No Ordinary Veterinarian: Houston Zoo’s Gorilla Saving Wildlife Warrior Dr. Noel Comes to Town

Dr. Noel and Dr. Methode work together in the lab
Dr. Eddy working with Houston Zoo veterinary staff on his visit to Texas

For those of us with pets at home, if one of our animals gets sick, we hop in our cars and drive to an office where the veterinarian does an examination and provides us with a course of treatment. It is a fairly simple process here in the city, but what if our pets didn’t have us there to help them? Wild animals encounter this problem regularly, and it is especially difficult for species like mountain and eastern lowland (Grauer’s) gorillas to receive care due to their homes being located in mountainous regions with dense forest cover. Luckily, our partners at Gorilla Doctors are not afraid of a challenge, and their dedicated team of veterinarians sometimes trek up to 6 hours in order to provide care to wild gorillas living in the national parks of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Gorilla Doctors is dedicated to saving ill or injured gorillas, one patient at a time, and each time you visit the Zoo, you are helping to support projects like Gorilla Doctors, even making it possible for us to bring members of their team here for important veterinary training.

Dr. Ricky and Dr. Fred assist with a sea turtle release on their trip to Texas

 

 

The Houston Zoo has a long history of working with veterinarians from Gorilla Doctors, having had 4 members of their team come to Houston over the past several years to work alongside our veterinary staff. These team members include: Dr. Eddy from the DRC, Dr. Methode from Rwanda, and Dr. Ricky and Dr. Fred from Uganda. We are excited to announce that a 5th gorilla doctor, Dr. Noel, will be traveling to Houston for training in February!

Dr. Jean Bosco Noheri (Dr. Noel for short) first joined the staff of Gorilla Doctors in Rwanda as a laboratory technician in 2009 and rose through the ranks to become a field veterinarian in 2012. Every week, he treks into the Volcanoes National Park to check on the health of the mountain gorilla families. Noel received the Houston Zoo Wildlife Warrior Award in 2017, which is funded through the sale of saving wildlife bracelets sold by the Admissions Team here at the Zoo! This award recognizes exceptional individuals from our wildlife conservation partner programs and provides an experience that will increase their abilities/knowledge.

Dr.Noel will be the 5th Gorilla Doctor to receive training at the Houston Zoo

Because Dr. Noel is often called upon to care for other wildlife in Volcanoes National Park, like elephants, golden monkeys, and jackals, he will participate in hands-on clinical training with our veterinary staff so he can apply new and additional skills and lessons to save Rwanda’s wildlife. Keep an eye out for him during the first week of February, and if you see him on grounds don’t hesitate to say hello!

 

The Plight of the Pangolin: Learn How You are Helping to Save One of the Most Threatened Species on Earth!

Photo of a rescued pangolin receiving care at Save Vietnam’s Wildlife

Like most of us after reading that headline, you’re probably saying what in the world is a pangolin, and why are they in trouble? Pangolins are arguably one of the most fascinating looking creatures in the animal kingdom. Often referred to as a spiny anteater, the pangolin is actually a mammal that researchers believe is most closely related to carnivores like hyenas, bears, and wolves! Their small bodies are almost completely covered in what look like dragon scales that are actually made of keratin, the same material that your fingernails are made out of. The name pangolin comes from the Malay word pengguling, which means to roll up. Rolling up is exactly what pangolins do when they are threatened, and in their tight protective ball, not even the teeth of a lion can penetrate their strong scales! Unfortunately, these scales are very highly valued in some cultures, and as a result, pangolins are disappearing from the wild. Here at the Houston Zoo we want to do everything in our power to help save this species, and through your admission ticket purchases, we are able to support pangolin protectors like our very own veterinary technician Jess Jimerson, and Ms. Elisa Panjang, who works with our partners at the Danau Girang Field Center on the island of Borneo, in Southeast Asia.

Jess Jimerson provides medical care to a pangolin in Vietnam

Jess Jimerson, a veterinary technician here at the Houston Zoo embarked on a journey to Vietnam in October of last year to work with pangolins at Save Vietnam’s Wildlife. Jess was able to do this due to funds she received from the Staff Conservation Fund; a very unique grant program that is managed by Houston Zoo staff for Houston Zoo staff. With this grant, Jess went to Vietnam to train local employees at Save Vietnam’s Wildlife on how to conduct medical care work such as collecting and analyzing blood samples to improve their animal health assessments. The day Jess arrived, the organization helped with a confiscation of 32 pangolins, all of which were alive, and Jess worked with the team to ensure these animals were well cared for. Staff like Jess here at the Zoo work to help pangolins across the world, but we also have extended staff like Elisa who live in pangolin regions and help pangolins in their own country!

Wildlife Warrior Elisa – Keep an eye out for her on grounds during her visit!

Born and raised in Malaysia, Elisa Panjang has dedicated her life to protecting the pangolin. Impressed by her passion about the wildlife she has grown up with and her commitment to saving this fascinating creature from extinction, Houston Zoo staff chose Elisa, a long-time partner of the zoo, as a 2017 recipient of the Wildlife Warrior Award. This award is funded through the sale of saving wildlife bracelets sold by the admissions team here at the zoo, and recognizes exceptional individuals from our wildlife conservation partner programs and provides them with an experience that will increase their abilities/knowledge. Elisa is a PhD student from Cardiff University. In addition to doing her PhD research with our partners at Danau Girang Field Center, she is also a Pangolin Conservation Officer and is actively involved in conservation programs such as environmental education to protect the endangered wildlife species. Pangolin is a rare and elusive species, which makes it a difficult animal to work with. Nonetheless, Elisa never gives up, and has been doing research on pangolin for seven years and counting. With the funds from the Wildlife Warrior Award, Elisa will join the Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Program in Vietnam, a well-known Sunda pangolin rescue and rehabilitation center in the world. She hopes to learn husbandry skills to care for pangolins and gain an insight into conservation issues faced in Vietnam, and what is being done to save their wildlife, which will be important for Elisa to experience herself and eventually use this knowledge and skills to help wildlife in her country. Elisa will be visiting us here in Houston during the last week of January, so if you see her on grounds make sure to stop and say hello!

Our Snake Saving Leader in India is Nominated for a Prestigious International Wildlife Award

In 2017, we welcomed a new member to our Houston Zoo family – Murthy Kantimahanti. Murthy is incredibly excited to join our community, and knowing that you are supporting his work with king cobras in the wild through the purchase of your admission ticket here at the Zoo means the world to him. He is a huge fan of the Houston Zoo, and as fans of his, we are thrilled to announce that Murthy has been nominated for the prestigious “Future for Nature” wildlife conservation award for his work to protect the Eastern Ghats king cobra in India!

Future for Nature works to support young conservationists that are passionate and committed to protecting animal and plant species in the wild. These individuals become leaders that inspire and mobilize communities, organizations, governments, investors and the public at large to take action to save wildlife. The Future for Nature award not only provides financial assistance to these young conservation leaders, but also creates a network of learning support and mentoring for recipients. Murthy is among the 10 conservationists who have been shortlisted for the award.

Murthy works in the Eastern Ghats, located in Southern India, to improve relationships between humans and snakes, and build local community support for snake conservation. Fear and lack of knowledge about snakes has led to a rise in the killing of many snake species, including the king cobra. Murthy and his team are working to transform the fear of snakes into a respect and appreciation for the important role that snakes play in the ecosystem. Snakes are an important species to control rodent populations that spread deadly diseases.

With the support of the Houston Zoo and you, the Eastern Ghats Wildlife Society is able to give school presentations, awareness talks at universities in towns and community centers in rural areas with human-snake conflict. Through this work, communities will learn how to identify venomous vs. non-venomous snakes, as well as learn valuable snake bite and first aid skills. Should Murthy receive the Future for Nature award, funds will go towards continuing these efforts as well as establishing the first ever snake education center in the Eastern Ghats.

In addition to supporting Murthy and his team, the Houston Zoo is also involved in work protecting snakes here in Texas! Every spring, the herpetology department hosts a local snake SOS event. At the event, zoo guests have the opportunity to come face-to-face with some of our native snake species, and learn more about what to do should you encounter one in the wild. The team also travels to participate in the Lone Star Rattlesnake Day event hosted by Dallas Zoo in order to spread the word about how awesome our local snakes are, and the important role that they play in the ecosystem.

Murthy will be traveling to Houston at the end of this week to visit the Houston Zoo, meet our staff, and participate in training sessions! Learn more about this project and keep up with Murthy and is team by following Eastern Ghats Wildlife Society on Facebook!

Tickets for Tapirs: How Your Visit to the Houston Zoo is Saving South America’s Largest Land Mammal

Last February, the Houston Zoo celebrated the birth of Antonio, a Baird’s tapir, and quite possibly the cutest bundle of joy any of us have laid eyes on. It certainly was a treat to see Antonio sporting his watermelon-like stripes and spots as he readily greeted his adoring fans. These days Antonio is sporting a new, more mature look, but thanks to a portion of your admission ticket going towards saving animals in the wild, we are able to help protect baby tapirs like Antonio in Brazil with the help of our friends at the Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative (LTCI). Over the past 12 months the team found a total of 53 tapirs, including 28 new individuals that had never been seen before. Overall, for the past 21 years, the team at LTCI has found 144 individual tapirs, and 94 of these were radio-collared and monitored for extended periods. Finding tapirs and processing data on individuals before they are released back into the wild helps conservationists understand more about them, which then helps to create protection plans for them. This project continues to build the most extensive database of tapir information in the world and has been successfully applying their results for the conservation of tapirs in Brazil and internationally!

You may remember that the Houston Zoo hosted the IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group (TSG) Seventh International Tapir Symposium back in November. Patricia Medici, the chair of the Tapir Specialist Group, also happens to be the coordinator for LTCI. During the symposium, LTCI launched their environmental education curriculum called TAPIR TRACKS, which will be used in schools and focuses on tapirs and conservation.  In the coming months, the team hopes to have the curriculum translated into Portuguese and Spanish. In Brazil, the curriculum will be presented to the Brazilian Ministry of Education (federal level) and State Departments of Education for inclusion as part of the formal curriculum in primary schools.

For the past three years, the Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative has been functioning as a base for training and capacity building for members of the TSG and other tapir researchers and conservationists worldwide. To date, the project has hosted 16 TSG Fellows. Each of these fellows spent two weeks in the field with the LTCI staff, which provided everyone involved with multiple opportunities to share ideas and experiences, to discuss future tapir conservation initiatives, and to establish collaborations and partnerships. Multiple new tapir research and conservation programs are now being designed and implemented in Brazil and other Latin American countries because of the TSG Fellowship Program.  In 2017, the project hosted TSG Fellows from Argentina, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Peru.

In early September 2017, camera-traps were installed in front of 15 underpasses that lie beneath the MS-040, a major highway in the LTCI study region. This was done as part of a plan that the team has developed with the hope of reducing the number of road fatalities seen when tapirs and motor vehicles come into contact with one another. Over the past 2 years, the team has recorded 95 tapir deaths connected to road collisions, and these encounters can be extremely dangerous for people as well. The camera traps that were installed in front of the selected underpasses will record data for 6 months in order to evaluate how often these pathways are used by tapirs and other wildlife. The ultimate goal of the LTCI is to use the results of this study to develop similar plans for at least three other highways in the state, in an effort to make traveling safer for both tapirs and people. 

The LTCI team also carried out 50 interviews with members of the local community in order to gauge how they feel towards tapirs and view interactions with them. The amount of information gathered through the interviews was truly incredible, and the team aims to have the data analyzed by early this year! 

We are blown away by how much our family in Brazil were able to accomplish in 2017, and we can’t wait to see all of the amazing things they are able to do in the new year. We’d like to thank all of our guests for supporting projects like this one through the purchase of your admission ticket here at the Houston Zoo. Make sure to stay tuned for updates!

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 6

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 6:

This was the last night of surveys for this trip and what a night it was!!!  We decided to visit a stream we have passed a few times on this trip just to see what it looked like.  We all kept pointing this stream out every time we drove by it, but for some reason or another never stopped to check it out.  We parked our car on the side of the road and jumped down into the stream.  From the first second I got down into the stream until the second I left the stream it was “frog-o-mania”!  We saw so many frogs we were having a seriously hard time counting.  We estimate we saw well over 1,000 frogs of at least 6 different species but probably more like 8-12 species.  We found tadpoles and eggs of the Night frogs for the first time in our surveys.  This stream had checkered keelback snakes, wolf snakes, Brook’s geckos and one Indian black turtle!!!  I am a huge turtle nerd and finding a turtle on a night like this just puts the icing on the cake.  If we were not having such a productive night I may have been far more nervous than I was – my nemesis was everywhere… the giant fishing spiders!  With a leg span the size of a dinner plate and the ability to run across water, they make me a bit uneasy when walking forest streams at night.  Thankfully I was too preoccupied with all the amazing amphibians.

I will be hopping onto my first flight around 4AM to come back home to Houston.  I haven’t even left and I already miss being here.  Good thing the team and I will probably be meeting back up in early March to continue our surveys!!!  Until then, cheers.

 

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 5

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 5:

Tonight was a good night for snakes!  I don’t get to say that often enough…  About 30 feet from where we parked our car I began setting my camera gear up and set up my weather reading device.  I shine my flash light to a spot about 12-20 inches from my bag and I see a snake!  Not just any snake but one of the cutest and most dangerous species in our area, the saw scaled viper!!!!!  All I had to say was the word “saw” and all of my field partners started running to my location.  This is thought to be a very common species in the northern Western Ghats, but I have only seen 6 in my time working here.  This adorable little bundle of venom and sunshine was about a foot long and sleeping nicely on a leaf until it noticed 5 weirdos standing over him.  Once he saw us see him he decided to slither off further into the forest and we were just happy to have caught a quick glance of him.  After that we were all pumped up and ready for a good night of snakes and frogs.  We found a few more wolf snakes of two different species, a large Indian rat snake, several checkered keelback snakes and a bunch of vine snakes.  Finding one or two snakes a night is usually a decent night, but we found a total of 19 tonight! The vine snake is one of my favorite snakes to see in India.  A snake no thicker than a pencil can be 3 feet long!  These snakes specialize in eating lizards and frogs mostly.  You can find them active in the day and night, crossing roads or 50 feet up in a tree.  Beside all the awesome snakes, we found a few frog species and a really cool lynx spider.  Getting asleep tonight will be difficult – we are all pumped up on such a good snake night!

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 4

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 4:

So today we got to visit a property we have never had access to, which I was very excited about.  A friend of a friend we stopped to get chai from told us he knew someone that wanted us to come to his property and tell him what kind of animals he had running around.  Our chai friend assured us his buddy was a good guy and had heard about our project.  Regardless to whether we found a bunch of animals on this property or not this was an important day for us.  Much like the Houston Zoo does for the Houston toad, we want to work on land owner agreements.  What we would like is to have a 33-year lease on the property, with the land owner agreeing to not destroy any more land and to not use any harmful pesticides.

We arrived at our new friend’s house, and in true Indian fashion we quickly sat down for a nice conversation and chai.   After this, he took us around his banana and pineapple groves, eventually leading us to the untouched portion of the property.   He told us about all of the snakes he has seen here including what he believes to be a king cobra.  On our tour we noted a few species of frog that do fairly well in disturbed areas, like the Indian tree frog (Polypedates maculatus).  We found an adorable 3 inch long Roux’s forest lizard (Calotes rouxii) hanging out on a leaf and one Travancore wolf snake (Lycodon travancoricus).  This certainly wasn’t one of our more productive nights as far as a species list goes, but we did make a new friend and a possible property to add to our conservation agreement!  This is one huge step to conserving the land and the species that use it!

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 3

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 3:

Tonight we headed into one of our sites that we have surveyed pretty heavily over the last couple years.  During the monsoon season, we find many species of frogs along this path – there is a large stone wall covered in geckos and usually a few lizard eating species of snake as well. But the monsoon has passed now and it hasn’t rained here in some time.  This is an important time for us to survey because now we get to document what species are active in the drier part of the year.  We can see that a lot of the grasses and smaller shrubby plants have started to dry out and turn brown.   We noted quite a few leaf eating insects getting their last meals in for the year.  One of my favorites is a katydid that looks like it flew 100 mph into a brick wall and wound up with a flat face.  During the earlier part of the dry season, we have seen that the bush frogs (Pseudophilautus) are still around in decent numbers but they are not calling for mates – we assume they are fattening up for the cooler weather coming.  We encountered several forest lizards (Calotes sp.), both males and females, sleeping soundly on the thin ends of branches.  They choose these seemingly uncomfortable limbs for a good reason!  If any snake or bird land on the tree they are on, the branch will move and wake them up in enough time that they can hopefully escape.  On the large stone wall we found a massive species called a Bombay leaf toed gecko (Hemidactylus prashadi).  Over all we had a slower night than usual, but still noted some cool stuff!

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!”  

Search Blog & Website
[jetpack_subscription_form title="Subscribe to the Blog" subscribe_text="Enter your email address to subscribe and receive new blog posts by email."]
Houston Zoo Facebook Page
Animals In Action

Recent Videos

[youtube_channel]