Your Next Gift Shop Purchase Could Save Wildlife

At the Houston Zoo, we know that even the smallest of actions can help save wildlife. Small actions as simple as refusing a plastic bag or single-use plastic straw protect sea turtles, but we realize even these small everyday changes can come with their own host of challenges. Having gone single-use plastic bag, bottle, and straw free on Zoo-grounds, we realize just how hard change can be – luckily Service System Associates (SSA), our food and retail partners, has started offering wildlife-friendly products on grounds that make the adjustment just a little bit easier for both staff and guests.

Most recently, Houston Zoo gift shops have started carrying reusable metal straws to help save marine wildlife like sea-turtles! These straws come with their own pouch, so they can be kept clean and easily transported in your purse or backpack. Each year, the Houston Zoo veterinary staff cares for around 80 stranded or injured sea turtles; many of which come to the clinic after ingesting or getting tangled up in plastic debris. With the Gulf of Mexico less than an hour away, it should come as no surprise that reducing the use of single-use plastics is one of our main focuses – by switching to a reusable straw you are helping us achieve our mission of saving animals in the wild!

Already made the switch? Don’t fret! There are many other wildlife-saving options to choose from. Some items you buy in the gift shop are helping to save wildlife without you even knowing! New tank tops and t-shirts made from plastic water bottles are saving sea turtles in the wild, and some animal plushes are actually filled with stuffing that comes from collecting and shredding plastic bags found in Africa. Purchasing a t-shirt, reusable tote, or reusable water bottle can help keep hundreds of thousands of plastic bags and bottles from entering landfills and the environment each year. You can even be a trendsetter by telling all of your friends that you are saving wildlife with the t-shirt you are wearing.

While these changes can be challenging, they are equally rewarding. Every purchase matters, since a percentage of all sales of everything purchased from SSA goes towards supporting the Zoo’s wildlife-saving efforts around the globe. Better yet, every guest that takes home and uses one of these items is another conservation hero helping the Zoo achieve its wildlife saving mission!

 

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!

Online Purchasing System Down for Maintenance

Our e-commerce system will be down from Friday, October 19, at 11 p.m. through Saturday morning at 7 a.m. You will be unable to purchase Zoo general admission or event tickets, renew your membership, make donations or any other purchase online during those hours. Our gates will open as usual at 9 a.m. and you may purchase tickets there. We apologize for any inconvenience.

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!

Unusual Pollinators and the Plants They Love

We are all familiar with bees and butterflies as pollinators.  But, did you know there are some very unexpected and unusual pollinators?  Read on to learn about a few of them.

The largest of the pollinators is a mammal!  The Black and White Ruffed Lemur from Madagascar pollinates the Travelers Palm also known as the Travelers Tree.   Compared to the most common pollinators, these guys are huge.  They have a body length of 10-22 inches and a tail length of 24-26”.  Quite a bit bigger than say a monarch butterfly with a 4-inch wingspan.  They primarily eat fruit but seeds, leaves and nectar are also part of their diet.

How about lizards and skinks and geckos?  Oh my!  The Noronha Skink pollinates the Mulungu tree in Brazil.  The Mulungu is used by the indigenous peoples in Brazil as a medicine.  Then there is the Blue Tailed gecko from the Island of Mauritius who pollinates the Trochetia flower.  The Trochetia is the national flower of Mauritius.  In New Zealand, more than 50 geckos along with birds and bees pollinate the metrosideas excelsa tree.  This tree blooms around December and has vibrantly colored blooms earning it the nickname “Christmas Tree”.   AND, in Tasmania a native snow skink visits the Richea scoparia plant. The Richea scoparia blooms in the summer with flowers that make the plant look like it is covered in candles and are a food source for wallabies.

Have you ever heard of a rodent pollinator?  Spiny Mice in Africa pollinate the Protea or sugarbush plant. The Protea got its name from Proteus, the son of Poseidon and the King protea is the national flower of South Africa.    Africa is also home to the Bush baby.  These animals get their name from the childlike wailing vocalization they make, and they pollinate the iconic Baobab Tree.

Australia has some interesting pollinators too.  The Sugar Gliders pollinate the Banksia species and the adorable Honey Possum pollinates several plants.  Honey Possum don’t actually eat honey and live on nectar and pollen.  They feed on Banksia, Bottlebrushes, Heaths and the Kangaroo Paw Plant among others.

Why are all pollinators important?  Without them we would lose 1/3 of the world’s agriculture crops along with essentials like coffee, tequila and chocolate.  What can you do to help?  Plant a pollinator garden!  You can also bring in pictures of your pollinator garden to the Houston Zoo’s Swap Shop.  You will be registered as a Pollinator Pal and earn points to spend in the shop.  That is a win-win!

Don’t know about the Swap Shop?  Click here for more information.

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.

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!

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