Category — Conservation
Mexico is one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world thanks to its large size, variety of habitats, and position as a transition zone between North America’s temperate and Central America’s tropical regions. However, little is known regarding the distribution and status of Mexico’s wildlife, including the iconic and endangered jaguar. Relatively little government land in Mexico is dedicated to conservation and most of its wildlife survives outside of protected areas. In northern Mexico, much of the land is owned by private cattle ranchers. Thus, cattle ranches have a critical role in conserving the country’s wildlife.
In 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge commissioned a non-profit organization, Conservación y Desarrollo de Espacios Naturales (CDEN), to conduct a monitoring study. CDEN used motion-sensitive cameras to determine the status of the ocelot on ranchland in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas with the hopes that the population would be healthy enough to allow the transfer of an ocelot to South Texas to boost its endangered ocelot population.
One of the most exciting results of the study was a visual record of an amazing variety of wildlife in the area. The cameras captured images of over 20 mammal species, including five wild cats: jaguars, pumas, ocelots, jaguarundis and bobcats. CDEN established the Wild Cats of Tamaulipas Binational Conservation Program (WCT) following the initial study to continue to monitor wild cats in the area and work with the local community and government to conserve them.
With support from the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, the Gladys Porter Zoo, and San Antonio Zoo, WCT established an environmental education and outreach component in 2015 to provide educational programs and materials to local communities in Tamaulipas. The goal is to make people aware of the presence of wild cats in the region and convey the importance of protecting their populations. Wild cats play important roles as predators, maintaining balanced ecosystems by keeping prey populations in check.
Between July and October, approximately 1,600 people were reached through WCT education events including:
- an education booth at the Tamatan Zoo in Ciudad Victoria,
- a Biology Conference at the Technological Institute of Altamira,
- a festival at Laguna Del Carpintero Bicentennial Park in Tampico,
- another festival in Tampico during Workforce Security, Hygiene and Environment Week,
- and presentations at two local businesses during their annual environmental awareness week activities.
Activities at these various events included presentations and activity stations where people could talk to CDEN leaders, Francisco Illescas and Rossana Nuñez, about wild cats and get a good look at a camera trap and various cat skulls.
People could also make rubbings of jaguars and take a reusable bag of educational materials with them. The bags included crayons, jaguar activity booklets, and WCT brochures/field guides to the five wild cats, which the Cincinnati Zoo helped to create.
People could also take their picture in a large stand-in of one of the scenes from the jaguar booklet.
And, of course, the star of each event was Alan, the new jaguar mascot.
WCT also created and printed 10 Wild Cats of Tamaulipas posters featuring camera trap images to use at the events.
The events were successful in increasing the general public’s awareness of the rich biodiversity still present in Tamaulipas, particularly the presence of five wild cat species. In addition to continuing public education events in the future, WCT plans to meet with and present to ranch owners at livestock association meetings to garner their support.
November 19, 2015 1 Comment
Our ambassador fishing cat Minnow passed away last week at 12 years old. Like many feline species, including the domestic housecat, Minnow struggled with renal disease in her older age and in the end, renal failure. While 12 years old may seem young, fishing cat average lifespan is about 10-12 years old and Minnow lived a full life with us at the Cincinnati Zoo in the Cat Ambassador Program.
Minnow came to us at 16 days old from the Exotic Feline Breeding Center in CA. It is rare to see fishing cats in zoos and even more rare to see an ambassador fishing cat. In fact, Minnow was the last working ambassador fishing cat found in any Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) zoo. We were fortunate that she was given to us because her genetics did not match with the SSP (Species Survival Plan) population. Since she would not be fit for breeding we were allowed to try to raise her as an ambassador cat. I say “try” because fishing cats are quite a challenge. In the wild, they are very rare and elusive and in captivity they behave as their wild counterparts, aloof to their keepers and reluctant of any changes in their environment.
The Cat Ambassador Program staff took on Minnow and met the challenge. In her early years Minnow was one of the stars of the travelling Cat Ambassador School Program. Trainers would take a small water tub and Minnow would show off her fishing skills for thousands of children a year across Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. In 2007, when the Cheetah Encounter Show yard was built at the zoo, the trainers insisted on having a deep pond, to give Minnow a chance to show off her natural behavior for guests at the zoo. True to her cautious species, Minnow was not immediately a fan of the pond and of the large wide open space in the new yard since fishing cats live in marshlands in Southeast Asia and are nocturnal. It took a full year of training with Minnow for her to be comfortable fishing in the pond and appearing reliably in the show. Between 2008- 2015 Minnow appeared in the summer Cheetah Encounter Show. She appeared on sunny warm days and on days when she was interested in participating. While she loved to fish, she was after all, a wild fishing cat, and life moved on her terms.
Fishing cats are not well known so many visitors were surprised to see this small black and gray cat diving in head first into a pond. There were many “oohs” and “aahs” when she performed her “high dive” behavior – leaping off a platform and diving into the pond after a fish. She was a great addition to the show, giving us the opportunity to talk about the diversity and uniqueness of cat species around the world. People also loved to see her slink down into the short green grass, pretending to camouflage, as she ignored her trainers requests to retreat out of the yard. She was a small cat with a big attitude. An attitude that while sometimes tough to train was the mark of her species. As animal trainers we learned so much from Minnow. She taught us how to work with and not against natural behavior, how to give an animal time and space when it needed it, patience, perseverance when training a “difficult” cat and above all, more patience.
As with all our ambassador cats, our constant hope is to inspire visitors to learn more about the species we share. Minnow was no exception. We hope that the hundreds of thousands of visitors that saw Minnow at a school program or at the zoo were inspired to learn more about her species and how their daily actions can help her native cousins in SE Asia. Minnow inspired me personally as well. Last year I took on the role of Education Advisor for the Fishing Cat SSP (Species Survival Plan). I created a Facebook page , where Minnow is often the subject, and started to work on collaborating with fishing cat researchers across SE Asia to learn how we can do more. In the last year we have organized fishing cat fundraising events through our American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) chapter in Cincinnati to support conservation research and as I write this I am preparing to travel to Nepal next week, to meet in person with researchers from around SE Asia at the first ever Fishing Cat Symposium. My hope is to come back with specific knowledge about the plight of the fishing cat and how we can help from across the globe, to make a difference for this unique and endangered species. My love for fishing cats started with Minnow but it has now extended beyond her, and I am committed to global fishing cat conservation because of her.
While Minnow may no longer be around physically, she will always be in our hearts and minds. She was a unique and dynamic individual and the bond that we formed with her can never be forgotten. We will carry forth her memory as we continue to educate and inspire visitors at the Cincinnati Zoo and beyond and we will continue to work to preserve all endangered cat species, including the fishing cat.
Goodbye sweet Minnow- we are forever grateful for the 12 years you were with us. Thank you for letting us into your fishing cat world.
November 17, 2015 18 Comments
Kneeling on the white sandy shore of San Cristobal Island with camera in hand, I must have snapped a dozen pictures of the newborn Galapagos sea lion pup as it waddled over to sniff my knee, decided I wasn’t its mother, and moved on. Where is the pup’s mother? Out fishing, most likely. Since there are no land predators larger than the Galapagos hawk here on the islands, she is free to leave her pup alone for awhile without fearing that it will be snatched up as a meal.
I’ve been home from my Lindblad Expedition to the Galapagos for a month now and I am still reeling with wonder as I recall the beauty of the islands and the amazing wildlife we encountered. The Galapagos is a very special place and has given rise to a unique diversity of wildlife, many species of which are endemic to the islands (found nowhere else in the world). I am honored to have been selected as a 2015 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow with National Geographic, which provided me with this hands-on professional development opportunity to learn about the Galapagos Islands from direct experience.
Over the course of the week aboard the National Geographic Endeavour, we explored a handful of the western islands, all of which offered incredible opportunities for hiking, kayaking, snorkeling and, of course, photography.
You see, in the Galapagos, the animals have evolved little to no fear of people. They accept our presence just as they would that of any other creature, and it’s a surreal feeling. People are a part of the natural world, and I felt that more in the Galapagos than anywhere else I’ve been. At home, wildlife is much more wary of people, and for good reason. We are just as much of a threat, if not more, to wildlife than their natural predators.
Yet even though we can have negative impacts on wildlife and our environment, we also have the ability to solve the problems we cause. Conservation is not so much about managing wildlife as it is about managing people. In the Galapagos, it was clear that the way to preserve its unique biodiversity was not to exclude people entirely, but to regulate our actions to ensure sustainability. People are only allowed to visit certain islands at certain times of the year in a limited number of groups of a limited number of people, always with a trained naturalist and only to specific designated visitor sites. You must stay on the trails and leave no trace – and I mean nothing; if you have to go to the bathroom, you go back to the ship. While visiting, you may not approach wildlife any closer than six feet (though sometimes they approached you). In essence, wildlife has the right of way.
What if we showed that level of pride in and respect towards our wildlife and environment here at home? It would take a huge cultural shift, but I think it’s doable. In fact, I think we are making progress. People, in general, seem more aware of the issues and the impact of their actions now than they did when I started working at the Zoo 16 years ago. The sustainable living trend continues to gain traction. We are starting to realize that conservation is more than just saving any one species in particular; it’s about maintaining whole ecosystems and considering our place in them.
I am recharged and even more motivated than before to continue my work here at the Zoo. I plan to use the Galapagos as a model for how people and wildlife can coexist, specifically at our Galapagos tortoise exhibit. My goal is for guests to recognize that they are part of the natural world and have an important role to play in it both locally and globally.
I am extremely grateful to National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions for providing me with the opportunity to advance geographic literacy by engaging in this field-based experience and incorporating it into my work at the Zoo through the Grosvenor Teacher Fellow program.
November 9, 2015 2 Comments