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Giving rescued endangered plants a second home

Posted by: Peter Miller, Zookeeper with Katrina Lindahl, Horticulturist

Woodland Park Zoo provides a home for the critically endangered—animals and plants alike. After local authorities confiscated a number of endangered succulent plants, seized from a collector who illegally dug them up from their native habitats, we are proud to step in and provide the plants with a second chance to thrive.

Here, keepers and horticulturists work closely together all the time to choose plants for exhibits and zoo grounds. We look at factors like overlapping native ranges of plants and animals, connections in their natural history, and potential toxicity of plants to animals when making choices. 

Using these parameters, we have found appropriate new homes for the plants, all of which are listed as protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). These wonderful specimens have been incorporated into geographically-appropriate animal exhibits within the zoo’s Day Exhibit.

A small bontaka with the radiated tortoise. Photo by Peter Miller/Woodland Park Zoo.

Hailing from the island of Madagascar, bontaka (Pachypodium baronii) grows in open deciduous forests at low elevation. When full grown it can be over two feet in diameter at the base and slightly taller than a basketball goal. The spiky trunk makes it a formidable looking plant. Look for it in the radiated tortoise exhibit inside the zoo’s Day Exhibit.

Gila monster with rainbow cactus (left) and nipple cactus (right). Photo by Peter Miller/Woodland Park Zoo.

In our own desert southwest extending southward into Mexico lives the rainbow cactus (Enchinocereus pecinatus) and the nipple cactus (Mammilaria). The purple topped rainbow and the yellow flowering nipple cacti are both small, stumpy plants. These specimens now live in the rocky Gila monster exhibit inside the Day Exhibit.

East African stem succulent. Photo by Peter Miller/Woodland Park Zoo.

In the near future, the zoo will be adding the African shield-tailed lizard (Xenagama taylori) to the Day Exhibit, and with it will go a confiscated East African stem succulent (Huernia zebrina). This short, multi-lobed relative of milkweed pollinates with flowers that attract flies by emitting a scent similar to that of carrion!

Providing outstanding care to our animals and to our plants go hand in hand, and incorporating these beautiful and biogeographically relevant endangered plants into our exhibits tells a powerful story of what’s going on in the wild.

The endangered plants in the Gila monster exhibit share a similar story—loss of habitat are putting these species at risk of extinction. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

These rescued plants are all endangered due to loss of habitat and over collecting—some of the very same threats endangered animals across the globe face. It’s a good reminder that when we save habitat, we save animals, and when we save animals, we save habitat.