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Endangered Texas Ocelots: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Thanks to all who came out to AAZK’s Cinco de Gato fundraiser on May 15 to support Texas ocelot conservation! We had a fantastic time at Ladder 19. Great food and drinks, and Sihil, our ocelot ambassador, was a star as usual. With your help, we were able to raise more than $2,000 to support ocelot conservation through the Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.

Sihil wows the crowd at Cinco de Gato (Photo: Pizzelle Photography)

Sihil wows the crowd at Cinco de Gato (Photo: Pizzelle Photography)

Celebrating Cinco de Gato! (Photo: Pizzelle Photography)

Celebrating Cinco de Gato! (Photo: Pizzelle Photography)

The endangered Texas ocelot needs our help more than ever. Over the past year, seven of the estimated 80 remaining Texas ocelots were killed by vehicles. Six of these mortalities were adult males. Among ocelots, it is not easy to be a maturing male. In order to prevent competition for access to breeding females, older males often force the younger males to leave the area where they grew up, sending them out to find females and territory of their own. Once out of protected, dense brush habitat areas, these younger males encounter the human-developed world and all of its dangers, in particular roads and vehicles. In reaction to the large proportion of road mortalities being males, Dr. Hilary Swarts, a wildlife biologist who monitors ocelots in south Texas with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) said, “I can’t say it’s surprising that six of the seven deaths were males, since they have such a rough time of it once the older males start to see the younger males as competition for mates and territory.”

Ocelot Mortalities Map (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Ocelot Mortalities Map (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

It is also not a great surprise to see that three of the seven deaths occurred on Highway 186, which bisects optimal ocelot habitat. Though road signs warning of wildlife were posted in the high risk stretch of Highway 186 in November 2015, thanks to actions by Willacy County officials and the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT), signs alone did not reduce the threat of vehicle collision to ocelots.

Hwy 186 Wildlife Crossing Sign (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Hwy 186 Wildlife Crossing Sign (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

This terrible run of ocelot road mortalities emphasizes the crucial need for under-the-road wildlife crossings to allow ocelots and other wildlife to pass under roads to avoid vehicles.  USFWS and TXDOT have worked hard to establish ocelot road crossings in areas south of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. In the future, they plan to establish crossings in other areas where recent ocelot deaths have occurred, particularly on Highway 186.

Ocelot killed on Hwy 77 (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Ocelot killed on Hwy 77 (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The good news is that construction of wildlife underpasses has already begun on FM106, a road that borders and runs through excellent ocelot habitat on the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. Ocelots have been killed there in the past. The first ocelot crossing was installed on April 27, 2016 and the next one is underway.  A series of eight crossings in total is planned for roads near the refuge.  Once installed, crossings will be monitored to see how ocelots and other wildlife respond. “This is new terrain for us, since wildlife crossings have not really been built in ocelot habitat before. It will be very interesting to see what our wildlife crossing monitoring program reveals about when and how ocelots and other wildlife use the newly installed crossings” Swarts said.

Wildlife crossing being installed on FM106 (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Wildlife crossing being installed on FM106 (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Another positive development is that this summer, TXDOT will begin installing a series of four ocelot crossings on State Highway 100, which has been the site of five known ocelot mortalities over the years.  USFWS is also working with partners and neighboring landowners to establish permanent wildlife corridors for ocelots and other species in the area around Highway 100. These targeted wildlife corridors are made of suitable habitat that will connect protected areas, and provide a safer travel route to the wildlife crossings that are being constructed.

With such a small population, every ocelot is important to the population’s survival. Past data have shown that 40% of identified ocelots were killed by vehicles. The new era of installing wildlife crossings on roadways in areas where ocelots live will be one of the most important ongoing actions for ocelot conservation in south Texas.

May 27, 2016   2 Comments

The Power of Connections: Endangered Species Day

Guest blogger: Kristina Meek, Wild Encounters

There are currently 16,306 plants and animals listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). That’s more people than visit our Zoo on a typical spring day.

It’s Endangered Species Day, so you might hear a lot of shocking numbers like this, which could understandably put a damper on your day. If you wanted to make a difference, which of the 16,000+ would you even choose to start with? Well, you don’t have to choose. All plant and animal life is interconnected, which means that by taking small actions that support a healthy ecosystem, you can benefit all species, including our own!

If you’re visiting our blog, you’re probably passionate about animals and the environment. That passion gives you power. Let’s look at how you can harness your power to make Endangered Species Day the start of significant change.

What does “endangered” actually mean?

It’s a good idea to first understand what we mean by the term. In the 1990s, the IUCN developed the Red List of Threatened Species™, widely recognized as the standard for evaluating a plant or animal’s risk of extinction. They rank species along a continuum from “least concern,” to “vulnerable,” followed by “endangered,” the more serious “critically endangered,” and finally, “extinct.” Watch this video to learn more.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also maintains a list of endangered species, as do state and local agencies. Around our Zoo and others, you might see signs that display an animal’s IUCN classification. For example, you’ll see that the red pandas are considered “vulnerable,” while the black rhinos are “critically endangered.”

Black rhino (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

Black rhino (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

Taking action

As we’ve said, one positive environmental action holds the potential to affect a lot of different areas. We’re all living on the same planet, so shopping with reusable bags here in Cincinnati really does have ripple effects for polar bears in the Arctic!

Here at the Zoo, you can bring us your old cell phone for recycling, which reduces the need for mining metals in endangered gorilla habitat to make new ones. Go a step further by collecting phones at your school or around your neighborhood.

Western lowland gorillas (Photo: Mark Dumont)

Western lowland gorillas (Photo: Mark Dumont)

You can also support our many conservation field efforts. Cheetahs, western lowland gorillas, and keas are just a few of the species we’re actively involved with conserving in the wild. When we work to protect these animals’ habitats, we also benefit countless other species with whom they share space.

You don’t need to limit your choices to those you can carry out at the Zoo. Change can begin in your own backyard…literally. Plant native plant species in your yard. They’ll attract native insects which, in turn, will attract other native species that eat them, and native species that eat them. More pollinating insects means more native plants and, you see, the cycle really gets going!

Good news

As a team, organizations accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), like ours, have made strides in restoring more than 30 species to healthy wild populations, including the American bison, the California condor and a variety of aquatic species. (Read more about AZA efforts here.)

There has been good news just over the past year. In 2015, the IUCN moved the Iberian lynx from “critically endangered” to the less severe “endangered.” The Guadalupe fur seal went from “threatened” down to “least concern.” The global community has taken new interest in restricting trophy hunting thanks, in part, to the publicity surrounding Cecil the lion’s tragic death. Change can happen.

And just last week, we received good news for a critically endangered species that is near and dear to our hearts, the Sumatran rhino. A female rhino calf was born on May 12 at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS) in Indonesia. The calf’s father, Andalas, was born here at the Zoo in 2001 and moved to the SRS in 2007. With fewer than 100 Sumatran rhinos left on the planet, this birth is significant for the species, and we are proud to have played a part in it.

Ratu and her newborn calf (Photo: Stephen Belcher)

Ratu and her newborn calf (Photo: Stephen Belcher)

There are infinite choices you can make to promote positive change, but you’ll be most successful if you start with one or two that really speak to you. You’ll help ensure that currently endangered animals are still around for your children and grandchildren to enjoy and, more importantly, you’ll improve life on Earth for all of us.

And be sure to tell your friends and family. The power of your passion is contagious!

“The quality of our life on this earth is dependent on how we treat the rest of life on Earth. We have a moral responsibility to look after the rest of the world, the future of which now lies in our hands.”  –David Attenborough

May 20, 2016   2 Comments

International Migratory Bird Day: Get Outside and Go Birding!

Each year, International Migratory Bird Day is celebrated on the second Saturday in May, just as the orioles, warblers, tanagers and hummingbirds are returning to Cincinnati. About 200 bird species fly south to Central and South America in search of nourishment during the winter. In the spring, they return to the United States and Canada to breed and raise a family when the days are long and our backyards are bursting with insects, flowers, and fruits to eat. Some stay in Ohio for the summer, but many just stop to rest and feed along the way.

Chestnut sided warbler (Photo: Dave Jenike)

Chestnut sided warbler (Photo: Dave Jenike)

What better way is there to celebrate the return of our migratory birds than to get outside and go birding? Birdwatching is a great way to connect with nature and learn more about the wildlife around you. Grab some binoculars, a field guide and a notebook to record your sightings and get outside!

Birding is a great family activity!

Birding is a great family activity!

In addition to our local parks, wetlands and woodlands, the Zoo is a fantastic place to see native birds. Our lushly planted grounds, featuring a diversity of native trees and plants, attract plenty of winged wonders from warblers to waterfowl to raptors. Last year, I even personally witnessed a bald eagle flying over the Zoo. Be on the lookout especially along the edge of Swan Lake, by the Native Plants Garden, and in the Wolf Woods exhibit area. Who says the Zoo is just for viewing exotic wildlife?

Mama wood duck and her ducklings on Swan Lake (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

Mama wood duck and her ducklings on Swan Lake (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

Migratory birds face many challenges along their journey, one of which is finding safe places to rest and refuel on the way. Why not make your space a more bird-friendly place? Whether you have a large backyard or just an apartment window, you can make a difference. For example, you can go wild by landscaping your yard with native trees, bushes and flowers or simply offer native plants in window boxes. Set up bird feeders and baths, and keep your cat indoors (these non-natural predators kill billions of birds every year).

Goldfinch at a bird feeder

Goldfinch at a bird feeder

Here at the Zoo, we have embarked on a two-year process of renovating the public space within the Wings of the World exhibit (aka Bird House) to enhance our ability to connect guests to nature through our feathered friends and encourage them to become better bird neighbors. Though you won’t see any permanent changes to the building until next spring, we are well into the research and planning stages, and we’d love to hear from you.

  • How would you describe your connection to birds?
  • Do you have a great bird story to share?
  • What do you think we could do in the bird house to arouse your interest in birds and motivate you to become more aware of what’s going on in the bird world around you?

Your feedback will help us create the best experience possible!

(This project is made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.)

May 14, 2016   No Comments