Protecting the Zoo's Chimpanzee Counterparts in the Wild!

The Houston Zoo’s conservation purpose is to further the Houston Zoo’s mission of “fostering appreciation, knowledge, and care for the natural world” by connecting the public to our efforts to save species in the wild.  Through our wildlife conservation projects and partnerships, which work to conserve the wild counterparts of our ambassador animals at the zoo, we will inspire all people to respect value and conserve wildlife and wild places.

Willie-the youngest chimpanzee at the Houston Zoo is an ambassador for chimpanzees in the wild which are facing a number of threats to their overall population.

Many of you who have visited the Houston Zoo may have stopped and watched our playful chimpanzee troop in the African Forest exhibit. With 10 chimpanzees, it is no surprise that you could park yourself in the air-conditioned viewing building and observe these fascinating animals for hours! Chimpanzees are social, intelligent, and incredibly charismatic animals. The chimpanzees at the Houston Zoo are cared for by a talented group of staff-their every need is looked after and taken care of by professionals. The Zoo’s chimps are ambassadors for their wild counterparts, which are struggling with a number of issues. The Houston Zoo has a deep appreciation and admiration for chimpanzees and we want to do everything we can to protect these charismatic animals in the wild.

The Houston Zoo supports chimpanzee conservation throughout Africa, including the country of Senegal where very little is known about the chimpanzee population. To better conserve these animals in the wild it is important for us to support ongoing research about chimpanzees and also community efforts to improve the livelihoods of the people who live alongside these animals. Houston Zoo staff will travel to Senegal during the month of June to assist in the development of community programs, mainly education and awareness programs, to improve the day-to-day lives of communities living next to chimpanzees and inspire all generations to conserve the amazing wildlife in their backyard.

Children in Senegal have fun while learning about wildlife! Photo courtesy of Faleme Chimpanzee Conservation.

Although communication will be sporadic due to working in rural areas with little to no access to internet and electricity, we will be checking back with our Houston community as often as we can to provide updates on the progress of this program in Senegal. Thanks to you-our Houston Zoo-goers, we can provide  these vital conservation benefits to wildlife and communities here in Texas and around the world.

Did you know that every time you purchase a ticket to come to the zoo you help animals in the wild?  A portion of your admission ticket goes to efforts to save animals from extinction.  The Houston Zoo deeply cares for the animals we house on Zoo grounds and seeks to support and participate in the best conservation efforts to save them in the wild.     We currently support over 20 conservation projects in over 10 different countries.  Our Zoo’s conservation department serves the zoo by selecting, monitoring and evaluating each program to guarantee the effectiveness and long-term success. To learn more about and help us with our conservation efforts, please visit our website. To keep up-to-date on wildlife conservation in the field, make sure to follow our Houston Zoo blogs and Facebook pages!

West African chimpanzees visit caves to cool off. This photo was taken with a camera trap setup by the Faleme Chimpanzee Conservation program.

‘Spotlight on Species’ Chimpanzee

Chimpanzees are very intelligent and incredibly resourceful when in comes to creating ways to obtain their food.  Visitors to the Houston Zoo can see an example of this creativity on a daily basis during the 12:30 keeper chat. The chimpanzee exhibit has its very own termite mound replica and guests can watch the chimpanzees modify and use branches to retrieve delicious treats such as yogurt, bananas, or juice .

Lucy fishing at replica termite mound.

Chimpanzees in the wild exhibit a similar behavior by modifying branches to fish for termites. Other examples of tool use by chimpanzees in the wild include modifying branches into spears for hunting small mammals, using rocks to crack nuts, wadding leaves as sponges to soak up water, and bunching leaves and branches to make comfortable nests to sleep in at night.

When visiting the Houston Zoo chimpanzee exhibit, take a second to watch the different techniques the chimpanzees use to ‘fish’ for their treats in the termite mound.  Lucy’s favorite spot is the top of the termite mound. This is prime real estate when it is time to ‘fish.’ It is also a great spot for her to observe guests of the zoo and all their entertaining antics. She usually chews on the end of her branch in order to make it better able to soak up liquids or makes it flatter so that it can scoop more treats out of the tubes.



Willie, the juvenile, has his own unique technique. Instead of modifying his own branch, he usually tries to steal someone else’s already modified tool. If he doesn’t steal the tool, he may sit just next to another chimpanzee and take their delicious treat off the end of their branch before they get a chance to enjoy it.




Let us know your suggestions for what tasty treat to put in the chimpanzees’ termite mound, then stop by on May 25-27 for a ‘Spotlight on Species’ focusing on Chimpanzees to see what they are fishing for that day. The ‘Spotlight on Species’ will be from 10am-3pm and there will be many fun and educational activities to help visitors learn about chimpanzees. You can bring in old cell phones for recycling in exchange for a chimpanzee conservation bracelet. Meet the primate keepers who care for the Houston Zoo’s chimpanzees at 12:30 and 2:30 during a keeper chat.

KIDS CAN! Education Program in Senegal

The Houston Zoo works hard to take care of the animals you see when you enter our gates as well as our animal’s counterparts in the wild. The Conservation Department at the Houston Zoo facilitates this by communicating with conservation partners in the field, both in Texas and around the globe. We discuss their needs with them and see how the Zoo can help. Sometimes a project needs education assistance, and that’s definitely something we can help with!

The Houston Zoo teamed up with Falémé Chimpanzee Conservation (FCC) and Conservation Fusion (CF) to assist in the development of  a community-based education program in 4 villages in southeastern Senegal. Southeastern Senegal is a very interesting place-it is the home to the endangered West African chimpanzees, who live in the savanna, cool off in pools of water, and take shade in caves!

West African chimps spending some time in caves in Senegal! Camera trap photo courtesy of Faleme Chimpanzee Conservation.

Many times, conservation projects begin with research on a species. The Falémé Chimpanzee Conservation program works to study the West African chimpanzees in southeastern Senegal using camera traps. Although research is important in conservation efforts, it alone will not save a species. FCC began expanding on their chimpanzee research efforts by working collaboratively with local communities and assessing the needs of the villages and the people that reside next to the savanna chimpanzees. These discussions led to the implementation of an education program in several villages near Kédougou in the bottom right hand corner of the map below.

Map of Senegal, courtesy of

Education is important in community-based conservation efforts. It can change attitudes towards wildlife and habitats, provide jobs, instill a sense of pride among a community, empower local people with new knowledge, skills, and confidence and secure opportunities for students to continue their education.

A young boy participating in the KIDS CAN program learns how to observe wildlife, just like researchers do! Photo courtesy of FCC.

The “KIDS CAN-Ka wulo mara” program means “Kids Can-Protect the Forest” in their native language, Malinke. Kids are vital in securing a future for the Senegal savanna habitat where they live, and the animals they share their home with (which includes lions, chimpanzees, leopards, and hyenas). By having fun while learning about wildlife, kids become inspired to conserve what’s around them.

Learning about the importance of chimpanzees in seed dispersal. Photo courtesy of Faleme Chimpanzee Conservation.

We are excited about continuing to assist in the KIDS CAN education program in Senegal, so check back with us for more updates throughout the summer!

Double Point Days in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop

How can you get DOUBLE points in the Swap Shop?  We are again offering double points for Nature Journals on the animals in the spotlight at the Houston Zoo. 


Nature Journals can be as simple as information on sheets of notebook paper.  They can be as detailed and elaborate as you like – the only limit is your imagination.  But remember, the more work you put into your journal, the more points you will get.  So, do some research and get ready for double points!  Please note that in order to get double points, the journal must be on the animal or animals in the spotlight and brought in the day of the event.

The upcoming Spotlight on the Species are as follows:

April 20 – Bear Awareness Day

May 17 – Endangered Species Day

May 25 – Chimpanzee Spotlight on the Species      

Ring-tailed Lemur

August 31 – Lemur Spotlight on the Species

Need more information on the Naturally Wild Swap Shop?  Click here.

The Year in Blogs

I do not even know where to start to make sense of some of our blog posts in 2012, all written to try and bring your attention to both the successes and issues facing our environment. I really have no idea what may or may not have caught your attention. No matter how often our IT and web team send me graphs and charts showing reader algorithms, viral feeds (unrelated to a blog on emerging infectious diseases), hits and views – it is beyond my grasp of the new world we live in. Remember, I have a smart phone and do recall saying it was making us all a little dumber, me especially.

So a quick look back at MacGyver, Cheddar Bacon and Peppermint Shakes, Chicken Pants and the fact that  Groundhogs are not the Nostradamus of the rodent world as they can barely remember which drawer they left their pants in, let alone predict the changing of the seasons.

These were all very important topics, near and dear to my heart from pollinators to climate change and even Chicken Pants which I have no idea what I was thinking of at the time that spurred that thought process. But the point is simply this – the world is a messy place, our role in the zoo is to focus on wildlife and so most of what you see and read here is about the environment and the people who work tirelessly to protect wildlife and their habitats around the clock.

We can do more to help our partners and the environment and it is so simple it hurts my head to think about it.

Have 30 seconds to spare? Try this: Recycle a cell phone – protect wildlife in Africa. Lets make this a friendly disease called the Responsible Consumer Syndrome. You can catch this syndrome by also understanding where the Palm Oil in your products originates – and protect Orangutans in Southeast Asia

The great plastic debate? Not really a debate – we are addicted to plastic shopping bags and water bottles. Do you think Krogers, Randalls, HEB and others realizes how much money they could save by not providing its customers millions of plastic bags every year which in turn would protect the environment and wildlife? Probably equal to the economy of a small country. Interesting someone thought enough of the water bottle issue to ban them from Grand Canyon National Park – I guess they think it is prettier than the other parks since it is the only one that bans plastic water bottles.

Who would have thought the National Park System would be following the lead of these countries  (mild disclaimer – these countries have banned plastic bags but they still drink water): Papua New Guinea, Germany, Kenya, South Korea, Belgium, Sweden, Bhutan, Botswana and a handful of others. You may recall I ranted about this on my  bestselling blog Doggie Doo’s and Doggie Dont’s (another disclaimer, my blogs are not for sale but I found a quarter after posting that one).

So for 2013 – we can do better. Smartphones and Smart tablets can inform us but cannot lead us to action – that is a human trait that we need to figure out how to enhance if we are going to continue to protect the worlds wildlife in the face of growing human populations and habitat loss. We have to care more to do more.

One thing I really do not care to learn more about is Poutine which my Canadian colleague tried to poison me with this year. I like my french fries with ketchup thank you, not brown gravy and curd cheese. But what we want you to learn more about are all are wonderful partners which can be found on our website or at a few of the links below:

Niassa Lion Project Mozambique, Cheetah Conservation Botswana, Hutan-Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation, Danau Girang Elephant Conservation, Painted Dog Conservation Zimbabwe, Gorilla Doctors, Education for Nature VietnamFaleme Chimpanzee Conservation Senegal, Coastal Prairie Partnership, Lowland Tapir Project Brazil, El Valle Amphibian Conservation Panama, Jane Goodall Institute, International Rhino Foundation, Art of Conservation Rwanda, NOAA’s Sea Turtle Program, USFWS, Texas Parks and Wildlife, Texas State University, National Marine Fisheries Service, Human Wildlife Conflict Collaboration, Terra Incognita EcotoursWildlife Conservation Network, Galapagos Tortoise Program, Natural Habitat Adventures, and a Thank You to all of our zoo staff, zoo members and supporters including Land Rover UAE, Anadarko, Chevron, numerous private foundations, individuals and followers.

Freeze Frame

Last week we posted an image of a monkey, a long-tailed macaque, in Borneo using a camera trap of one our partners to check his teeth before going to his dentist. I am sure monkeys have dentists so just humour me. I then heard that this monkey had gone viral and immediately panicked thinking “oh great, another emergining zoonotic disease to plague humans” but later found out they just meant social media viral as this little photo was seen on ABC, London papers, across the US and NBC nightly news:

Macaque saying "hello to the ladies"

I think the word camera trap is confusing for some so basically it is a motion sensor camera used by researchers and hunters to gather data on wildlife. Our colleagues at Danau Girang Field Centre in Sabah, Borneo use them to look at both the types of and quantity of carnivores along the Kinabatangan River. Further south at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve, we support the same group looking at populations of Banteng, an endangered species of wild cow -yes – I said wild cow and endangered species in the same sentence.

Banteng cow with males in background
Normally wildife ignore these camers although the primates like to see their reflection in the small camera lens. Sometimes they pose for a photo whereas elephants may not be as happy with their profile and tear the camera off the tree, testing the patience (these are fairly expensive pieces of equipment) of researchers. Others, like this curious chimpanzee from the Faleme Chimpanzee Conservation Project in Senegal, well, I am just not sure what he was thinking:
There is so much more going on out in the world of animals then we ever realize. They go about their day to day business of eating, sleeping, eating some more, trying not to get eaten, and then sleeping again. But in between that busy schedule, these “not so hidden” cameras are catching wonderful photos of their personalities, even if the photo is not so clear like this Civet carrying her cub in her mouth courtesy of Danau Girang Field Centre.
Civet and baby - look in her mouth. No, she is not eating it, she is carrying it.
So next time you see a wacky animal photo, we may not know what they are thinking – ok maybe they are thinking “I will smash you camera and your glass eye!” like this elephant below, but they all have personalities and clearly they have appointments to keep just like the rest of us.

Conservation Icons

I was looking up icons the other day and the first definition I stumbled across was ‘a religious work of art”. This concerned me greatly because I think I called Jane Goodall a conservation icon once and I hope she did not think I was comparing her to an oil painting. That would not bode well for our next visit.

Jane Goodall visiting the Houston Zoo in 2010

Then I found what I was looking for: “Somebody or something widely and uncritically admired”. Perfect. Although I was not necessarily looking for a someone. Jane Goodall is iconic in the field of wildlife conservation there is no doubt and there are many of us that admire the likes of David Attenborough and many others but I have been thinking over the past week that maybe the world’s most famous Giant Tortoise fits the definition.

Lonesome George

People are drawn to stories and  personalities and sometimes, those wildlife personalities take on a following all their own. Dian Fossey worked with Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda, it was Digit we most remembered. Jane Goodall? It is David Greybeard. Galapagos Tortioise – it is definately Lonesome George. So what are we missing in conservation when we fail to give an individual animal a name (thus anthropomorphising them) and making them the “face” of their species? Anthropomorphising of course is attributing human charecteristcs or behavior to an animal. We are always wary of attributing human behavior or likeness to an animal and although giving them a familiar name is not the same, it is unfortunately sometimes lumped together. I have never had a pet dog or cat (or rodent) by the way that did not have a name and I am sure most of these were not human.

So if I want to tell a story about wildlife, make you want to follow that species, then why not let you identify with an individual that you could have an emotional attachment to and in turn care more about and want to act on it’s behalf? Many Houston Zoo animals have names. Our members know Jonathan the Lion, Baylor the Elephant, Smaug the Komodo Dragon. And they are all fan favorites.

Houston Zoo's very own Jonathan the Lion

These animals make people care. Wildlife outside our doors do not have a chance if we do not care. It is just that simple. This past weekend’s Okapi Crisis Relief event at the zoo, which unfortunately came about due to the terrible tragedy in the Democratic Republic of Congo, showed how much people cared. One email went out and members showed up on a drizzly 90degree+ day to say thank you to us for helping Okapi’s. Many came out simply for that reason and then went home to go shopping or to a movie but they cared enough to drive out here and spend a few minutes us.

When I was in Mozambique I finally got to meet (from 30+ yards away thankfully) Lions whose names I had heard the conservation staff at the Niassa Lion Project talk about and I was deeply saddened when we found mom Akomwana with her cub Akeela because I knew there were three cubs just a few months ago. And I cared when that mom and last cub walked away into the brush because I now worry I will not get to see them again in the future, as their, as with many other individuals and even species,  future is in jeopardy. I cared enough to become attached, and in doing so, will try to do more to help them.

Lion cub Akeela, Niassa Lion Project, Mozambique

I read a post about Lonesome Geoge that caught my attention on the Galapagos Conservancy website: The plight of Lonesome George and his species has catalyzed so much research in species recovery.  Lonesome George’s message ultimately must be a message of hope and of resolve.  We cannot and will not lose another species in Galapagos.  Our efforts will be directed at species enhancement, recovery, and restoration. What we do, we do for him and for all the creatures that inhabit this extraordinary place. This is an amazing statement, so much so that I borrowed their photo of Lonesome George (above), an individual whose story will be told for generations and for which many positive steps towards conservation of his islands will be made.

We will find ways to protect lions, gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants, tortoise, species in our backyard and everything in between but it will not be possible without everyone wanting to hear their stories and care for them on an individual level. Their messages are of hope and resolve, but they need our help to make a difference.


Learning how to use all this new technology is hard work!

Well, except if you are a chimpanzee or an orangutan at the Houston Zoo, then it can be tons of fun. As mentioned previously in Problem Solving with Apes, the orangutans and chimpanzees are using the iPad as a form of enrichment.

So how does a chimpanzee or orangutan use an iPad?

Kelly using iPad

For starters, the iPad is held by a keeper outside of the ape’s enclosure. Orangutans with their curious nature love to take things apart to see how they work. Rambunctious chimpanzees tend to use everything in their path when creating big noisy displays. Unfortunately, the iPad would not withstand either one of these situations. A protective case called an Otterbox is also used to ensure that the iPad is not damaged by the more enthusiastic apes.

Both the orangutans and chimpanzees are still able to touch and interact with the iPad. The choice to interact is completely up to the individual. They can walk away from the iPad when they choose and no food treats are given as a reward for interacting with the iPad. Playing with apps on the iPad is the treat! Most of our chimpanzees and orangutans love this new enrichment item and become very excited when they see the keeper approaching with it.

Mac playing the piano



To introduce the iPad, keepers started with just showing it to the apes. Videos were shown first as well as various storybooks. They are especially fond of videos featuring themselves or other apes! Keepers then began to demonstrate apps to them. As individuals showed interest in touching the screen and interacting with the iPad, keepers gave them the opportunity.

Cheyenne and Aurora fishing on the iPad






At this point, one of the most difficult challenges was discovered. The iPad reacts to an electrical current from the body. Touching with a fingernail does not work and as Cheyenne, an orangutan that is particularly good at problem solving, discovered neither did any of the amazing tools she created using branches, paper, or cardboard.





Some quickly figured out that the finger pad was the best option to use to work with the iPad. Others eventually caught on after observing the successful interactions of other apes. Lulu, an independent chimpanzee, invented her own way of interacting with the iPad using the back of her finger. This is particularly useful if you want to paint a large area of the iPad screen quickly. Lulu, who is one of the older mothers in the chimpanzee group, was also helpful in demonstrating how to use the iPad to other more hesitant chimpanzees.

Now that most of the chimpanzees and orangutans have figured out how to interact with the iPad, the next step is introducing them to a wide variety of apps. Stay posted for details on just how we pick out apps for them to use.


Problem Solving with Apes

Chimpanzees and orangutans, two great ape species, can be found at the Houston Zoo. These amazing animals are incredibly intelligent. In the wild, this intelligence is constantly being put to the test as they encounter novel situations on a daily basis. To deal with these novel situations as well as completing everyday tasks, apes have developed keen problem solving skills. They use tools such as branches or rocks to help them obtain difficult food items such as nuts or termites. They build complicated nests out of branches and leaves each night high up in the trees to help keep them safe as they sleep. They use leaves to shelter them from rain or to collect water to drink.

Indah painting on iPad

Great apes that live in zoos such as the orangutans and chimpanzees have a team of dedicated keepers that ensure that their basic necessities such as food, water, and safe shelter are met on a daily basis. However, a zoo keeper’s job also involves ensuring that the animal has the highest quality of life possible. So not only are keepers interested in meeting the animal’s basic needs but also in making sure that the animals are constantly being engaged and stimulated by their environment. This is an especially important challenge when working with great apes due to their intelligence. The devices and activities that keepers use to accomplish this goal are referred to as enrichment as they enrich the lives of the animals.

Apes can quickly figure out many enrichment devices and keepers constantly are faced with the problem of trying to come up with new ideas to capture their interest. The Houston Zoo primate department’s newest solution to this problem is ……. the iPad!

Sally creating a masterpiece with a musical app.


Now many of you may wonder, what do the orangutans and chimpanzees do with an iPad? The answer is … they play with apps, of course! The iPad screen is the perfect fit for orangutan and chimpanzee fingers. Its small size makes it very easy to move so keepers can introduce it to the chimpanzees in the training room, to the orangutans at the viewing window or at any of the many rooms found in the animals’ holding area. The quantity and variety of apps available make it easy to keep the device novel and interesting for both the orangutans and the chimpanzees. Stay posted for more updates on this new fun enrichment project with our orangutans and chimpanzees!



Wildlife Heroes is an awesome book, and we have the author coming to the Zoo!

Join us on May 19th and 20th for Wildlife Heroes weekend at the Houston Zoo.  On May 20th we welcome Jeff Flocken, co-author of Wildlife Heroes: 40 Leading Conservationists and the Animals they are Committed to Saving for a book-signing and presentations by zoo staff on the focus species of the book. Wildlife Heroes will be available for sale at the zoo on May 20th, quantities are limited!  Books are also available for  pre-order on the Houston Zoo website at: a dicounted price until May 17th.

My first heroes were animal people.  When I went to zoos my heroes were the zoo keepers and when I watched animal documentaries the researchers were my heroes.  We all need amazing people to inspire us and that is why the new book Wildlife Heroes is so wonderful. 

The book includes 40 people overcoming impossible odds to save endangered species all over the world.  If you are looking for real heroes for your children to look up to look now further! 

The unique stories in this book of local communities becoming involved in anti-poaching, education and research efforts for wildlife in their own back yard are immeasurably inspiring!  In one story a young boy, Thia grew up in Northern Vietnam watching his village hunt the very species he fights to save today.  His passion to help a unique species called the pangolin will warm your heart!
I have had the honor of meeting many of the heroes in this book (including the authors) over the years and they inspire me to move forward in my own wildlife conservation work.  These are real people making a real difference! 

This book introduces readers to pollinator and amphibian decline and other environment issues that continue to threaten our world.  But it also offers great messages of hope.  In the last chapter Jack Hannah suggests ways the reader can help, and the good news is that by purchasing the Wildlife Heroes book you are already helping- 100 % of the proceeds go to the projects featured in the book.  A win for everyone!

Hope to see you at the Houston Zoo for our Wildlife Heroes weekend May 19th and 20th!

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