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Focus on Conservation

Lincoln Park Zoo magazine March 2003

From elephants to spiders, many of the animals chosen for the Regenstein African Journey exhibits are threatened or endangered.

In fact, each endangered animal housed in Regenstein African Journey has a connection to African conservation initiatives supported by Lincoln Park Zoo: this connection is the central message of each exhibit in the building. The zoo aims to educate visitors about both the animals’ plights and the complexities involved in conserving the animals and their habitats. In addition, by selecting a range of species — from rhinos and giraffes to orb-weaving spiders and Madagascar giant hissing cockroaches — the zoo seeks to emphasize that both conservation and biodiversity go far beyond the large mammals that often dominate zoos. As a result, the core species chosen for the building include the endangered wild dog, cichlids, black rhino, and pygmy hippo.

Wildlife conservation is Lincoln Park Zoo’s mission. Since 1999, the zoo has supported more than 30 conservation projects in Africa alone through the Africa/Asia Fund. In the past three years, Lincoln Park Zoo has supported projects for many of the core species of Regenstein African Journey, including the wild dog, African elephants, and black rhinos.

Although the conservation fund grants are not large, a little bit of money, given at the right time, goes a long way. Small grants to researchers and conservation biologists early in their careers enable them to improve their studies and helps them in their efforts to become conservation leaders.

The Africa/Asia Fund, for example, is supporting Kenyan researcher Charles Warui at the University of Nairobi, who is studying the ways in which spiders might be indicators of environmental change and degradation. A by-product of this project will be an inventory that will indicate the type and population size of each species found in savannah habitats.

It is important to support researchers like Warui, says Dr. Steve Thompson, Vice President and Emily and John Alexander Chair of Conservation and Science, both for the spider data Warui is gathering, and because he is a Kenyan working in Kenya.

“It is critical to support people doing conservation research in their own countries whenever possible,” says Thompson. “These are the future leaders of their own country’s conservation efforts.”

Conservation research projects include both basic field research and education programs for communities impacted by animal populations. Field research on elephant group structure, for example, illustrates what happens when elephant migratory patterns are disrupted or blocked by farms, roads or cities. This same research can be used to help establish protected areas and create elephant corridors.

Likewise, zoo-supported field research is examining the impact of hunting and poaching on elephant social structure. Elephants live in a matriarchal society, with the old female leading a family group consisting of her daughters and their offspring. Males remain apart from females and only return to the group’s periphery for breeding. The matriarchal leader is thought to be a repository of migratory routes, watering holes and food sources necessary to cope with seasonal changes in elephant habitats. A matriarch’s larger tusks make her a target for poachers and, when elephants migrate or range outside protected areas, a priority for legal trophy hunting. By understanding the role and importance of matriarchs, hunting programs and anti-poaching efforts can be designed with maximum benefit and minimum detriment to an elephant population.

African wild dogs, also on display at Regenstein African Journey, are another subject of a Lincoln Park zoo-funded field research project. In spite of its beautiful markings and complex social behavior, the wild dog is considered vermin in its native habitat and is highly endangered. Farmers shoot the dogs, believing they kill domestic livestock and/or reduce the abundance of game species. It perhaps doesn’t help the dogs’ reputation that they hunt during the day and disembowel their prey. Wild dogs are susceptible to canine distemper, transmitted from domestic dogs, which is also thought to be a significant factor in decline of wild dog populations throughout east Africa. Lincoln Park Zoo is supporting field research into the economic damage caused by wild dogs in the Samburu area of Kenya. The researcher, Rosie Woodroffe from the University of California at Davis, is working to quantify the actual, rather than perceived, economic damage caused by wild dogs. In Samburu, the wild dog population was virtually extinct but has now recovered to more than 100 individuals. Although a growing population of wild dogs might suggest increased conflict with farmers, Woodroffe’s work indicates that Samburu wild dogs favor natural prey and do not pose a significant threat to livestock.

While elephants and even wild dogs are quite visible in the African landscape, Other endangered animals are quite difficult to study because of their reclusiveness. Pygmy hippos, for example, are very secretive and hard to study; and they are threatened and possibly becoming endangered as they become increasingly hunted for food.

“We don’t know much about pygmy hippos in the wild; they are quite solitary,” says Thompson. “They spend the day in rivers and feed at night. They seem to be browsers (feeding on twigs and shoots) rather than grazers (feeding on grasses).”

The pygmy hippo is also vulnerable because it has a small range within western Africa that includes parts of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. Many of these countries are torn by political strife and conservation efforts have been suspended. Lincoln Park Zoo is, however, leading the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) Species Survival Plan® (SSP) for this species. Developed by the AZA, national SSPs are plans of action that use important genetic information about more than 100 species, helping to ensure diversity among some of the world’s most endangered animals. Lincoln Park Zoo participates in more than 30 SSPs.

Another vulnerable species, the Great Rift Valley Lakes cichlid, presents an aquatic example of the complexities of conservation. Cichlids are a classic example of evolutionary adaptation that has been compared by some to the genetic diversity found among terrestrial fauna on the Galapagos Islands. Of the 450 known cichlid species in the lakes, some feed on the same food but at different depths within a given lake, other cichlids feed at the same depth, but eat different things.

As the human population around the lakes has grown, the cichlids have been overfished. At the same time, pollution from industry, as well as erosion from deforestation nearby, threaten the lake’s ecology. Then several decades ago, the Nile perch was introduced to these lakes as a game fish. Unfortunately, this six-foot-long fish loves to eat cichlids. A combination of all these factors has resulted in the extinction of an estimated 200 cichlid species. How can conservationists preserve the diversity of the cichlid without damaging the local economy?

“It doesn’t work to just say, ‘don’t do this, stay away from this protected area’,” says Thompson. “Meaningful conservation efforts need the input of biologists, business planners, economists, anthropologists and sociologists. People must be familiar with the native populations and the economic and cultural constraints of the region, as well as the endangered animals.”

Lincoln Park Zoo will continue to expand its conservation efforts. Elizabeth Lonsdorf recently became the zoo’s first director of field conservation; she will coordinate the zoo’s participation in conservation projects in Chicago and around the world. To start, Lonsdorf will launch new Lincoln Park Zoo-led projects on chimpanzees and African lions. In addition, other Lincoln Park Zoo staff members will participate in risk-assessment modeling in epidemiology, population biology programs, behavioral analyses, and studies of the reintroduction of zoo-born specimens into the wild.

Lincoln Park Zoo is at the forefront of conservation and science, and Regenstein African Journey will continue to advance those efforts by integrating conservation education and naturalistic exhibitry of endangered species in the heart of Chicago.

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