Blue Topaz is the Birthstone for December

December has a beautiful stone as its birthstone – blue topaz. It is also the stone for the 4th and 19th wedding anniversaries. It has become the second most popular stone, second only to sapphire. It is also the state gemstone of Texas!

Topaz comes in a wide range of colors, from the colorless white topaz to pinks and blues among others. Blue topaz in nature is rare and when it is found it tends to be a light blue. The vivid blues on the market today are usually created by treating white topaz with irradiation and heat. It is a durable stone with a hardness rating of 8 on the Mohs scale. They can be found worldwide including in South America, Australia and Africa.

Another stone that is often confused for topaz is citrine. Citrine is in the quartz family and is a completely different stone. Citrine is a yellow form of quartz. In the days before modern gemology, it was often mistaken for topaz. Finding a natural citrine is rare. Most of the citrine on the market today is heat treated amethyst. Who knew if you heated amethyst it turned yellow? Citrine has a hardness of 7 on the Mohs scale and the color varies from lemon yellow to reddish brown.

Topaz is a silicate like the quartz family but has a hardness of 8. Topaz also has a wider variety of color. They can come in yellow, pink, green, purple, orange, blue and white which is clear.

Like many gemstones, there is a lot of history and lore around blue topaz.

Blue topaz has long been considered a symbol of love and affection and has been said to aid in one’s sweetness and disposition. In ancient Egypt, it was a symbol of Ra, the sun god. In Europe it was linked to Apollo, another solar being.

Ancient Greeks believed that topaz gave them strength. Other ancient civilizations believed blue topaz to have cooling powers and was used to help relieve burns and cool boiling water. Many believed that wearing a topaz ring would keep death from coming prematurely and would control insomnia and greed.

In Africa, healing rituals with topaz were practiced establishing communication with the spirit realm.

Some notable blue topaz includes -The El Dorado Topaz is the largest faceted gemstone in the world at 31,000 (yes, that’s 31 thousand) carats. The American Golden Topaz is a whopping 22,892.5 carats and is on display at the Smithsonian Institute.

There is often blue topaz for trade in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop. Don’t know about the shop? Click here for more information.

SMG’s Borneo Travel Log, Thursday

Thursday: We are finishing up our time here in Borneo. This afternoon, we went for a boat ride to visit a tree planting project run by Hutan. It’s an all female run project and these women are doing great work to reforest a large tract of land that was previously clear-cut but a palm oil plantation. In the evening we toured a small tributary to survey wildlife and we came across a family of long-tailed macaques that were eating on a branch overhanging the water. We stopped to enjoy the view for a bit and then headed back around sunset.

Houston Zoo’s SMG (Social Media Guy) is on the trip of a lifetime to Borneo!

From Dec. 1–11, 2017 the Houston Zoo and Houston’s KPRC Channel 2 are traveling to southeast Asia and the island of Borneo to document the work you are supporting to protect the counterparts of the wildlife that you see when you visit the Zoo. Houston Zoo conservation associates who have dedicated their careers to protecting elephants, orangutans, pangolins and a whole host of other amazing species on the world’s third largest island will give us an in-depth look at what it means to save species from extinction.

We’ve created a special webpage to follow their exciting journey around the world, go behind the scenes, and learn more about how we can all save animals in the wild. Follow along with SMG!

Christmas Shopping in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop

Ah, November. Cooler weather coming in, pumpkin spice everything and dreams of turkey and dressing.

Of course, you know what that means………CHRISTMAS IS COMING!!   It’s time to start thinking about travel plans, gift lists, family outings and more.

Not only are the adults among us thinking in terms of gift buying, but the kids are too. That might cause an issue.  Unless your kiddo has saved allowance and birthday money since he or she was born, they may not have a lot of resources.

We have an alternative. They can shop in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop and they won’t need cash!

How? The Naturally Wild Swap Shop is designed for people of all ages to bring in things they find in nature.  They can bring rocks, minerals, fossils and shells among other things. (click the link below for more information)  As many as three things per person can be brought in a day.  These items will earn points based on how unusual they are and what condition they are in.  Knowledge points can also be earned if they can tell us about their item.  When you trade, you can also earn extra points for having items from our Take Action list.  That includes reusable bottles and bags, pictures of recycling, sustainable seafood and more.  Then, those points can be spent in the shop!

What kinds of things can you get with your points? There is a lot to choose from!  Rocks, minerals, shells, even cut gemstones.  The shop has items ranging from 5 points to 50,000 points so there is something for the spender and the saver alike.

In the rock and mineral section, you might like the geodes or the rose quartz. If mom or dad is a fossil fan, the kids might want to get them an ammonite or a fossil sea biscuit.  There are shells in a multitude of colors, shapes and sizes for them to pick out someone’s favorite color shell as a gift.  For those who have saved up some points, we even have cut gemstones in amethyst, aquamarine, citrine and more.

While trading is now open to all ages, the younger of our traders may be more likely to want to shop with points to make their holidays merry. We hope to see you in the shop soon.

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

The Great Orange Ape. Orangutan: People of the Forest

Orangutan means “man of the forest” in Malay and Indonesian languages where it written as Orang-utan. Orangutans are the only one of the four great apes (orangutan, gorilla, chimpanzee, and bonobo) not native to Africa; they live in the southeast asian islands of Borneo and Sumatra.

Photo credit: Paul Swen

The Houston Zoo has been working closely in Malaysia with a conservation organization called Hutan (Bahasa Malay for the word forest) and their Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Program (KOCP). The team is based out of the village of Sukau in northeast Borneo and made up local Malaysians, many of whom have grown up in and around Sukau.

Their primary focus is to study orangutans in their native habitat, some of the last remaining habitats for wild orangutans. Their work includes assessment and monitoring of orangutan population health and genetic status, studies of orangutan ecological adaptation to degraded and fragmented habitat, development of policies for population management within and outside protected areas, and community engagement and education in the conservation of orangutans and habitat including environmental education programs for Malaysian school children.

You will hear quite a bit about palm oil plantations on some of our blogs about elephants and orangutans and that loss of habitat due to deforestation and the change in agriculture practices to these massive plantations are affecting wildlife, especially orangutans. This is true and the nest way forward will be to find corridors of habitat that can be replanted while working with plantations to find solutions for orangutans living within them, and moving through them much like the elephants. Hutans’s KOCP is at the forefront of reducing these conflicts and working to protect habitat and orangutans, while working with the Sabah Wildlife Department on a strategy to protect wildlife far into the future.

Learn more!

Borneo’s “Pygmy” Elephants

Photo credit: Paul Swen

Borneo’s “Pygmy” Elephants are a subspecies of the mainland Asian elephant. There are less than 2,000 of Borneo’s elephants, most of which can be found in the Malaysian State of Sabah. The word Pygmy would suggest that these elephants are much smaller than their mainland cousins but in reality, they are only slightly smaller. That is easy to say until you wander across one in the rainforest and then an elephant is an elephant and it is probably best to step out of their way.

The health of the forest is in many ways connected to healthy elephant populations. Their need for protected areas and migration corridors literally protects hundreds of species, including amphibians, insects, mammals, birds and many others. In turn, the health of the landscape supports human communities in their livelihoods.

The Houston Zoo has worked with the Danau Girang Field Centre in Sabah (Borneo), Malaysia since 2009 in support of a program to determine the social structure, migration corridors and habitat use of the Bornean Elephant. A hungry elephant does not know it is eating your crops, it simply knows it has found a new source of food. At the same time, those elephants need to find their way back and forth across the rivers and through the rainforest safely without encountering villages or fence lines.

Photo credit: Paul Swen

Enter Nurzhafarina (“Farina”) Othman. Farina is a Malaysian researcher who is finishing her PhD with Cardiff University and looking at solutions to protect elephants and people from the above scenarios. Her work, which been supported by the Houston Zoo for many years and is our elephant conservationist and researcher in Borneo, assists the Sabah Wildlife Department in determining best practices for the conservation and management of the elephants in the region. Her teams work has also determined that the genetics data and historical records support the theory that the Bornean elephant might be a remnant of an extinct population from Java, making these populations unique.

Photo credit: Paul Swen

Elephants require large amounts of land to live and when that land is turned into farms or plantations, the elephants sometimes move through the crops to get to more habitat. “Elephants are not moving through palm oil plantations to raid crops but they are using it to reconnect to their surrounding habitat because the corridors that have been left for them are too small,” says Farina. She also is working with palm oil plantations to find solutions for wildlife as well as helping with the Borneo tourism industry of which elephants are a large draw for the local economy.

Learn more!

The Origins of the Orang-utan

The origins of the orang-utan as told to me by a colleague in Malaysia: 

Long ago, human beings (or orangs) lived in the virgin jungles of Borneo. They stayed in groups, sharing their long houses, subsisting on plants and animals provided by Mother Nature. Within the different groups, this peaceful way of life was however troubled by all sorts of troubles and conflicts involving treacheries, malices, gossips and other problems that are specific to our species.

A peace-loving minority of orangs decided to split from the major group in order to escape the clamors of the village life and went deep into the jungle. They established a new home and lived happily for years. More and more orangs from their former community decided to join this idyllic existence, up to a point that the newly created village became overcrowded and full with problems that follow humans at all times and places (pollution, noise, habitat destruction, cruelty and meanness).

The original group decided to break up from their conspecifics one more time and wandered far away from this place. They established themselves on the mountains where life was paradise. Of course they didn’t stay on their own for long: more and more people joined them and troubled this peaceful existence. Fed up beyond belief, the original oranges decided that enough was enough: because they wouldn’t be able to find peace below the trees, they decided to climb up to the treetop and to settle down in the forest canopy. They also decided to not have any kind of relations with ground-dwelling orangs any more.

From this day on, this group became the orang-utans, or “people of the forest.”

Learn more!

Borneo and the Houston Zoo: Why Borneo?

The Houston Zoo’s new mission and vision is fairly straightforward and can help answer questions on why our wildlife conservation programs engage in certain regions of the world

Our Mission: The Houston Zoo connects communities with animals, inspiring action to save wildlife.

Our Vision: The Houston Zoo will be a leader in the global movement to save wildlife.

It all comes back to wildlife and many of the animals you can visit here at the Houston Zoo. How can we do our best to not only care for everything from orangutans and elephants to pythons and hornbills here at the zoo but also engage our public and protect them in the wild.

That leads me to Borneo. Borneo is full of biodiversity – it is literally packed with animals and plants living within its tropical rainforest. 1,000+ species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects…it is truly amazing what can be found here. And the Houston Zoo has a large number of animals that can be found in Borneo: Orangutans, Asian Elephants, Clouded Leopards, Asian Small Clawed Otters, Rhinoceros Hornbill, Argus Pheasants, Bornean Eared Frogs and even Reticulated Pythons. It is long list for the world’s third largest island.

The island of Borneo is actually divided into three countries. Indonesia is the lower 2/3rds of the island making up the region called Kalimantan. In the north, the two Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah encompass much the top 1/3rd with the small country of Brunei along the coast of the South China Sea. Much of the region’s economy is based on agriculture, logging and ecotourism, all three of which effect wildlife and local communities in different ways.

So Why Borneo? Simply because we feel that working with close partners on the ground, we can make a difference and save wildlife in the region. To the Houston Zoo, it is important to support programs where local conservationists can help lead the way to protect wildlife and work with local communities to reduce threats – for both animals and people.  Over the coming days, we will talk about our local partners working to save Borneo’s elephants, orangutans, hornbills, carnivores such as the clouded leopard and many other species so stay tuned for more from Borneo!

Learn more!

Orangutans, Elephants but what about those Pangolins?

How can I not talk about the world’s most illegally trade mammal on this trip? they are on the island of Borneo, therefore we are going to talk briefly about Pangolins. Don’t ask what a Pangolin is because I know you know – they are the world’s only truly scaly mammals and their unique behaviors include scooping up ants and termites with their incredibly long, sticky tongues and curling up into a ball when threatened. There are 8 species of Pangolin on this planet of ours, 4 in Africa and 4 in Asia.

Here in Borneo you would find, if you can find one, the Sunda Pangolin. Even more importantly you would find our Pangolin researcher and Conservation Associate Elisa Panjang who works out of the Danau Girang Field Centre we are stationed at currently. Both Elisa and I are members of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Pangolin Specialist Group whose role is to outline critical actions and a conservation strategy required to protect pangolins in the wild.

Elisa uses a multidisciplinary approach, including sign surveys, camera trapping, satellite telemetry, and community survey to collect information on the Sunda pangolin. The objectives of the research are threefold: to identify habitat suitability and ecological niches for Sunda pangolin; to determine the species home range; and to determine the movements in a fragmented and degraded landscape. Upon completion of the study, the results of the research will be included in a Sunda Pangolin State Action Plan. Aside from research work, Elisa is also focusing on public education, raising awareness and producing educational materials together with the Sabah Wildlife Department and other organizations

For more information on Elisa and her program, link here for a recent blog

Learn more about the trip!

The Naturally Wild Swap Shop adds it’s 10,000th Trader

On October 15, 2017, The Naturally Wild Swap Shop in the John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo reached a huge milestone. We registered our 10,000th trader!

The honor was awarded to Maya Rojo. She is 4 years old and was so excited!

The Rojo family includes Oscar, Vanessa and of course, Maya.   Oscar is originally from El Paso and Vanessa is from McAllen but they made their way to Houston as soon as they could and have lived here for over 17 years now.  They are proud Rice and University of Houston alums.  Maya herself is a native Houstonian.

The Rojo Family are long time lovers of nature and the Houston Zoo. The Houston Zoo is just one of the places they go to fulfill their need for nature.  Their love of the outdoors has taken them to Brazos Bend, Huntsville State Park, Yosemite and more.

Following her parents lead, Maya is also a lover of nature. Her favorite animal is probably her dog Teddy, but she also loves finding garden insects – specifically praying mantis and lady bugs.  She loves pelicans and has had some great morning sightings at Huntsville State Park.  She will be soon going to visit her Tito and Tita in Corvallis, Oregon and hopes to see some wild turkeys when she is there.

They all learned about the Swap Shop during a presentation in the Children’s Zoo and had come in multiple times before Maya actually signed up and made her first trade. They had made a trip to Galveston and searched for shells to bring in.  Maya found some beautiful clam and oyster shells.  They also learned about jellyfish  careful to avoid stepping on them while hunting for shells.  Her shell treasures earned her points to spend in the Swap Shop and as a part of her award as 10,000th trader she also received 1,000 points along with a certificate and an amazing insect display!

Mr and Mrs Rojo had some wonderful things to say about the Swap Shop in response to Maya’s award.

Today we got our snacks ready to go to the zoo, but also packed a ziplock full of clam and oyster shells.  Our little one, Maya would be going to the swap shop to earn her first points.  She received a big surprise being named the 10000th trader. To commemorate the milestone, the staff made her a certificate and presented her with an amazing display of three beautiful beetles.  That was the obvious reward.  The less tangible one was the affirmation of our little 4-year-old lady’s hard work in writing her journals, collecting specimen etc. that the staff gave her.  We often, as do many others, tell her that those women and men in charge studied a lot to know so much about animals.  What they didn’t study but what is instead either a part of someone or not is the willingness and desire to affect this little generation of nose-picking, curious goofs.  There were 9,999 registered traders before Maya and countless more families that benefit from this knowledgeable and kind staff that time after time has been just pure class with so many of us.  From our little troop, a sincere thank you to Suzanne Jurek who came up with the idea to celebrate the 10,000th, Sara Riger for answering so many questions from so many with skill and to Angie Pyle for making the Children’s zoo so special.  Amber Zelmer, Wendy Morrison, Julie LaTurner, Brian Stuckey, Stephanie Turner, Kimberly Sharkey, Megan Paliwoda, Lisa Cariello all who we’ve seen throughout the zoo, from petting goats, learning about animal upkeep etc. From the McDonald’s observatory, Yosemite to Brazos Bend or Huntsville State Park, we’ll all keep encouraging our little ones to keep digging, asking questions.  That is in no small part due to you all.  Once again, thank you for being a part of our daughter’s life since she was tiny. Oscar, Vanessa and Maya

The Rojo family are involved in charity here and in Mexico. They have a small charity in San Miguel de Allende that focuses on academic support.  They also like creating a sense of community with some efforts in the Houston area.

They love coming to the zoo specifically what they consider to be the dynamic areas including the Swap Shop. They consider the Naturally Wild Swap Shop a connection to the outside world and for one, their Maya loves it.

We are so grateful that the Rojo family has shared their little Maya with us. We value every one of our 10,000 traders and love sharing our time and knowledge with each one of them.

Want more information about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop? Click here.

The November Birthstone

November – Is it Citrine or is it Topaz?

For years, those of us – including me – who have November birthdays knew that topaz was our birthstone. Now most birthstone lists say citrine.  Which is it?  Actually, it is both!  While citrine and topaz are different stones, they are both considered to be the birthstone for November.

So, how are they different?

Citrine is a yellow form of quartz. In the days before modern gemology, it was often mistaken for topaz.  Finding a natural citrine is actually rare.  Most of the citrine on the market today is heat treated amethyst.  Who knew if you heated amethyst it turned yellow?  Citrine has a hardness of 7 on the Mohs scale and the color varies from lemon yellow to reddish brown.

Topaz is a silicate like the quartz family but has a hardness of 8. Topaz also has a much wider variety of color.  They can come in yellow, pink, green, purple, orange, blue and white which is clear.

Topaz can be found in Russia, Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa and the U.S. Most citrine is found in Brazil but it can also be found in Russia, France and Madagascar.

There is a lot of history and lore about both stones.

Some of the largest cut gemstone pieces throughout history have been cut out of topaz. Ancient Egyptians believed that topaz received its golden hue from the sun god Ra. Golden Topaz was said to change color in the presence of poisoned food or drink.

Citrine has been said to aid in urinary, kidney and digestive diseases. It was also believed to ward off evil thoughts and protect from the effects of snake venom.  In ancient Greece, citrine was popular between 300 and 150 B.C.  It was also used to adorn weapons by Scottish weapon makers in the 17th century.    Queen Victoria loved citrine.  With the attention and admiration citrine received her parties, it became a part of shoulder brooches and kilt pins in Highland attire.  Even now, it is considered an essential part of the tradition.

What were some of the more notable stones? The Luxembourg Royal Family citrine and pearl tiara and earrings, the citrine and diamond tiaras by Cartier for the coronation ceremony of King George VI in 1937 and Kate Middleton’s citrine drop earrings.   The El Dorado Topaz is the largest faceted gemstone in the world at 31,000 (yes, that’s 31 thousand) carats.  The American Golden Topaz is a whopping 22,892.5 carats and is on display at the Smithsonian Institute.

In the Naturally Wild Swap Shop, you can trade for citrine and topaz both!!

Don’t know about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop? Click here to find out more.

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Houston Zoo added a new photo — in Sukau, Sabah, Malaysia.
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Thursday's update from SMG's trip to Borneo is up now! ... See MoreSee Less


Thursdays update from SMGs trip to Borneo is up now!
Houston Zoo added a new photo.
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Jack the ocelot and his tiny snowman friend (and some tasty meatballs!) ... See MoreSee Less


Jack the ocelot and his tiny snowman friend (and some tasty meatballs!)


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Jack is so cute I wish I could take him home and cuddle with him.

Look, Steve Hawkins! Ethan’s favorite animal there!

Bret!! :DDD

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