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Samantha: The Grand Old Lady of the Cincinnati Zoo

Today we celebrate Samantha the gorilla’s 45th birthday!

Sam and Samantha

Sam and Samantha

There are about four reptiles living at the Zoo today that have estimated ages older than Samantha, but she is the oldest animal with a confirmed birth date and the oldest non-reptile. Daughter of the legendary founder gorillas King Tut and Penelope, Samantha was born here on January 31, 1970. She and another gorilla, Sam, were born about a week apart and they were the first two gorilla babies born and raised at the Cincinnati Zoo. They were hand raised with the assistance of Good Samaritan Hospital, hence the names Sam and Samantha.They were huge celebrities featured in dozens of articles, photos, postcards and fanfare.

Samantha has been here to experience all of the changes in philosophy that have transformed the Zoo from an old school menagerie to a modern day zoo. Born in the old Ape House in 1970 where the gorillas lived inside year round, Samantha moved to the first naturalistic outdoor gorilla habitat anywhere, Gorilla World, in 1978.

Gorilla World (Photo: Dave Jenike)

Gorilla World (Photo: Dave Jenike)

She has experienced innovations in animal nutrition from a high fruit-based diet to today’s high variety bulky green fiber-rich nutritionally balanced diet. She has also experienced the start of comprehensive animal enrichment efforts at the Zoo that provide for animal welfare as much as their physical needs. Over 10 years ago, she was here when we began formal operant conditioning programs at the Zoo as well.

Samantha has also experienced the change over from primarily pulling baby gorillas for hand-rearing to encouraging mother-rearing through improved husbandry and social behavior management. She is the best mother gorilla in the history of the Zoo and has given birth to six gorillas. Samantha’s first daughter, Madge, was born in the early 1980s. She was named after the late great iconic long time Zoo Volunteer Madge Van Buskirk.

Samantha with one of her six babies

Samantha with one of her six babies

Probably the most intelligent gorilla at the Zoo, Samantha is one of the most socially savvy gorillas, too. She has long been the strong matriarchal leader no matter which individuals are in her group. Samantha has lived with over 36 individual gorillas including: Sam, Gigi, Ramses, Kamari, Amani, Rosie, Penelope, Hatari, Tara, Mahari, Bibi, Madge, Muke, Mlinzi, Babec, Ndume, Kweli, Harry, Jackie, Tufani, Colossus, Kima Kubwa, Chaka, Samson, Chewie, Mara, Kijito, Kicho, Cecil, Shanta, Jomo, Bakari, Asha, Anju, Gladys and Mondika. In recent years, she has toned her leadership role back some, but is still respected among the other gorillas.

Samantha has served as an inspirational ambassador for both ex situ and in situ gorilla conservation programs and she is revered among the primate staff and her followers. I even named my daughter after her. (By the way, if you ever should name your daughter after a gorilla, apparently you should not tell her fourth grade class that fact during a visit to the Zoo. I thought it was cool, but being called “gorilla girl” by mean little boys can be a hard thing to live with, I hear.)

At 45 years old, Samantha still seems to be going strong. She is engaged in all of our programs, including operant conditioning, and is one of the best students. In recent years, she has been trained for awake cardiac ultrasound exams and the ticker is looking good. Samantha has seen it all and hopefully she sticks around for a long while to see a whole lot more.

Samantha and her son, Samson

Samantha and her son, Samson

January 31, 2015   1 Comment

Saving Animals in the Wild: The Zoo’s Top Field Conservation Efforts of 2014

Happy New Year! As we look back on 2014, let’s reflect on some of the Zoo’s significant contributions to wildlife conservation in the field this past year:

Nasha and cubs snoozing on the  savannah

Nasha and cubs snoozing on the savannah

Helping Lions Thrive in Kenya’s South Rift Valley

Since 2011, the Zoo has partnered with the African Conservation Centre and the South Rift Association of Land Owners in Kenya on the Rebuilding the Pride program. This community-based conservation program combines Maasai tradition and modern technology to restore a healthy lion population while reducing the loss of livestock to lions in Kenya’s South Rift Valley. Once down to a low of about 10 known lions in the area, the population has grown to more than 65 lions in 2014. This past April, a lioness named Nasha gave birth to another litter, this one containing three cubs. That the population is growing in the South Rift Valley at a time when lion populations are severely declining across the continent overall is significant and a testament to program’s community-based approach.

Sumatran rhinos at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Indonesia

Sumatran rhinos at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Indonesia

A Giant Step Forward for Sumatran Rhinos in the Wild

The Zoo has been committed to saving the Sumatran rhino for 25 years. Despite the devastating blow of the loss of our female rhino, Suci, back in March, the Zoo continues to work to conserve and protect the species. In 2014, a Debt-for-Nature deal was struck between the United States and Indonesia. In return for lowering the debt Indonesia owes to the United States, it will commit nearly $12 million towards the conservation and protection of critically endangered species, including the Sumatran rhino, and their habitats over the next seven years. The debt swap was made possible by a contribution of about $11.2 million from the U.S. government under the Tropical Forest Conservation Act (first introduced by Ohio Senator Rob Portman in 1998) and $560,000 from other organizations funneled through Conservation International. The Zoo was proud to help secure this funding by pledging a major gift.

Pollinating American chestnut trees with cryopreserved pollen

Pollinating American chestnut trees with cryopreserved pollen

Saving American Chestnut Trees with Cryopreserved Pollen

The magnificent American chestnut tree once ranged over the entire Eastern United States, but was almost entirely obliterated by blight by the mid-twentieth century. Over the years, breeders have been working to develop a resistant tree, and one of their key tools is pollen. American chestnut pollen rapidly declines in viability so maintaining important lines of pollen from year to year is difficult. In 1993, pollen was cryopreserved (frozen) in liquid nitrogen at the Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW). Last spring, some of that pollen was removed and used to successfully pollinate trees at the American Chestnut Foundation’s farm in Virginia. Paternity testing will be done at CREW this winter, but the indications are very good that cryopreservation can indeed maintain pollen viability for at least 20 years—a fact that should provide a new tool to those working to save this majestic American tree.

Kea Conservation Trust staff conducting kea research (Photo: Nigel Adams)

Kea Conservation Trust staff conducting kea research (Photo: Nigel Adams)

Committing to Kea Conservation in New Zealand

Over the past few years, the Zoo has supported the Kea Conservation Trust’s (KCT) efforts to protect and study New Zealand’s mountain parrot, the kea, in the wild. In 2014, the Zoo stepped up its efforts with a commitment to support the Kea-Community Conflict Response Plan, a multi-year proactive community-focused conflict response and resolution program. Funds from the Zoo support a key personnel position, the Community Volunteers Coordinator, who can respond to conflict situations that arise. Funds will also enable KCT staff to enhance their conflict resolution skills by participating in a Human-Wildlife Conflict Collaboration Workshop. Additionally, Zoo aviculturists will join the KCT team for kea nest monitoring and field work over the next couple of years.

Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, CEO of Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization, installs a camera trap in Bhutan. (Photo: Steve Winter)

Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, CEO of Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization, installs a camera trap in Bhutan. (Photo: Steve Winter)

Pledging Support for Panthera’s Tigers Forever Initiative

The Zoo is committed to ensuring the survival of endangered tigers of which there are fewer than 3,200 remaining in the wild. In 2014, we have pledged multi-year support of the tiger conservation efforts of Panthera, the leading international wild cat conservation organization with a mission to ensure the future of wild cats through scientific leadership and global conservation action. To ensure the tiger’s survival, Panthera works across Asia with numerous partners to end the poaching of tigers for the illegal wildlife trade, prevent tiger deaths due to conflict with humans and livestock, and protect tiger prey species and habitat. Through their program, Tigers Forever, Panthera works to protect and secure key tiger populations and ensure connectivity between sites so that tigers can live long into the future.

Wetlands in restoration at EcOhio Farm

Wetlands in restoration at EcOhio Farm

Restoring Native Wetlands and Wildlife in Mason, Ohio

In 1995, a 529-acre farm in Mason, Ohio, now called the EcOhio Farm, was willed to the Zoo with the guideline that it could never be developed unless it is to further the mission of the Zoo. Over the past few years, the Zoo has worked to restore 30 of the farm’s acres to its original state of a wet sedge meadow, providing refuge for a diversity of native wildlife. Since restoration began in 2012, drainage tiles have been removed and more than 200 native plant species and thousands of trees have been planted on the site. The wetland is returning to its natural state very quickly. Already, it has attracted more than 135 native bird species, including bald eagles, bobolinks and killdeer, which would never have been there when it was a cornfield. Though not currently open to the public, walking trails and a small education center may be implemented in the future to provide opportunities to explore the wetland.

Cincinnati Zoo gorillas, Asha and  her infant, Mondika, named for the field conservation project (Photo: Michelle Curley)

Cincinnati Zoo gorillas, Asha and her infant, Mondika, named for the field conservation project (Photo: Michelle Curley)

Strengthening our Support for Gorillas in the Republic of Congo

Over the past 20 years, the Zoo has partnered with the Nouabale Ndoki Project (NNP) in the Republic of Congo, which includes the Mbeli Bai Study, the longest running study of the critically endangered western lowland gorilla. The Zoo also supports work in an area called Mondika where gorillas are habituated for up close research and ecotourism. Habituation is a process through which the wild gorillas become accustomed to and tolerate the presence of people that enables researchers and tourists to observe them up close. The Zoo recently helped facilitate the habituation of a second group of gorillas, and entered into an agreement in 2014 to support the habituation of a third group over the next three years. Special thanks goes to Gorilla Glue, our official gorilla conservation sponsor!

All of these projects and more couldn’t happen without your support of the Zoo. Here’s to you and the Zoo making more great strides for wildlife conservation in 2015!

January 7, 2015   No Comments

Saving Scarlet Macaws in Guatemala

One of the largest and most brilliantly colored macaws, the scarlet macaw inhabits the tropical forests of Central and South America. Despite its large range, scarlet macaw populations in Central America suffer greatly from the pet trade, hunting and habitat loss. The Zoo supports scarlet macaw conservation in Guatemala through the Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Centre (ARCAS).

Scarlet macaw (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

Scarlet macaw (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

ARCAS collaborates with other organizations to ensure the survival of the scarlet macaw within the Mayan Biosphere Reserve through the Macaws Without Borders consortium. In addition to rescue and rehabilitation of wildlife, ARCAS also conducts environmental education activities as well as breeds scarlet macaws with the aim of reintroducing them to bolster the wild population, which is estimated at fewer than 150 scarlet macaws in Guatemala.

ARCAS entrance sign

ARCAS entrance sign

ARCAS initiated its scarlet macaw breeding program in 2004 at the Rescue Centre. Since then, it has successfully fledged two to four birds a year for a total of 45 so far. It has had to overcome obstacles including attacks by Africanized bees and margays, thefts and parasitic infestations of nest boxes. There are now nearly 100 scarlet macaws at the Centre (captive-bred and rescues), an important genetic stock for future reintroduction efforts. ARCAS is currently laying the groundwork to establish an ongoing release program in the Sierra Lacandon National Park where it plans to release up to six macaws per year to reinforce the severely depleted population in the park.

A breeding pair of scarlet macaws at the Centre

A breeding pair of scarlet macaws at the Centre

Flight cage at the Centre

Flight cage at the Centre

Funds supplied by the Zoo have been used to construct an incubation house for chicks requiring special care and new flight cages that enable the fledgling birds to fly and strengthen their muscles in preparation for their eventual release into the wild. The Zoo also funds field trips for local students to visit the ARCAS center and learn about the scarlet macaw program.

Scarlet macaw fledgling

Scarlet macaw fledgling

January 2, 2015   No Comments