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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Meet Kwame: A new silverback coming to Woodland Park Zoo

Posted by Elizabeth Bacher, Communications

Male gorilla, Kwame, will become new leader of gorilla family group

We are very excited to welcome a new gorilla to Woodland Park Zoo this September: a male named Kwame (KWA-may) who will be coming from Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Kwame is 18 years old—right in the age range when males typically assume the role of silverback, which is the head of a gorilla family group.
Keepers at Smithsonian’s National Zoo think Kwame is one of the most handsome silverbacks they've ever seen. We are inclined to agree. Photo credit: Skip Brown/Smithsonian’s National Zoo
Silverbacks, which are so named because of the silvery hairs that grow in when an adolescent male comes of age, play a critical role in gorilla families. They protect, they lead and they maintain peace in the group. It’s not natural for an established gorilla family to live without a silverback. The Gorilla Species Survival Plan, one of many conservation programs that spans across accredited zoos and aquariums, made the recommendation to move Kwame to Seattle to provide stability for one of our groups.
Nadiri and Yola late last year. Photo credit: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo
2-year-old Yola, 22-year-old Nadiri who is Yola’s mom, and 17-year-old female Akenji have been without a silverback to lead their group since 40-year-old Leo passed away suddenly in March. Since his death, the zoo has been searching for another silverback to step into Leo’s role.

If you have followed little Yola's story, then you know all about the incredibly dedicated team of animal keepers who are, without a doubt, world-class animal care experts and profoundly compassionate and determined humans. Their expertise will again be key to navigating Kwame's introduction to this group and we'd like to thank them for their dedication and energy for the smoothest and most comfortable transition for these animals. They are in the best care.

A gentle giant

Kwame wanders through the grass at Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Photo credit: Skip Brown/Smithsonian’s National Zoo

According to keepers who’ve known Kwame his whole life, becoming a leader is a role he is more than ready to fill. Kwame was born at Smithsonian’s National Zoo where he currently lives in a bachelor group with his younger brother. Kwame’s name originates from West Africa (Ghana and the Ivory Coast) and means “born on a Saturday” because he was born on Saturday, November 20, 1999. He is nearly full grown at 315 pounds and the care staff at Smithsonian’s National Zoo say that Kwame really is a gentle giant. He may look intimidating, as he loves to show off with theatrical displays. But once he settles in, they tell us we will see that he is a stoic, tender, sensitive and intelligent gorilla. 

“We are confident that he will be a capable and appropriate leader of his new group at Woodland Park Zoo. All of the social experiences that Kwame has had during his life have prepared him to succeed in this new role,” said Becky Malinsky, assistant curator of primates at Smithsonian’s National Zoo. 
Kwame is ready to take on a new leadership role. Photo credit: Skip Brown/Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Getting adjusted

When he gets here, Kwame will live behind the scenes in the gorilla dens, and he won’t be alone. One of his keepers, who he knows well, will travel with him and will stay for a few days to make sure he’s comfortable. Plus, he’ll have immediate visual access to his new gorilla group to ease his transition and help him get to know the females who will make up his new family. Sharing the same physical space could happen in a matter of days, or weeks depending on a number of factors.

Woodland Park Zoo’s mammal curator, Martin Ramirez, says that introductions between new gorillas take time and patience—allowing for our animals to move at their own pace. “As we do with all of our animal introductions, we’ll follow the social and behavioral cues of our gorillas. We hope to have Kwame in the public outdoor exhibit in the fall,” said Ramirez. 
Kwame is a stoic, tender, sensitive and intelligent gorilla. Photo credit: Skip Brown/Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Until then you can click here to see video of Kwame (along with other gorillas at Smithsonian’s National Zoo) enjoying one of his favorite treats: popcorn balls, which are small plastic balls filled with popcorn. As the gorillas tip and shake them, a popcorn treat comes out of a hole in the side of the ball. The video also shows the gorillas enjoying other enrichment items including hay feeders, boomer balls containing diced fruits and veggies, and burlap bags filled with hay and diced food items.

All gorillas are endangered, but there are several ways you can help protect them.

All gorillas are threatened by habitat loss, wildlife trade, hunting, disease and human conflict. Critically endangered and losing ground every day in the wild, gorillas need our help. Woodland Park Zoo supports conservation efforts for the western lowland gorilla and mountain gorilla through the Mbeli Bai Gorilla Study and Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

Make your voice heard to protect the Endangered Species Act

Click here to add your name to a letter opposing rules changes currently under consideration that would weaken the Endangered Species Act.

ECO-CELL recycling stations are at both zoo entrances. Photo credit: Woodland Park Zoo

Recycle cell phones for gorillas

Come recycle your handheld electronics with us through ECO-CELL to preserve gorilla habitat. By reclaiming the minerals in your electronics and diverting them from landfills, we can reduce demand for mining in gorilla habitat. Bring any old cellphones, MP3 players, or tablets hanging around your house to the zoo and drop them off at our ECO-CELL stations located at both zoo entrances.
A gorilla ZooParent adoption directly supports daily care and conservation around the world. Photo credit: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

Adopt a ZooParent gorilla

ZooParent adoptions—which can include a plush toy—are the perfect gift for budding conservationists. Your ZooParent adoption helps us provide exceptional care for all of Woodland Park Zoo's amazing animals. Plus, your support contributes to our conservation efforts at the zoo and around the world.

Visit the zoo

Every visit to Woodland Park Zoo helps support our conservation efforts. We know many of you are eager to visit Kwame and watch as Yola, Nadiri and Akenji welcome him to their group. As time allows, and the gorillas settle in, we'll let you know when Kwame and his crew are on exhibit together—and we'll keep you up to date on their progress right here. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Rhino Lookout Art Contest Inspires

Posted by Kirsten Pisto, Communications

Earlier this summer, in celebration of the opening of Assam Rhino Reserve, we asked artists of all ages to show us their vision of a healthy future for greater one-horned rhinos with the Rhino Lookout coloring contest.

Over 350 amazing entries rolled in, and we realized that picking the winners would be very tough. Here are the very creative and inspiring winners...

Grand Prize: 
KIDS AGES 2-7: Gavin Foglesong (5) 

"They are living creatures and they are alive. And you need to save them when they’re in trouble. If you’re there, try to stop the bad guy." 

We couldn't agree more, Gavin, and we loved your optimistic pot of gold representing a healthy future for rhinos. Wonderful drawing! Gavin will receive a ZooParent rhino adoption package and certificate for an up-close rhino experience.

Grand Prize: 
KIDS AGES 8-12: Ally Munoz (12)

"It is important to protect them from poachers, habitat loss, and other threats. Rhinos are critically endangered. If rhinos go extinct, the survival of other animals would have a deep impact. Also the ecosystem would be unbalanced. The area would be less grazable. We need to protect the rhinos."

We're not sure we've ever seen a more adorable rhino crash (group). Beautiful drawing, Ally, and you are right, without rhinos the world would be a very unbalanced place. Ally will be invited to a keeper tour and up close experience with greater one-horned rhinos Taj and Glenn.

Grand Prize: 
AGE 13+: Jiali Sheng 

"The critically endangered status of these animals are caused by our past ignorance. To me, being able to protect rhinos, their habitat, and the entire ecosystem of wildlife they are a part of, is an indication that humanity is capable of learning from our mistakes. To make mistakes is human, but what matters is how we respond to them. I want us to respond to this with the utmost urgency and dedication to prove our humanity."

Wow, first of all, beautifully said. Jiali, we were blown away with your painting of rhino habitat and Assam Rhino Reserve. What a creative interpretation, and so inspiring! Jiali will be invited to a keeper tour and up close experience with greater one-horned rhinos Taj and Glenn.

And here are our Runners Up...

Kamden Raab (6) 
"Rhinos are an endangered species. Without rhinos other animals will be effected in their ecosystem."

Eloise Greely (5) 
"I want them to do cool things like rainbow horns and live on the beach in the future."

Katherine Usoltsev (6)
"Rhinos are in danger. People are killing them because of their horns. They are using the horns as a medicine or as a trophy. One way to protect rhinos is to cut the horn. I want to save rhinos because they are smart and part of our rainbow planet Earth!"


Camryn Morris (12)  
"They are incredible animals. There’s no other animal like a rhino. I know that tons of people care about rhinos, but some hurt or kill the rhinos. We must stop that now because they don’t deserve it. I hope someday I can raise a lot of money to donate to protecting endangered species."

Michael Usoltsev (10) 
"It is important to save rhinos because rhinos are almost extinct. Rhinos are special because they are relatives of mammoths (one interesting theory). Rhinos are basically mammoths that evolved to one horned mammoths then to one horned rhinos. It is important to save them from extinction (we may be saving mammoths!) It is also important for me because rhinos are part of our beautiful planet. I want my kids and grandkids and other generations to enjoy this amazing animals forever. I love coming to Woodland Park Zoo to see these smart animals. I hope one day in my life I will know their population is not in danger anymore. The planet Earth without the rhinos will never be the same."

AGE 13+:

Mark Jones 
"I love rhinos! These majestic, beautiful animals have been around for eons, and they deserve our help so they will be around for many, many more years. Looking forward to seeing the rhinos at the zoo!"

Sarah Chambers
"Many animals, including rhinos, help shape our ecosystems. Without rhinos, the world might look extremely different. Rhinos graze on grasses, and that carves paths for other animals. Each animal is like an essential piece to an enormous puzzle. Without one piece, the puzzle is unbalanced and incomplete."

All of our Runners Up will receive a rhino-themed prize from our ZooStore.

Thank you to all of the incredible artists who participated in our Rhino Lookout contest. Your optimism and hope for this species matches your talent and creativitythe world is a better place with your artwork and sentiments in it. 

Taj the rhino at Assam Rhino Reserve. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Many thanks for a fantastic plastic-free July!

Posted by Daphne Matter, ZooCorps Intern
Photos by Daphne Matter, Woodland Park Zoo.

Woodland Park Zoo staff pledged to reduce or refuse single-use plastics during Plastic Free July! With support from Seattle Public Utilities, we then invited you to join us by taking the Plastic Free for Me pledge. Here is a recap of what we learned, what we found difficult to give up and a few surprising plastic confessions.

Participants will receive a #PlasticFreeForMe water bottle sticker.

Thank you to all those who participated in our Plastic Free for Me campaign! 236 of you joined us in our collective effort to lessen our impact on the environment during the month of July. By reducing your consumption of single-use plastics and taking this pledge, you have done your part to save wildlife from the great threat that plastic pollution poses.

Why is it so important to keep plastic waste out of our oceans? Plastic presents a grave issue in our world today, especially for marine life. It is not biodegradable, meaning it never breaks down. Plastic only breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces, meaning that the large majority of all the plastic that has ever been made (9 billion tons!) still exists on our planet today. Our rapid consumption of single-use plastics (like water bottles, bags, straws, packaging, and more) is only creating more of this pollution. 

Our amazing ZooCorps interns who helped out with Plastic Free July and Plastic Free For Me! Maddie and Daphne definitely earned their stickers!

Although large plastic litter is very harmful, the majority of the plastic in the oceans is less than a quarter of an inch long. These tiny pieces of broken down plastics are called microplastics. Microplastics make their way up the food chain and contaminate it, including much of the seafood we eat! Even with the few plastics that are recycled, they are almost always only recycled one time before it becomes waste, and most of plastic waste ends up in the environment, posing a huge threat to many marine ecosystems and species worldwide.

We also went plastic bottle free at the zoo this summer. You'll find water filing stations across the zoo!
By the end of our July campaign, we had received 236 pledges! A common trend we had not expected was how many people’s confession included having reusable bags in their car, but forgetting to bring them into the store when they shopped. This means that that although the reusable bag may just be in the parked car outside, they ended up still walking away with  single use plastic bags. There were also a large number of iced coffee drinkers who use single use plastic cups every day. It's so easy to forget to make these simple actions into habits.

Some of our favorite plastics confessions were:
  • Admiral shimmering sea turtle “I’m a plastic straw fiend! I buy boxes of single use bendy straws and take extras from restaurants. 😣”
  • Admirable Floaty Washington Water Wizard “I always take my reusable bags to the grocery store but forget when I go into Target.”
  • Outstanding Floaty Seal Sympathizer “I always use a plastic straw so I don’t get soda in my mustache.”
  • Admirable Diverse Big Cat Conservationist “Too many iced coffees!”
  • Marvelous Coastal Sea Turtle Accomplice “In every way! Plastics at the grocery store, forgetting my reusables, not speaking up. Takeout, takeout, takeout!"

The great news is that with over 200 pledges taken, we have put a stop to these practices for one entire month and have learned how easy it is to do better in the future! 

Participants will receive a limited edition #PlasticFreeForMe water bottle sticker to proudly share their success with others! The stickers are durable, waterproof and made from 100% recycled materials from PURE Labels, by Elevate Packaging. 

We would love to see your stickers on social media! Share a photo of your reusable water bottle and sticker on your next adventure and tag #woodlandparkzoo. 
In addition to the great work you all did with #PlasticFreeFor Me, zoo staff were also challenged to do more. During Plastic Free July, 214 of Woodland Park Zoo's staff and volunteers stepped up to the plate and took on the challenge of reducing their single-use plastic consumption. Throughout the month of July: Over 1,200 pieces of litter were kept out of Puget Sound Over 300 zero-waste meals were made Over 400 disposable containers were kept out of landfills Over 1,500 minutes were spent learning about alternatives to single use plastic... and so much more!

Across America, 77 other zoos and aquarium teams joined us to take enormous strides towards reducing single-use plastic waste. Together, all 78 teams kept over 68,000 straws and utensils out of landfills, made 9,000 zero-waste meals, over 14,000 disposable cups and 16,500 single use containers out of landfills, 2,000 petitions signed and conversations had with public officials supporting reducing single-use plastics, and tens of thousands of other actions. Whew!

Now we’re heading into the month of August and Plastic Free For Me is technically over, but we challenge you to keep these practices up going forward to help save our oceans. Even if you missed the challenge in July and didn’t make a pledge, you can always start being an animal hero now by bringing reusable containers when ordering out, attending a local cleanup, buying unpackaged produce and minimally packaged products, or learning about plastics and the ways you can do your part.

Keep those plastic free habits going and make a big difference for wildlife!

River otter! Photo by John Loughlin/Woodland Park Zoo.

Coexisting with Carnivores: Middle School Students Become Citizen Scientists

Posted by Kelly Lindmark, Education

Coyote picture captured by a camera trap as part of a student research project.  Photo: Issaquah School District and Woodland Park Zoo.
Woodland Park Zoo is on a new mission, to save wildlife and inspire everyone to make conservation a priority in their lives. We think that starts right here, in the Pacific Northwest, where we are working with Issaquah School District 6th grade Life Science students and teachers to investigate local carnivores and use their findings to make recommendations for peaceful coexistence to their community.

Wild Wise: Coexisting with Carnivores offers students a chance to develop their science inquiry, civic literacy and leadership skills as they investigate solutions for living with the carnivores in their communities. This spring, students and teachers at five Issaquah middle schools worked with zoo educators to develop and carry out scientific investigations of local carnivoresblack bears, bobcats, coyotes, cougars and raccoonsand how these species are meeting their needs in the landscape we share. In June, student groups from across the school district came together to share their investigation findings and recommendations with their community. Here’s a peek into their work this past spring:

Learning from the Community

Students began their projects by gathering information on carnivore sightings in their community by asking their families, friends and neighbors for their observations. By plotting these sightings on a map, students were able to look for patterns and ask questions about how carnivores are using natural and human-made landscape features to meet their needs.

Community map of local carnivore sightings from Pine Lake Middle School. Photo: Kelly Lindmark/Woodland Park Zoo.

Pacific Northwest Carnivore Program at Woodland Park Zoo

In March, students visited Woodland Park Zoo for two programs with zoo staff. While exploring the Northern Trail, students learned about Pacific Northwest carnivores including brown bears, black bears and gray wolves. In the multimedia, interactive Wild Wise program, students learned about the wildland-urban interface, human-carnivore interactions across the landscape, and research methods they could use for their upcoming projects. 

Beaver Lake Middle School students touring the Northern Trail. Photos: Emily Felty/Woodland Park Zoo.

Turning Questions into Investigations

With their zoo exploration and community data in mind, each class generated a comparative investigation question about how carnivores are using the surrounding landscape. With the support of their teachers and zoo staff, each class planned research methods to gather the data needed to answer their question. This year, classes chose a variety of methods including camera traps (cameras with infrared and motion triggers to capture pictures of wildlife), online surveys, community mapping, and walking surveys to look for signs of carnivores and their prey.
Zoo staff facilitate a discussion of methods with students.  Photo: Emily Gogerty-Northrip/Woodland Park Zoo.

Western Wildlife Outreach Trailer Visit

Western Wildlife Outreach (WWO) is a local non-profit promoting increased understanding of large carnivores through education and community outreach. WWO brought their Carnivore Outreach Education Trailer to each school, where students explored biofacts such as pelts and skulls, heard tips for coexisting with different carnivores, and asked WWO staff questions to help with their ongoing research projects.  

WWO Carnivore Trailer Visit at Pine Lake Middle School.  Photo by Alicia Highland/Woodland Park Zoo.

Reviewing Results and Sharing with the Community

After data collection was completed, students worked in small groups to discuss, analyze, and interpret their data. Based on their findings, student groups identified the key takeaways and actionable recommendations for community members and prepared posters and presentations to share their projects with zoo staff and the community. Zoo staff visited each class to hear the final results from each group.

On June 6th, students, teachers, families, and community members came together for an All School Event showcasing student projects. During a poster session, students shared their posters and answered questions about their projects. Eleven student groups were selected to represent their schools and gave presentations about their research process, findings and recommendations to their community. 

Student projects included investigations of carnivore use of hiking trails, interactions between carnivores and trash cans, and carnivores interact with household gardens. One student group investigated whether carnivores are seen more often in newer or older neighborhoods. Their data showed that carnivores were seen more often in older neighborhoods, so their recommendations were focused for residents of these older neighborhoods to engage in proactive behaviors such as keeping a bear bell on outdoor pets, keeping trash indoors and learning what to do if you encounter a carnivore.

Students shared posters and presentations with the community at the June All School Event.  Photo: Katie Remine/Woodland Park Zoo.

All told, over 175 projects were created this spring! While learning more about local carnivores, students developed a deeper understanding and appreciation for these species. Throughout their research process, students gained real-world experience with a variety of scientific practices including asking questions, planning and carrying out investigations, analyzing and interpreting data, and communicating their findings. Finally, students leveraged their new expertise to be a voice for peaceful human-wildlife coexistence in their community.

We would like to thank the students and educators for their thoughtful investigations, dedication and creativity with their projects. We are grateful for the generous support of the Issaquah Schools Foundation, the Institute of Museums and Library Services: Museums of America program and Carter Subaru that make this program possible. We would also like to thank The Hugh and Jane Ferguson Foundation, the James Lea Foundation and the Tulalip Tribes Charitable Fund for their support of this project. 

Wild Wise: Coexisting with Carnivores is part of the larger Coexisting with Carnivores program, a collaboration between Woodland Park Zoo and the City of Issaquah that provides Issaquah residents with opportunities to appreciate local carnivores and the practices that can make coexistence easier—both for people living in the community, and the animals that call Issaquah home. Look out for Coexisting with Carnivores events in Issaquah this year, and come chat with Woodland Park Zoo staff at the Issaquah Farmer's Market on September 15 and 22 to learn more. 

Friday, July 27, 2018

From Cloud Forest to Reef: CEO Alejandro Grajal takes us to Papua New Guinea with the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program

Posted by Kirsten Pisto with President and CEO, Alejandro Grajal PhD

A tree kangaroo checks out the hikers. Photo by Alejandro Grajal/Woodland Park Zoo.

Woodland Park Zoo President and CEO, Alejandro Grajal, PhD, recently returned from his trip to Papua New Guinea, where he explored the community and conservation impacts of Woodland Park Zoo's Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program (TKCP). His mission? Experience first-hand the TKCP community and landscape that coexist in remarkable ways, bring back some of their stories, and change the batteries on three radio collars attached to three tree kangaroos that live nearly three stories about the forest floor.

Woodland Park Zoo’s own Lisa Dabek, PhD, started the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program over 20 years ago. Her dedication to saving species has created a network of partners and communities that protect over 160,000 acres of tropical cloud forest, villages, plantations and grasslands, as well as 100 acres of coral reef in the YUS Conservation Area. The story of how this charismatic marsupial has become the flagship for protecting an extraordinary variety of rare species is astounding.

Now, let's talk with Alejandro about what he has experienced through this community-based model of conservation stewardship and why he's so optimistic about its success.

Tree kangaroo habitat in the YUS Conservation Area of Papua New Guinea. Photo by Alejandro Grajal/ Woodland Park Zoo.

KP: You recently returned from Papua New Guinea’s remote YUS Conservation Area. Tell us about the region, what surprised you about your visit?

AG: It was a fantastic trip. I have been to many different places, but this was very interesting, very unusual. The thing that surprised me most about the visit was, first, the region where we were is incredibly well conserved. I saw nearly pristine primary cloud forests—the kind that are very hard to find anywhere in the world. Second, how generous and proud the people of the YUS ecosystem are about their conservation ethic and their conservation planning. The work they are doing to figure out the balance between conservation and economic progress and health—it's a struggle just like for anybody—but they were very optimistic. That was very refreshing to me.

I have seen a significant number of conservation projects. I have to say when you compare how much the community has been involved and look at the amount of biodiversity that is being preserved—it's very remarkable. The fact that Woodland Park Zoo has nurtured this program makes me very proud.

Preparing for a celebration. Photo by Alejandro Grajal/Woodland Park Zoo.

KP: You traveled with Director of the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program Lisa Dabek, journalist Penny LeGate and nature filmmaker Joe Pontecorvo. What insights or new perspectives were you able to experience with these travel companions?

AG: Going with Lisa was an eye opener. I have known Lisa from the Seattle-perspective, but seeing her on the ground—the endless energy that she puts into everything, and the admiration and comradery that she gets from her counterparts in PNG was a true joy to see. She is no question an amazing leader; she has built trust, friendship and confidence around her and that is beautiful.

Traveling with Penny and Joe, and Joe's wife Nimmida, was also an interesting look at storytelling. Joe is a seeker of images, very skilled, very detail-oriented. Penny has a unique talent to find the human stories in this larger context. The way she connects with people and is able to distill these human stories out of this complex project is exciting. Their perspectives are very valuable and bringing this type of multimedia storytelling back to Seattle is key. This will allow us to invite others to join our journey—not only in PNG, but around the world.

Dr. Lisa Dabek (top row, second from right) with the tree kangaroo radio collar team. Photo by Alejandro Grajal/Woodland Park Zoo.

Joe and Nimmida Pontecorvo prepare drones for a different camera angle. Photo by Alejandro Grajal/Woodland Park Zoo.

Alejandro Grajal and Penny LeGate celebrate a successful hike high in the cloud forest. Photo by Lisa Dabek/ Woodland Park Zoo.

KP: The Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program is a benchmark model for conservation not only in protecting wild places and wildlife, but in creating a community of conservation-minded partners. The success of this program is clearly linked to the people. You've mentioned the human story; can you speak more to that?

AG: In the end, what we are trying to do as a center for empathy here at the zoo, is not very different than what Penny was trying to do in PNG as a producer. Both are trying to convey the different perspectives of the struggles and individual stories of a person or animal. These stories can be framed in a way that relates to personal emotions. Narration is important. I hope that these stories we brought will produce in the viewer a feeling of true empathy for the people who are truly acting as conservation heroes. If others see that folks around the world are making these lifestyle changes that benefit the environment, then these changes feel more accessible.

Future conservationists! Photo by Alejandro Grajal/Woodland Park Zoo.

KP: Tree kangaroos are naturally elusive and live in the highest treetops. Were you lucky enough to see one?

AG: Oh yeah! We got super lucky. The main objective of the trip was to change the radio collars on these three animals because the batteries were dying. Luckily, we are getting new high-tech GPS enabled radios that will arrive in October. So, this was a temporary fix, because once you lose the battery, you lose the animal, so changing the collars was very important. Not only did we catch three of them, but we also discovered a young tree kangaroo with one of the collared adults, which we also collared.

I had heard about tree kangaroos, and have seen them in zoos of course, but to see them in their natural environment with this kind of magnificent forest of mosses, ferns and orchids—the silence when you get into these primary forests, wow. The thing that you notice is that all the sounds come from this forest and otherwise there are no sounds from the outside. It’s almost poetic to see these animals in their own ecosystem. It’s one of those inspiring moments you live to live.

The local team we worked with was unbelievable. How they moved through the forest, the way they climbed the trees, and how incredibly attuned to the forest they were. It's nearly impossible to see these animals in the wild. They sleep on branches 28 feet above the forest floor on mossy clumps that are nearly the exact same color as the animal. The moss is bright orange, and unless the animal moves an ear or tail, there is no way you are going to spot it. We had to isolate the animal, so we were supported by Dr. Carol Esson, an Australian wildlife veterinarian, who has worked with the project several times. She made sure that the animals were safe and not harmed during the process. They are so incredibly fluffy, but also very, very wild. As usual, with wild animals, I am just in awe of their presence.

A wild tree kangaroo is caught, her radio collar batteries are replaced, and then she is released back into the tree tops. Photo by Alejandro Grajal/Woodland Park Zoo.

KP: What do you see as the next iteration of this project? Camera traps, data collection, technologies are always improving. What is the zoo's role in helping Lisa and TKCP move forward? 

AG: This is the first protected area in PNG, and it has also become an emblematic program for all protected areas in the country. Many organizations have tried and failed to accomplish this. This project is a living laboratory on how to conserve whole ecosystems and work with the local communities to achieve conservation results. That is huge. Yes, there are great improvements in tech and tracking, and we've recently come light-years ahead in understanding the connection between healthy forests and healthy people, but the bigger thing is truly saving these ecosystems. Preservation is key.

The vast majority of the country is in nearly pristine condition. Providing solutions between conservation and economic growth is truly important. How do we develop economic opportunities and save these magnificent landscapes? How do we use the YUS Conservation Area as a model to do the same in other parts of PNG? That is the future.

Gorgeous coral reefs skirt the YUS Conservation Area. Photo by Alejandro Grajal/Woodland Park Zoo.

Photo of the forest at dusk by Alejandro Grajal/Woodland Park Zoo.

The YUS Conservation Area took you to extremely remote cloud forests at 3,200 feet down to the protected reef where Papua New Guinea meets the sea. The island is an incredibly biodiverse landscape that hosts a rich array of creatures only found in these distinct ecosystems. What can you tell us about the importance of protecting living landscapes at this scale?

AG: So, what most people don't know, is that the YUS project is a giant triangle between three rivers in the Huon Peninsula. This area was actually isolated from PNG for millions of years and was finally connected to the rest of the island during the last 6 million years. The remarkable thing about the Huon Peninsula is that since it has been so isolated, it has even more unique biodiversity than the rest of PNG. Almost half the species living in Huon are unique to that very peninsula.

You are looking at a plant that is relatively common, such as a Schefflera (a common office plant), but here it is the unique Huon Schefflera plant. And there is a Huon Matchie's tree kangaroo, a Huon honeyeater, etc. In everything, from orchids to mammals, the level of endemic uniqueness is equivalent to Hawaii or the Galapagos, except that there are a lot more species here because the landscape is so untouched and vast. I hiked through forest so green it seemed like a fairy tale and snorkeled in reefs of equal measure—these landscapes are living, breathing things.

Photo by Alejandro Grajal/ Woodland Park Zoo.

KP: Can you explain how the zoo’s new mission to inspire everyone to make conservation a priority in their lives is linked to this project?

AG: PNG is probably one of the biggest carbon sinks in the whole world. It is incredibly productive.  The forest and the volcanic soil work like magic for cleaning our air. Our human existence relies on climate regulation.

The unique creatures who inhabit this landscape have intrinsic values we don't even know about. Who knows where the next modern drug or cure will come from. While I was there, there was a report of a new treatment for epilepsy derived from a species of spider discovered in Australia. If we lose these things, they are gone forever.

Lastly, this is our heritage. As humans, we must do this. As a fellow cloud forest citizen, Seattle sits in one of three largest temperate cloud forest ecosystems in the world. We are sisters to the region in PNG. We can learn so many lessons from the exercise of caring for this place and for each other.

Alejandro sketches a scene from the cloud forest. Photo by Lisa Dabek/ Woodland Park Zoo.

KP: You have traveled a lot in your career. Why is travel important to the work we do?

AG: The field is where I grew up professionally, I mean this is what I did for more than 30 years. The new thing for me is to be with a coat and tie—and not having to swat mosquitoes for a change! The forest is my element. I really loved being back there. I love to experience the whole feeling of being in the field—with all its discomforts, and its magnificence. Sometimes you forget that you make significant trade-offs. You may have a hot shower, but you may not enjoy the Milky Way on a moonless night in the middle of a pristine rain forest.

Sleeping quarters are cozy. Photo by Alejandro Grajal/Woodland Park Zoo.

KP: I think a lot of people in the Pacific Northwest can relate to that feeling. Besides being in nature, what about meeting new people? There is sort of an Anthony Bourdain element to the TKCP program, it’s a whole other world over there, but it also feels very relatable.

AG: One of the things Bourdain did was go beyond sharing food and recipes. He was sharing feelings, cultures, and conflict. Conservation is woven into all of that. Tree kangaroos are great, but they are just one ingredient in this complex story. People in PNG are trying to find a way in their own life. Is our culture going to survive? What are the values of our culture? Things are changing, how can we provide a better life for our children? What about our health? How can we make a balance of coexisting with tree 'roos and achieving our life's dreams? These questions are not much different than what we are struggling with here in Seattle. We have more in common than we think. What is the true story we want to share? We can tell it in a larger context, because in a sense, the basic questions are the same, those commonalities are strong.

Photo by Lisa Dabek/ Woodland Park Zoo.

KP: The Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program was started by Lisa Dabek over twenty years ago and has grown from a conservation program aimed at protecting its flagship species—a then little-known creature—into a robust and holistic program with conservation, education, health care and livelihood initiatives. Coffee has transformed the livelihoods of many of the villages with partnerships like that of Seattle’s Caffe Vita. How do you take your coffee?

AG: Black. I have always been attached to the biodiversity story of coffee. It’s one of these global commodities that has a very significant impact—positive or negative—on the environment. Shade grown coffee, sustainable, organic, is a very viable solution for many communities around the world. In PNG, they are able to both make a living in a high revenue product, but at the same time preserve a significant portion of the biodiversity component in their farms. It’s working and it works in many other parts of the world. It is a beautiful combination.  

Caffe Vita YUS coffee. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

KP: We’ve heard taro root is a staple in Papua New Guinea cuisine, did you try it?

AG: Haha, enough. There was plenty to eat. I even prepared a taro-root feast here in Seattle with Lisa and Penny, it was a fantastic meal shared with wonderful humans.

Hosts prepare a mountain-top feast! Photo by Alejandro Grajal/Woodland Park Zoo.

KP: You are back in Seattle. What did you bring home with you? Was there an "ahaa!" moment you had that might shape the way you see the zoo’s role in conservation?

AG: Travel brain is real. It's incredibly useful to be disconnected from those little screens that enslave us. It was great to be unplugged for a long enough period to reconnect with raw nature. Many of the comforts we take for granted are stripped away. No smartphone for 12 days allows you to detach yourself—all of a sudden the ping pong balls in your mind start settling. We need to tell stories and show people that conservation is not a pessimistic attitude, but one of great optimism. Conservation and saving species from extinction can feel heavy and daunting, but it is a combination of hope, community, innovation and energy that make it an extremely exciting field to be in.


We extend a huge thank you to all who welcomed our team to Papua New Guinea and for your continued conservation work and incredible energy around saving species. Learn more about Woodland Park Zoo's Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program and how you can join us. 

A tree kangaroo is about to be released back into its forest home after having its radio collar checked. Photo by Alejandro Grajal/Woodland Park Zoo.