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Monday, August 29, 2016

Vultures get their day

Posted by: Susan Burchardt, Zookeeper

Turkey vulture Modoc at Woodland Park Zoo. Photo by Dennis Dow/WPZ.

Vultures are common—found all over the world except Antarctica and Australia—and yet are frequently overlooked or misunderstood.

Here in the United States we are lucky to have three species of these beautiful scavengers: the black vulture, the turkey vulture and the critically endangered California condor. Condor numbers are slowly creeping back up. Once down to 22 individuals there are now about 430 condors.

The picture is a little darker in other parts of the world. Asian vulture populations are beginning to stabilize after dramatic losses in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In Africa, carcasses are being poisoned to prevent soaring vultures from alerting rangers to the presence of poachers. This with other issues has caused several species to drop to near critically endangered levels.

Vultures are nature’s recyclers. Modoc takes that job quite seriously. Photo: Dennis Dow/WPZ.

A few years ago, educators got together and started celebrating International Vulture Awareness Day. Worldwide, it’s become a tradition on the first Saturday of September. We here at Woodland Park Zoo celebrate at the Raptor Center with our 30-year-old turkey vulture, Modoc.

There will be crafts and games and lots to learn about vultures from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, September 3. Come join us in celebrating our bald-headed friends!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Tiger rangers put eyes on the forest

Posted by: Fred Koontz, PhD, Vice President of Field Conservation

In my last blog post, you read a story about my recent trip to Malaysia, which included a visit to our Harimau Selamanya (“Tigers Forever”) conservation project area. As I wrote to you, I left feeling daunted at the sheer scale of resources needed to save the critically endangered Malayan tiger, yet hopeful about our collective power to save them, together.

Malaysia's Greater Taman Negara Region spans 3 million acres, three times the size of Washington's Olympic National Park. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

The Good News: Our efforts are working! Woodland Park Zoo's partnership with Panthera, the international wild cat conservancy, and Malaysian non-profit Rimba combines resources to stop the illegal killing of tigers. In just two years, rangers from Malaysia's Department of Wildlife and National Parks, with support from our team of 14 dedicated researchers have removed more than 10 snares and helped apprehend 18 poachers. Their daily presence alone deters illegal hunting—poachers know the forest is being watched.

The Bad News: The number of known wild tigers outside our project area continues to drop. More boots on the ground are needed to protect tigers in our 250,000-acre project area AND to scale up our efforts.

You Can Help

You follow this blog because you love wildlife. I ask you then to consider helping to expand poacher patrols and put more boots on the ground and eyes on the forest.

Give $19 to sponsor a ranger

Just $19 American dollars fund a day's operations for a ranger in Malaysia. Every $19 equates to a new day of protection for wild tigers, preserving their majestic beauty 24 hours at a time for generations to come. Please consider sponsoring a ranger like Jasdev, whose father instilled a great love of nature in him at a young age, which drives him to put himself on the line each day to save tigers in his country. Watch this video to hear his story.

With fewer than 350 Malayan tigers surviving in the wild, your support can help save this species from extinction.

Thank you for joining us in the fight.

Eko, one of three male tigers at Woodland Park Zoo.

There is a tiger in a forest that has survived thanks to support from people just like you. Thank you for loving tigers and for supporting our work to protect these critically endangered animals.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Lion Guardians give us something to celebrate this World Lion Day

Posted by: Amy Dickman, PhD, Ruaha Carnivore Project, a Woodland Park Zoo Partner for Wildlife

Lioness with cubs spotted by a remote research camera. Photo: Ruaha Carnivore Project.

Lions are one of Africa’s flagship species, but their numbers have halved in the last 20 years, with around 20,000 remaining. This means there are now fewer wild lions left in Africa than rhinos. Lions have disappeared from over 90% of their original range, and now only six large populations remain. One of those is in Tanzania’s Ruaha landscape, which is estimated to hold around a tenth of the world’s remaining lions.

Many lion killings in the Ruaha landscape occur for cultural reasons, where young men hunt lions in order to receive accolades, gifts and female attention from within their communities. To reduce these killings, we have been working with the Lion Guardians organization in Kenya, and adapting their model for the Ruaha landscape. The Lion Guardians approach is to select and train the most influential local warriors, and employ them to liaise with their communities and stop lion hunts from occurring.

Conflict Officers with the Ruaha Carnivore Project. Photo: Ruaha Carnivore Project.

They also help householders reinforce their bomas using traditional methods, help find lost livestock (thereby helping villagers and reducing the chances of carnivore attacks and killings), monitor the presence of lions and other wildlife, and chase lions away from households if people feel in danger. This job provides them with status and wealth without killing lions—and we now also host traditional dancing events so that men can dance with young women without needing a lion hunt to do so.

An improved boma. Photo by Jon Erickson/Ruaha Carnivore Project.

This has been very successful around Ruaha—by the end of 2015 we had 14 warriors working across seven village zones. They had prevented or actively stopped 28 lion hunts, and had fortified over 330 bomas using densely packed thornbush. 5,492 livestock were reported as lost to the Guardians, and they managed to find and safely return 5,279 (96%) of them. The value of this recovered stock to local households was over US $750,000—a hugely significant amount in these poor pastoralist societies. In addition, the Guardians regularly monitored village land for lion presence, and saw tracks of lions on 992 occasions, as well as directly seeing lions 133 times.

The Ruaha Lion Guardians team underwent a rigorous certification procedure during 2015, and we are proud to say they passed, so are now ready to become independent from the main Lion Guardians organization. This will allow the model to become even more well-suited to the specifics of the Ruaha situation, so we are excited about developing this program further throughout 2016.

All this work is having significant success around Ruaha. We are seeing reduced livestock attacks, increased community benefits, and reduced carnivore killings. However, effective conservation requires action at a huge scale, so we are proud to have co-founded the Pride Lion Conservation Alliance this year, where we are partnering with Ewaso Lions, Lion Guardians and Niassa Lion Project and working together to conserve carnivores across much of East Africa.

A large, male lion is photographed by a remote research camera. Photo: Ruaha Carnivore Project.

The work that Dr. Amy Dickman is doing to protect large carnivores has resulted in the Ruaha Carnivore Project becoming a Woodland Park Zoo Partner for Wildlife project this year. Partners for Wildlife projects take a comprehensive approach to conservation by incorporating habitat and species conservation, research, education, capacity building and local community support.

Every visit to Woodland Park Zoo supports this kind of work; every visit to Woodland Park Zoo helps save wildlife.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Research cameras catch scavengers in the act

Posted by: Jim Watson, Wildlife Research Scientist, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife & Woodland Park Zoo Living Northwest conservation program

Pop Quiz: Scavenger Squad

Can you identify each of these typical Northwest scavengers? 
Bonus points if you can name which one is the top dog (at least for a few minutes).

We'll reveal the answer at the end of this story. Photo: Matt Orr.

This past winter we completed the fifth year of our study to investigate the feeding behavior of golden and bald eagles at carrion using remote cameras known as camera traps. Our interest is to better understand feeding rates of eagles on carrion, which is a likely source of lead fragments that eagles ingest, eventually poisoning them. 

We are working cooperatively with Dr. Matt Orr, a researcher at Oregon State University conducting similar research that emphasizes the importance of ravens in finding carrion and attracting other scavengers. Even when ravens arrive at a carcass before other scavengers, they may have to wait to eat until someone with fangs or a sharp beak and talons opens the carcass.

Scavenger pecking order may be determined by who has talons or fangs, but sometimes it's determined by who is the biggest or hungriest. Could you name all the members of the scavenger squad? More on that in a bit; after all, there are other photos from our study worth a closer look.

As you can imagine, sorting through thousands of photographs and recording data can become pretty laborious, forcing the poor biologist to take a break every now and then to rest their eyes and back, but feeding behavior by scavengers at a carcass is a 24/7 activity. When the sun goes down, diurnal birds go to roost, but a lot of scavengers are just becoming active. This means that the carrion left on the ground at the end of the day may be gone in the morning. Sometimes the animals that scavenge at night can be surprising, but glowing eyes and bushy tails are a dead giveaway.

Scavenging great horned owl. Trail Cam photo courtesy Bob Fischer

Scavenging fox. Trail cam photo courtesy Matt Orr

Scavenging cougar. Trail cam photo courtesy Matt Orr

Common “scents” says these are scavenging skunks. Trail cam photo courtesy Mark Vekasy

Back to the pop quiz: here are the members of the scavenger squad revealed, with the golden eagle in its place as top dog over the carrion.  

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Woodland Park Zoo collaborate on work being done by Research Scientist Jim Watson, focusing on golden eagle territories affected by 2014 and 2015 wildfires. That research includes information on the condition of nests, prey and habitat. In addition, Jim is looking at the effects of lead contamination on golden eagles, as well as juvenile and adult golden eagle movements and range use. The research is part of Woodland Park Zoo’s Living Northwest conservation program that links animal conservation, health and sustainability in our bioregion.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Butterfly Wings coloring contest: winners announced!

Posted by Kirsten Pisto, Communications

Last month, in celebration of the new Molbak's Butterfly Garden, we asked artists of all ages to show us their most creative designs with the Butterfly Wings coloring contest. As 569 beautiful entries rolled in, we realized that picking the winners would be a daunting task!

To help us narrow down the contestants, we invited the entire zoo staff to vote for their favorites. After eight hours of voting, we finally have our winners. Drum roll, please...

Adults (13 years and older)

Grand prize winner: Melissa Jeffers, 21, “Butterflies in the Forest”
Melissa Jeffers, "Butterflies in the Forest." Melissa will receive the grand prize: a tour of Molbak’s Butterfly Garden with entomologist and butterfly expert Erin Sullivan and a private afternoon tea with cookies for up to six people. $50 Molbak’s gift card.

Runner up: Elissa Clough, 13, “The Butterfly Garden”
Elissa Clough, “The Butterfly Garden.” Elissa will receive the runner up prize: a basket of summer items from the ZooStore and a $25 Molbak’s gift certificate.

Children (ages 7-12)

Grand prize winner: Chloe Zhan, 10, “Exotic Wildlife”
Chloe Zhan “Exotic Wildlife.” Chloe will receive the grand prize: Overnight Adventure, Research After Dark, at the zoo for one child and one adult and a $50 Molbak’s gift certificate.

Runner up: Vivian Rice, 12, “Free to fly”
Vivian Rice, 12, “Free to fly.” Vivian will receive the runner up prize: Woodland Park Zoo t-shirt and $25 Molbak’s gift certificate. 

Children (ages 2-6)

Grand prize winner: Breckon Vanbuecken, 4, “The Fortress of Solitude”
Breckon Vanbuecken,  “The Fortress of Solitude.” Breckon will receive the grand prize: ZooParent plush and animal adoption kit. $50 Molbak’s gift certificate.

Runner up: Evie Manges, 5, “Buzz Buzz Garden”
Evie Manges, “Buzz Buzz Garden.” Evie will receive runner up: Woodland Park Zoo t-shirt and $25 Molbak’s gift certificate. 

Honorable Mentions
With so many wonderful pieces of art, we'd also like to share our list of honorable mentions. Here are a few more that really caught our eye!

Kayla Powlesland, 19, "PokeGarden"

Eden Benavides, 7, "Eden's Garden

Olivia George Blanchard, 3, "Butterflies, butterflies!"

Alice Graf, 4, "Butterfly Meadow"

Milly Ware, 9, "Butterfly Wings"

Nicholas Thio, 3, "Butterflies in my garden"
Sydney King, 6, "Butterfly meadow"

Dhriti Patel, 5, "Butterfly Wings"

Makena Easley, 12, "The Cosmos of Butterflies"

Rozzy Ware, 11 “Flutters at Twilight.”

Thanks to all the artists who entered the contest and special thanks to Molbak's Garden and Home for their generous donation of prizes! Remember to check out the Molbak's Butterfly Garden, free with zoo admission. 

Are you a participant looking for your artwork? You may pick up your Butterfly Wings coloring entry at Woodland Park Zoo’s West Membership office any time between August 5 –August 19 during the hours of 9:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. Monday – Sunday. You may be asked to show some form of I.D. If you are picking up artwork for others, please have their first and last name as well as their age to help facilitate an easy pick up. Thank you for participating! 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

5 days in Malaysia: making tiger conservation real

Posted by: Fred W. Koontz, PhD, Vice President of Field Conservation
Photos by: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo except where noted

Taman Negara National Park.

Each year, I travel to Malaysia to meet with colleagues working on Malayan tiger conservation. These trips are essential for good partner communications and ensuring the zoo’s field support is effectively placed. But my most recent visit in June was something quite different. This time, I traveled to Malaysia with 13 of the nation's top tiger zookeepers in tow, including those from National Zoo, Brookfield Zoo, San Francisco Zoo and Zoo Miami, to name just a few.

The group included Woodland Park Zoo tiger keeper, Christine Anne, who had been eagerly preparing for this trip for what seemed like a long time. Christine knew this was an opportunity to see tiger habitat, learn about threats to their survival, discuss conservation solutions with tiger experts and meet local people sharing land with big cats. Equally important, this trip would make Christine an even more informed tiger expert, and give her firsthand knowledge to share with visitors to the zoo’s Banyan Wilds exhibit.

Also joining the expedition was zoo photographer, Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren. I was delighted to be camera-free for once and see the forest beyond my Nikon’s viewfinder! Jeremy’s photos enhance this article, and keep an eye out for his upcoming videos featuring interviews with our partner biologists and rangers.

Woodland Park Zoo Tiger Keeper Christine Anne.

WPZ photographer Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren (left) recording interviews with tiger biologists. Photo: Fred Koontz/WPZ.

Tiger Team members, along with visitors to our Banyan Wilds exhibit, have learned previously of Woodland Park Zoo’s and Panthera’s technical and financial support of the Malaysian non-profit Rimba. But most of our big cat fans are not aware that the zoo also supports MYCAT (the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers) through our Wildlife Survival Fund. MYCAT is an alliance of the Malaysian Nature Society, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, Wildlife Conservation Society-Malaysia Program and WWF-Malaysia, supported by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia for joint implementation of the National Tiger Conservation Action Plan for Malaysia. 

One of MYCAT’s key citizen conservation activities is known as a Cat Walk. A Citizen Action for Tigers (CAT) Walk is an anti-poaching, anti-deforestation surveillance walk conducted by volunteers. The walks are guided treks through the Sungai Yu Tiger Corridor, a priority biodiversity area adjacent to Taman Negara National Park. Cat Walkers participate in tiger conservation activities by exploring the forest, reporting signs of illegal activity, disarming snares and checking camera traps to monitor the presence of wildlife. These walks and other MYCAT citizen conservation efforts are empowering members of the public to help save forest habitat and Malayan tigers, whose wild population—found only in Peninsular Malaysia—is about 300. 

Understanding the importance of well-informed educators all over the world, MYCAT created a special Cat Walk for tiger keepers and zoo docents called Realm of the Tiger. Our spirited bunch was only the second ever set of Realm Cat Walkers, preceded by a group of keepers from Singapore Zoo.

Meropoh, Malaysia, our expedition base.

After long flights from the states, our group gathered in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital. After a day of city sightseeing (including, of course, a visit to the National Zoo to see a tiger up close), we set off with our MYCAT guides for the 4-hour van ride to the village of Meropoh, our expedition base near the Sungai Yu Tiger Corridor and west entrance of Taman Negara National Park. From here we set off for five days exploring and protecting the Park and Tiger Corridor.

Tiger expert and MYCAT General Manager Dr. Kae Kawanishi served as our expedition leader. She was assisted by field biologists Ashleigh Seow and Suzalinur Manja Bidin. 

Kae is a tiger conservation hero. For her PhD research at University of Florida, she conducted the first major Malayan tiger ecology and population study in Taman Negara in 1998. She has gone on to play a leadership role in drafting and implementing Malaysia’s tiger conservation strategy. After a few days in the rugged and steeply-hilled Taman Negara, we were in awe of her endurance and optimism.

Dr. Kae Kawanishi always at home in tiger forest!

Each day, our group set out to walk the forest, looking for signs of tigers, other wildlife and poacher activity. Cat Walkers provide volunteer “boots and eyes” on the ground. Taman Negara is a million acres (the same size of Washington’s Olympic National Park); the government cannot afford to hire the ideal number of professional rangers for the Park and Tiger Corridor. So, as MYCAT likes to say, with Cat Walks, everyone can participate in active wildlife conservation. 

Not one snare was found in our five days trekking! Kae explained that because of regular Cat Walks over the past five years, there are fewer poachers in the Sungai Yu Tiger Corridor now. More signs of large mammals are even reappearing! If we had found snares or other signs of illegal activity, MYCAT would have reported the find to local law enforcement for investigation.

Christine and the trekkers had the opportunity to set up and retrieve images from camera traps, devices essential to discovering and monitoring tigers in dense tropical forests where scientists rarely see live tigers or most mammals.  After all her years spent in the forest, even Kae has never seen a wild Malayan tiger!

Zoo keepers serving as volunteer observers searching for illegal activity.

Christine sets a camera trap in hopes of detecting a wild tiger.

No tigers detected on our trip, but here is an example from the same trail I walked! Photo: MYCAT

While hiking in the Sungai Yu Tiger Corridor, we were impressed to see areas of elevated highways that serve as safe passages for wildlife moving from the Park to nearby forest reserves.  

Sadly, we also came across cut forests, chopped and burned to the ground without necessary permits to make room for agriculture. It was sobering as we stood among the dead stumps of what once were the trees of a lush and life-supporting forest. Happily, Kae described a new re-planting project that is being undertaken with MYCAT staff, volunteers and local villagers.

Elevated highways serve as safe wildlife crossings. Photo: Fred Koontz/Woodland Park Zoo.

A logged forest looks more like a moonscape than a living landscape.

Just one night into our jungle trek, our exhausted group crawled into jungle hammocks under the protection of mosquito nets and rainflies. Eventually we fell asleep under the incredible night sky, strewn with millions of brilliant stars normally hidden in our urban skies at home. 

Here away from it all, we could dream of how the world must have once looked, and how it could look again if people choose the path to save this incredible forest and its inhabitants.

The condition of the night sky is a measure of wilderness.

All too soon, our adventure came to an end. It was a harsh trek through diverse and challenging terrain, but one thing was constant over the five days: tiger talk. Keepers affectionately described the tigers they care for like our own Eko, Liem and Olan, while the field biologists told stories of wild tigers. There were many moments of laughter and some of tears.  

Regardless of where they are from, these 13 keepers and tiger experts have in common a deep love and respect for one of the most beautiful and fierce animals on earth. And each works every day to help tigers survive. Walking through the realm of the tiger provided our keepers with an experience they will communicate to millions of people who come to our zoos. But perhaps just as important was the building of the bonds among our U.S. keepers and their Malaysian conservation colleagues, fueled by passion and resolve to save wild tigers.  

Ever try to catch a fish with your bare hands?
Time spent in tiger forest: makes conservation real!