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Dreaming of Africa and a Future in the Wild for African Painted Dogs

The pups are out! The pups are out! It’s been a long time waiting for the weather to break so the African painted dog pups could come outside. For the past few months, only their keepers were allowed to access the holding area. As soon as the rest of us employees heard the pups were finally out, many of us made a beeline for the exhibit like giddy schoolchildren on a field trip!

"What are you doing down there, Mom?" (Photo: DJJAM)

“What are you doing down there, Mom?” (Photo: DJJAM)

As I sat and marveled at the antics of our 10 boisterous, playful pups exploring their outdoor yard for the first time, my thoughts wandered to what it would be like to actually see painted dogs in the wild. I’ve been fortunate to travel to Africa a few times—once to lead an Earth Expeditions course in Namibia, another time to lead a course in Kenya, and also to pick up my daughter whom we adopted from Ethiopia. Each time, I experienced amazing landscapes and wildlife from hippos to rhinos to lions, but never did I encounter painted dogs. This isn’t surprising considering the African painted dog is one of the most endangered carnivores in Africa.

If I were to travel to Africa with the goal of seeing painted dogs, Ruaha National Park and the region surrounding it in Tanzania would be the place to go. Not only does the third largest population of painted dogs live there, it’s also the home base of the Ruaha Carnivore Project (RCP), a conservation program that the Zoo supports.  RCP works with local communities to ensure the survival of carnivores and people in the region.

Ruaha landscape (Photo: Marcus Adames)

Ruaha landscape (Photo: Marcus Adames)

As it happened, the same day the pups first went out on exhibit, we also had a visit from RCP’s Director, Amy Dickman, who updated us on the latest news on the project. Amy is phenomenal and a very charismatic and inspiring leader, so much so that she was one of three international finalists for the prestigious Tusk Conservation Award last fall. This award recognizes individuals who have undertaken outstanding, inspirational conservation work throughout Africa. Although Amy did not win the award (this time), she did get to have afternoon tea with Prince William and it generated a lot of attention for the project, including this fabulous short film.

Amy Dickman and her team meets with the Barabaig tribe

Amy Dickman and her team meets with the Barabaig tribe

As mentioned in the film, Amy has done a fantastic job winning the trust and participation of the local Barabaig people. It used to be one of the few ways to gain status and wealth in the tribe was to kill lions, but that’s changing. RCP has found a way to provide tangible benefits of protecting carnivores to the community. RCP provides education scholarships and materials, veterinary supplies and health care clinics, and those villages that can show they have the most wildlife in their area receive the greater rewards.

How exactly do they determine which areas have the most wildlife? It’s ingenious, really. RCP has started giving villagers their own camera traps and training them how to set up and manage them. For each predator or prey species captured on camera, they receive a certain number of points – 2,000 points for an eland, 3,000 for a hyena, 4,000 for a lion, 5,000 for a painted dog, and so on. And if the picture has a whole pack of painted dogs in it like the one below, they get 5,000 points for each individual dog!

African painted dogs in Ruaha

African painted dogs in Ruaha

Villagers are now more motivated to find ways to coexist with carnivores. Instead of killing carnivores to keep them from attacking their livestock, for example, they are building better bomas, or corrals, and using guard dogs to prevent depredation.

Puppies that will grow into great big guard dogs

Puppies that will grow into great big guard dogs

In just five years, Amy’s work has resulted in a 60% decline in livestock depredation, a significant rise in people recognizing benefits from wildlife, and most importantly, an 80% decline in carnivore killing. Amazing! As RCP looks to the future, I hope the Zoo continues and strengthens its relationship with the project.

As for me, I may never see African painted dogs roaming the African savannah (though I’m not giving up hope), but knowing that we support great programs like RCP makes me optimistic about their future in the wild. For now, I am content to watch our pups trip over their paws and grow into their giant ears here at the Zoo. I hope you will join me!

"My ears are bigger than yours!" (Photo: DJJAM)

“My ears are bigger than yours!” (Photo: DJJAM)

p.s. The Zoo sponsors one of RCP’s field cameras. In return, RCP posts images taken by our Cincinnati Zoo Cam on a dedicated Facebook page; like the page to follow along!

 

April 20, 2015   2 Comments

A Study to Honor Suci the Sumatran Rhino

The loss of our female Sumatran rhino “Suci” to iron storage disease just over a year ago on March 30, 2014 was a devastating blow to the Cincinnati Zoo’s Sumatran rhino breeding program. Iron storage disease is an insidious disease affecting many wildlife species that are maintained in zoos, ranging from marine mammals to birds. In addition to Sumatran rhinos, black rhinos are susceptible to the disease, whereas white rhinos and Indian rhinos remain largely unaffected.

Suci

Suci

The disease is extremely challenging because we do not know how to prevent it, diagnose it or treat it. The only known cure for the disease is frequent, large volume phlebotomies (blood collection), but nobody knows how much blood to draw or how often it must be removed to keep a rhino healthy, and it is difficult to perform phlebotomies without anesthesia. The best method for monitoring iron storage disease is to measure serum concentrations of ferritin, a protein involved in iron transport and storage, but ferritin can be species-specific, so an assay for humans or horses may not work accurately in rhinos. Such was the case with our Sumatran rhinos.

Electrophoresis gel of isolated rhino ferritin

Electrophoresis gel of isolated rhino ferritin

However, thanks to a dear family committed to helping rhinos that wanted to make a gift in honor of Suci, CREW has embarked on a new study to develop an assay specific for measuring rhino ferritin. The first step – isolating the rhino ferritin protein – is complete, and our goal is to have a functional assay by this coming summer. Our hope is that the assay will be used to monitor iron storage status in many rhinos throughout North American zoos to ensure the disease is detected before the rhino becomes sick.

This project was made possible by the generous donation of Mr. and Mrs. Jeremy S. Hilton and Family.

(Reprinted from CREW Review Fall 2014)

April 3, 2015   4 Comments

Hand Rearing Kea: Behind the Scenes at Wings of the World

Here in the Wings of the World bird house at the Cincinnati Zoo, kea are all the hype this season. And this is with good reason. The success of the new interactive flight this past summer is noteworthy, but behind the scenes something just as exciting was occurring. The Wings of the World department includes an area off exhibit dedicated to incubating eggs and hand-rearing chicks.  This year we successfully hatched out and raised six kea chicks. Raising this species is a very time consuming process that requires the help of all the bird staff over the course of five months, from day one of incubation to fledging.

Artificially incubating eggs is a delicate endeavor. Eggs are fragile and sensitive; therefore it is vital to keep them in a clean environment with precise temperature and humidity settings. The bird department has four incubators dedicated to this, all set up for different species of birds that may require different parameters. Eggs are weighed and candled twice a week in order to closely monitor development. Candling is a technique used to see the developing embryo inside the egg. This technique indicates to keepers whether or not a chick is developing correctly, is in the right position for hatching, and when the hatching process has begun. Keeping track of weights is an indicator of whether or not humidity in the incubator needs to be adjusted. Kea egg incubation term is 21-28 days.

Kea eggs in the incubator

Kea eggs in the incubator

Once a chick has pipped (pierced the outer layer of the shell), it is moved to a different incubator where the temperature and humidity is ideal for hatching. It can take anywhere from 24-72 hours for a chick to hatch. All six of our kea hatched out on their own and proved to be strong and healthy when they were immediately standing upright and exhibiting a feeding response.

Kea chick mid-hatch

Kea chick mid-hatch

After a few hours, the chick can be moved to another enclosure, called a brooder. The brooder keeps the chick’s environment at a warm stable temperature. Keepers use washcloths and towels rolled up in a bowl to simulate a nest. As chicks grow and down feathers come in, temperatures and enclosures are modified to fit their needs.

One-week-old kea chicks in brooders

One-week-old kea chicks in brooders

Kea chicks are fed a specialized formula that meets all their dietary needs. The formula is made up fresh at each feeding and fed through a syringe. Weights are obtained daily and detailed notes are kept to ensure the chick is gaining the appropriate amount each day and hitting developmental milestones. The keas are initially fed every three hours, six times per day. That makes for a long day for the bird keepers! When the chicks start to become very mobile and curious with their surroundings, solid food is offered. Whether they play in it, walk in it, or sleep in it, it’s a good experience for them to have access to solids.  The bird staff spends a lot of time hand-feeding different food items in different forms until chicks begin to show interest. Overall, the best method to wean chicks is to have an adult kea around to show them how a real kea does it.

Five-week-old kea chick sleeping in its food plate

Five-week-old kea chick sleeping in its food plate

Once the kea are fully feathered and starting to self-feed, we begin daily field trips to the kea exhibit and holding areas. This gives the chicks an opportunity to adapt to a new environment, explore, exercise, and learn how to behave around adult keas.  As the chicks become more comfortable in this new environment, the longer they can stay out. The length of the trips and the need for supervision from keepers all depends on how the kea seem to be adapting. Overall, it takes around four months to hand-raise a kea and then fully integrate it into the flock. This is on par with a kea chick that fledges around 3-4 months of age in the wild.

Juvenile keas have a yellow cere (fleshy pad above the bill) that makes them distinct from adults.

Juvenile keas have a yellow cere (fleshy pad above the bill) that makes them distinct from adults.

Raising kea takes a lot of time and effort from the bird staff, but the reward is great. The Cincinnati Zoo is the only AZA-accredited institution to hatch out and raise kea in the last five years. What an accomplishment!  Next time you are at the Zoo, stop by the free flight aviary next to Wings of the World and see if you can spot one of our six juveniles, all grown up.

 

March 2, 2015   2 Comments