Africa

FIELD NOTES PART I: Saving African penguins in South Africa

Kevin Graham examines the artificial nests at the nest manufacturing factory.

Animal Care Supervisor of Birds and the Artificial Nest Development Project Coordinator for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), Kevin Graham, guest blogs on ZooHoo!

Our time caring for the 1,800 rescued little stinky grey and fluffy birds (a.k.a. flamingos) came to an end yesterday, and we’ve moved on to the bigger stinky black and white birds (a.k.a African penguins). We’re about to depart on helicopter to Bird Island, where we’ll make about a half-dozen trips back and forth to the deserted island that will be our home for the next four days. This is where we’ll install hundreds of artificial nests for the penguins to safely lay their eggs in and rear their offspring.

But first, we worked on an incredible side project today at the penguin nest manufacturing facility in Cape Saint Francis, South Africa. I was able to inspect the work being done, and talk with the folks who have been building the nests, since the manufacturing site opened up a little over a month ago. This site is being coordinated under the watchful eye of Trudi Malan of Dyer Island Conservation Trust. This location is currently home to many tons of raw materials that are being converted into penguin nests at a rate of about 20 nests per day. While this doesn’t sound like a lot, these nests are 100% made by hand and have a very specific formulation of products that has to be prepared and a significant amount of materials that have to be worked in the exact order in order to properly build the nests.

The construction team builds the nests, which involves a very detailed process.

The team members that are building the nests have not only become very efficient and skilled at the process, they’ve also begun to understand that the project they are assisting with is destined to make an improvement in the lives of an endangered species. These team members have a strong and growing pride in the work that they are doing and it shows. For many of them, this job is helping them learn new skills and offers them financial assistance. But more than that, they see their role of building the nests as a part of a bigger picture that can potentially save the lives of birds that desperately need help.

To construct the nests, they begin with preparing the Sealmac geotextile fabric cutouts, which will be used as the skeleton of the nest construction process. These individual pieces of geotextile fabric are then thoroughly impregnated in a ceramic slurry composed of a very specific ratio of several compounds. If the ratio of compounds is out of balance by even a small amount, the overall strength and integrity of the end product can be compromised. Each piece of the geotextile fabric is layered onto the mold in a very specific sequence, which builds up the integrity of the structure. Once the numerous pieces of slurry-filled fabric are all securely in place on the mold, they cure for at least 24 hours until any further work can be done.

Dallas Zoo’s Senior Zoologist Julie Farrington also inspects the nests.

The next day the finished nests are removed from the molds and moved into the drying area to allow these completed pieces to continue curing for at least another 48 hours. Any work that is attempted during this curing time would have a strong likelihood of causing damage to the nest structure that would be very difficult to repair. Once a period of 72 hours minimum has passed, the pattern for the ventilation holes in the nest is traced onto the nest structure, and the ventilation holes are drilled. This pattern has been designed to increase the thermal venting of the nest structure on hot days and is a critical component in the thermoregulation inside the nest.

When looking at the end product of the nest, it doesn’t look like something that would be all that complicated, however there is a tremendous amount of science and research that went into the development of these penguin nests. Between the materials research; the design research; the multiple extensive rounds of testing; and finally the ongoing construction of the finished product that is beginning to be installed in colonies, this has been a very unique challenge. Recreating the perfection of Mother Nature is not an easy task, but thanks to the dedication of the nest project team consisting of members from Dyer Island Conservation Trust, Pan-African Association of Zoos and Aquaria, the Dallas Zoo/AZA SAFE, and especially those people and organizations that have believed enough in the potential of providing homes for endangered penguins, we are confident that we’ve come as close as possible.

Really early tomorrow morning (which will be really late at night for you guys in the U.S.), we’ll be departing for Bird Island to begin installing the first of the finalized nests in the colony there. Thanks to the ongoing support and assistance of ADDO SANParks, we will be transporting the nests and supplies over to Bird Island by helicopter. This saves a huge amount of uncertainty in access to the island since it’s a two hour boat trip each way in calm waters or up to a five hour boat trip each way in rough waters, which usually ends up with a large number of the team members leaning over the edge and relieving themselves of their breakfast. More to come later, assuming we survive.

There’s a whole lot more in the way of photos and videos to come, so stay tuned as I continue to update you with field notes on this unprecedented project to save endangered African penguins.

Categories: Africa, Birds, Conservation, Penguins, Zookeepers | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Dallas Zoo helps lead international emergency rescue to save over 1,800 flamingo chicks in South Africa

Two of the rescued lesser flamingo chicks cuddle up at the SPCA in Kimberley, South Africa.

The most urgent, wide-scale rescue of wild lesser flamingo chicks in South Africa is underway after 1,800 chicks were found abandoned at their nesting grounds. The international zoo and aquarium community has joined forces to help save the chicks in a massive rescue operation, sending critical funds and avian experts from across the world to South Africa.

A severe drought has affected Kamfers Dam in Kimberley, the capital of the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, causing adult flamingos to abandon their nests, leaving thousands of eggs and chicks behind. With only four breeding colonies of lesser flamingos in Africa and one other in India, Kamfers Dam is one of the most important breeding locations for this species in the world.

Dallas Zoo’s Senior Zoologist Julie Farrington hand feeds a rescued chick.

The Dallas Zoo is leading an emergency rescue effort to funnel funding to South Africa in coordination with the Pan African Association of Zoos and Aquaria (PAAZA). The Dallas Zoo has contributed $18,500 to the rescue effort, and is sending multiple waves of support staff to Kimberley. Animal Care Supervisor Kevin Graham and Senior Zoologist Julie Farrington arrived in Kimberley last week, and Dallas Zoo veterinarian Dr. Marren Connolly and veterinary technician Cassandra Reid arrived Sunday and will remain there for three weeks.

Multiple accredited U.S. zoos and aquariums have also contributed nearly $20,000 to the rescue mission, with donations continuing to roll in. (For individuals who would like to donate to the recovery effort, please do so HERE.)

“If the zoo community had not stepped in to help, it is unlikely these chicks would have survived,” said Harrison Edell, Dallas Zoo’s Executive Vice President of Animal Care and Conservation. “Flamingos have rarely been treated in any significant numbers by wildlife rehabilitation facilities. Since we are backed with decades of experience in this, our animal care experts are uniquely qualified to assist in hand-rearing these orphaned lesser flamingos. The world’s accredited zoos and aquariums are no doubt at the forefront of lifesaving conservation work, and we will continue to send our experts to the frontlines when animals need help.”

“To see our worldwide community of wildlife conservationists come together to save these birds from near death is remarkable,” said John Werth, Executive Director of the Pan African Association of Zoos and Aquaria (PAAZA). “Zoos and aquariums have the resources and expertise to save species and our swift action to protect these flamingos is proof of that.”

The 1,800 chicks are being cared for at a number of PAAZA accredited zoos and aquariums, plus, certified partners like SANCCOB, as well as, by staff at the SPCA in Kimberley. An international team of conservationists, zoologists, vet staff, and more are working around the clock to bring the chicks up to good health. The ultimate goal is to release the birds that have been successfully rehabilitated back into their natural habitat by late May, so they can rejoin the flock.

“We’re working 12-hour shifts at the SPCA in Kimberley where the youngest and most critically ill flamingo chicks are being cared for,” said Kevin Graham, Dallas Zoo’s Animal Care Supervisor of Birds. “We hand feed the chicks every few hours, and are constantly monitoring their health. We are running on very little sleep but it’s extremely rewarding work knowing we’re keeping these incredible birds alive.”

With nearly 20,000 birds nesting at Kamfers Dam, a significant hit to the flock could pose long-term problems for the population without intervention. Conservationists are working to implement a detailed plan of action for the future, should a rescue mission like this occur again.

Lesser flamingos are currently listed as near threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Species (IUCN), primarily due to habitat destruction and climate change. It is the smallest species of the six species of flamingos in the world. They’re found primarily in sub-Saharan Africa and some parts of India.

The Dallas Zoo cares for more than 30 lesser flamingo chicks in the Wilds of Africa section of the zoo.

Categories: Africa, Birds, Conservation, Zookeepers | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

A day in the life of a zookeeper in North Savanna

Witten and his mom enjoy a January day in the North Savanna habitat.

It’s 7 a.m. on a chilly January morning. Lisa Fitzgerald and her team are huddled around a table for their daily status meeting. There were no stops for coffee on their way into work this morning. No hitting the snooze button. No late starts. They can’t. That’s because they have ten hungry giraffe, five kudu, four ostriches and 14 guinea fowl depending on them, regardless of the weather or time of year. But they’re not complaining – they love these animals and are some of the most passionate, dedicated people you’ll ever encounter.

This is an inside look at how just one of our many teams of zookeepers provide the highest level of care to the 2,000-plus animals of the Dallas Zoo – 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Get eyes on the animals
The first item on their to-do list in the morning is to get a visual on each and every animal. The team of 12 keepers splits up into two groups – one team handles the giraffe herd, the other takes care of the hoofstock and birds. As they walk their respective barns, the keepers take note of anything that seems off or may have changed overnight. On a chilly night, all the animals remain indoors in their cozy, heated barns.

Keepers preparing morning meals for our giraffe herd.

Breakfast time
Next step is morning meals for everyone. Each species (and in some cases, each individual animal) receives specialized diets according to their needs. Keepers lug huge bowls full of spinach and pellets in for the ostriches at one barn. Simultaneously, another keeper prepares fresh produce for the giraffe in the other barn.

Prep the habitat
The habitats then need to be prepared for the animals to go out for the day, if weather allows. In case of freezing temperatures or inclement weather, most animals will remain in the comfort of their barns. Since the North Savanna is home to several different species, the whole team helps with this step. They walk the entire expansive habitat to check for hazards like fallen trees or litter that may have made its way in. Once that’s done and any hazards have been cleared, they scatter food and enrichment items for the animals to enjoy throughout the day.

Keepers getting the habitat ready for the animals to go out for the day.

Shifting – what is that?
In the world of zookeepers, moving the animals from one place to another is referred to as “shifting.” But this doesn’t happen unless the animals are willing participants. You can’t make a 17-foot tall, 2,500-pound giraffe do anything he doesn’t want to do. Getting animals comfortable with shifting takes time, patience and relationship-building. They’re given tons of positive reinforcement and treats each time they choose to participate.

Shifting four different species is no easy feat, but the keepers have it down to a science. Ostriches are the first out, and they go right to their stations where fresh spinach treats await them. Next are the kudu, who follow suit and wait patiently at their designated station as keepers feed them romaine lettuce. Then come the giraffe who are split into two groups – one goes out to the feeding habitat, and one to the larger Savanna habitat. Both groups are greeted with romaine and carrots to keep them at their stations until all is done. Finally, the guinea fowl follow suit. Once every animal has left the barns, the gates are closed and the animals are free to roam the expansive Savanna and enjoy their day. Keepers then will clean up the barns and prepare for the animals to come back inside at the end of the day.

Beau the kudu receives a lettuce treat (aka positive reinforcement) for choosing to go to his station during shifting.

Wrapping Up
The team may also hold a few animals back to work on training behaviors for routine health checks and more. Training is an essential part of their daily routine and helps reinforce their relationship with the animals they care for. In addition, our keepers contribute to animal research and help develop best practices for accredited zoos around the country. Their days are long but rewarding in every sense.

Once the Zoo is closed to the public, it’s time to bring everyone back inside. Before they know it, the keepers’ ten-hour day is over and they leave “the office” knowing their work has made an impact caring for some of the most majestic animals on earth. They’re excited to wake up and do it all again tomorrow.

Categories: Africa, Giraffe, Zookeepers | 3 Comments

Penguin profiles

6 of our 8 penguins at Penguin Cove! From top to bottom: Klondike, Marina, Tazo, Pickles, Charlee, Opus

It’s Penguin Days presented by Highland Capital Management at the Dallas Zoo! In honor of this cool $8 deal, we’d like to introduce you to 8 very special birds.  The members of our African penguin flock at the Don Glendenning Penguin Cove are pair-bonded, which means they sleep, eat and play together, and a few of them are also breeding pairs. Basically they’re bffs, which we think is pretty sweet.

African penguins are endangered, but YOU can make a big difference at home. Two of the major threats facing penguins are pollution and over-fishing. Here are a few easy ways you can help:

  • Reduce your plastic use to keep it out of oceans
    • Say no to plastic straws
    • Use reusable canvas bags instead of plastic ones
  • Always buy sustainably raised of caught seafood.

Opus gazes up at his keepers.

Opus

  • Born: December 21, 2016
  • Opus is our baby! At just two years old, this curious boy loves to be part of the action. He’s constantly running around playing and just being a rambunctious toddler.

Marina

  • Born: April 15, 2015
  • Marina is the introverted, artistic type. She’s shy, sweet and loves to paint! You can pick up one of her masterpieces in the Zoofari pop-up tent by the front gates. Proceeds benefit enrichment items for our animals.

Splash

  • Born: November 2, 1992
  • The oldest member of the flock, Splash is our feisty mother “hen.” When Splash has eggs or chicks to raise, she will defend them fiercely. She’s definitely mom goals, that’s for sure.

Klondike

  • Born: September 2, 1997
  • Klondike is a loving, dedicated dad and loyal to his mate, Splash! He loves her more than anything.

Pickles (on the rock), Tazo, Althea and Charlee at Penguin Cove.

Pickles

  • Born: April 9, 2011
  • Pickles is the social butterfly of the bunch. You’ve probably seen him greeting you at the viewing window at the Penguin Cove. He loves company and interaction! And he just hates to be without his mate, Althea.

Althea

  • Born: March 21, 2011
  • This girl is sassy and fearless! Althea is usually the first penguin to investigate new things – whether it’s a new food item, or training activity, she’s the bold one who leads the way.

Charlee

  • Born: May 7, 2015
  • Charlee is another feisty lady – with a big appetite! She definitely loves meal time, and her keepers love to watch her fun personality.

Tazo

  • Born: January 1, 2011
  • Tazo is the flock sweetheart. He’s one laid-back guy and a smart cookie too! He loves to participate in training and usually picks up new behaviors lightning fast.

Be sure to stop by Penguin Cove on your next visit! Plus, during the month of January, celebrate Penguin Days with some extra fun activities. Click HERE to learn more.

Categories: Africa, Birds, Conservation, Penguins | 2 Comments

Dallas Zoo staffers awarded nearly $70,000 in funding from National Geographic Society for conservation work

Penguin nesting project and amphibian conservation to be funded through National Geographic Society Grants

Two of our team members will join the ranks of renowned conservationists like Jane Goodall and Jacques Cousteau, as National Geographic Explorers, working on personal field conservation projects across the globe.

Dallas Zoo’s Animal Care Supervisor of Birds Kevin Graham was awarded a $50,000 grant in support of his project: “Using Artificial Nests to Improve Breeding Success of Endangered African Penguins.” Additionally, Curator of Ectotherms Ruston Hartdegen was awarded $18,955 in support of his project: “Expanding an Amphibian Rescue Center at the Dallas Zoo.”

Kevin Graham on South Africa’s Dyer Island installing the artificial nests.

“Receiving grants of this magnitude from National Geographic Society really shows the advances our team is making in the field of wildlife conservation,” said Harrison Edell, Dallas Zoo’s Executive Vice President of Animal Care and Conservation. “These are lifesaving undertakings that Kevin and Ruston have worked at length on – they had to prove successful completion of similar projects with measurable results before being awarded the grants. Now, we can make an even bigger impact for endangered African penguins and near-extinct frogs.”

Protecting penguins

In addition to caring for Dallas Zoo’s birds, Graham has worked hard to save African black-footed penguins in South Africa for the past three years as the Artificial Nest Development Project Coordinator for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). He leads a team that studies, designs and installs artificial nests for the penguins to lay eggs in.

Over the past 100 years, the population of African penguins has declined from more than two million breeding pairs to slightly more than 20,000 breeding pairs left – that’s a more than 98-percent population decline mainly due to improper nests that fail to protect their eggs.

African penguins burrow and nest in guano (a term for their poop), but decades ago, Europeans and South Africans began removing the guano to use as fertilizer, leaving the penguins’ eggs vulnerable to predation, human activity, and the elements. There are currently only 27 natural guano nests left.

An African penguin sits on an egg inside the artificial nest.

In February 2018, Graham joined forces with AZA scientists, the Dyer Island Conservation Trust and Pan-African Association of Zoos and Aquaria (PAAZA) to install 200 artificial nests in two South African penguin colonies. After extensively testing various artificial nest prototypes, two designs were penguin-approved. At the end of the testing period, the scientists learned that approximately 96 percent of the nests in the study were utilized by the penguins, just over 80 percent had eggs laid in them, and more than 56 percent had successful chicks.

Over the next few months, the team will build 600 more nests to install, which is where the grant funding will come into play. Long-term, Graham hopes to have 6,000-7,000 nests installed in total.

“Our vision is to eventually achieve large-scale implementation that will allow thousands of penguin pairs access to suitable nesting locations, improving the current breeding success rate, and establishing population sustainability and stability,” said Graham. “There are other threats hurting African penguins – over-fishing, climate change, and marine pollution – but it feels good knowing that right now we’re taking immediate action to save them, and if nothing else, at least we gave them a place to raise kids.”

Hopping to the rescue

With one-third to one-half of all amphibian species worldwide threatened with extinction, conservation action is absolutely critical to preserving herpetological biodiversity. The Dallas Zoo is taking the next step to develop assurance populations of three threatened amphibian species – the dusky gopher frog, the Houston toad, and the Puerto Rican crested toad.

Ruston Hartdegen releases a dusky gopher froglet back into Mississippi’s DeSoto National Forest.

This past summer, we opened a behind-the-scenes Amphibian Rescue Center where our herpetologists are working to produce healthy offspring to release back into their natural environments.

We are already leading efforts to protect the dusky gopher frog, one of the most endangered amphibians in the world. In October 2018, herpetologists released new froglets from our existing dusky gopher frog population into their native habitat of Mississippi, where the frog is endemic to only three small ponds in the DeSoto National Forest.

“Without conservation efforts like our zoological breeding program, many endangered species would become extinct in the wild,” said Hartdegen. “Amphibians are critical to our environment. Known as ‘indicator species,’ they’re used to gauge the health of their ecosystems – the moment they’re in decline, we know that habitat has been compromised due to problems like, pollution, habitat destruction, or disease.”

With the help of the National Geographic Society grant, Hartdegen is expanding the Amphibian Rescue Center to accommodate two new breed-and-release programs – the Houston toad (currently only found in three Texas counties) and the Puerto Rican crested toad (the only native toad on the island) – helping a total of three species increase their numbers while protecting genetic diversity.

A dusky gopher frog at the Dallas Zoo Amphibian Rescue Center before its release.

The National Geographic Society funding marks the first time our staffers have received support from the Society in its history. Since its inception 130 years ago, the National Geographic Society has supported the work of more than 3,000 Explorers in the field.

Categories: Africa, Conservation, Penguins, Reptiles and Amphibians | Tags: | Leave a comment

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