooping crane habitat, which in turn led to an increase in the amount of available food sources. This has ultimately led to some pretty impressive numbers of cranes spending the winter in Port Aransas, with the number reaching a record high of around 431 birds last year. On our day out on the water we saw over 50 whooping cranes – this may not seem like much, but for people like Houston Zoo veterinarian Dr. Joe Flanagan who has been traveling to view the whooping cranes for many years it is quite an exciting turn out. “Back in the 80s to see 50 birds would have meant you had seen the entire remaining population”, he told us while looking eagerly through his binoculars.  One of the rarest birds in North America, the whooping crane saw its numbers drop to just 15 in the early 1940s, but with the help of land protection and public education, their numbers have continued to steadily increase, with an estimated population of 757 world-wide.

We are so proud to be involved in this work to help save a very unique community of Texans, and thanks to the continued support of Zoo goers like you, this native species has an even better chance for a bright future. Stay tuned for updates on Corinna’s work with the International Crane Foundation’s Texas office!

For the 11th annual Wildlife Conservation Gala at the Houston Zoo, we’re shining a spotlight on the species and habitats of the Lone Star State! We’ll come together as Texans to raise the funds our Zoo needs to keep saving Texas wildlife like the whooping crane.

Your Visit Helps to Provide Vital Training to Snake Saving Partner Murthy

Murthy Kantimahanti

During the last week of January, we had the pleasure of hosting one of our newest team members, Murthy Kantimahanti here at the Houston Zoo. Murthy, who works to save snakes in India, was brought to the Houston Zoo in order to train with zoo staff and expand his skill set while sharing his knowledge with our team members at the same time! These vital training sessions are made possible through a portion of your admission ticket going towards supporting partners like Murthy, who are hard at work all around the globe to save wildlife.

Murthy works in the Eastern Ghats, located in Southern India, to improve relationships between humans and snakes, and build local community support for snake conservation. Fear and lack of knowledge about snakes has led to a rise in the killing of many snake species, including the king cobra. Murthy and his team are working to transform the fear of snakes into a respect and appreciation for the important role that snakes play in the ecosystem. Snakes are an important species to control rodent populations that spread deadly diseases.

Murthy meets with guests during a keeper chat at the reptile house

While in town, Murthy was able to spend a great deal of time with the herpetology team, learning more about husbandry for snakes and reptiles. Simply put, husbandry refers to the handling and care of different species. This is an important skill to have when working with any animal, and good husbandry skills are essential when handling venomous snakes. Murthy and the team were also able to brainstorm ideas on building local community support for snake conservation; a priority for Murthy’s project and something our herpetology team strives to do for snake species native to Texas.

Murthy makes friends with the conservation education team’s resident snake

 

Murthy also had the opportunity to talk with guests during keeper chats at the reptile house, as well as presenting his work to zoo staff and meeting with the conservation education team where he discovered their resident snake! Getting to spend time within all different sections of the zoo was extremely important to Murthy, and he is very excited to take what he learned here back to India: “The exposure visits for conservation partners are incredibly useful not only to exchange information, but also better understand the role of zoos in conservation. It will benefit our field projects as well through interactions with various sections in the zoo and tailoring those learnings to apply in local conditions back home.”

If you didn’t have the opportunity to meet Murthy, don’t worry – Fox 26 came to interview him and the herpetology team! You can watch the interview here:

To keep up with Murthy and is team follow the Eastern Ghats Wildlife Society on Facebook, and don’t forget to drop by the reptile house on your next visit to the zoo to see our king cobra – the species Murthy is protecting in the wild!

Your Visit is Helping a Rare Bird in Colombia

Press pause on life for a moment and journey with us to the wilds of Colombia. Upon arrival you meet with your travel partner and guide and embark on an 8 mile hike into the mountains where you will spend the night at a farmers house. You wake with the sun the next morning, listening to the call of howler monkeys as you climb out of your hammock and prepare yourself for a day of hiking. For the next two weeks, your days are full of trekking through the mountains, talking to locals, and setting up camera traps. What are you in search of? A rare and elusive bird – the blue-billed curassow.

This is the exact journey our assistant bird curator Chris Holmes has recently returned from. Chris has been directly involved in blue-billed conservation both in the US and Colombia since joining the Houston Zoo full-time in 2000. Unique to Colombia, there are only a few hundred blue-billed curassows left in the wild due to habitat destruction and hunting. Currently, the only known location of this bird is within a reserve in the southern portion of its range and little research has been done in the northern half, leaving a huge gap in the knowledge base about this species. Chris, who serves as the American Zoos and Aquariums regional program population manager for the species and Christian Olaciregui, the Colombian population manager for blue-billed curassows and head of biology and conservation at Barranquilla Zoo, hope to close this gap by exploring this area of Colombia that has been historically inaccessible. As fate would have it, Proyecto Tití, a Houston Zoo partner working with cotton-top tamarin monkeys just happens to be situated in the Montes de Maria region of Colombia – an area where the blue-billed curassow is believed to live but has been rarely seen. Knowing if these birds are in the area will help to strengthen conservation efforts for this critically-endangered bird species, and will inform next steps as plans for the future are discussed.

Chris’s time in Colombia was not just focused on seeking out blue-billed curassow tracks and setting up camera traps in an attempt to locate the birds – he and Christian also spent a great deal of time talking with local organizations and land owners as they are playing a huge role in leading conservation efforts in the study area. As Chris explains it: “On day two, we walked out of the forest along the riverbed to go back to the City of San Juan as there was a meeting of the Regional Protected Areas System which included, The Colombian Environmental Authority, Proyecto Titi, other regional NGOs, and local farmers to discuss the projects they are working on together.This meeting illustrated the massive amount of work and dedication that is going on in this region. There is a lot of work being put into connecting the National Park through-out this area via a system of corridors, to ensure that there are not any patches of forest that are isolated by cattle farming or agricultural activities. All of these groups have seen successes in having private land owners set aside plots of their private property to remain, or be developed into corridors to connect habitat.”

The fact that these efforts are already underway in the region is excellent, and will be particularly important should the camera traps provide evidence of blue-billed curassows in the area. Christian and the team in Colombia will continue to check the traps periodically to see what images are recovered, and we can’t wait to see what they find! While we await the results, make sure to drop by and check out the wattled curassow, an endangered relative of the blue-billed curassow, on your next trip to the zoo and come face-to-face with one of the many species you are helping to save in the wild!

 

 

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