Africa

Saving elephants: the largest land animals on Earth

Conservation and Management Intern Alisia Boyd guest-blogs on Zoohoo!

“They say an elephant never forgets. What they don’t tell you is, you never forget an elephant.“

Bill Murray

In the early 1900s, an estimated 3-5 million elephants thrived across a vast range in Africa. Today, there are only about 415,000 African elephants remaining in the wild, and their range has been reduced by nearly half. They have suffered from massive amounts of poaching for their highly prized ivory tusks. The demand for ivory was so steep that in 1989, an international trading ban was put into place. However, illegal poaching persists and results in the deaths of approximately 96 elephants every single day.

If current trends continue, it is entirely possible that they will be extinct in our lifetime, which is why we are on a mission to support elephants in the wild. This week, the Dallas Zoo has set a goal to raise $10,000 through grassroots fundraising to support conservation efforts in the wild. Read on to learn more about these amazing animals and what you can do at the Dallas Zoo to help!

Dallas Zoo’s herd

The Dallas Zoo’s award-winning Giants of the Savanna habitat is home to 8 magnificent African elephants. The “Golden Girls:” Jenny (42), Gypsy (37), Congo (41), Kamba (39) and the Swazis: Tendaji (approx. 15), Mlilo (approx. 15), Zola (approx. 15) and baby Ajabu (2).

Baby Ajabu plays in a mud wallow.

The design of the Giants of the Savanna habitat was based on field research and allows our elephants to be more active as they look for food, water, and companionship, just as they would in the wild. Treats are occasionally hidden in trees or in niches around the habitat, and elephants exercise their trunk muscles to find those treats or to reach high-hanging hay nets. They travel over small hills, into waterholes, and along an off-exhibit pathway for additional workouts.

The Dallas Zoo elephants also have the luxury of their behind-the-scenes barn. The innovative barn is optimized for climate control – with radiant floor heating and padding in the winter months and movable walls that provide cross-ventilation in the summer heat. This barn also has a community room with 7-foot-deep sand floors used to bury food and toys, since the elephants are accomplished diggers.

An elephant’s life

Elephants are well-known for their intelligence, close family ties and social complexity, and their capacity to remember other individuals and places for years. Elephants have strong, individual personalities that affect how they interact with other elephants and how others perceive them.

An example of this at the Dallas Zoo can be seen among the Golden Girls. Jenny, our oldest resident, is vocal and playful. Gypsy is mischievous, eager, and loves attention. Congo is inquisitive and enjoys exploring. Lastly, Kamba is friendly and cautious and enjoys being around the other elephants.

The position of head of the family is held by a female known as the “matriarch.” Matriarchs express their dominance in both competitive and cooperative situations. The most successful leaders seem to be confident individuals who are able to command the respect of others through both their wisdom and their charisma.

An elephant herd consists of one or more (usually related) adult females and their immature offspring who feed, rest, move, and interact in a coordinated manner and are closely bonded. Members of a family show extraordinary teamwork and are highly cooperative in group defense, resource acquisition, offspring care, and decision-making.

(Source: elephantvoices.org)

Dallas Zoo supports conservation

Since January 2019, a group of dedicated conservation interns has been learning all about African elephants – through interviews with keepers, behind-the-scenes tours, and tons of research. It all culminates in this special Conservation Week (March 9-16), when we will be engaging Dallas Zoo guests to promote awareness about elephants and inspire conservation action.

This is an exciting time for us, as we get to show our months of hard work and dedication to the conservation of elephants. We have also worked countless hours ensuring that we are getting different departments of the zoo engaged and excited for the upcoming week of fun, information, and memorable experiences.

How YOU can help

The BIGGEST way you can help elephants is to NEVER purchase ivory or anything made from parts of elephants. Also share this information with others around you so that you can help spread awareness and begin the cycle of change.

A group of Dallas Zoo interns, including myself, have organized a jammed-packed week full of fun events and conservation engagement. We hope you join us at the Dallas Zoo during Swing Break through March 17 to help us create a better world for animals.

We’ve set ambitious goals for Elephant conservation, and we need your help to reach them:

  1. $10,000 for elephant conservation – Help us reach this goal by purchasing elephant swag from us at our Campaign Station in the Zoo, or by attending any of the events during Swing Break.
  2. 2,500 personal pledges – Stop by our Saving Elephants Campaign Station to take a pledge for pro-wildlife behaviors that benefit elephants.

Please support our efforts of raising funds for elephants so we can continue making a positive impact for the lives of the most majestic mammals.

Categories: Africa, Conservation, Elephant | Tags: , | 3 Comments

FIELD NOTES PART II: Installing nests on Bird Island

Penguins on Bird Island investigating my camera.

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!

After spending a day at the African penguin artificial nest manufacturing facility, it was time to head to Addo South African National Parks (SANParks) to meet the Marine Ranger team. This entailed an arduous drive along a pitted dirt road to the departure point for the helicopter that would ferry all of us across the ocean to our first penguin colony, Bird Island.

The artificial nests destined for this round of installation on Bird Island had arrived the day before, or at least most of them had. As is often the case, the reality of a situation doesn’t always match up with the plan that was put into place.

The group arrived at the “helipad,” a flat clearing in the middle of the massive sand dunes that’s used to land the helicopter and sling equipment over to the island. The artificial nest team members met the Addo SANParks Section Ranger, the island Colony Manager and a team of marine rangers and other local staff for a rules briefing. Bird Island is a destination that very few people have the opportunity to visit – it’s not accessible to the public at any time, and in normal circumstances the only people lucky enough to spend time on it are either rangers or field researchers that have received authorization. Our strong working relationship with Addo SANParks over the years allowed the nest project to do something that is extremely rare – bring a large team of non-locals to the island to work.

The team boards a helicopter to travel to the remote Bird Island.

With all of the gear, supplies and equipment ready, we had nothing left to do but eagerly await the arrival of the helicopter. The pilot has worked closely with Addo SANParks for quite a long time and is extremely helpful with access to the island. The only ways to get to Bird Island are via helicopter or by a boat trip that can range from two to five hours each way, depending on water conditions.

Several flights would be needed to transport the nests and the remaining supplies to the island, with the weight slung in a cargo net beneath the helicopter. The maximum weight capacity for the airlift on a calm day is only about 550 kilograms, the equivalent of 37 completed nests. We had 300 nests ready to be transported, in addition to the necessary supplies to survive four days on an island with little in the way of amenities.  We estimated that we’d need approximately 10 trips across to carry all of the people, supplies, nests, and equipment.

The forecasted calm weather gradually turned into high winds after a couple trips across the ocean, which caused excessive air turbulence. This meant that fewer nests moved per airlift. The wind also didn’t cooperate on the next couple of days, so the remaining nests weren’t able to be transported until Friday, Feb. 22. Unfortunately, this was the last day the artificial nest group was slated to be on the island. On the plus side, the Marine Ranger team from Addo SANParks was trained in the assembly method for the nests and are familiar with the process of placing the nests correctly.

Members of the artificial nest team worked from early morning to the end of the day on any and every task that needed to be accomplished during our four-day stay on Bird Island. This included assembling the 35-pound artificial nests, carrying them into the colony from the boat house on the far end of the island, updating and maintaining the precision electronics used to monitor the nests, cleaning up marine debris, surveying for sick and/or injured birds, removing the older, ineffective nests from many years ago, GPS tagging of the new nests, and documenting the work. With the help of the dedicated Marine Ranger team from Addo SANParks, the nests were assembled and moved into place for the penguins to begin using.  Since we had the equipment and knowledge, the nest team members also were able to work on the desalination plant for the island, which had been broken and unusable recently.

A penguin quickly makes use of one of our artificial nests.

In the long run, the four days of work went off mostly without a hitch, and everything that was intended to be finished was accomplished.

And, if you’re wondering if all of this is worthwhile… within 24 hours of the new nests being put into place, the occupancy rate was already 57%. In a massive surprise to all of us, one overly ambitious hen even laid an egg in a new nest less than half a day after it was placed. The feeling of awe is overwhelming, watching her look for somewhere she could safely incubate her egg and potentially raise a chick. It’s even more so when we realize we’ll provide thousands of birds this same opportunity of safely raising their offspring during the course of the project.

And on that note, we’ll be leaving Port Elizabeth to head to the Western Cape, where we’ll work in several more colonies. But first: a very long, very hot shower for us to wash about three inches of dirt away.

Categories: Africa, Conservation, Penguins | 2 Comments

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

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