Conservation

Vultures make the world a better, cleaner place

Vultures are known as “nature’s clean-up crew” because they rid our environment of toxic animal carcasses. (White-backed vulture)

Vultures play a critical role in the environment and are beneficial to all animals, including humans. They consume carrion (or dead animals), which rids the environment of potentially deadly carcasses. “Without vultures, we would quickly be up to our necks in diseases that could severely impact our health,” says Dallas Zoo Bird Supervisor Kevin Graham. “It takes all vultures working as a team to fully clean a carcass.”

Ruppell’s vulture have long necks that help them reach interior organs within carrion.

Larger African vultures, such as the lappet-faced and white-backed varieties, get the job started once a carcass is initially detected. Lappet-faced vultures, with their large, powerful beaks are able to tear into tough hides to expose the meat within the carrion. White-back and Ruppell’s vultures, with their long necks, specialize in cleaning out interior muscle and organs. Then, in come the hooded vultures for the final clean-up. Hooded vultures are equipped with long, slender bills that allow them to get meat from harder-to-reach areas like between the ribs and inside the skull.

Sadly, these incredible birds are under siege right now when it comes to survival, including in Africa where they’re being poisoned by the thousands. African vulture populations have declined about 90% in the last 50 years, and if we don’t do something, they could very well be extinct within our lifetimes.

Vulture poisonings are two-fold. Farmers will poison large carnivores that threaten their livestock – like lions and wild dogs. The vultures consume the poisoned carcasses and die as a result. Poachers have also begun intentionally poisoning the carcasses of their illegally hunted animals in order to kill off vultures who may give away their location to authorities, which is even more alarming.

Fortunately, accredited zoos and aquariums, including your Dallas Zoo, are working hard to ensure the survival of African vultures and countless other species through Species Survival Plans (SSPs) as well as promoting pro-wildlife behaviors. We care for eight different species of vultures at the Dallas Zoo, and we take pride in educating our community about the importance of saving these amazing birds.

We care for 8 different vulture species at the Dallas Zoo, several of which are breeding pairs through their respective SSPs. Each season that the bird team welcomes a baby chick is a major success for their endangered species.

Once a chick hatches, the Dallas Zoo bird team works tirelessly to make sure that the precious baby bird has everything he or she needs to thrive. “We check the chick daily to ensure it is in healthy body conditions and to make sure their wings, feet and eyes are all working and growing properly,” Graham says. “We also closely monitor their current weight and adjust their diets as necessary. Because they clean carcasses, we have to provide them with a diverse diet that’s nutritionally balanced.”

Categories: Africa, Birds, Conservation | Leave a comment

FIELD NOTES PART III: Saving our state reptile

Reptile supervisor Bradley Lawrence guest-blogs on ZooHoo!

We’ve encountered this beautiful western diamondback rattlesnake recently at RPQR Ranch!

This guest-blog is part of a series. Click to read Part I and Part II!

As much as we all love Texas Horned Lizards, I’d like to take some time this week to talk about another small part of our work at the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch…RATTLESNAKES!!!

We love rattlesnakes at the Dallas Zoo, and they are such a vital part of our ecosystem. Rattlesnakes were historically hunted heavily in the area around the ranch for “round ups.” These snakes were hunted indiscriminately until the current property management took over 15 years or so ago. Since then the rattlesnakes have been protected from harvest.

Rattlesnakes are the frontline defense against rodents that carry many diseases harmful to other wildlife, agriculture, and of course, humans. We need them! If you ever encounter one in the wild, leave it alone. Rattlesnakes only bite as a last resort when threatened (and they give you fair warning before doing so!)

The elusive prairie rattlesnake.

As a side project during our time at the ranch monitoring Texas horned lizard populations, we do a similar mark and recapture study for every rattlesnake we see. This allows us to get an idea of the population size, their home ranges, growth rates, and more. We’ve tagged and released about 12 rattlesnakes on the property this spring so far. When we catch one we record its location, weight, length, body condition, and environmental data as well. Most of the rattlesnakes on the property are western diamondbacks, but this week we also found an elusive prairie rattlesnake!

Although they can be dangerous if harassed, I can’t stress enough how important these predators are to the ecosystem. The Texas horned lizard, the rattlesnake and the quail all live in perfect balance at the ranch. Perhaps we could all learn something from them…

Categories: Conservation, Reptiles and Amphibians | 1 Comment

An update on Witten’s passing


Thank you for your outpouring of love and support over the loss of our beloved giraffe Witten. Monday was a tragic whirlwind. We know you have a lot of questions, and we’ve tried to answer them below.

What happened to Witten? Our one-year-old giraffe Witten passed away on Monday, June 17, during a routine physical exam in preparation for his move to another AZA-accredited zoo in Canada on a breeding recommendation made by AZA’s Giraffe Species Survival Plan. Before crossing any borders, animals are required to undergo routine, yet extensive, medical testing, per government regulation. Witten was sedated so our vets could safely perform the physical and viral tests, including tuberculosis and brucellosis testing. Tragically, Witten stopped breathing during the exam and passed away after unsuccessful resuscitation efforts. We are conducting an internal investigation of the incident, including a necropsy (an animal autopsy).

Why did he need to be sedated? Any procedure requiring a sedative requires careful planning, and that decision is not one we make lightly. The safety of both the animal and our staff are top priority.

Are giraffe endangered in the wild? Why is the AZA’s Species Survival Plan so important? Yes, many people don’t realize that giraffes are facing a silent extinction in the wild. In the past 30 years, giraffes have experienced a 40% decline in population. Today it’s estimated that fewer than 97,000 giraffes remain in the wild. Many factors affect giraffes including human encroachment, poaching, and habitat loss. But organizations like zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums are helping save giraffes in the wild through conservation efforts and raising awareness.

Why would moving Witten have been important for the SSP? The AZA’s Species Survival Plan closely monitors genetic diversity to ensure the long-term survival of endangered animals. The Giraffe SSP determined that Witten was a good match for the females at another zoo. He was intended to be that zoo’s dominant bull and was recommended to breed there once mature. He would not have been able to stay at Dallas Zoo, as his father would have driven him out of the herd once he was of breeding age.

How is his mom Chrystal? Chrystal is doing well, and our zoologists are keeping a close eye on her. Male giraffes typically leave their moms around 15 months in the wild, so this was a natural time he would be moving on his own.

How did giraffe Kipenzi die in 2015? Kipenzi attempted to make a sharp turn while rough-housing with her brother, and ran into the perimeter edge of the giraffe habitat, breaking three vertebrae in her neck, and dying immediately. Kipenzi’s death was a tragic loss for the Zoo after her birth was broadcast live on Animal Planet. In honor of Kipenzi, the Dallas Zoo was able to raise nearly $50,000 for giraffe conservation.

How can we help? Please consider making a donation to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, our partner in the field who we work closely with to save giraffes in Africa: www.giraffeconservation.com.

Our hearts are broken over this loss, and we ask that you continue to keep our Zoo family in your thoughts.

Categories: Africa, Conservation, Giraffe | 3 Comments

FIELD NOTES PART II: Saving our state reptile

Reptile Supervisor Bradley Lawrence guest-blogs on ZooHoo!


A Texas horned lizard spotted at RPQR last weekend.

This guest-blog is part of a series. Click here to read Part I!

Springtime is never boring on the rolling plains of Texas. Our latest expedition to the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch in search of Texas horned lizards (aka “horny toads”) started a little rough. We arrived just in time to get an hour or so of searching in before we were forced to call it quits for the evening due to weather. The storms were severe enough to produce baseball-size hail and at last one tornado within 5 miles of us. We spent a little time in the much appreciated storm shelter.

The next morning was very wet, windy and a little cold – not a good combination for finding Texas horned lizards, but the afternoon finally warmed up, and the day turned out to be very nice. We’ve found that when conditions are sub-optimal, we tend to see only young lizards and old lizards that are thin, injured or less than prime specimens. My personal feeling is that the adult animals that are in good condition simply wait bad days out until a better one comes along. They can afford not to feed for a few days or even weeks at a time.

We release the lizards in the same spot we found them.

When we catch a lizard, we immediately start to log a GPS location. While this is happening, we measure the total length of the animal, weigh them, and record the surface temperature and UV index at the point where we initially spotted the lizard. A small electronic “chip” is placed in the lizard so we can track home range, growth, and population density. These and some other observations are all recorded in a handheld computer/GPS.  This whole process takes about 5 min. Then the lizard is released, no worse for wear, right where it was found.

Our lizard sightings are getting more frequent as spring turns into summer – these little lizards are doing very well here. We even found our first gravid (that means pregnant or egg-carrying in reptile-speak) lizard of the season. We love to see reproduction in the wild! A large female is able to lay 40+ eggs at a time. We will start to see this year’s hatchlings toward the end of July and into August.

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

Dallas Zoo helps release flamingo chicks back into the wild after life-saving emergency rescue in South Africa earlier this year

49 lesser flamingo chicks were released back into the wild in South Africa earlier this week!

In January, the Dallas Zoo was part of an unprecedented rescue effort after 1,800 lesser flamingo chicks were abandoned at their nesting grounds due to severe drought. But the work was far from over. Animal care professionals have worked tirelessly over the past four months to nurse the chicks back to health, and this week the Dallas Zoo helped lead a team in Kimberley, South Africa in the release of 49 of those chicks back into the wild. The rescue, rehabilitation, and release of these birds has never been done before, until now.

The drought 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.  

The Dallas Zoo led the effort to funnel emergency funding to South Africa in coordination with the Pan African Association of Zoos and Aquaria (PAAZA), sending more than $52,000 from U.S. zoos and aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). In addition, AZA-accredited institutions sent 53 of their top U.S. animal care experts and vet teams to help in the mission. The Dallas Zoo contributed $18,500, sent ten of its staffers, and funded the trips for five additional experts to lend their support. Harrison Edell, Dallas Zoo’s Executive Vice President of Animal Care and Conservation, is there now to assist in the release.

“We’re feeling intense relief right now knowing a release of this magnitude has never been done before,” said Edell. “It was a massive undertaking to rescue these flamingos, get them healthy, prepare them to reenter the wild, and then watch them go. The zoo community really stepped up to make this happen and help keep these birds alive.”

The 49 birds were the first group to be released back into Kamfers Dam after they were deemed the most fit for the initial release. Animal caretakers have worked around-the-clock to keep the hundreds of birds alive.

“It’s been a delicate balance – since January, we’ve worked hands-on with the chicks to keep them fed and healthy, but as they’ve grown, we needed to be hands off to ensure they did not imprint on us. We needed to know that they were not interested in people, and only birds, before they were cleared for release,” said Edell.

Each bird also went through a physical health exam, and was given a leg band and microchip before the release. A few chicks will remain in human care, including one that is blind and a few with wing injuries. Those not fit for survival in the wild will become ambassadors of their species at PAAZA-accredited zoos.

Hundreds more flamingo chicks are set to be released in the coming weeks.

“It’s been incredible to release our first flock and see them walk toward the other 20,000 wild adult flamingos at Kamfers Dam, and just fit right in. We hope they continue to thrive,” said Edell.

More AZA experts will travel to South Africa to see the final releases through, and U.S. officials will continue to be a sounding board on the project to ensure future success for all of the birds.

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.

Categories: Africa, Birds, Conservation | Leave a comment

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