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!

See Them, Save Them: Your Visit to the Zoo is Saving Black Bears in Texas

When you think of Texas wildlife, a few animals probably come to mind – armadillos, cougars, longhorns, rattlesnakes…maybe even the whooping crane. Chances are the American black bear wasn’t on your radar, but thanks to its gradual return to Texas it soon will be. Many years ago, four of the 16 subspecies of black bear once roamed the state of Texas. Unfortunately, as the lone star state grew in popularity with settlers throughout the 19th century, the number of black bears began to dwindle as a result of habitat loss and unregulated hunting of the species. By the beginning of the 20th century, seeing a black bear within state lines was considered extremely rare. Today, at least two subspecies of black bear are making their way back into Texas due in large part to the growing populations of black bears in the surrounding states of Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, but for those of us living outside of East Texas the black bear remains largely unheard of.

The recent opening of the Hamill Foundation’s Black Bear Exhibit at the Houston Zoo gives Houstonians the opportunity to see the bears up close and learn about what the Zoo is doing to protect them in the wild. The Zoo is participating in state protection planning through the Texas Black Bear Alliance. The alliance is focused on ensuring black bears return to their historic range in Texas by bringing together individuals, organizations, and state and federal government representatives to support the species’ recovery. Because black bears are still considered a rare species in the state, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department investigates each reported sighting in order to gain a better understanding of the number and rate at which black bears are returning to Texas. Having a clearer picture of the population size allows researchers to create wildlife management plans as well as offer educational outreach activities to community members living near black bear habitat.  In conjunction with these efforts the Zoo designed the Texas black bear reporting signs that are used all over the state.

Living outside of the black bears’ home range can make it tricky to know what actions you can take to protect this native Texan. Thankfully, small changes to your everyday routine can make a big difference. Bears need trees to live, so by using less paper or recycled-content paper products, fewer trees are cut down meaning you are contributing to saving black bears in the wild! Consider going paperless for billing or even when purchasing tickets for your next visit to the Zoo. Just last year the Houston Zoo saved 735 mature trees by committing to better paper choices and using digital documents! And remember, every time you visit the Zoo, you’re helping to save black bears like our very own Belle and Willow in the wild. See them, Save them – its as simple as that.

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 American black bear.

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.

Save Rhinos at Member Morning this Saturday!

What if I were to tell you that unicorns – those magical, mystical creatures from fairy tales actually exist? It may not be identical to the image you have in your head, but it is as real as you and me, and you can see it here at the Zoo! Affectionately known as the “chubby unicorn”, rhinos are a hint of magic in our ordinary world, and, like all precious things, rhinos need protection, both at the Zoo and in the wild.

In Namibia, our partners at IRDNC (Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation) have been working to save rhinos since the mid-1990s, when community conservation became an official component of government policy. By teaming up with local community leaders, IRDNC has been able to take action to stop widespread poaching of wildlife, including the black rhino. This conservation project employs local people to guard wild rhinos and creates incentive programs that provide support for local villages that protect rhino populations. To put it simply, if local people see a direct benefit from having rhinos in the area, they will protect them, and the more eyes watching over the rhinos, the safer they are! The Houston Zoo supports IRDNC’s efforts by providing funding for communication and outreach events, as well as day to day Rhino Ranger operations, including salaries and equipment maintenance which makes it possible for the rangers to effectively monitor rhino populations. In 2017, the team set a baseline for rhino sightings and are working hard to see that number increase by 10% this year through their patrol work.

If you have ever wondered what it was like to be a rhino ranger, just ask our rhino keepers here at the Zoo. While they may not be monitoring and protecting rhinos in the wild, they are constantly monitoring the health and behaviors of rhinos at the Zoo – collecting information that can help to inform work being done to save this species around the globe.  In many ways, their jobs mirror one another, and ultimately boil down to a common goal – saving rhinos! The most important part of a rhino keeper’s job here at the Zoo is caring for our rhino trio who act as ambassadors for their wild counterparts. George, Indy, and Mumbles play a very special role as they get to connect with each and every one of our guests and show us all just how magical and truly unique they are. By visiting our rhinos you are supporting this species in the wild through the purchase of your admission ticket, and we hope an encounter with these guys inspires you to continue to save wildlife even after you leave the Zoo.

To learn more about how you are saving rhinos in the wild, find out all about our rhino trio, and meet the keepers who care for these rhinos each day, make sure to join us on Saturday September 1st for a member morning featuring, you guessed it, RHINOS! If you aren’t able to join us this weekend, keep an eye out on the schedule for our upcoming Rhino Spotlight on Species event on September 30th. After all, when you see them, you save them. See you at the Zoo!

Saving Orangutans, One Bridge at a Time

Having recently celebrated world orangutan day, we wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on the work our partners at Hutan Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Project (KOCP) have done, and continue to do, in order to save one of the world’s most endangered apes from extinction. KOCP’s primary focus is to study orangutans in Borneo, which is home to some of the last remaining native habitat for wild orangutans. With over 50 highly trained staff, their work includes: assessing and monitoring orangutan population health, studying how orangutans adapt to living within degraded or fragmented forest patches, developing policies for population management within and outside of protected areas, and promoting community engagement and education in the conservation of orangutans and habitat, including environmental education programs for Malaysian school children. Just last year, environmental education programs reached 12,370 students and 914 teachers!

A focus on education is a must, but equally as important is coming up with creative solutions to keep orangutan populations happy and healthy while work is done to create protected areas and replant vital habitat. Logging to make room for palm oil plantations has made it almost impossible for orangutans to find tall old growth trees which they need in order to cross rivers and tributaries that divide sections of their habitat. If orangutans cannot move freely within their home range, they lose access to vital resources, and lack the ability to mate with other orangutans which leads to a decrease in genetic diversity. A lack in genetic diversity can have disastrous effects on a species whose numbers are already declining. So, our friends at KOCP had to figure out a system that would allow orangutans to navigate terrain easily, without having to rely on old growth trees. The answer, as it turns out, actually came from within the zoo world in the form of artificial bridges! Bridges made out of various materials like rope are used by orangutans in Zoos as a form of enrichment, and as a way to navigate their enclosure. You can see an example of one of these bridges here at the Houston Zoo when you visit our orangutans! In 2003, KOCP established the first orangutan bridge in the wild, and in 2010, after many years of waiting, they finally obtained camera footage of an orangutan using the bridge. The rest, as they say, is history. Last year, with support from the Houston Zoo, KOCP was able to refurbish 2 orangutan bridges, ensuring that orangutans will be able to continue to move freely across forest patches.

 

Of course, artificial bridges are only a short-term solution. Ideally, forest patches will be restored through replanting efforts and the cooperation of government and non-governmental organizations, as well as players within the palm oil industry. It will be a long process, but the hope is that one day artificial bridges will no longer be needed.  Texans can help save orangutans in the wild by shopping smart, and only buying from companies that support sustainable palm oil practices, and by visiting the Houston Zoo! A portion of every ticket to the Houston Zoo goes to help save animals like orangutans in the wild.

 

The Endangered Houstonian: Houston Toad Populations on the Road to Recovery

A native Texan and Houstonian, the extremely rare and elusive Houston toad hasn’t been seen within Houston city limits since the 1970’s. Urban expansion, while great for the city, has created many challenges for our small friends over the years in the form of habitat fragmentation and increased pollution. Extended periods of drought have also made life more difficult for the Houston toad. As a result of habitat loss, the Houston toad had no choice but to abandon city life and is now found only in areas of deep, sandy soil in east-central Texas. While the Houston toad may not call the streets of Houston home, it still has a place within our Zoo, with the hope that one day this species will thrive in numbers large enough to return it to its old stomping ground.

Behind the scenes, the Houston Zoo maintains a ~1,200 ft2 Houston toad quarantine facility that serves as a location for the captive breeding of Houston toad egg strands for release into the wild. This facility is managed by two, full-time Houston toad specialists who care for the toads and work closely with the program partners in the breed-and-release efforts. This year, February 9th marked the beginning of the Houston toad captive populations breeding season. Within the Zoo’s special facility lives a colony of adult Houston toads that are cared for by members of our herpetology and veterinary teams. The goal during breeding season is to help healthy toads breed and lay eggs, with the hope that surviving offspring will boost Houston toad numbers in the wild, and add genetic diversity to the existing population, which is essential for any species’ survival.  Just last year, the Houston toad team was able to release 900,000 eggs back into the wild, which is an incredible success for a species that is constantly fighting off the looming threat of extinction.

Work to save the Houston toad has been ongoing for years, thanks to a dedicated network of organizations including universities, federal and state wildlife agencies, non-governmental organizations, and the Fort Worth Zoo. In 2015, we began to see the results of our releases with a small number of adult toads appearing at our release sites.  Egg production for release has increased dramatically each year so that over 1,000,000 eggs were produced by the Houston Zoo in 2018 alone for this release program! As of April 2018, over 270 adult toads have been found at the release sites, along with a minimum of 13 wild egg strands in one pond alone. Our releases of large numbers of captive produced eggs and tadpoles has resulted in the initial establishment of a wild population at Griffith League Ranch where they had not been seen since 2010. For the first time in many years, large multi-male choruses have been heard within the Houston toads’ new home range – a song that reminds us all of why we forge ahead despite all obstacles…an echoing reminder in the night that there is always hope for the 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 Houston toad. To learn more about how you can save this species, click here.

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.

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