The Curious Case of the Banded Mongooses

Banded Mongoose-0014-1282“Hey look over there, it’s a meerkat!” You might hear something like this when you first visit the banded mongoose exhibit within the children’s zoo. Guests from all over come to this exhibit thinking they are observing the meerkats, so why is it that our mongoose family has a mistaken identity? Throughout the zoo we have an array of animals that guests love to see. Between the giraffes, elephants, and gorillas, sometimes the little guy goes by unnoticed. In the spirit of rooting for the underdogs of the zoo let’s take a look at who the mongooses really are and what makes them so special.

From the plains of sub-Sahara Africa, our carnivorous little mongooses are in fact part of the same family as meerkats. This is the simple reason many guests get the two confused due to the similar size and appearance. Ranging from four to four months old, the zoo is home to fifteen mongooses that on a daily basis do absolutely everything together.  Banded mongooses in general are colony dwellers; living in big groups, hunting in groups and even raising babies in a group. To keep our mongooses well fed and eating things they would naturally encounter in the wild, the keepers provide a wide variety of meals for them ranging from insects, meat, mice, fruits and vegetables. Courtney Ligon, mongoose keeper, said the mongooses’ favorite thing to eat is the mice whereas the fruits and vegetables are not so popular among them.  The keepers typically feed the mongooses before the zoo opens to the public but guests can sometimes see them chowing down on worms or mice during enrichment periods. Although they receive a wide variety of food every day, Courtney said the banded mongooses don’t start eating like that from birth. Banded mongooses don’t open their eyes until about two weeks of age and can’t consume solid food until a month after birth. Then again mongooses grow very fast and a month’s time is nothing compared to the growth rate of humans.mongoosecombo

Aside from their mistaken identity, mongooses bare another common misconception in the form of snake fighting. Just about every depiction of a mongoose in popular culture represents a fearsome battle with a cobra, but the truth is not all types of mongooses do that. Banded mongooses are just one of over thirty types of mongooses across fourteen specie classifications and are quite different from their snake fighting counterparts. Indian gray mongooses, who live in solitary, are the ones typically known for their ability to fight snakes due to their thick coats and receptors that render them resistant to snake venom. However, banded mongooses are much smaller in nature and do not possess the qualities to take on a venomous snake. Banded mongooses may not intentionally engage in conflict with snakes but that does not mean they don’t encounter them. The mongoose keepers have been known to lay out snake sheds within the exhibit, being one of the many ways the keepers bring out natural characteristics of the wild and from our mongooses.

IMG_6160Enrichment is very important for all our animals at the zoo and due to the curiosity of the mongooses, the keepers like to keep things unique and playful. Ranging from puzzle feeders to putting worms in containers, the keepers engage the mongooses in enrichment every day while constantly keeping an enrichment chart on hand in order to keep track of what the mongooses get on any given day. The banded mongooses have a different keeper every few days, switching up the routine and keeping things fresh due to the various training styles among the keepers. One of the coolest things our keepers do for the mongooses is give them hard boiled eggs to play with. Now you may be wondering what is so cool about an egg, but in fact this activity brings out one of the most natural sides to our little friends. In the wild, banded mongooses will take hard shell food, such as eggs and snails, and throw them with their legs against a hard surface in order to crack it open. The keepers encourage this by not only giving the mongooses eggs, but also rocks, nuts, and coconuts. Aside from the enrichment activities done by the keepers, our mongooses also receive enrichment from their exhibit. The mongoose exhibit is home to two different types of tunnels, the mongoose tunnels and the guest tunnels, both of which provide an enriching experience. The six mongoose tunnels that run through the exhibit are made of PVC pipe and provide the mongooses a place to hide, sleep, and take food if necessary. The guest tunnels are meant for kids to have a fun and engaging experience but it not only excites the kids but also keeps the mongooses playful and curious as they gather around the tubes just about every time a kid pops their head up in one.

Next time you visit the zoo make sure to check out our playful mongooses as they enjoy their natural exhibit and when someone yells “hey it’s a meerkat!” you can make sure to tell them about all the things you learned here.

Have Yourself a Hairy Little Christmas!

fireplace blogBy Lacey Penning

Is there anything more exciting than Christmas morning? Yummy treats, special presents just for you and being surrounded by the people you love…Here at the Houston Zoo primate department, we strive to make the animal’s Christmas morning just as memorable. Christmas day is one of the two days a year when the Houston Zoo is closed to the public; the other day being Thanksgiving. But as they say, the show must go on. There are homes to clean, mouths to feed, and in this case…stockings to be filled with pine shavings? Let me explain.

It all starts with something animal care staff calls “enrichment”. David Shepherdson describes enrichment as something that enhances the quality of captive animal care by identifying and providing the environmental stimuli necessary for optimal psychological and physiological well-being. Basically, in a nutshell roasting on an open fire, enrichment is something that keeps life exciting and always stimulating, encouraging natural behaviors in the process. Enrichment is a constant everyday occurrence for the animals here at the Houston Zoo. On a typical day, you will find things used throughout exhibits such as forage piles heaped of sand, puzzle feeders made of PVC and even various extracts sprayed about to entice scent-marking primates. But on Christmas, things get a whole lot more holly jolly.

Zookeepers spend weeks prepping, constructing and gathering all of those special details they know are their primate’s favorite things…similar to Santa’s elves. On Christmas morning, while most of Houston is still nestled snug in their beds with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads, zookeepers can be found Santa-hats donned and Christmas music playing, filling animal exhibits to the brim with presents, streamers and wrapping paper with only the mere audience of the animals to please. The presents are simply any animal-safe box (tape and staples removed) wrapped and filled with a variety of things ranging from: new baskets, wiffle balls and frisbees if you’re an orangutan, new blankets and children’s books if you’re a chimpanzee, new Kong toys if you’re a De Brazza’s monkey and maybe some nice new hanging bells and mirrors if you’re a Goeldi’s monkey. But what good would presents be if you didn’t have delicious treats to go along with them? Although all the primates receive a variety of fruits and vegetables every day, on Christmas they may get supplemented with favored food items that they only receive sparingly such as dried fruits, honey-peanut butter smears and grape juice for everyone! While exhibits are being serviced by keepers in the morning, some apes may even be lucky enough to watch their favorite holiday flick such as Frozen or How the Grinch Stole Christmas, as keepers set up TVs and DVD players for them. Sure, there’s the typical tug of war over everyone’s favorite blanket or movie seat, but what household doesn’t have that? Once everything is said and done, the excitement and happiness felt is worth all the hard work. After all, it wouldn’t be Christmas if you weren’t spending it with primates you love.chimp snow

We know what you’re thinking, and no, zookeepers couldn’t do this alone, we are mere mortals after all. Without the help of our extraordinary and selfless volunteer staff and donors who thoughtfully purchase and donate animal-safe presents for the animals every year, those presents would be a little bit more bleak. If this all sounds like something too merry to miss out on, there are simple ways to get involved! You can give the gift of grub! By donating to the Houston Zoo this holiday season, your money can go specifically towards all those yummy treats and meals that make things like this so special. Even better, whatever you donate TXU Energy will match, up to $50,000! Click on the link below to check it out.

Happy holidays and foraging to you and yours!


Sea Lion Enrichment

Sea Lion-0317-4805Animals in the wild have to work for a living to ensure that they can find food and shelter. At the zoo our animals’ daily lives are more predictable than in nature, which is why our zookeepers provide a variety of enriching activities that will challenge the animals physically and mentally. The sea lion keepers are no exception as they provide some of the coolest enrichment activities for our favorite marine mammals here at the zoo.

The lives of our sea lions are constantly being filled with enrichment. Just about everything the sea lions do on a daily basis involves a form of enrichment. Sea lion keeper, Anastasia Kotara, said that the keepers cannot force anything upon the sea lions because they want them to voluntarily choose to play on their own. Due to this, the keepers are constantly shaking things up in terms of enrichment so they can keep the sea lions guessing, remaining curious about their daily schedule. A constant change of schedule sets the sea lions apart from most animal areas at the zoo and a large reason behind this is due to the different personalities and natural behavior of our sea lions; requiring the keepers to remain diligent in preparing activities. Keepers use many of their enrichment tools to encourage the sea lions to work for their food and show off natural instincts. Enrichment devices such as containers, balls, and hoops to swim through all serve a purpose in enriching our sea lions. Typically, fish are put in the containers or in the middle of toy balls where sea lions can work on cognitive skills as well as playing to bring out characteristics they would naturally have in the wild.sea lion blog

Training is a huge part of our sea lions’ lives. Considering that the keepers train them throughout the day, training is a form of enrichment. Every keeper has their own enrichment device that they have chosen to train with, making every training session unique and positive for the sea lions. A sea lion’s level of training solely depends on how long they have been training for. Some of the sea lions, such as Rocky, are new to the style of enrichment that our keepers provide, requiring the keepers to take a different approach. Anastasia said training Rocky is a refreshing experience because he is willing to participate in all enrichment activities. Some of the sea lions can be stubborn and lose interest in an activity if it becomes familiar. The female sea lions have been at the zoo since they were ten months old, requiring a form of training and conditioning that keeps them seeing new and exciting activities. A big part of their change in enrichment is through the sea lion show for the guests. Demonstrations such as having the sea lions distinguish between objects are just one of the many activities our guests can see and the show is constantly switching routines to not only keep the sea lions playful but to keep the guests guessing; enriching the experience for both.

Every year the sea lion keepers have an intern to whom they ask to come up with an enrichment project that will benefit the sea lions and other endeavors in animal enrichment.  This is one of the many ways the zoo keeps things fresh for our sea lions. This year Daniel Magid, sea lion intern, came up with a project involving the construction of a fire hose raft for our sea lions. Partnering with the Volunteer Enrichment Committee, Daniel oversaw the completion of the raft which is made up entirely of fire hose material and PVC pipe. No hardware was involved in making the raft which is important for the safety of the sea lions and the salt water environment. The PVC forms the outer rim of the raft while the fire hose material fits together through slits to make up the body of the raft. Daniel said that through the completion of the raft, they realized that there were potential safety hazards for the sea lions so the team went back and added weaving to tighten up the material. The raft is currently entered in a competition known as Hose2Habitat where it will go up against other enrichment building tools made from fire hose and other types of material. The winner receives a fire hose cutter which would be utilized for all the animal departments in the zoo. Regardless of what happens in the competition Daniel and his team are incredibly proud of the raft as it will not only provide the sea lions new and exciting enrichment building but also showcase an idea that others can use as well.

The point of enrichment building is to change up the animal’s environment with the hope of bringing out their natural characteristics. Through the constant creation of fresh ideas provided by our keepers, enrichment building has never been more exciting and successful for our sea lions.

What Makes Giraffe Feedings So Popular?

My name is Austin Williams and I am currently working as an intern at the Houston Zoo. Recently, I got a chance to experience a giraffe feeding that guests can participate in twice a day here. Read on to see what makes feeding giraffes so special.



The Houston Zoo has many exciting and fun activities to offer the people who come and visit our animals, but perhaps the most popular activity at the zoo is Giraffe feeding.  People line up on a daily basis just to get the chance to interact with our Masai giraffes, which begs the question: why is giraffe feeding so popular?

To answer this question myself, I headed over to the giraffe platform to observe and participate in feeding our lovable giraffe family. Approaching the platform I immediately realized that this experience was unpredictable. Why you may ask?  You never know which member of the giraffe family you will interact with, and with each one displaying their own habits, every experience is excitingly unique.  I had the pleasure to feed the head of the giraffe family, Mtembei, father of our newly-born baby Gigi. Similar to the rest of the family, Mtembei is a very gentle natured and curious giraffe. When guests are given romaine lettuce for the feeding, the giraffes are curious as to who will be fed next and they will move in your direction to make sure they are the lucky winner. During my experience Baridi, son of Mtembei, approached the platform, giving me the opportunity to observe the different habits between father and son. From the start it was very clear that Mtembei was a persistent and eager eater who would not stray from the platform until feeding time was over. Baridi on the other hand only stuck around for a few pieces of lettuce before going back to the yard. During my time at the platform I learned that the giraffes respond to their names; something you might not know unless you experience giraffe feeding firsthand. The rangers who supervise the feedings will call the giraffes by name to come over when guests are waiting to feed them. However, witnessing this first hand also showed me that the giraffes can be like children in the sense that they don’t always respond to their names being called. I realized that one of the biggest draws to giraffe feeding is the educational experience.Giraffe_Feeding_Platform_Medium2

Aside from learning about the giraffes, what I believe to be the key to giraffe feeding popularity is the engaging family experience. From elderly couples to toddlers, the giraffe feeding platform welcomes all ages offering the opportunity for the zoo and our giraffes to make a lasting impression on the guests. Kids become ecstatic the first moment they are handed a piece of lettuce to give to our giraffes. The fact that they get the chance to interact with an animal rather than watching behind glass makes their day. Parents love the experience because their child is happy and they get to capture a special moment that will last forever through pictures. There’s also nothing like seeing a parent carrying their toddler right up to a giraffe for it to eat the lettuce right out of their little hands. Each experience is special, creating a memory that will last a lifetime.giraffe

Giraffe feeding runs two-fold, not only impacting our guests but also impacting our giraffes in a positive way. Guests provide enrichment for our giraffes through the activity because it keeps the giraffes active and they also like the romaine lettuce. The giraffes receive a nutritionally balanced diet every day and since the lettuce is 97% water, it does not impact their diet making it fun for us and enjoyable for the giraffes.

The fact that giraffe feeding not only excites our guests but also keeps the giraffes healthy and active is a testament to why this experience is so popular. Sharon Joseph, VP of Animal Operations, said “the primary reason we started doing the giraffe feedings is because it provides such an impactful, personal animal experience for our guests,” and after my experience, I truly believe that is the case.

Year of the Goat- Featuring Jingle and Belle

In honor of the Chinese animal zodiac, we’re celebrating the Year of the Goat! We have over 20 different goats representing 5 different breeds. In addition to their different colors, shapes, and sizes, all of our goats also express individual preferences and personalities!

To highlight our goats individual ‘flair’, we’ve decided to feature a different goat each month and share what makes each one so unique and lovable!


As we enter into December, it seems that the year has flown by. The chill in the air brings the anticipation of hot chocolate with gingerbread cookies, and Christmas carols can be heard wherever you go. December’s goats of the month are Jingle and Belle, and they get their names from a popular Christmas carol. The twins were born on December 15th, 2013, and have been keeper favorites from the very instant they arrived here at the Houston Zoo.
jingle goat2

Even though Jingle and Belle are almost two years old, many people still think they are babies. They are African pygmy goats, which tend to remain shorter (and stouter!) than many of the other goat breeds. They’re popular with many of the younger children at the Zoo because they’re the perfect height for them to pet!jingle goat

When you visit the Zoo this holiday season, be sure to look beneath the taller goats so you can wish Jingle and Belle happy holidays! If you like to sing, the keepers in the Children’s Zoo will be throwing an early birthday party for Jingle and Belle in the Swap Shop on December 12th.  So come on by and watch them enjoy some tasty treats while dressed in their holiday finest.


Elephant Keeper Kim Klein Travels to Laos

By: Kim Klein

A-E3After three long flights totaling 23 hours and a 12 hour layover, the enrichment supplies and I arrived in Laos! Biologist Anabel and Marketing director Jozef, eagerly awaiting my arrival, picked me up at the airport in Vientiane. Our first stop was for pizza. From there, we had a 6 hour van ride and a short boat ride to the Elephant Conservation Center located along the Nam Tien Lake in Sayaboury. Of course, we spent most of the ride talking about ELEPHANTS!

When we arrived at the center, it was afternoon and the resident elephants were bathing in the river. I met and observed several of the rescued elephants, watched them participate in target training, and visited the on-site hospital. Anabel introduced me to the Mahouts and other staff; we visited the enrichment yard and the new 1.5 acre socialization area. Diving into the purpose of my trip, Anabel and I discussed what types of enrichment the center uses and what supplies we had collectively gathered to make new enrichment items including barrels, fire hose, rope, tires, and balls. I was also informed about the individual elephant’s personalities and with this information we devised a plan of action!A-E1

Each day, I had several people assist me in creating and dispersing enrichment items. The Center’s staff and volunteers would gather together and get to work building puzzle feeders out of recycled barrels, elephant sized balls using fire hose and recycled tires, chimes made of bamboo, and rattle bags. Once the enrichment was ready to go, the Center’s guests would trek with us to the enrichment yard to help us fill up the feeders and spread out the new toys. From the enrichment workshop to the elephant yard, we had to climb through the forest and over hills. Carrying the new toys, this sometimes took us more than 20 minutes! Over the course of my two week trip, with the help of staff and several volunteers, we created 15 novel enrichment items for the center’s 7 elephants!

A-E2In our next blog, we will talk about how excited the elephants were when they encountered their new enrichment items!

Houston Zoo’s Dr Lauren Travels to Singapore to Save Elephants – Post # 6

One of our expert veterinarians is currently in Singapore working with other wildlife professionals to save elephants from a deadly virus. Embark on this journey with her as she writes about the efforts being made to eradicate the virus and protect Asian elephants around the world.

The hotel on the left is the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, check it out. Yes thats a boat on toop of three buildings. Makes the theatre in the middle that looks likea blooming onion look boringWith almost 6 million people, Singapore is one of the world’s smallest countries. That said, it has four official languages, six digit zip codes, and has transformed itself from a “third-world, mosquito infested swamp” to modern, vibrant city in less than 50 years.  The architecture and ambiance struck me as a cross between New York City and Las Vegas, with an added emphasis on green spaces and ecologically responsible design. Minus the litter, panhandlers, and chewing gum encrusted on the sidewalks, of course. (Chewing gum, and littering, are punishable offenses here). Today was our one day off from the workshops to see a bit of the city, and I got a chance to look around with Dr. Paul Ling, of the Baylor College of Medicine. If you want to see an absolutely crazy building, check out the Marina Bay Sands Hotel of Singapore, which looks like three hotels with a boat on top of them.

Dr. Ling and I have traveled to Singapore to participate in the 1st Asian EEHV Strategy Meeting, a three-day workshop hosted by Wildlife Reserves Singapore and including 38 people from 8 Asian elephant range countries as well as Singapore, Europe, Canada and the US. Together we are sharing information on EEHV (elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus), a deadly virus that can cause acute, often fatal hemorrhagic disease in young Asian elephants, both under human care and in the wild. The Houston Zoo and Baylor College of Medicine have worked together on extensive research on this virus, and it was our privilege to take what we’ve learned in North America and use the information to help veterinarians detect and treat EEHV in Asian elephants throughout their 13 native range countries.

As we wrapped up our EEHV Meeting, the work of some of our new friends was just beginning as they started a two day meeting on the 2nd ASEAN Captive Elephant Working Group Meeting. I was able to sit in on one day of their discussion, where they focused on captive elephant care in elephant camps throughout Asia. There are many elephant camps that welcome tourists in Thailand and other Asian countries, and the quality of elephant care in these camps can vary greatly. It is the daunting task of this group to establish some guidelines, and possibly even a scoring or accreditation system similar to the AZA, for these camps. This would allow for more regular veterinary care of the elephants, improved living conditions for elephants and their caretakers, and will give well-meaning tourists the information they need to support the camps that do best by their animals.1st Asian EEHV Strategy Meeting Delegates 11.5.15

Whether you are traveling 20 hours by plane to Asia or just as far as Hermann Park in Houston, there is a lot you can do to help save animals in the wild, and to contribute to Asian elephant health and conservation. Every time you visit the Houston Zoo, your money helps to save animals in the wild. If you’d like to learn more about elephants and EEHV, the virus that has claimed the lives of almost half the Asian elephants that have been born in North America since 1980, please visit our The critical, lifesaving research we do to better understand and manage EEHV would not be possible without financial support from people like you, who love elephants just as much as we do.Dr. Dennis Schmitt of Ringling Bros Center for Elephant Conservation examines the map of the 62 EEHV cases identified so far in Asia

It was a great opportunity for me to travel on behalf of the Houston Zoo and share all of our hard won information on EEHV with my new friends and colleagues from Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India, Cambodia, Borneo, and Vietnam. It’s not often you get to participate in a meeting where you really feel like your presence made a big difference, and I am grateful for the chance to experience that! Many people might assume that anyone who works at a zoo travels to far away, exotic places all the time, and some of us do. It’s just usually not me. With two small children I adore and a husband I never see enough of, the most exotic travel I usually do for conservation is to get out to Bastrop State Park once a year to participate in egg releases for our critically endangered Houston toad program. Becoming involved in EEHV collaboration and research has given me the opportunity to see some pretty incredible places and meet some amazing people, and also to stretch my wings and try my hand at new skills such as facilitation, consensus building, and even blogging! It just goes to show that you never know where a career in veterinary medicine may take you, or what you may end up dedicating your life to. I consider myself very lucky to be able to call the Houston Zoo, with its focus on conservation and science, home!

The Year of the Gibbon – Happy Thanksgibbon!

By Diane Shea & Tammy Buhrmester

siamangHave you ever been to the Wortham World of Primates at the Houston Zoo and heard singing but did not know where it was coming from?  Once you find them, do you know what animal they are and why they are singing that song?

Gibbons are full of mysteries!

Gibbons are primates; apes more specifically.  Most people are familiar with the great apes (gorilla, chimpanzee, orangutans, and bonobos), however, there are also lesser apes (meaning smaller in size).  Gibbons are lesser apes.

Gibbons are small-bodied (about 12-20 pounds) and fast.  Gibbons are masters of their primary mode of locomotion called brachiation, or swinging from branch to branch using their arms. They can travel through the canopy of the forest up to 35 miles per hour.  You will find gibbons at home in the treetops, seldom coming to the ground.  When they are on the ground they will walk bipedally with their arms raised up for balance. They are the fastest and most agile of all tree-dwelling, nonflying mammals.  Since they are so high in the trees and travel so quickly, it is very difficult to see them in their native habitat of Asia.

Gibbons are social animals; they are strongly territorial and defend their boundaries with vigorous visual and vocal displays. There are few sounds in nature more evocative than the whooping song of a gibbon.  The sound can be heard for a distance of up to half a mile consisting of a duet between a mated pair.  Yet the songs, performed by both sexes, are highly complex and their subtleties and nuances are far from fully understood.  Males accompany females and create complex duets and the degree of synchronization between the sexes increases with practice, and the quality of the song relates to the length of time they have been together. Each species of gibbon has its own song, and each male and female song differs from one another.

The Houston Zoo is home to a pair of siamang gibbons who have been living together for a couple of years. You will most likely hear their duet early in the morning before they go outside, or later in the afternoon. Male and female siamangs are normally similar in size, but Jambi, our 19 year old female, is quite a bit larger than our 15 year old male, Berani.  You will find the pair relaxing together, or grooming each other, and occasionally engaging in play behavior. Jambi is particularly fond of twirling around and around on a large sheet tied to a rope in the exhibit, and Berani will hang from a rope above Jambi and tap her gently to get her to play with him.

siamang 2The song of the siamangs is often enhanced by the voice of our agile gibbon, Susie.   She will frequently start her own song early in the morning and the siamangs will begin theirs in response.  Susie is an extraordinary 43 years old, and is one of the Zoo’s longest residents.  Despite her advanced age, she is still a feisty lady and makes her preferences for certain foods known by open-mouth threatening keepers if they make the mistake of offering her the least favorite items in her diet first.

Susie is a special, but all too common, case. In her earliest years she was taken from her mother and kept as a pet by a private individual. By the age of three she had grown too dangerous to handle and was donated to the Zoo.  Having missed the chance for proper socialization with her own kind, she cannot be placed with another gibbon.  Because of this she gets extra attention from her keepers each day.  Although Susie was born in captivity, many gibbons continue to be taken from the wild for the pet trade, often with far less pleasant results.

In addition to the pet trade, gibbons are threatened by habitat destruction.  One of the main causes of deforestation is the palm oil industry.  Palm oil is in many of the common substances and foods that we use.  By purchasing products that use certified sustainable palm oil, we can ensure that we are supporting companies that are committed to helping gibbons.

The plight of the gibbon is often overshadowed by their larger ape cousins, but they are considered the most threatened primate; a gibbon will likely be the first ape extinction our generation will witness.

On Saturday, November 28 and Sunday, November 29, the Houston Zoo primate department will be celebrating the Year of the Gibbon, with an event called “Thanksgibbon”.  We would like to invite you to come to the zoo and meet these wonderful apes, learn about them, perhaps  hear them sing, and help us raise money to support this beautiful species by purchasing palm oil free body products, paintings done by Houston Zoo primates, and assorted conservation products.

Once you have given thanks for your friends and family, filled your belly with Thanksgiving food, taken that after meal nap, and done your Black Friday shopping, please join us to help! And, give Thanks that we have gibbons!

Houston Zoo’s Dr Lauren Travels to Singapore to Save Elephants – Post # 5

One of our expert veterinarians is currently in Singapore working with other wildlife professionals to save elephants from a deadly virus. Embark on this journey with her as she writes about the efforts being made to eradicate the virus and protect Asian elephants around the world.

They put me to work right away helping to facilitate discussionsWildlife Reserves Singapore consists of four separate animal parks: the Singapore Zoo, Singapore Night Safari, Singapore River Safari, and the Jurong Bird Park. The Singapore Zoo has an enormous Orangutan exhibit that houses 27 individuals in an amazing tree top exhibit.  The Night Safari is open only in the evening and focuses on nocturnal animals (and has a delicious dinner buffet to boot!). The Jurong Bird Park contains a massive enclosed aviary with a breathtaking waterfall that falls over a natural cliff around which the park was built. Wildlife Reserves Singapore is hosting our 1st Asian EEHV Strategy Meeting and funded the travel for many wildlife veterinarians and researchers from Asian elephant range countries so that they can attend this important first step in understanding EEHV’s impact in this region. My travel was funded by the Houston Zoo, as part of our ongoing effort to understand EEHV and also to share information and encourage international collaboration.

We learned yesterday that elephant deaths from EEHV (elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus) have been identified in five Asian elephant range countries (India, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Myanmar). Our task now is to clarify our next steps in both sharing what we know about EEHV with those that need to know it, and also in learning what we can about the impact of EEHV in this part of the world.The Jurong Bird Park has an amazing collection of birds and aviary surrounding this enormous waterfall, which falls over a natural cliff on which the park is built

Many veterinarians I met are just like my colleagues and I at the Houston Zoo, providing medical care for baby elephants under human care and wanting to do whatever they can to increase their chances of survival.  Some of these veterinarians live onsite with the elephants and have access to diagnostic laboratories and a wide range of veterinary drugs, and some of these vets take a whole day’s travel to even get to the baby elephants, and then make it only if the bridges aren’t out. Some of these elephants are in complex, highly regulated logging camps where their hours worked and medical care are carefully monitored, and some elephants are privately owned and live and work in small camps or with mahout families. Many vets also provide veterinary care and post mortem examinations on wild elephants, and help to care for wild elephants that come into conflict with humans on the border of human/elephant habitats.

The Singapore Zoo has two large male Asian elephants, a father and son, who live together in one exhibit.
There is much to learn about EEHV in wild elephants, and this is the hardest population of elephants to monitor and to determine numbers of and causes of death for. Mapping out the impact of a disease like EEHV on free ranging elephant populations across South Asia requires a well-organized effort and a long term commitment to sample collection and population monitoring. And we are just beginning.

Veterinarians from Thailand and India cast their votes for the most pressing issues regarding EEHV in Asia
Veterinarians from Thailand and India cast their votes for the most pressing issues regarding EEHV in Asia

Today our group identified several documents that we can put together to guide local veterinarians, mahouts and government officials, which we will complete by the end of 2015 and be ready to share by Feb 2016. These documents will be compiled into an EEHV in Asia Strategy Booklet, and will be the basis for the next steps we’ll take in tackling EEHV in this region. Our first step is to get everyone up to speed on what EEHV is, and how to recognize it, and, for those that are able, how to treat it. While we are doing that, we’ll also be encouraging veterinarians to document cases, collect data and start banking samples on captive and wild elephants whenever possible. Next we need to identify resources with which we can help to set up diagnostic laboratories in the countries that really need them, such as Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Malaysia, and others. We’ll be meeting again in Nov 2016 to gauge our progress and make the next set of plans.

Stay tuned for one more blog about Singapore and about what you can do to help elephants!!

Houston Zoo’s Dr Lauren Travels to Singapore to Save Elephants – Post # 4

One of our expert veterinarians is currently in Singapore working with other wildlife professionals to save elephants from a deadly virus. Embark on this journey with her as she writes about the efforts being made to eradicate the virus and protect Asian elephants around the world.

Friday night in hotel room after meeting:

Elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV) is responsible for 42% of the deaths of Asian elephants born in North America since 1980. It is certainly a leading cause of mortality in the young Asian elephants in our country, and better understanding of this devastating disease is a high priority for the research collaboration established between the Houston Zoo and Baylor College of Medicine. What does EEHV mean for Asian elephants in their 13 range countries across South Asia? Does it impact elephants that are under human care in camps, orphanages, zoos, and logging operations? Does it impact free ranging Asian elephant populations, which are already under immense pressure from habitat destruction and fragmentation, human elephant conflict, and poaching?

Elephant Mating

Today we took the first steps to finding answers to some of these questions. Today was the second day of our three day 1st Asian EEHV Strategy Meeting, hosted by Wildlife Reserves Singapore. Thirty three veterinarians, conservationists, researchers and elephant specialists from eight elephant range countries as well as Singapore, the Netherlands, Canada and the US came together to share information and discuss priorities and plan our next steps in regard to EEHV in Asia. The largest regional need identified was the need to increase awareness and education about EEHV in all groups including  those taking care of the elephants every day (the mahouts) as well as elephant and wildlife veterinarians, veterinary colleges, and government officials. Another important issue identified was the need to establish more laboratories that can diagnose EEHV within range countries;  currently, of 13 elephant range countries, only 3 have EEHV diagnostic capabilities (India, Thailand, and Indonesia). EEHV can cause death within 1 to 2 days of the start of visible illness, making close availability of diagnostic laboratories of paramount importance.Asian Elephant Baylor-0489-1886

A third priority identified was the need to learn more about the impact of EEHV on Asian elephant populations in range countries. Together, we identified 62 cases of EEHV in five of the range countries represented at our meeting (India, Myanmar, Indonesia, Thailand, and Cambodia), with 3 of these 62 elephants surviving infection with intensive treatment by Thai veterinarians. Of the 59 identified EEHV fatalities, 47 were in captive elephants and 12 were documented in wild elephants in India, where wildlife veterinarians already have an extensive monitoring and necropsy protocol. We now know for certain that EEHV-associated mortalities occur in wild elephants, and need to learn much more about its prevalence in and impact on wild populations.

It was a long day and long laundry list of needs and problems to address…. Wherever do we start…. Stay tuned next time for the answers! (well, at least some of them…..)

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