Mammals

Heeding the call: Earthwatch expedition to save chimpanzees

Cristina P. in Uganda on her Earthwatch expedition to BCFS.

Primate keeper Cristina P. guest blogs on ZooHoo!

In August of 2016 I received an unexpected call from the Dallas Zoo’s HR director. She informed me that I had been selected as one of the finalists for an Earthwatch Fellowship, and 9 months later I was on my way to an adventure I will never forget.

Our group met up at a hotel in Entebbe, a city on the Northern Shores of Lake Victoria, 23 miles from the national capital Kampala, Uganda. We had only 5 participants in our team – 3 from Australia, one from Switzerland, and myself. Being in a small group allowed us to really form personal connections, and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to meet people from around the world, including the great people of Uganda.

Chimps gathered near our cabin in the forest.

We left for the Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS), and 6 hours later we arrived to the most remote location I had ever been. The nearest town was 45 minutes away, I was not going to be in communication with anyone via phone or internet for the next 10 days, and primates were my new neighbors. I could not have been more excited.

We were surrounded by groups of blue monkeys, red-tailed monkeys (also called guenons), baboons and black and white colobus. We saw many bushbucks (a brownish-red hoofed stock) as well as a few genets and civets at night. We heard the nightly calls of the tree hyrax.  Birds were abundant in the area making it a great spot for bird watchers. The butterflies were the prettiest I had ever seen.

BCFS has been around since 1990, and over the years, researchers have noticed that some of the fruit trees (which provide the chimps’ natural food source) have been producing drastically fewer amounts of fruit. The local villagers also believe that chimps and baboons have been raiding their crops more frequently. Could the decline of fruit availability be causing the increase in crop raiding? Could the fruit decrease be caused by global warming? Is this simply part of a natural cycle of the forest? The area had been exploited for many decades by the British for mahogany, so there’s also a theory that maybe as the forest regenerates and trees get taller, there is less sun getting through to the shorter fruit trees, thus affecting their development.

BCFS tries to look at every piece of the puzzle, so many of the tasks we performed were for the purpose of furthering this research. One day we set up mist nets in the forest to catch birds and catalog them, since they are important in spreading seeds (they were released after we were done with measurements, banding and pictures). BCFS field assistants monitor types of leaves and fruit levels on around 1,400 fruit trees in the area, so we assisted in data collection for that project as well.  But most importantly, we observed 2 troops of chimpanzees, which was an experience like no other.

We observed this chimp enjoying a snack.

Some days, we’d start walking before dawn so we could find the chimps as they were waking up. One of the groups, called Sonso has been studied since the beginning of the project and is fully habituated, which means they see the people as part of their environment and do not mind human presence. The second group, Waibira, has been studied since 2011 and are still in the process of habituation. For the purposes of minimizing disease transmission and our safety we were told to keep a distance of approximately 23 feet to the chimps. The only problem with that was the animals don’t know that rule and at times came pretty close to us. It was fascinating to be so close to an animal that is so strong and powerful, yet they seemed to just go about their day as if we weren’t even there.

A chimp is observed with injuries from being caught in a snare.

We also had the chance to assist the snare removal team. In this particular area, chimps are not hunted for bush meat. Instead the targets are bush pigs, blue and red duikers, and bushbucks. Unfortunately though, chimps inadvertently get caught in those, and about 25% of the animals in this area have a snare-related injury. One particular female had gotten caught by a snare 3 different times! They have even been observed trying to free one another from the snares. It was also noted that there was no difference in how the injured chimps were treated by their troop and they seem to eventually adapt to their new reality of missing fingers, toes, etc. Unfortunately some are not so lucky and do end up dying from their injuries. Occasionally the BCFS veterinary team will sedate an injured chimp and remove a snare if the animal is left behind by its troop.

On one of our last days we visited a nearby village to interview the local farmers and learn about the impact that chimps, baboons, and small monkeys have on their crops. Years ago, BCFS helped them identify what kinds of foods would be least appealing to the animals and provided them with seeds, which were then planted near the forest edge. They do this in the hopes that the animals might keep walking further out to search for foods they like better. The farmers depend on these crops, not only for income, but also to feed their families.

Leaving BCFS was bittersweet. I still miss seeing the chimps and all the people I met! But since I’ve returned from Uganda, I have a renewed hope that there are people out there doing amazing things every day to save these animals from extinction.

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

Boipelo update: a Q&A with mammal supervisor Megan L.

Boipelo has been adjusting well after the loss of her companion, Adhama.

We are so grateful for the outpouring of support we’ve received in the past two weeks since Adhama’s sudden passing. Many of you have reached out with questions about how Boipelo has been adjusting, so we sat down with Megan L. (Dallas Zoo mammal supervisor, and one of our primary hippo keepers) to give you an update.

In general, how has Boipelo been feeling and behaving since Adhama’s passing?

She is an incredibly strong and resilient animal. But she has just been a little bit slower to do things that she would’ve done faster in Adhama’s company. Boipelo is a shy individual as it is, so she is just taking a little longer to feel confident in certain situations. With Adhama, she would pretty much encourage him to do everything before her. It was always: “You go check out that enrichment device/toy/new snack first.” And that goes back to hippos’ group mentality. The dominant animals will typically have other members of the group check things out first, to be sure they’re safe.

She’s doing great at interacting with us during training sessions and keeper chats. We train for husbandry behaviors – like ultrasounds and other routine medical procedures – that allow our animals to voluntarily participate in their own healthcare.

We’ve also seen her on the monitors at night playing with her favorite giant ball. She’ll push it back and forth in her pool behind the scenes. And she’s maintained a consistent appetite and normal feeding schedule throughout this time. These behaviors indicate to us that she’s adjusting and doing well.

How have keeper interactions with her changed?

She has a team of at least four people that work with her regularly, and she interacts extremely well with all of us. Relationship-building takes time, especially with her since she is naturally shy. That makes it really rewarding when you get those positive reactions from her though. And she’s getting a lot of extra attention. Yesterday, she was laying down, and we got down next to her and she was vocalizing and seemed excited to have that interaction and connection with us in that moment. She is getting lots of treats and attention from all of her keepers.

What kinds of things did you do to make sure Boipelo was doing well in those first days after Adhama’s death?

We wanted her routine to be as normal as possible. We did go out to her behind-the-scenes habitat and interact with her a bit more in those first few days, just to try to make her feel comfortable. She didn’t engage with the offer of interaction with us every time. But we wanted to give her plenty of opportunity for attention if she wanted it.

How are you and Adhama’s other keepers dealing with his loss personally?  

We’re animal professionals. Loss is a part of our job, because that’s part of the circle of life. It’s always hard. He was very charming and one of those animals that was such a joy to be around. We’ll never be able to forget him, and of course we wouldn’t want to. But the focus is now on caring for our other animals, including Boipelo, which makes it easier to keep going.

One thing that has helped us is seeing the public sharing pictures and memories of him – it reminds us how much he meant to people. He used to go to the glass and just hang out with guests. That was so “him” – giving a part of himself to the public, and it was a really magical thing. Think about all the zoo animals…which ones respond and seem to interact with guests like that? They don’t have to do that. But Adhama did.

We also SO appreciate everyone’s kind words of support during this time. It means so much to us to read all of the comments on social media – they have really touched us and made us feel so supported.

Will the Dallas Zoo bring in another hippo as a companion for Boipelo?

That’s the plan, but the time frame is still to be determined. We’re in no rush. In time, we’ll work with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Hippo Species Survival Plan team to try to identify a potential companion for our Boipelo.

Categories: Africa, Hippo, Simmons Hippo Outpost, Zookeepers | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Dallas Zoo devastated by sudden loss of male hippo Adhama

Adhama’s sudden passing has shaken the Dallas Zoo family.

Dallas Zoo is saddened to announce that 7-year-old male hippo Adhama passed away suddenly on Tuesday evening.

The hippo keepers and our veterinary team had been monitoring Adhama’s health since late last week, after observing some lethargy and a diminished appetite. Adhama spent Monday and Tuesday behind the scenes under observation and resting, but there was nothing to indicate a serious issue. After hours on Tuesday evening, keepers observed via closed-circuit video that Adhama seemed to be non-responsive, and our animal care team responded immediately. Unfortunately, the team found that he had passed away suddenly with no external signs of stress or trauma.

Preliminary findings from the veterinary team indicate severe enteritis, which is an acute inflammation of the intestine. According to the veterinary team, given the condition of Adhama’s organs and his fat reserves, this does not appear to have been a long-term illness. The team is continuing to study the situation to learn more, but given the lack of significant symptoms, the team is confident there’s nothing they would have done differently.

Adhama arrived at the Dallas Zoo in 2017, when we opened the Simmons Hippo Outpost.

“From the time he arrived here at the Dallas Zoo, Adhama captivated us all with his curious nature and larger-than-life personality. He was a wonderful ambassador as we opened our Simmons Hippo Outpost and reintroduced hippos to Dallas last year,” said Gregg Hudson, President and CEO of the Dallas Zoo. “Our entire team is understandably shaken, given the suddenness of Adhama’s passing. Please keep our entire staff in your thoughts during this difficult time.”

Adhama and Boipelo came to the Dallas Zoo in March 2017 (from the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens and Albuquerque Zoo, respectively), ahead of the opening of the Zoo’s Simmons Hippo Outpost in April. These two hippos were matched on a breeding recommendation through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan.

The two quickly bonded and became an adorable pair, enjoying lounging together on the habitat’s sand beach or taking naps in the 120,000-gallon pool.

“We know so many people in our extended Zoo family share in our sadness since we have enjoyed watching Adhama and Boipelo as their personalities and relationship developed over these last 18-plus months,” said Hudson.

Boipelo gave birth to a calf in February 2018, but the calf did not survive. The hippo keepers report that Boipelo is subdued in the initial hours since Adhama’s passing. The team is focused on ensuring she is maintaining as much of a routine as possible in spite of the loss of her mate. She will be given access to the habitat starting today, but the Zoo staff will follow her lead on her day-to-day availability.

The Zoo will continue to provide updates as more information is available.

Categories: Africa, Hippo, Simmons Hippo Outpost | 21 Comments

World Gorilla Day: Celebrating gorillas by celebrating our littlest one

Baby Saambili’s has grown so much since her birth on June 25, 2018!

World Gorilla Day marks the 16th anniversary of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International’s Karisoke Research Center, which is the longest running field site dedicated to gorilla research and conservation.

In honor of this special day, we sat down with Assistant Great Ape Supervisor Tamara Jochem to talk about how much baby Saambili has grown since her birth on June 25, 2018.

Today is not only about celebrating these magnificent animals – we are also reminded of the very serious threats they face in the wild. YOU can make a difference! Read on to get the inside scoop on all things Saambili and learn a few simple actions you can take to help support gorillas conservation efforts everyday.

How much has Saambili grown and changed physically since she was born?
We don’t know exact numbers because she’s with mom 24/7. But she has a lot of extra skin that she’s ready to grow into. She also has a little belly and lots of muscles in her arms and legs. She’s a stout little thing! And her teeth started coming in about a month ago. We think she’s got about six teeth on the bottom and four on the top, so far.

Will she go through teething, like a human baby?
Yep, she will. She’s handling that pretty well, based on our observations. She will chew on her fingers, or anything she can fit in her mouth – lettuce, kale, broccoli – and she might get a bit fussy from time to time.

Hope supports Saambili’s bottom while walking on her knuckles.

Tell us about the relationship between Hope and Saambili.
Gorilla babies are born already able to cling, so she’s been able to hold onto Hope’s hair since the beginning. Hope is a very attentive mother, so most of the time she is either supporting or holding on to her baby. She has started to put Saambili’s bottom in her hand, and Hope will walk around on her knuckles. Within the next month or two, we will probably start seeing Saambili start to ride on Mom’s back. Saambili needs a little more strength and coordination for that because the hair on Hope’s back isn’t as long. And eventually Saambili will start to crawl and move around on her own independently.

When do we think she might start walking?
Right now, she can definitely stand up on her own if she’s holding on to something, so she has the strength in her arms and legs. She wants to crawl, we can tell. But mom is being very cautious and protective. At this point, it’s kind of up to Hope.

What kind of interaction has she had with the other members of her family troop at this point?
When she was first born, Subira (her dad) immediately came over and inspected her. He put his lips on her very gently, and touched her gently. Periodically, he will come over and look at her. As she gets older and becomes more mobile, that’s when she’ll really start interacting with some of the other members. They may “babysit” or play with her. She may jump around on them, essentially using them as a playground. We’re obviously not to that point yet because she’s still so young.

Megan gently inspects baby Saambili.

But the other two females has shown a lot of interest in her. Megan has shown the most interest – she’s the youngest in the group, and she’s grown up in family troops her whole life. For the first few weeks of Saambili’s life, Megan was constantly following Hope around because she wanted to look at the baby. And she would hold Saambili’s hand – she’s been very gentle.

Hope doesn’t mind this?
No, Hope deals with Megan really well. If Megan gets too rough or if the baby needs to sleep, Hope will just move Megan’s hand away or turn her body so Megan can’t see Saambili. Megan is very persistent, so Hope spends a lot of time dealing with that. Luckily, Hope is a very socially-savvy female, so she knows how to handle all of this. Sometimes you’ll see Hope holding Megan’s hand. That’s not necessarily because they’re friends, she’s just saying “stop touching the baby.” What we’re seeing from Megan is a very normal level of interest from a young female, though.

And Shanta is very interested in the baby, too – she’s even cleaned her a few times. With Shanta being the lower-ranking animal in the troop, she isn’t able to spend as much time with the baby – although we think she would like to.

With Subira, it’s really up to him on what role he’ll play. Silverbacks are the protectors of the family, but every silverback is different. A lot times they’re just sort of a jungle-gym. So if they’re napping, the baby might jump onto them from things, hit them, run around, or pull their hair. We suspect Subira will be really tolerant of all those things, which will be oh-so-cute to watch.

What is the biggest threat that Saambili’s wild counterparts face?
Habitat loss and being hunted for bushmeat. Mining and other agricultural and farming activities are taking away food sources and habitat for gorillas in the wild. And then there’s poaching, where snares are often used. Even if they don’t get caught in a snare, gorillas can lose an arm or die from infected wounds. There are actually some troops in the wild that have learned to recognize snares and undo them, which is great.

Baby Saambili is very curious and ready to explore!

How can the general public help protect gorillas?
Be conscious when you’re buying wood or paper products. Make sure you’re buying rain forest-friendly and sustainable products that are made from recycled materials so you’re not contributing to deforestation.

You can also bring your old cell phones, tablets, MP3 players, etc. to the Dallas Zoo, and we’ll recycle them responsibly!

These electronics require the mineral coltan, which is mined in Africa – the natural habitat of critically endangered gorillas and other species. Deforestation and mining associated with coltan production have impacted and displaced gorillas, forcing them dangerously close to extinction. Recycling these devices and extending the life of electronic devices (do you really need a new mobile phone as soon as your contract is up?) reduces the demand for coltan mining. For more information on this initiative and how you can help, click HERE.

Categories: Conservation, Gorilla, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Mischievous meerkats master their training

The five members of our meerkat mob!

Our five meerkats (males Orbee and Widget; and females Poppet, Huxley, and Twig) are working hard on their crate and station training, which will make it easier for our vets and keepers to perform routine health care and check-ups. These cute little predators are officially able to enter crates to receive their monthly vaccines, which keeper Amberlee B. tells us wasn’t always smooth sailing:

“It required two keepers and was usually chaotic, with the meerkats popping in and out of the crates constantly. It made it difficult to keep track of who had actually received their medication, and who had not.”

Meerkats are vocal animals and operate in a matriarchal group, also known as a “mob.” Poppet acts as our mob’s alpha female. She’s known to be very smart, and picks up on new things during training sessions quickly. Poppet, Orbee, and Widget are known to keepers as the “trouble makers.” Sometimes the trio will even climb on top of one of their tortoise neighbors.

As you might imagine, training these quirky ‘kats can be tricky. To get them used to entering crates, the meerkats were presented with a high-value reward (keepers discovered they loved ground meat, similar to what we feed our big cats) each time they entered the crates. Animal staff then worked get them to stay in the crates for longer periods of time, until finally they were able to comfortably and quietly remain in the crates long enough for keepers to apply their monthly flea/tick treatments.

A meerkat waits patiently for his reward during a recent station training session.

Keepers are also currently using a similar training approach to work on station training. For this behavior, each meerkat has their own colored spot marker to sit on. This has proven essential to the meerkat care team! By putting the markers on top of a small scale, they have successfully recorded weights on all five meerkats. “This was something we have only been able to do during the check-ups, which happen about twice a year,” Amberlee says. “By having more up-to-date weights, we can adjust their diet as needed to keep them at a healthy weight.”

Visit our meerkat mob on the Gorilla Trail in the Wilds of Africa, and stay a few minutes to observe their frisky antics!

Categories: Mammals | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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