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Category — General Zoo

Rhino Conservation in Uganda: The Human Effect

By Renee Carpenter, Rhino and Hoofed Stock Keeper

Seven years ago, I had an amazing opportunity to represent the Zoo at an International Rhino Keeper Conference hosted in Australia. During the week-long conference, I met a man named Henry Opio from the Uganda Wildlife Education Center (UWEC). Henry impressed me with his passion for conservation. He had a dream that black and white rhinos would someday return to the wild in Uganda where they had been eliminated through poaching in the 1980s. Wildlife and people alike had experienced tragic hardships and loss during that time of tremendous political and civil unrest. With the region now recovering, facilities like UWEC, with the full support of the current government, are working hard to save what was lost and foster a “pride of heritage” in the people for their wildlife.

Black Rhino

Black Rhino

White Rhino (Photo: Raymond Ostertag)

White Rhino (Photo: Raymond Ostertag)

As I spoke more with Henry, I fell in love with the idea of returning rhinos to Uganda, too. Henry presented on the possibility of reintroducing rhinos into Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda and how UWEC would reach out to each and every village surrounding the park before animals would be released (wow, what a huge task!). They would focus on the children and reach the parents and others in the community through them. I, along with a colleague, was there to present on a fundraising project called “Rhino Rembrandts” with proceeds going to field conservation…a possible aid to this Ugandan rhino project, I thought to myself.

Murchison Falls National Park (Photo: Floschen)

Murchison Falls National Park (Photo: Floschen)

After the excitement of the week, I was sitting in the plane for the twenty-plus hour flight home and I couldn’t help but wonder…how could I help Henry and Uganda’s lost rhinos with more than just what my little fundraiser would do?  Coincidentally, when I returned to work I read an email about an internal grant opportunity with a fast approaching deadline. So, many emails and anxious waiting later… I have, just this past week, submitted the report for the seventh straight year of successful funding from the Zoo!

Back over in Uganda, my friend Henry and UWEC are working hard at conservation education on many fronts.  However, the return of the rhino to a people re-learning the importance of safeguarding it is closest to my heart.

Henry Opio reaches out to local students

Henry Opio reaches out to local students

The human effect of any conservation initiative is what makes it successful. UWEC reaches out to the communities (person to person) through education about the importance of rhinos to their community as well as helps to improve daily life tasks such as farming and waste management practices and identification/use of medicinal plants. Through this process, the communities become invested in the idea of bringing rhinos back and the positive impact it will have on them if the rhinos are protected.

Staff at UWEC educate villagers about the importance of rhinos

Staff at UWEC educate villagers about the importance of rhinos

For me personally, last year’s successful grant application brought the whole process very close to home. At the conclusion of last year’s work, Henry contacted me about a 14-year-old girl named Vivian. She showed great interest and passion for rhino conservation. She also expressed to him concern about her father who was a poacher back in their village. She felt she could convince him to stop, even though that would mean ending the income that enabled her to attend school. Vivian’s father was convinced and, in an attempt to still fund her education, he carved two beautiful wooden rhino statues and presented them to Henry for help. As you can see, they now have a new home here in Cincinnati. Henry was also able to help Vivian’s father gain employment as a ranger protecting wildlife. It’s fascinating how a person’s actions can change when given a better option. This is what I love about this project – protecting wildlife while improving people’s lives – a recipe for success! This has only been made possible by the Zoo’s internal grant program and dedication to field conservation.

Vivian, one of many students positively impacted by UWEC’s efforts

Vivian, one of many students positively impacted by UWEC’s efforts

The wooden carving Vivian's father made to fund her studies

The wooden carving Vivian’s father made to fund her studies

Although much more work needs to be done before rhinos once again roam in the wild in Uganda, the rhinos themselves are doing their part.  At Ziwa Ranch in Uganda, they are busy making babies to support the release. UWEC’s rhinos serve as ambassadors for any and all visitors and the dedicated staff there will continue to work with the communities surrounding Murchison Falls National Park until they have all been reached (fingers crossed for future success in partnering).

As a rhino and hoofed stock keeper here at the Zoo, I have been blessed, alongside my friends and colleagues, with the opportunity to work with these awesome animals, be involved in efforts to safeguard them in the wild, and to share my experiences and love of rhinos with the people I meet.

Here I am helping our past Sumatran rhinos, Emi and Suci, paint their own Rhino Rembrandts

Here I am helping our past Sumatran rhinos, Emi and Suci, paint their own Rhino Rembrandts

So I invite you to come visit us here at the Zoo and be part of the human effect of conservation, too! There are so many more people like Vivian out there just waiting for that connection to become stewards of their own land and wildlife.

Also, don’t miss World Rhino Day on September 21st here at the Zoo when we celebrate these marvels of nature and the work being done to safeguard them. Come out and have some family fun while making a difference!

WRD Words

September 2, 2014   2 Comments

How can you tell if a polar bear is pregnant?

Written by Crissi Lanier & Shasta Bray

It’s not as easy as one would think. Dr. Erin Curry with our Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) is committed to finding a way.

The Cincinnati Zoo is currently home to two polar bears, Little One and Berit. Little One is a 24-year-old male and, despite his name, is the taller of the two bears. Berit is a 16-year-old female. She has a longer and leader body and face and sharper features than Little One. Plus her ears tend to stick out a little more. Polar bears can reproduce until about 26 years old and Berit is at a prime age for reproduction.  She and Little One have been together since 2007 and are observed breeding every year, yet Berit has never had cubs. We aren’t giving up yet.

Berit and Little One (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

Berit and Little One (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

In the meantime, Dr. Erin Curry has been working very hard in the CREW lab to develop a non-invasive pregnancy test for polar bears. It’s important for zoos to know when their polar bears are pregnant to be able to properly care for and monitor them. It is very difficult to determine if a female polar bear is pregnant because there is a period of time between mating and implantation of about 4 to 7 months, making it extremely difficult to know if breeding successfully resulted in a pregnant female. Polar bears also go through a period called pseudo-pregnancy, in which females show an increase in progesterone level similar to that of a pregnant female, but in the end there is no cub born. Pseudo-pregnancy also occurs in otters, wolverines, red pandas and some cat species. These factors make it extremely difficult to determine if a bear is pregnant. While there is not a definitive test yet, she has multiple projects underway that look promising.

Maybe the answer can be found in feces. Feces samples are very easy to collect without requiring invasive procedures. Samples from about 55 bears from 24 different institutions across North America and Canada are sent to Dr. Curry three times a year, packed in dry ice, to research any possible chemicals that may be present in pregnant bears but absent in others. She is also examining various protein levels in the feces and has identified five proteins that are higher in pregnant bears than in non-pregnant or male bears.  More research is needed and it is a very expensive test. The goal would be to develop a cost-effective and user-friendly test.

Polar bear producing a fecal sample (Photo: SRSLYGUYS)

Polar bear producing a fecal sample (Photo: SRSLYGUYS)

You may have heard about Elvis, the polar bear poo-sniffing dog. Elvis has been pretty successful so far in distinguishing between feces from pregnant and non-pregnant bears. Dr. Curry continues to try to determine what exactly Elvis smells that alerts him to the pregnancy. Read more about Elvis’ story here.

Elvis the beagle sniffs polar bear fecal samples.

Elvis the beagle sniffs polar bear fecal samples.

Another way to determine if a bear is pregnant could be through an ultrasound, but conducting one on a polar bear has its challenges. Dr. Curry along with Megan-Kate Ferguson (Curator of Animal Development and Training) and the bear keepers have been working with Berit to desensitize her to being touched so she can undergo medical procedures, such as ultrasounds, without sedation. Desensitization is a process by which the animal is touched through a training wall with an instrument, such as an ultrasound probe, over a period of time as the animal becomes less reactive to it and it becomes like a routine practice. The animal is rewarded throughout the process, called operant conditioning, to associate positive rewards with being touched. As the animal becomes more used to being touched, more actions and commands are added to eventually complete the behavior necessary for the procedure. It is a multi-step process that takes time and patience to develop an animal’s level of trust and comfort. Megan-Kate explains this process further in previous blog posts here.

Now that Berit is conditioned to being touched through the training wall while standing with her abdomen pressed up against it, the next step is to perform exploratory ultrasounds to find her uterus. Even though we know Berit is not currently pregnant, the ability to even find the uterus at all is important if performing ultrasounds is to become a reliable way of detecting pregnancy. Despite a polar bear’s large size, the uterus is small and very difficult to find. Polar bears have two uterine horns, each of which (in a non-pregnant state) is roughly the size of a pencil.

Berit, the female polar bear (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

Berit, the female polar bear (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

First, Berit is called in to the training area and asked to stand up at the training wall. When she completes this, she is immediately rewarded with ground meat treats. Megan-Kate then hoses her lower abdomen down through the wall; performing an ultrasound is more successful on a wet bear because a more solid connection is made between the bear’s skin and the probe. There can’t be any air or space between the probe and the skin, which is difficult due to her thick, fur coat. Once Berit is sufficiently wet, Dr. Curry uses the probe to search for the uterus. A transducer on the probe emits sound waves into the body and picks up the echoes as they bounce back from organs. The ultrasound machine then translates the information into a two-dimensional image of the bear’s insides that Dr. Curry interprets. During this time, Berit receives treats and constant positive reinforcement as she stands very still and calm.

Dr. Curry prepares for the ultrasound procedure (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

Dr. Curry prepares for the ultrasound procedure (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

On this day, Berit cooperated like a champ and Dr. Curry was able to find the bowels, but not the uterus. Maybe next time!  Even so, it was a successful day of continued training with Berit.

Dr. Curry conducts the ultrasound on Berit (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

Dr. Curry conducts the ultrasound on Berit (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

Solving the problems facing polar bear reproduction in zoos isn’t going to happen overnight, but it’s an ongoing challenge that Dr. Curry and the rest of the Zoo are committed to seeing through. Learn more here.

September 1, 2014   2 Comments

Meet Seyia: Our Newest Black Rhino

Meet Seyia (Photo: Michelle Curley)

Meet Seyia (Photo: Michelle Curley)

Seyia arrived at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden in August of 2013 and is currently the only black rhino we have here. She made the long journey all the way from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she was born. Seyia will celebrate her fifth birthday on September 28.

The black rhino, or hook-lipped rhino (Diceros bicornis), is native to eastern and central Africa.  Black rhinos are generally solitary animals, except for mothers with calves. However, males and females have a consort relationship during mating, and sometimes young adults will form loose associations with older individuals of either sex.

An herbivorous browser, black rhinos eat leafy plants, branches, shoots, thorny bushes and fruit.  You will often see browse, or large leafy branches, in Seyia’s exhibit, which is one of her favorite things. She also loves bananas, apples, kiwi and melon.  We often utilize these items for her training sessions and as enrichment scattered throughout her enclosure.  On special occasions, we might even give her whole watermelons to smash and eat.

Seyia with a snack (Photo: Kathy Newton)

Seyia with a snack (Photo: Kathy Newton)

Every rhino has its own personality and Seyia is a real sweetie, yet definitely has some sass and spunk to her.  She loves attention – getting a good rub down, taking a bubble bath, and most of all, interacting with her keepers during training sessions.

Seyia has learned so much over the past year here in Cincinnati. We train all of our animals to do lots of different husbandry behaviors, which helps us provide them with the best care possible. This is especially important when caring for rhinos. The black rhino has a reputation for being extremely aggressive, charging readily at threats. They have even been observed charging tree trunks and termite mounds in the wild! So it takes a very strong bond between keepers and their rhinos to accomplish all that we need to do with them. Only once this trust is formed between keeper and rhino can training begin.

Feeding Seyia treats

Feeding Seyia treats

We began the process by hand-feeding her lots of her favorite treats. After that, we began target training and moved forward from there. Seyia has now learned to move either side of her body up against the side of her indoor enclosure. This allows us to get a good look at her, bathe her, and even apply a Skin So Soft solution to help keep her skin moisturized and keep the flies away. She can place either front foot on a block for nail and foot care and is also trained to lay down on command. Right now, we are working with her on opening her mouth so we can check out those pearly whites.  Not only is all this training useful for husbandry and medical care, it’s also a form of enrichment for her.

Checking out Seyia's foot

Checking out Seyia’s foot

Training Seyia for mouth check-ups

Training Seyia for mouth check-ups

Seyia, often referred to as “little girl”, is not so little anymore! In fact, as of December 2013, she weighed in at a whopping 2,400 lbs. She is due to be weighed again this fall, and I guarantee she’s grown. Her body and horn are much bigger than when she first arrived.

How do we weigh a rhino? We use a set of truck scales. Our Maintenance department constructed a heavy duty “weight board” that we carefully place over the scales and the rhino can just step on up. We feed her some of her favorite snacks while we watch the number going up until we have an accurate weight. We do this a few times just to be extra certain it’s accurate. This is not only important to ensure a healthy weight, but also for our veterinary staff to know in case of an emergency or if they need to prescribe her any medications.

Next time you are at the Zoo, be sure to stop by the black rhino exhibit in Rhino Reserve (across from LaRosa’s) to see Seyia.  Also, be sure to come out for World Rhino Day on September 21 to celebrate and support rhino conservation efforts here at the Zoo and across the globe.

WRD Words

August 26, 2014   2 Comments