I Cannot Feel My Big Toe

Reaching the Danau Gitang Field Centre in Borneo takes a bit of maneuvering. The KPRC Team flew into the town of Sandakan while I drove across from a few days of meeting in the capital city of Kota Kinabalu. We met up at the boat launch at around 6pm for our 30 minute boat trip down the Kinabatangan River to the field station situated in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary.

It was a full moon so seeing down the dark river was a bit easier than normal and there was a fairly nice breeze. The Danau Girang Field Centre is 200. yards off the river into the Bornean Rainforest. It is hot, it is humid, it is like Houston in summer with the addition of a rainforest.

We made plans for the next day to meet at 8am to head out for filming wildlife and I walked back with my headlamp looking up in the trees for anything moving. We are surrounded by the sound of insects and amphibians.

(Not actual ant)

My mistake was standing still for 5 seconds while wearing flip flops and the same type of ant I swore would never bite me again did just that. They call them fire ants. I wish they were simply fire ants but for 20 minutes I could not feel my big toe, or part of my ankle where these monsters bit me.

I would have sent a photo with this blog but I was too busy hopping away on one leg to do so. I am so glad they have welcomed me back to the Bornean Rainforest.

From Dec. 1–11, 2017 the Houston Zoo and Houston’s KPRC Channel 2 are traveling to southeast Asia and the island of Borneo to document the work you are supporting to protect the counterparts of the wildlife that you see when you visit the Zoo. Houston Zoo conservation associates who have dedicated their careers to protecting elephants, orangutans, pangolins and a whole host of other amazing species on the world’s third largest island will give us an in-depth look at what it means to save species from extinction. 

We’ve created a special webpage to follow their exciting journey around the world, go behind the scenes, and learn more about how we can all save animals in the wild. 

The Great Orange Ape. Orangutan: People of the Forest

Orangutan means “man of the forest” in Malay and Indonesian languages where it written as Orang-utan. Orangutans are the only one of the four great apes (orangutan, gorilla, chimpanzee, and bonobo) not native to Africa; they live in the southeast asian islands of Borneo and Sumatra.

Photo credit: Paul Swen

The Houston Zoo has been working closely in Malaysia with a conservation organization called Hutan (Bahasa Malay for the word forest) and their Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Program (KOCP). The team is based out of the village of Sukau in northeast Borneo and made up local Malaysians, many of whom have grown up in and around Sukau.

Their primary focus is to study orangutans in their native habitat, some of the last remaining habitats for wild orangutans. Their work includes assessment and monitoring of orangutan population health and genetic status, studies of orangutan ecological adaptation to degraded and fragmented habitat, development of policies for population management within and outside protected areas, and community engagement and education in the conservation of orangutans and habitat including environmental education programs for Malaysian school children.

You will hear quite a bit about palm oil plantations on some of our blogs about elephants and orangutans and that loss of habitat due to deforestation and the change in agriculture practices to these massive plantations are affecting wildlife, especially orangutans. This is true and the nest way forward will be to find corridors of habitat that can be replanted while working with plantations to find solutions for orangutans living within them, and moving through them much like the elephants. Hutans’s KOCP is at the forefront of reducing these conflicts and working to protect habitat and orangutans, while working with the Sabah Wildlife Department on a strategy to protect wildlife far into the future.

Learn more!

Borneo’s “Pygmy” Elephants

Photo credit: Paul Swen

Borneo’s “Pygmy” Elephants are a subspecies of the mainland Asian elephant. There are less than 2,000 of Borneo’s elephants, most of which can be found in the Malaysian State of Sabah. The word Pygmy would suggest that these elephants are much smaller than their mainland cousins but in reality, they are only slightly smaller. That is easy to say until you wander across one in the rainforest and then an elephant is an elephant and it is probably best to step out of their way.

The health of the forest is in many ways connected to healthy elephant populations. Their need for protected areas and migration corridors literally protects hundreds of species, including amphibians, insects, mammals, birds and many others. In turn, the health of the landscape supports human communities in their livelihoods.

The Houston Zoo has worked with the Danau Girang Field Centre in Sabah (Borneo), Malaysia since 2009 in support of a program to determine the social structure, migration corridors and habitat use of the Bornean Elephant. A hungry elephant does not know it is eating your crops, it simply knows it has found a new source of food. At the same time, those elephants need to find their way back and forth across the rivers and through the rainforest safely without encountering villages or fence lines.

Photo credit: Paul Swen

Enter Nurzhafarina (“Farina”) Othman. Farina is a Malaysian researcher who is finishing her PhD with Cardiff University and looking at solutions to protect elephants and people from the above scenarios. Her work, which been supported by the Houston Zoo for many years and is our elephant conservationist and researcher in Borneo, assists the Sabah Wildlife Department in determining best practices for the conservation and management of the elephants in the region. Her teams work has also determined that the genetics data and historical records support the theory that the Bornean elephant might be a remnant of an extinct population from Java, making these populations unique.

Photo credit: Paul Swen

Elephants require large amounts of land to live and when that land is turned into farms or plantations, the elephants sometimes move through the crops to get to more habitat. “Elephants are not moving through palm oil plantations to raid crops but they are using it to reconnect to their surrounding habitat because the corridors that have been left for them are too small,” says Farina. She also is working with palm oil plantations to find solutions for wildlife as well as helping with the Borneo tourism industry of which elephants are a large draw for the local economy.

Learn more!

The Origins of the Orang-utan

The origins of the orang-utan as told to me by a colleague in Malaysia: 

Long ago, human beings (or orangs) lived in the virgin jungles of Borneo. They stayed in groups, sharing their long houses, subsisting on plants and animals provided by Mother Nature. Within the different groups, this peaceful way of life was however troubled by all sorts of troubles and conflicts involving treacheries, malices, gossips and other problems that are specific to our species.

A peace-loving minority of orangs decided to split from the major group in order to escape the clamors of the village life and went deep into the jungle. They established a new home and lived happily for years. More and more orangs from their former community decided to join this idyllic existence, up to a point that the newly created village became overcrowded and full with problems that follow humans at all times and places (pollution, noise, habitat destruction, cruelty and meanness).

The original group decided to break up from their conspecifics one more time and wandered far away from this place. They established themselves on the mountains where life was paradise. Of course they didn’t stay on their own for long: more and more people joined them and troubled this peaceful existence. Fed up beyond belief, the original oranges decided that enough was enough: because they wouldn’t be able to find peace below the trees, they decided to climb up to the treetop and to settle down in the forest canopy. They also decided to not have any kind of relations with ground-dwelling orangs any more.

From this day on, this group became the orang-utans, or “people of the forest.”

Learn more!

Borneo and the Houston Zoo: Why Borneo?

The Houston Zoo’s new mission and vision is fairly straightforward and can help answer questions on why our wildlife conservation programs engage in certain regions of the world

Our Mission: The Houston Zoo connects communities with animals, inspiring action to save wildlife.

Our Vision: The Houston Zoo will be a leader in the global movement to save wildlife.

It all comes back to wildlife and many of the animals you can visit here at the Houston Zoo. How can we do our best to not only care for everything from orangutans and elephants to pythons and hornbills here at the zoo but also engage our public and protect them in the wild.

That leads me to Borneo. Borneo is full of biodiversity – it is literally packed with animals and plants living within its tropical rainforest. 1,000+ species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects…it is truly amazing what can be found here. And the Houston Zoo has a large number of animals that can be found in Borneo: Orangutans, Asian Elephants, Clouded Leopards, Asian Small Clawed Otters, Rhinoceros Hornbill, Argus Pheasants, Bornean Eared Frogs and even Reticulated Pythons. It is long list for the world’s third largest island.

The island of Borneo is actually divided into three countries. Indonesia is the lower 2/3rds of the island making up the region called Kalimantan. In the north, the two Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah encompass much the top 1/3rd with the small country of Brunei along the coast of the South China Sea. Much of the region’s economy is based on agriculture, logging and ecotourism, all three of which effect wildlife and local communities in different ways.

So Why Borneo? Simply because we feel that working with close partners on the ground, we can make a difference and save wildlife in the region. To the Houston Zoo, it is important to support programs where local conservationists can help lead the way to protect wildlife and work with local communities to reduce threats – for both animals and people.  Over the coming days, we will talk about our local partners working to save Borneo’s elephants, orangutans, hornbills, carnivores such as the clouded leopard and many other species so stay tuned for more from Borneo!

Learn more!

Orangutans, Elephants but what about those Pangolins?

How can I not talk about the world’s most illegally trade mammal on this trip? they are on the island of Borneo, therefore we are going to talk briefly about Pangolins. Don’t ask what a Pangolin is because I know you know – they are the world’s only truly scaly mammals and their unique behaviors include scooping up ants and termites with their incredibly long, sticky tongues and curling up into a ball when threatened. There are 8 species of Pangolin on this planet of ours, 4 in Africa and 4 in Asia.

Here in Borneo you would find, if you can find one, the Sunda Pangolin. Even more importantly you would find our Pangolin researcher and Conservation Associate Elisa Panjang who works out of the Danau Girang Field Centre we are stationed at currently. Both Elisa and I are members of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Pangolin Specialist Group http://www.pangolinsg.org/ whose role is to outline critical actions and a conservation strategy required to protect pangolins in the wild.

Elisa uses a multidisciplinary approach, including sign surveys, camera trapping, satellite telemetry, and community survey to collect information on the Sunda pangolin. The objectives of the research are threefold: to identify habitat suitability and ecological niches for Sunda pangolin; to determine the species home range; and to determine the movements in a fragmented and degraded landscape. Upon completion of the study, the results of the research will be included in a Sunda Pangolin State Action Plan. Aside from research work, Elisa is also focusing on public education, raising awareness and producing educational materials together with the Sabah Wildlife Department and other organizations

For more information on Elisa and her program, link here for a recent blog http://www.pangolinsg.org/2016/11/16/pangolin-work-in-sabah-malaysia/

Learn more about the trip!

Supporting Wildlife with the Houston Zoo

The Houston Zoo and Houston’s KPRC Channel 2 are headed to southeast Asia and the island of Borneo to document the work of our conservation associates who have dedicated their careers to protecting elephants, orangutans, pangolins and a whole host of other amazing species on the world’s third largest island.

But how did we get here, and I do not mean the 30+ hours on multiple flights, a short drive by car and then boat ride to the field centre. I am the Houston Zoo’s Vice-President of Wildlife Conservation and Conservation Education and have been working with partners and traveling to Borneo since 2005 for the Houston Zoo.

In 2017, we began to roll out our new mission of connecting communities with animals, inspiring action to save wildlife. That has a double meaning for me. When we say connecting communities we mean you, our guests and followers – the over 2.4million of you that come through our gates every year. In Borneo, it means connecting those communities with animals that many times are literally living in their backyards and have always been a part of their lives. Whether it is otter, a crocodile, turtles in the river, an orangutan overhead or an elephant at their doorstep, we strive to find solutions to reduce potential conflict between the wildlife and local communities.

In that decade plus period from our first trip to Borneo supporting orangutan conservation with a group called Hutan-Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Project, our Houston Zoo program has grown and with it the number of programs we support in Borneo. Islands are very special places. Some hold an amazing array of biodiversity with species found nowhere else in the world. Places like Borneo, Galapagos and Madagascar are great examples of this. Since our first trip in 2005, we have expanded our conservation associates to include not only orangutans, but elephants and pangolins as well.

And how did I get here? It is a 30-year story from zookeeper to supervisor to conservation and a multitude of other roles and responsibilities along the way, a large part of which is here at the Houston Zoo beginning in 2004. I have a special interest in wildlife that many people do not concern themselves with including small mammals such as rodents, insectivores and bats. I consider them the unappreciated mega-charismatic micro-vertebrates of the wildlife world. How could you look at a Philippines Cloud Rat, Haitian Solenodon, Elephant shrew, Streaked Tenrec or Damaraland Mole Rat and not fall in love with those beady eyes and cute faces? If you are herp or bird person, calm down, I adore Kenyan Sand Boas, Painted Batagur Turtles and Curassows just the same.

I would say Borneo is one of my favorite places we work and that would be a semi-truth as all the places we work, be it northern Mozambique with lions or Rwanda’s Mountain Gorillas or Brazil’s Pantanal are my favorite places to work

Coming back to Borneo every few years is like visiting old friends and co-workers. The islands landscape continues to evolve and change and the conservation work is ongoing and increasing from year to year. Wildlife is getting squeezed between remnants of forest in one area while a small reforestation project pops up in another. And while all these changes occur, the dedication of the people and their work ethic to protect wildlife here is always amazing to see.

Learn more!

A Species Went Extinct Today

Today a species went extinct. We believe little-studied and unknown species may be disappearing without our knowledge, but on September 29, 2016 the world is actually documenting the extinction of a species – the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrog or Ecnomiohyla rabborum.

Photo by Brian Gratwicke

Once called The Loneliest Frog in the World, this one last individual has been cared for by the Atlanta Botanical Gardens for nearly a dozen years. Collected on a rescue mission in Panama as a fungus swept down through Central America decimating amphibian populations along the way, he was the last individual of a species poorly known to science since.

Most people have never heard of the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrog, even Panamanians had rarely heard or seen them. It is not the last species to go extinct during our lifetimes, but as we watch them disappear, we need to find ways to get people inspired to care about animals they love, and animals they have barely ever heard of.

Take a simple action to make a change and then grow that action to inspire others to care. Take a few seconds to watch a video clip from our colleague and Photo Ark founder Joel Sartore of the world’s last Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrog:

Rabbs’ Fringe-limbed treefrog from Joel Sartore on Vimeo.

The World Needs an Auto Correct

I am not completely technologically challenged but my iPhone feels that I am. Auto Correct can be helpful, except apparently to me. So when I type in “What would you like for dinner” and the message that goes out is “I have a lamb named Lew Alcinder” you can understand why my wife does not respond.

And this is exactly what has happened to wildlife much in part due to our news leading off with every bad story they can find. We no longer pay attention and respond. Organizations and media follow this path and every bad bit of news is right there at your fingertips. How does that make you feel? Helpless? Hopeless? Not your problem?


96 elephants die every day for the ivory trade to be made into carvings in people’s homes.

5 rhinos die every day so their horns can be used in “traditional” medicine.

4,000 endangered Philippine Pond Turtles were confiscated in May on their way to being someone’s dinner in another country.

The Pangolin: the world’s most heavily traded mammal. 1 million animals lost in the last 10 years so their scales can be used for medicine and their bodies for soup.


How in the world is any of this going to make you believe you can make a difference? It makes you sad, upset, and confused (What is a Pangolin!!) but it also makes you move on to the next media story because you see no simple action that will make a difference. And if you cannot make a difference in the lives of elephants, rhinos, turtles and pangolins, how can you be inspired to care? Basically, we have a smaller attention span than a gnat these days and creating a simple action to help save animals in the wild is the difference between tuning out and caring.

I am a Pangolin. Now finish reading the blog.

So the world needs an Auto Correct.

You know right from wrong so I am not going to tell you what you should not do (do not buy ivory, stop eating shark fin soup…sorry, I will stop right there).

So, what if I told you (I am telling you right now) that you can protect sea turtles by using less plastic and keeping the plastic you use out of the waste stream? Would that action help you to care? https://www.houstonzoo.org/saving-wildlife/take-action/

What if you recycled your cell phone and electronics? They are oddly connected to gorillas, okapi and elephants in Central Africa through the product in their circuit boards. Closer to home, you do not want all of that electronic waste in the landfill finding its way into our waterways and eventually the Gulf of Mexico so recycling once again is a simple solution. https://www.houstonzoo.org/saving-wildlife/take-action/


What if you planted one plant on your patio or in your backyard for a butterfly or hummingbird? Would seeing that butterfly or hummingbird inspire you to care? https://www.houstonzoo.org/saving-wildlife/take-action/.

What if one simple action from every zoo guest, all 2.3 million of you, made a difference? It can and it will and it will inspire you to care. That is simply why the world needs to auto correct.

Until then I need to figure out how to stop my iPhone from chastising my tortillas and pickling my verbs.

Take Action_Logo_Pollinators

Telling Success Stories – Saving Animals in the Wild

Telling success stories is really not what the media does best. There are many out there but my email box is overwhelmed daily with people sending me wildlife related news content – really bad news related content. In just one day, I received the following  links for me to take a look at.

Great apes face extinction says conservationist Jane Goodall http://news.yahoo.com/great-apes-face-extinction-conservationist-jane-goodall-135038678.html

Rare Pangolins May Be Eaten to Extinction, Conservationists Warn http://news.yahoo.com/rare-pangolins-may-eaten-extinction-conservationists-warn-172120049.html

Poachers threaten new slaughter of South African elephants http://news.yahoo.com/poachers-threaten-slaughter-south-african-elephants-160710660.html


How can we even try to inspire people to learn about the people working around the world to save wildlife when all we really see are articles depicting a crisis scenario? And the problem is, these articles are the truth – these really are crisis scenarios.

Although we need to work harder to reduce these losses and turn the tide in favor of wildlife, there really are a number of programs making positive gains to protect animals and their habitat.

This spring in Botswana, work began to identify and capture black rhinos from South African protected areas and transport them to neighboring Botswana, where they will be released to secure habitat in the Okavango Delta. Black rhinos were effectively “poached” out of Botswana and classified locally extinct there by 1992.

So this year, six black rhinos were collected from Kruger National Park, held in bomas, and then air-lifted by the Botswana Defense Force to their new home. More than a month later, an additional 10 rhinos (four males and six females, including two calves) were collected from South Africa’s Northwest Parks and similarly transported to Botswana.  The project is a collaboration between the International Rhino Foundation, Wilderness Safaris, and the governments of South Africa and Botswana, and is supported largely through grants from the Tiffany Foundation, Houston Zoo, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, the Leiden Foundation, and other donors.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle release-Galveston Bay
Loggerhead Sea Turtle release-Galveston Bay

Closer to home, you have heard us talk about local work to protect sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico and in just this year alone, we have worked closely with our colleagues at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to treat and return 53 sea turtles back to the wild.

In East Africa, partners are working in Mozambique at the Niassa Lion Project and in Tanzania at the Ruaha Carnivore Project to make a difference for not only wildlife but all the local communities that need to live day-to-day with the potential conflict between large predators and their livestock. These projects are absolutely making a difference and seeing positive signs of change. These are just a very small sample of the great working going on around the world.


We should not need to go out and look for signs of hope and a future for wildlife but the media makes it difficult some times to see through the tragedies. The world’s population is going to continue to grow and with it the need for more and more natural resources and in all this, there are solutions for both wildlife and people. We just need a little hope and to support the people who have dedicated their lives to making a difference.

Go to https://www.houstonzoo.org/saving-wildlife/ for more on these and other programs.

Velasquez Elementary in Richmond, TX worked with the zoo to support Lion Fun Days in Mozambique
Velasquez Elementary in Richmond, TX worked with the zoo to support Lion Fun Days in Mozambique
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