Houston Zoo Staff are Saving Bats in Texas

Mexican free-tailed bat at Waugh Dr. bridge

With Halloween just a few days away there’s no better time to spend a few minutes learning a bit more about one of Halloween’s most recognizable symbols – the bat. This time of year we see their image plastered everywhere, but did you know these guys actually live in your backyard? It’s no secret that everything is bigger in Texas, and yes, that means even our bat diversity. In fact, Texas has the largest number of bat species in the country with a total of 33 recorded to date! As a creature of the night, the bat has often been associated with things that scare or strike fear into the hearts and minds of humans, like vampires, rabies, abandoned houses, and our beloved Halloween. Despite their somewhat frightful reputation, bats are actually one of our greatest allies acting as pollinators, seed dispersers, and even one of the primary consumers of flying insects like our honorary state bird – the mosquito! The Houston Zoo loves bats and wants to do everything we can to protect them in the wild. Recently, we were asked to assist with collecting valuable data that would inform future protection plans for Texas bats.

Over the last two years, Zoo staff have been using acoustic monitoring devices to record the calls of bats we have here on Zoo grounds. Following guidance from Bat Conservation International and Lincoln Park Zoo, the sound monitors are placed at a specific location, left to record for four nights, and then taken down.  All of the audio files that the monitors record are saved onto a SD card that can later be removed from the device and transferred to a computer where staff runs the recordings through a software called SonoBat.  This software analyzes the calls and helps staff to identify which bat species made an appearance on Zoo grounds each evening the recording device was running!

Zoo staff and Zoo crew installing bat monitoring devices

So far, five different species have been heard on zoo grounds:

  • Mexican Free-tail bat
  • Eastern red bat
  • Silver-haired bat
  • Northern yellow bat
  • Hoary bat

Collecting this data will inform researchers of which bats are living here in Houston, when they are active, and where they like to spend their time! Learning more about bats and the important role they play will help us to develop programs aimed at changing the public perception of bats and hopefully lead to the protection of many bat species and their habitats. Each time you visit the Zoo, you are helping to save species in the wild – by supporting programs like this one, you’ve just lent a helping hand to a species living right in your own backyard!

How You and the Zoo are Helping to Save Bats in Rwanda

When we last caught up with Houston Zoo partners Dr. Olivier Nsengimana and Marie Claire Dusabe, the Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association (RWCA) had just started a new project to help save straw-colored fruit bats in Rwanda! As people all around the globe celebrate bat appreciation month and we prepare for Dr. Olivier’s visit to Houston at the end of this week, it seemed like the perfect time to share some exciting updates from the field.

Marie Claire, Bat Project Coordinator for RWCA, and her team have been hard at work trying to establish the important role that the African straw-colored fruit bat plays in Rwanda’s ecosystem. What is a straw-colored fruit bat, you ask? As you may have guessed, this species got its name from the yellowish or straw-colored fur on its body. It is also known as a mega-bat due to its large size – an individual bat can reach a length of 5-9 inches and can have up to a 2.5-foot-long wingspan! The Central African region, including Rwanda, is known to be home to about 60% of all Africa’s bat species, yet they are the least studied in comparison to other mammals – something the team at RWCA hopes to change.

Since February, the team has been travelling around Rwanda to 12 different locations to conduct monthly counts of straw-colored fruit bats. This data allows researchers to track changes to bat population numbers across the country, as well as make note of any major differences in the number of roosting sites (places where bats gather to rest) being utilized. Next year, the team will begin tagging select bats from each location with GPS units which will help them to better understand where bats go and what might cause movements from one area to the next.  Team members have also spent time collecting bat droppings from colonies of straw-colored fruit bats to gain a better understanding of the role bats play in keeping the forest healthy through seed dispersal. Additional studies on insectivorous bats to find out what insects they are eating will also help the team demonstrate to communities just how beneficial bats can be, whether they are acting as accidental pollinators or controls for mosquitoes and agricultural pests.

While the data collection is invaluable to the project, community outreach is equally as important when it comes to saving these bats, which is why the team has been working with schools and community groups living in close proximity to bat colonies. 489 primary students participated in an RWCA workshop, spending time learning about the life, role, and importance of bats, and each class was given a copy of a “Bats of Rwanda” comic book. Students and community members were also asked to complete a short questionnaire which would allow the team to see people’s current perception of bats and whether or not they believe the species should be protected. Project support groups made up of locals have also been put in place. Participants will work with researchers to monitor bat colonies and perform basic data collection as well as protect any existing colonies from illegal activities.

Projects like this one take a great deal of dedication and collaboration and we are proud to support RWCA’s efforts to protect a species that is often feared and misunderstood. You can help us support this important wildlife saving work by visiting our colony of fruit bats on your next visit to the Zoo. See you soon!

Celebrate World Gorilla Day by Recycling Your Old Cell Phone!

It’s no secret that gorillas are one of the most loved and recognizable species of our time. They are known for their unparalleled size and strength, as well as their striking resemblance to humans. Unfortunately, they are also world-renowned due to their struggle for survival in our constantly developing world. All of these reasons and more prompted the creation of World Gorilla Day back in 2016. This day is meant not only to celebrate this incredible species, but to encourage people around the globe to take action to save the mighty gorilla.

How can you save a species that lives on the other side of the globe you ask? The answer, as it turns out, fits in the palm of your hand. Cell phones contain a material called tantalum that is mined in areas where gorillas live. The over use of such a resource comes at a price – wildlife habitats and natural landscapes like those that the gorillas call home are altered, sometimes beyond repair. However, if we reuse and recycle small electronics like our cell phones, we can decrease the amount of mining that takes place in these vital habitats!

Pretty simple right? To contribute to saving gorillas all you have to do is dig those old cell phones out of the bottom of your drawer and recycle them! I know what you’re thinking – “that’s great and I want to help, but where in the world do I bring my old phone?” To the Zoo of course! Our electronics recycling box lives on Zoo grounds year-round, right by the guest services office near the front entrance. So, not only do you save wildlife through your admission to the Zoo, but you take it a step further each time you bring an old handheld electronic device with you to recycle!

If you’re feeling extra inspired, consider getting your school or organization signed up for the next Action for Apes Challenge. The Action for Apes challenge is an annual contest hosted by the Houston Zoo to see which team can recycle the most handheld electronics by the end of APE-ril. Just last year the challenge yielded a total of 1,977 handheld electronic devices – that’s 1,977 actions to help save animals in the wild! The Houston Zoo has been protecting gorillas in the wild for the past 10 years by providing training, funding and resources for three gorilla conservation projects in Central Africa-–Gorilla Doctors, Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE), and Conservation Heritage-Turambe–and is home to a renowned gorilla habitat.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums is celebrating World Gorilla Day this year by launching a global, mobile phone recycling challenge, Gorillas on the Line…Answer the Call, based on the Houston Zoo’s very own Action for Apes Challenge. This will reach zoos and aquariums across the nation and the world to engage thousands of students, schools, community organizations and businesses to answer this important call: to help save gorillas in the wild.

Texans Helping Texans: Whooping Crane Population Count is Rising

Have you ever seen a whooping crane up close? If you haven’t, you will have the opportunity to do so soon with the Zoo’s new Texas Wetlands exhibit opening in the heart of the zoo! Standing at nearly 5 feet tall, with a 7-foot wingspan and bright crimson red accents on the top of their head, the whooping crane is hard to overlook. In fact, a history of human fascination with whooping cranes has been both a gift and a curse for this remarkable species. In the 1800s the whooping cranes’ beautiful feathers were used as fashionable additions to clothing, and rare eggs were sold to collectors willing to pay top dollar. The whooping crane saw its numbers drop to just 15 in the early 1940s, which led to the implementation of land protection efforts and public education initiatives geared toward saving this beloved bird. Decades later, whooping cranes are loved not for their feathers, but for their courtship dances and their annual migration to Port Aransas, Texas – the only place where you can see the world’s last naturally-occurring population of whooping cranes.

Thanks to zoo-goers like you, we have been able to support the International Crane Foundation’s (ICF) efforts to increase the number of whooping cranes in the wild, and we are excited to report that their numbers are on the rise! Surveys conducted over the 2017-2018 winter season concluded that the number of wild whooping cranes has increased to 505, up from 431 the previous year. Its been a long journey for our feathered friends, and while things are looking up, we still have a long way to go. The Houston Zoo recently teamed up with the ICF’s Texas office and established a Whooping Crane Outreach Coordinator position that will be funded by the Zoo. This individual will form partnerships that include involving hunters, landowners and other members of the community in monitoring and keeping watch over the whooping cranes in their areas.

We are so proud to be involved in this work to help save this unique community of Texans, and thanks to your continued support, this native species has an even better chance for a bright future. For the 11th annual Wildlife Conservation Gala at the Houston Zoo, we’re shining a spotlight on the species and habitats of the Lone Star State! We’ll come together as Texans to raise the funds our Zoo needs to keep saving Texas wildlife like the whooping crane.

Educators looking for a fun way to share information on these wildlife saving efforts with your students are encouraged to join us at our next Educators Night Out to participate in hands-on STEM activities that cover whooping cranes and other Texas wildlife.

Saving Elephants at the Zoo and Around the Globe

Back in May, many of you had the opportunity to meet Houston Zoo Conservation Field Staff member Dr. Nurzhafarina (Farina) Othman. Farina is a Malaysian scientist that studies Bornean elephants, both as a Research Associate at Danau Girang Field Centre and Director of her own project, Seratu Aatai. As we gear up for Elephant Appreciation Day this Saturday, September 22nd, we wanted to share what Farina has been up to since returning home from her visit to Houston!

Most recently, Farina has launched an UmbrElephant Campaign. What is an umbrelephant you ask? To put it simply, it is a beautifully designed umbrella that showcases an image of a Bornean elephant along with the phrase “Spare a thought for the gentle giant”. But don’t be fooled, this campaign’s purpose extends far beyond creating a fashionable accessory. The idea for the umbrelephant emerged from the realization that many people do not understand the behavior of elephants in the wild, which leads to fear and a lack of appreciation for the species. This campaign hopes to change that, by building pride among Malaysians and empowering them to protect the Bornean elephants who share their home. The umbrellas act as a tool, that not only help to raise money for Bornean elephant conservation but to help spread the word that elephants are something to love, not fear.

The first program under this campaign was a celebration of World Elephant Day, organized by Project Seratu Aatai and the Sabah Wildlife Department. The event, attended by students and guests to Lok Kawi Wildlife Park, started with educational talk by Farina, followed by an elephant toy making session and cleaning up the children’s zoo by the students. On the 27th of August, the UmbrElephant Campaign was launched by The Minister of Tourism, Culture and Environment of Sabah in Kota Kinabalu, YB Christina Liew. She is strongly supportive of these wildlife saving efforts and proud that there are now more Malaysians taking part in conservation work. In addition to the launch, an agreement was reached between Sabah Wildlife Department and Genting Plantations Berhad that will result in the creation of a 450 acre corridor connecting two protected areas making it easier for elephants to travel within their home range! This project is the outcome of a pioneering partnership between the Sabah State Government, Houston Zoo partner organization HUTAN, the Sukau community, and Genting Plantation Berhad. A big win for elephant conservation, this agreement received attention in both local and national newspapers. Farina hopes that as the campaign continues to grow it will give the people of Sabah the opportunity to express their concerns, interests, and passions to help Bornean elephant conservation using their own ideas, skills, and talent.

Back here in Houston, Elephant Encounters give you the opportunity to learn more about the Houston Zoo’s support efforts of elephant conservation in Borneo! With the Houston Zoo’s support, the population of elephants in Borneo has increased from 100 to 200 wild individuals. During the encounter, you will get to immerse yourself in the daily lives of our elephant Zookeepers and the magnificent animals they care for as well as discover different aspects of the elephants’ daily lives, like diets, care, training and more. We invite you to join us on one of these exclusive tours, and remember, when you see elephants at the Zoo, you support efforts to save them in the wild!

Save Wildlife on Your Next Vacation with the Houston Zoo

It’s no secret – everyone loves a good vacation. Whether it’s an action packed adventure or a time for leisure and relaxation, travel gives us the opportunity to escape the day to day routine and reconnect with the world, animals and people around us. As it turns out, your next vacation could do even more – on expeditions with the Zoo you can save wildlife!

One of the biggest challenges faced globally when it comes to saving species is being able to showcase the true value of wildlife to a country’s government and top decision makers. Typically, countries have wealth that is directly tied up in natural resources like forests, minerals, and land that could be used for agricultural purposes. Using, and in many cases, the over use of these resources comes at a price – wildlife habitats and natural landscapes are altered, sometimes beyond repair. So, people working to protect species are presented with a challenge – they must be able to demonstrate that an animal like the gorilla is just as, if not more valuable long-term, than the precious minerals that can be extracted from their habitat. This is where a specific type of travel comes into the equation – ecotourism. Tourism targeted at a specific species like gorillas can be carefully tracked to prove how much money the species can make for the country. Tourist dollars spent on transportation, lodging, food, and entertainment is accounted for and credited to the gorillas. Wildlife-focused tourism provides evidence to governments that it is more profitable to have thriving wildlife populations than to participate in practices that harm wild places. Perhaps most importantly, ecotourism provides an opportunity for a long-term and sustainable economy. But what’s in it for you, you ask?

The Houston Zoo’s travel program offers “behind the scenes” experiences to see wildlife through the eyes of researchers and conservationists working in the wild to protect the counterparts of the animals we have here at the Zoo. What better way to see the heart of Africa than to sit beside gorillas foraging through thick vegetation and hear heroic tales from Gorilla Doctors, a team of local veterinarians that risk their lives to provide medical care for wild gorillas. All of our expeditions are guided by local wildlife experts and experienced zoo staff, guarantying our travelers a once in a lifetime wildlife experience and the opportunity to witness the work the Zoo is assisting with to protect animals in the wild.

When you join the Zoo to see wildlife, right here in Houston or around the globe, you are helping to save species from extinction. A portion of every admission, membership, event ticket, food item, or gift purchased at the Zoo goes to wildlife saving efforts around the globe. So please, join us on this important mission – see them, save them.

Saving Endangered Primates: How YOU are Helping the Cotton-top Tamarin

With their outrageous hairdos, there’s no question that in the primate kingdom the cotton-top tamarins are punk rock royalty. If you need more proof, just check out their scientific name Saguinus oedipus…it doesn’t get more hard core than that! If you’ve had a chance to visit these guys on a past visit to the Zoo, you’ll know that despite their large personalities they’re actually quite small – if it weren’t for their hair, you might mistake them for a squirrel. So how is it that such a small primate has earned itself a large enough reputation to have August 15th declared as Day of the Cotton-Top Tamarin?

Because they need our help. Cotton-top tamarins are one of the most endangered primates in the world due to deforestation and the pet trade. Luckily, our partners at Proyecto Tití in Colombia are working hard to make sure that this unique species can thrive in the wild for years to come. Proyecto Tití is committed to working with local communities to develop economic alternatives that assist in the protection of Colombia’s natural environment.  Some of their strategies to achieve this goal are as unique as the tamarin itself. Local women learn how to transform discarded plastic bags into colorfully designed, hand-knit mochilas (tote bags), which are then sold in an effort to support the community that is protecting cotton-top tamarins. Discarded plastic is also recycled and used to create fence posts farmers can use on their property. These fence posts last longer than wooden posts, and they reduce the need for wood to be harvested from the forests. More trees = more habitat for the tamarins!

There are plenty of reasons to love cotton-top tamarins, and as a result many end up in the illegal pet trade, eventually winding up in people’s homes. In many Colombian communities there is no distinction made between domestic and exotic wildlife, and many individuals do not understand how keeping a primate as a pet can be extremely harmful to the survival of the species. In 2017, the Houston Zoo supported 1,800 students that live around wild cotton-tops in Colombia to participate in education programs that focused on reducing the desire to keep cotton-top tamarins as pets. Students got to visit the forest and see cotton-top tamarins in their natural habitat. Proyecto Tití is working to reduce the number of native wildlife that are kept as pets in rural communities by encouraging families to adopt dogs and cats instead of cotton-top tamarins! By offering veterinary care and training classes, the team is helping communities bond with domestic animals reducing their desire to have wildlife as pets.

Our partners know better than anyone that there is no one size fits all solution when it comes to saving wildlife, and saving a unique species often requires unique solutions. We are inspired by the creative minds that are hard at work protecting the cotton-top tamarin, and thankful to each and every one of you that help save this species by purchasing a ticket to the Zoo.

Houston Zoo Crew Teens Travel to Galapagos to Work Alongside Wildlife Warrior Lady Márquez

Last month, the Houston Zoo welcomed a special guest all the way from Galapagos. Lady Márquez, from our partners at Ecology Project International (EPI) came to visit us here in Houston after being chosen by the Houston Zoo admissions team as a 2017 Wildlife Warrior Award recipient. This award recognizes exceptional individuals from our wildlife conservation partner programs and provides wildlife warriors with an experience that will increase their abilities/knowledge.

Born and raised in the Galapagos Islands, Lady is an EPI alumni, and now acts as their Outreach Program Coordinator. In this role, she works to empower local teens to be future conservation leaders. Driven by her passion to inspire others to save wildlife, Lady helped to create an ecology club which brings together more than 20 local teens on a weekly basis to participate in various conservation activities like: wildlife documentary screenings, beach clean ups, bird mortality awareness campaigns, ecological monitoring, and many other citizen science based programs. Lady spent several days in Houston working with our conservation education team exchanging ideas and learning more about how our programs like Zoo Crew and Camp Zoofari inspire the next generation of Houstonians to become wildlife saving heroes.

This past weekend, a select group of 16 Houston Zoo Crew teens embarked on an exciting journey to visit Lady and see first hand how she and teens in the Galapagos are working to save wildlife. Today, Houston Zoo teens met up with Galapagos teens that are part of the conservation ecology club called Mola Mola. The Mola Mola club showed the Houston Zoo teens how they survey the beaches of Tortuga Bay for marine debris and explained how they monitor sea turtle nests. In 2016, this project led to the protection of 53 green sea turtle nests, and documented sightings of 1,940 hatchlings! In collaboration with the Galapagos National Park and Charles Darwin Foundation, the eco club was also successful in creating awareness on nest protection among visitors to Tortuga Bay, a public beach that also acts as a nesting ground for the turtle species.

The Zoo has provided training, scholarships, and support for these future Galapagos conservation leaders and their instructors over the past 5 years. Throughout the rest of the week, Zoo Crew teens will participate in giant Galapagos tortoise monitoring research, visit the Charles Darwin Research Center, and much more! To learn more about our teen programs, click here.

Houston Zoo’s New Veterinary Clinic Provides Care for Rescued Sea Turtles

Along the Gulf of Mexico, we all know summertime is actually spelled BEACH. Texans from all around flock to the sandy shores during the hottest months of the year in search of relaxation and relief from the heat. As it turns out, we aren’t the only ones making a beeline for the shore! April marks the beginning of nesting season for sea turtles along the Gulf Coast, which means the number of Kemp’s ridley and green sea turtles making use of our beaches skyrockets. Unfortunately, a trip to the beach for our endangered friends may not always be smooth sailing as plastic pollution, fishing equipment, and natural predators make formidable opponents – but that’s where our veterinary clinic, clinic team and partners at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) come in!

Our vet clinic team provided medical support for a number of sea turtles in our clinic this summer. Two sea turtles, a large loggerhead and a smaller Kemp’s Ridley were accidentally caught by fishermen at Seawolf Park and 61st Street Pier. Two more Kemp’s ridleys were found entangled in plastic debris – one was found on the beach connected to a trashcan lid by a shoelace, and the other was tangled up in balloons and ribbons along with other trash. A handful of sea turtles were also stranded along our shoreline as a result of the rotating ocean currents that gifted us with unusually clear water over Memorial Day weekend.

While the summer can seem like a perilous time for sea turtles, it can also mark the start of a second chance at life in the wild. At the end of May, our partners at NOAA conducted a public release of 11 rescued sea turtles on Stewart Beach in Galveston, followed by a private release of an additional 21 green sea turtles that eagerly ventured off into Christmas Bay. Some of these lucky turtles are among the ~80 sea turtles that receive medical care from the Houston Zoo every year. Thanks to your support, we are able to not only provide medical care for sea turtles, but also participate in monthly beach cleanups that will help to ensure this species can continue to call Texas home for many years to come.

Every Monday, NOAA biologists and a Houston Zoo staff member drive over 70 miles of beach from Bolivar to Surfside searching for signs of sea turtles and responding to calls reporting sea turtles in need of help. Any turtles collected by NOAA are driven here to the Zoo, where our veterinary team take xrays, administers medications, performs hook extractions, and anything else the turtle may need in the Zoo’s new veterinary clinic.

For the 11th annual Wildlife Conservation Gala at the Houston Zoo, we’re shining a spotlight on the species and habitats of the Lone Star State! We’ll come together as Texans to raise the funds our Zoo needs to keep saving Texas wildlife like sea turtles. To learn more about how you can save sea turtles, click here.

Celebrating Our Pride of Lion Protectors on World Lion Day

Each time you visit Hasani, you are helping to save lions in Africa!

In honor of world lion day, we are shedding light on how your visit to the Zoo is saving lions in Africa! Each time you come to visit Hasani and our lovely lionesses, a portion of your admission ticket goes towards supporting organizations like Pride Lion Conservation Alliance (PRIDE), a Houston Zoo conservation partner. In fact, just by visiting the Zoo, you are helping to protect 20% of the lion population in Africa. PRIDE was created on the idea that we can do more to save lions in the wild by working together on a landscape level. Founded by six women with over 100 years of collective lion conservation experience, PRIDE is a collaborative effort that works across different African countries to save more lions and to inspire and improve future protection work. Located in Kenya, Lion Guardians is a member of PRIDE that works to save lions by recruiting young Maasai warriors and providing them with the skills necessary to transition from lion killers to lion protectors.

Lion Guardians are taught how to read, write, and speak in Swahili.

The opportunity to join the Lion Guardians team can be a life-changing experience for young Maasai warriors that have had no previous exposure to a formal education. Guardians are taught how to read, write, and communicate in Swahili, and are trained in wildlife management and conflict mitigation techniques. After completing their training, Lion Guardians are able to monitor lion movements, warn pastoralists when lions are in the area, recover lost livestock, reinforce protective fencing, and intervene to stop lion hunting parties. By protecting the livestock local communities depend on, Lion Guardians build tolerance among locals for neighboring lions and other carnivores. This conservation model can be adapted to fit the needs of many cultures and wildlife species, which has given Lion Guardians the ability to expand outside of Kenya, into Tanzania and beyond.

Lion Guardian Luke is a Houston Zoo Wildlife Warrior. Photo by: Philip J. Briggs

Since 2007, this unique approach has helped to reduce lion killing by more than 90 percent! The team has documented a tripling of the lion population in the non-protected areas of the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem and provided passage between the Ngorongoro and Serengeti lion populations in Tanzania. Hard work and dedication over the past year has resulted in an 80% reduction in hunting parties from previous years – an impressive feat given the high levels of human-wildlife conflict currently being experienced in and around project areas. In addition, 2017 resulted in the protection of 136 bomas (livestock enclosures), the recovery of 90% of lost or threatened livestock, and the prevention of 8 lion hunts.

We are continually blown away by the hard work and dedication our family at Lion Guardians and PRIDE put into saving lions in the wild. As part of our pride, each and every one of you are lion protectors too! World lion day may only happen once a year, but every day is a good day to share your love of these big cats. So go ahead, let out a roar, and tell everyone you know how you are saving lions in Africa!

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