Sea Turtle Rescues in Christmas Bay

The following post was written by Justin, a local community member. Justin has a passion for sea turtles, and while he works full-time in the city, you can find him during his down time saving sea turtles all along the Texas Coast. On one of  his latest outings, Justin and his son Trenton came to the aid of almost a dozen sea turtles that had been cold-stunned. Since sea turtles are cold-blooded reptiles, they have to use the environment and sun to regulate their body temperature. If the water temperature drops too quickly and the turtles can’t get to warmer waters, their tiny bodies shut down and need help. Read about Justin’s adventure below: 

On December 5, 2017 a significant cold front hit our coast dropping water temperatures in Christmas Bay by more than 20 degrees in less than 72 hours. By mid-day of the 8th, the water had dipped below 50 degrees. As someone passionate about sea turtle conservation, I knew that we would likely have turtles cold-stunning so I pulled up to the south shore of the bay at 7:20AM on Saturday, 12/9. Before I even entered the water I could see a hypothermic turtle floating about 50 yards from shore. I approached the turtle and upon picking it up from the water was able to see it was alive. I loaded it into a decoy sled I had recently purchased for the purpose of rescuing turtles, and immediately called the sea turtle hotline at 1-866-TURTLE-5. I spoke to NOAA biologist, Lyndsey Howell, and notified her of the turtle and it’s condition. Since I had found one so quickly, we agreed that I would continue searching for turtles and keep her updated as I went. Immediately upon getting off of the phone, I could see another turtle floating to my east. By the time I arrived at turtle #2, I could see a 3rd…

By 8:00AM I had 3 live, hypothermic sea turtles in my sled. At 8:30, I was up to 6. By 9:00AM I had a 7th and #8 was within sight in a pocket of Drum Bay. Through this time I had continued to communicate with Lyndsey, and as my sled was quickly filling with turtles, she was heading my way. After a 30 minute ‘trek’ through 18 inches of water and thigh-deep mud, I was able to secure turtle #8. After the mud and pulling a sled full of turtles across the marsh to get back into Christmas Bay proper, I took a much needed break on the bank and let Lyndsey know I would be headed back toward my truck.

As she pulled up, I picked up my 9th turtle of the morning in nearly the same spot I had gotten the first.

After the turtles were safely at the Sea Turtle Facility in Galveston, I had other commitments for the afternoon but was back in the bay the following morning with my son, Trenton. After an hour and a half of looking we found another turtle, this one quite large at nearly 50 pounds, and it was alive. We again called the hotline and spoke to Lyndsey letting her know. After spending another hour looking and having not found any more, our turtle was transported to the facility in Galveston for recovery.

Every experience I have with sea turtles leaves its mark on me, but being able to rescue 10 in two days and share part of that experience with my son, was amazing. When the water temps drop again, I plan on being back out there in my waders and with my sled in hopes of getting to more in time to save them. I will never be able to thank Lyndsey and the team in Galveston at NOAA enough for the work they do on a daily basis to rescue, rehabilitate, and ultimately release these beautiful animals back into the wild.

If temperatures drop quickly in our area, please be on the lookout for cold-stunned turtles in the bay. If you find one, please report it immediately by calling 1-866-TURTLE-5.

 

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 2

This blog was written by Chris Bednarski, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Herpetology Department. Chris received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from his coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for reptiles and amphibians in the Western Ghats region of India. We will be posting a series of blogs as Chris documents his work overseas.  

Chris’s goal is to survey within a section of land purchased by the Tillari Biodiversity Research Trust and document what species are present, as well as discover new species and note their home ranges. These findings will help to strengthen the need to protect this land, and by protecting this land, we save species in the wild!

Day 2: Cave stream survey

Today we started our surveys around 1:00pm.  Most reptiles and amphibians are not to active during the days in this area but we know of a hidden gem… a cave stream! The land my team has been surveying is a small piece of the Western Ghats that has never been formally surveyed, that being said, the possibilities of finding new species, rare species and documenting range extensions are endless!  Documenting our findings can play a huge role in conserving this beautiful habitat.  That’s what this is all about and what we are all about; conserving the land to conserve and protect the species we are so passionate about. After a short hike over some rocky hills then back down, we enter the mouth of the cave.  For safety’s sake, we only explore the first 100 meters or so inside the cave.  Along this stream we found an adult wolf snake (Lycodon travancoricus), many night frogs (Nyctibatrachus sp.), gigantic Indian bullfrogs (Hoplobatrachus sp.), cave crabs, vinegaroons and cave crickets.  Outside of the cave more Indian cricket frogs (Minervarya sp.) and a ton of spiders.  We also noted hoof prints and mud wallows of an Indian bison called a gaur (Bos gaurus). Not bad for a day time survey in this part of India!

Time for some samosas, chai and data logging.

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 1

Here at the zoo we have over 420 staff members working hard to save wildlife, but our jobs as conservationists don’t end when we leave the zoo for the day. We all want to go above and beyond to do everything we can to save wildlife, and our unique program called the Staff Conservation Fund allows us to do just that! The Staff Conservation Fund was created as a way for staff to participate in wildlife-saving efforts around the globe. Each year, zoo employees can donate a portion of their hard-earned wages to the fund. This fund is then used to provide support to staff members who successfully create or enhance a conservation project and apply for funding to bring the project to life. To date, this fund has made it possible for 63 staff members to carry out 43 projects in 14 countries around the world!

One of the latest projects is being carried out in the northern Western Ghats region of India by Chris Bednarski, a senior keeper in the herpetology department. The Western Ghats is home to one-third of the plants, almost half of the reptiles, and more than three-fourths of the amphibians known in India. Unfortunately, this strip of rainforest is disappearing at an alarming rate due to logging and conversion for agricultural uses. In 2013, the Tillari Biodiversity Research Trust purchased 3500 acres in this region and began implementing several conservation initiatives. Chris’s goal is to survey within this section of land and document what species are present, as well as discover new species and note their home ranges. These findings will help to strengthen the need to protect this land, and by protecting this land, we save species in the wild! Chris has been documenting his trip, and sent us this journal entry to share with all of you about his first day in the field:

“After 22 hours of flights, a quick nap and several cups of chai my team and I were headed to our first survey zone.  It’s a beautiful plot of primary and secondary forest surrounded by several rice fields and pineapple farms.  It is a “sacred forest” that the local villagers have set up shrines and a small temple.  No plants or animals can be removed or harmed within this forest which makes this area so important for us to survey.  Over the years we have documented over 20 species of reptile and amphibian, too many birds to count, leopards, tigers, elephants and amazing invertebrates on this property.   

This is our first survey post monsoon this year and we had high hopes.  Past years have produced well for us and this trip was not a disappointment.  Our searching began at around 6:30pm as the sun was setting and we wrapped up around midnight.  We walked forest paths, streams, and around the temples.  In the lower branches of the trees we documented a critically endangered species of bush frog (Psuedophilatus sp.), in the streams an endangered species of Indian cricket frog (Minervarya sp.), and along the temple walls a plethora of Brook’s geckos (Hemidactylus brookii).  Many other species were found but these were the high lights for sure! 

Time to get all our data logged into our computers and get ready for the next day of surveys!”  

How Bees are Helping to Improve Human-Elephant Relationships

In recent years bees have been receiving more and more attention as the loss of pollinators becomes a more pressing concern around the globe. We know that the small but mighty bee is one of the best pollinators around, helping to produce up to 30% of the foods we eat, but it may surprise you to hear that these little guys are key players in helping to protect the world’s largest land mammal – elephants!

Elephants are expert foragers, and because of their large size, they need to eat A LOT of food every single day. As human development continues to spread, the land that elephants use to browse for food often merges with agricultural areas created by farmers. Unfortunately, when elephants stumble onto these crop fields they see the crops as an easy meal, and can cause a great deal of damage to the fields. The damage and loss of crops is a huge blow to farmers’ livelihoods, and as one would expect, this makes farmers very angry. This is where problems arise. To protect their land, farmers will take extreme measures to remove elephants from the area – while the methods may vary, this type of conflict can be very dangerous, and sometimes deadly for both elephants and people. So, how do we protect farmland and protect elephants so people and wildlife can live peacefully with one another? BEES!

Researchers in Kenya working with Save the Elephants were out in the field one day when they noticed that when elephants were around trees with large hives of bees, they would quickly move away. After years of testing and studying these interactions, it was discovered that just the sound of a buzzing beehive will keep elephants far away from an area. At this point researchers had a clever idea – by putting up a rope fence and hanging wooden boxes for beehives across them, farmers could successfully keep elephants away from their crops. Better yet, farmers could also collect the honey produced by the bees and use it for both food and as an extra source of income! A simple and genius solution that is a win-win for both humans and elephants.

Here at the Houston Zoo we help to support the Niassa Beehive Fence Project. Run by the Niassa Lion Project, their programs aim to show communities humane and positive ways to stop human-wildlife conflict. Each time you visit the zoo, you are helping to support projects like this one! We also have a model of one of these fences at the McNair Asian Elephant Habitat here at the zoo – check it out on your next visit! Just like the bees, our individual actions may seem small, but together we can make a mighty big impact – to learn more about what you can do to help save elephants in the wild, click here!

 

Elephant Population Increases on Island of Borneo

Our wildlife protection partners in Borneo have recently announced that the population of elephants has doubled over the past 10 years! Thanks to your visit to the Houston Zoo, we are able to send vital support to protect elephants in Borneo. We are extremely fortunate to have members of our extended zoo family working in Asia to ensure the survival of Bornean elephants. The Kinabatangan Elephant Conservation Unit (ECU) works with local communities in Borneo to raise awareness, improve human-wildlife relationships, and give farmers the tools and training they need for elephant-friendly crop protection. The Danau Girang Field Centre is conducting the first population biology study of the Bornean elephant, and as a part of this effort, the zoo is able to provide funding for: radio collars, camera traps, and graduate student scholarships.

Here at home we continue to promote these partnerships at our McNair Asian Elephant Habitat, giving our Houston community the opportunity to learn about our herd of elephants at the zoo, and their wild counterparts. To learn more about our partnerships and how you can help Bornean elephants on and off zoo grounds click here.

 

Mountain Gorilla Population on the Rise

The Houston Zoo loves its’ troop of gorillas, and we do everything we can to protect gorillas in the wild.

The critically endangered mountain gorilla can be found in three countries; the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda.  These gorillas have adapted to living higher up in the mountains and despite pressures from poaching, habitat loss, and disease, our wildlife partners in Africa have seen an increase in the mountain gorilla population over the last several years, thanks to dedicated protection efforts!

Here at the Houston Zoo we are proud to support a number of organizations that work tirelessly to protect mountain gorillas in the wild. Conservation Heritage-Turambe (CHT) runs after-school programs for local primary school students and community outreach efforts that promote both healthy living habits and gorilla conservation through education and empowerment in communities bordering Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. Gorilla Doctors, an organization comprised of an international team of veterinarians, is the only group providing mountain gorillas and Grauer’s gorillas with direct, hands-on care in the wild. In addition to monitoring gorilla health and providing medical care, the veterinary team further protects gorillas by supporting health programs for people and their animals living and working in and around gorilla habitat. GRACE (Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center) provides care for rescued Grauer’s gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo and works alongside local communities to ensure gorilla survival in the wild. Facilities like GRACE are essential to this endangered species’ survival, and zoo staff is able to aid field researchers in meeting husbandry and management challenges for rescued gorillas housed at GRACE. The Houston Zoo acts as a resource to secure funding for these incredible programs, as well as offering training for project staff.

Each time you visit the zoo, you are helping to support these programs and protect gorillas in the wild! And remember, you can help to save gorilla habitat by recycling your cell phone and other handheld electronics during your next visit! These electronic devices contain a material called tantalum that is mined in areas where gorillas live – if we reuse and recycle these items, we can decrease the amount of mining that takes place in these vital habitats.

Seventh International Tapir Symposium Comes to Houston

Like most of us after reading that headline, you’re probably saying what in the world is a tapir, and why are they having a meeting? Tapirs are the largest land mammal in South America with females weighing up to 700 pounds! There are four species of tapir in the world, with three of the four species found in Latin America – Baird’s, lowland, and mountain. The fourth species, the Malayan tapir, is found in Southeast Asia. Here at the Houston Zoo, we have a family of Baird’s tapir.

While the tapirs may not have come to town, the specialists from all over the world that work with them did, and we enjoyed every moment of their visit. The symposium was made up of members from the Tapir Specialist Group (TSG) – a team we partner with to help save tapirs in the wild! The TSG is a global group of biologists, zoo professionals, researchers, and advocates dedicated to conserving tapirs and their habitat. The Houston Zoo works closely with this group’s Chair, Patricia Medici, to support a Lowland Tapir Project in Brazil. Every 2-3 years, the TSG will meet, giving these experts the opportunity to share their successes, struggles, thoughts, and ideas in order to work together and plan for the future of tapir conservation. The first part of the conference usually features paper and poster presentations, as well as keynote speakers, while the second part is devoted to workshops and round-tables addressing topics relevant to tapir conservation worldwide. Topics can range from veterinary and genetic issues, to husbandry and captive management, to environmental education and the involvement of local communities. It sounds like a lot of hard work packed into just five days, but don’t worry! Everyone at the symposium had the opportunity to get out and explore the city, and they even made a trip to visit all of us here at the zoo!

This year, we were proud to have our very own hoofed stock keepers John Scaramucci and Mary Fields present for the TSG about the Tapir SOS event we host here on zoo grounds each year. This event gives our zoo guests the opportunity to learn more about tapirs, to connect with field researchers, and learn fun and easy ways to help save these animals in the wild.

Gatherings such as this one have proven to be critical to the success of global conservation efforts. At first glance you may think that projects in Brazil and Malaysia have very little in common, or that field researchers and zookeepers play very different roles. However, when a meeting of the minds occurs, you find out just how much they all have in common, and how vital the exchange of ideas can be to the survival of a species like the tapir. We are honored to be a part of such a collaborative effort, and wish our extended family at the TSG luck as they return to their field sites!

To learn about what you can do to help save tapirs in the wild, click here.

Houston Zoo’s Crisis Fund Provides Aid to Grevy’s Zebra

The past two years in northern Kenya have posed many challenges for our friends at the Grevy’s Zebra Trust. When the short rains of 2016 and the long rains of 2017 did not arrive, areas of Kenya that the Grevy’s zebra call home experienced a severe drought. Much like when we receive droughts in Texas, the lack of rain led to a significant decline in the amount of forage (food) available for both livestock and wildlife. As competition grew for use of this limited food supply, the already endangered Grevy’s zebra population was put in jeopardy.

Our friends at the Grevy’s Zebra Trust took action immediately and started a hay feeding program across all areas of Grevy’s zebra range in order to help prevent starvation and maintain the body condition of these zebras so that they could remain healthy enough to fight off the effects of drought and disease. In May of 2017, part of the range received much needed rain, but in Samburu and Buffalo Springs the rains did not come, and with the Grevy’s Zebra Trust out of funds to run their feeding program, nearly 150 Grevy’s zebra were still in danger of starvation.

The Houston Zoo has a crisis fund that is set up for emergency situations just like this one. Simply put, the crisis fund exists to provide support in the event that a wildlife conservation crisis or situation has occurred, and is in need of urgent action. In this instance, we were able to use this fund to cover the feeding costs for the Grevy’s zebra for an additional 5 weeks – just long enough to keep everyone fed before the rains returned and forage started to grow once again. We are dedicated to doing everything we can to help save animals in the wild, and are grateful to each and every one of you who make programs like this possible through your visit to the zoo. To learn more about this partnership and what you can do to help click here!

We are happy to announce that our partners at Ewaso Lions have informed us that the rains have returned to Samburu! The vegetation is finally growing back, and river beds are filling, meaning the supplementary feedings are no longer necessary.

Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles See Nesting Boom

The Houston Zoo is proud to be part of sea turtle protection efforts in our state. Thanks to a dedicated group of organizations and individuals, we are thrilled to announce that Texas and Mexico saw nearly 27,000 Kemp’s ridley nests on our beaches. This is a 35% increase in nests from 2016, which is a great sign for this local species!

Since 2010, the Houston Zoo has treated over 400 sea turtles in our veterinary clinic, many of which are Kemp’s ridley sea turtles. Once treated, these sea turtles are brought to the NOAA sea turtle barn in Galveston where they are cared for before being released into the ocean.  Our team has also aided in the construction of monofilament (fishing line) recycling bins which provide a location to recycle your fishing line, rather than leave it on the ground, potentially entangling wildlife like sea turtles. Zoo staff also participates in weekly sea turtle surveys to look for stranded or nesting sea turtles, and monthly jetty clean-ups aimed at reducing the amount of trash that ends up in sea turtle habitat.

Last year 25,000 copies of the Houston Zoo Saving Wildlife, Sea Turtle Edition comic book were distributed throughout our community to increase knowledge about our local sea turtle species and the threats they face. As a result of our community’s dedication to saving wildlife, nearly 2,000 Houston Zoo guests pledged to go plastic bag free, keeping plastic out of the ocean that sea turtles may mistake for food.

Your visit to see sea turtles rehabilitating in our Kipp Aquarium helps protect sea turtles in the wild! To learn how you can join the Zoo and fellow Houstonians on their journey to reduce plastic waste and protect marine wildlife click here.

Staff Saving Wildlife in Vietnam

One of our amazing veterinary technicians is currently in Vietnam training staff from the organization, Save Vietnam’s Wildlife. Jess, our talented vet tech is training staff in Vietnam on medical procedures for animals including blood collection, animal handling skills, intubation techniques and how to respond to different anesthetic situations.

Developing these skills in the staff at Save Vietnam’s Wildlife will help them further develop their animal health assessments of critically endangered animals such as pangolins. Jess started her work immediately upon arrival, when the organization rescued a total of 32 pangolins, bringing the total under their care to 77. Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world.

Jess’s work is fully-supported by our Staff Conservation Fund, a grant for Houston Zoo staff, funded by Houston Zoo staff to support their passion to save animals in the wild. This is a unique program to the Houston Zoo and has allowed our staff to carry out 43 projects around the world to save wildlife over the past 10 years.

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