Sending out the dove

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 1997:

LOS ANGELES––Thirty circling
vultures are excellent news for the often
embattled Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego
Wild Animal Park. That’s because the vultures––California
condors, to be exact––are
now using their 10-foot wingspan to soar on
mountain air currents over southern California,
northern Arizona, and southern Utah.
Just 27 California condors remained
alive in 1987, when the last wild member of
the species was lured into captivity despite
militant protest from Earth First! and lawsuits
from the Sierra Club and National Audubon
Society––and the 1987 count was up slightly
from the low of 22, recorded in 1982. By
1985, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
decided to capture the whole population for
protected breeding, just nine wild condors
remained, along with 14 in captivity. There
are now 134 of the giant birds, some of whom
are fanning out more than 200 miles from
release sites, reclaiming habitat they haven’t
occupied in thousands of years.

Six of the 27 condors captured in
1987 are still alive and breeding, along with
offspring of the others, in pairs arranged so
that none of the 14 genetic lines identified by
DNA testing become dangerously inbred. The
breeding program has expanded to a third site,
the Peregrine Fund World Center for Birds of
Prey in Boise, Idaho.
California condors remain critically
endangered, after a 20,000-year decline that
followed the extinction of other giant animals
of the Ice Age epoch. In the 20,000 years
before that, they ranged over the whole of
North America. But their gradual restoration
to the wild may be the most visible success to
date for “Noah’s ark” conservation.
Some early condor releases failed
because the hand-reared birds remained
imprinted upon people, and after being turned
loose merely begged for food and entertainment
from other people. Other newly released
condors died from drinking antifreeze and
mishaps involving electrical lines.
But Los Angeles Zoo chief condor
biologist Kelly Sorenson and staff have
learned to avoid imprinting by rearing young
condors with puppets, if their parents prove
inept, and to minimize mishaps through aversive
training. While still in zoo flight pens,
the condors encounter a dummy power pole
that delivers a mild six-volt shock. Older condors
are enlisted as mentors to the young ones,
who teach them to recognize such potential
hazards as dogs, cars, and people with guns.
Of 15 California condors released
just north of the Grand Canyon in three groups
since December 1996, 11 survived in midNovember
1997. Two were recaptured due to
maladaptation. Two were killed, one in a
power line accident and the other after losing a
territorial fight to a golden eagle. State and
federal conservation plans call for two eventual
regional populations of about 150 condors,
with another 150 remaining in reserve in zoos.
All four California condors who
were released into the Ventana Wilderness last
year, near Big Sur, California, had to be
recaptured for more aversive conditioning, but
they were returned to Ventana in late
September 1997 with two other condors and
high hopes of success on the second try,
begun November 15. After the November
release, there were 19 condors over southern
California––the most in freedom in 15 years.
The next question is whether either
the California or Arizona wild population will
nest successfully. Since the newly released
condors are five to six years short of sexual
maturity, young aren’t expected before 2003.
Noah’s ark strategy
The Noah’s ark strategy was the formal
response of the American Zoo Association
to the 1972 Convention on International Trade
in Endangered Species and the 1973
Endangered Species Act. Together, CITES
and the ESA ended the Frank Buck “Bring ‘em
back alive” era, in which zoos continually
replenished their stock from the wild, and
introduced the era of AZA-managed Species
Survival Plans. The SSPs have a dual purpose:
to ensure that the limited stocks of endangered
animals in AZA member zoos replace themselves
without severe inbreeding, so that popular
animals such as gorillas, elephants, lions,
and tigers never go permanently off exhibit,
and to maintain––indefinitely––populations of
rare species so that even if they are extirpated
from the wild, they can be restored if and
when sufficient habitat can be protected.
From the start, the AZA preferred to
stress the conservation-and-restoration role
over merely maintaining creatures for exhibit.
Often cited by AZA representives was and is
the recovery of the American bison from just a
few dozen animals kept by the Bronx Zoo and
the National Zoo. But bison are essentially big
shaggy cattle. Cattle propagation was wellunderstood,
when the original Noah might
have lived. Bison habitat, too, was still plentiful
and largely undisturbed at the turn of the
century, when the restoration began. Indeed,
most of the destruction of bison had occurred
within the preceding 50 years.
Another zoo-assisted success seems
to be the slow but ongoing recovery of the
whooping crane, from just 21 in 1946 to more
than 300 now. Like the American bison,
whooping cranes were hunted to near extinction
within the memory of those who started
the restoration. Most whoopers now are wildhatched,
but the Calgary Zoo still augments
the wild population with annual releases of
offspring from a 20-bird breeding program.
Recovering less understood species
whose habitat is lost or severely fragmented
has been quite another story, so fraught with
setbacks that some zoo critics maintain the
whole notion is a sham, just another excuse to
keep wildlife in captive misery while turning a
profit. Exhibit A, they argue, is the 12-year
“breeding” loan of two pandas to the San
Diego Zoo, which is “donating” $1 million a
year to Chinese panda conservation projects to
have the only pair in the U.S.
The history of Chinese use of funds
for panda conservation is problematic, including
the diversion of World Wildlife Fund contributions
a decade ago into building a small
hydroelectric dam.
Pandas were a proven crowd draw,
demonstrated by the pair received by the
National Zoo in 1972, of whom only the male
survives, and the success of other pandas
received by various zoos on short-term loans
during the 1980s and early 1990s. But pandas
have never bred successfully in the U.S., and
indeed have bred successfully outside China
only at the Mexico City Zoo, where the elevation
is similar to that of their native habitat.
Advised by panda expert George
Schaller of the Wildlife Conservation Society
that panda loans might inhibit species survival,
since they remove pandas from the Chinese
breeding population, Interior Secretary Bruce
Babbitt delayed the San Diego Zoo deal from
mid-1993 until 1996, but then allowed the
pandas to arrive in September 1996, coincidental
with the stretch drive of the 1996 Bill
Clinton administration re-election campaign.
Florida failure
By contrast, there was no profit
prospect in sight for the failed White Oak
Conservation Center effort to recover the
endangered Florida panther through captive
breeding. A project of billionaire paper magnate
Howard Gilman, White Oak is wholly off
limits to the public. The White Oak panther
program commenced in February 1991, when
10 panther kittens were captured by the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service and taken to White
Oak. There, they enjoyed plentiful native
habitat and complete privacy in dense woods
alongside the Yulee River.
“When the program was initiated,”
USFWS Florida panther program coordinator
Dennis Jordan recently told Miami Herald
staff writer Cyril T. Zaneski, “it looked as if it
was the only hope for the panther. But we
continued to see problems of inbreeding, such
as heart defects and immune deficiencies. We
realized that we may be beyond being able to
save the panther using genetic material that
exists in South Florida.”
The Florida panther captive breeding
program ended in 1995. Attempts to reintroduce
the panthers used in the program to the
wild have been mostly unsuccessful. The current
restoration effort involves importing and
releasing closely related Texas cougars––and
raises a question as to whether the Florida panther
ever was a unique species, or just an isolated
and dangerously inbred subpopulation of
the puma, once native to all North America.
Hunters currently argue that because
of the hybridization, Florida panthers no
longer warrant their present level of protection,
and that lands adjacent to the Florida Panther
National Wildlife Refuge should therefore be
opened to deer hunting––putting humans into
direct competition with the remaining panthers
for prey, and increasing the likelihood that
panthers fleeing gunfire will bolt into the
highways that surround the site. Roadkills
have long been the leading cause of death
among Florida panthers.
High security
White Oak is one of several highsecurity
captive breeding centers scattered
around the U.S. that actually do the lion’s
share of breeding of highly endangered
species, working in association with accredited
zoos but well away from the many threats
associated with public presence: stress on the
animals, inappropriate feeding, accidental
import of deadly disease, and theft or poaching,
a real threat to some species even at protected
facilities. Some trophy hunters will
reputedly pay as much as $100,000 to shoot a
bongo, a type of African forest antelope, and
$35,000 or more to shoot an Argali sheep.
Palm Beach Zoo conservation director
Paul Reillo runs the Rare Species
Conservatory Foundation breeding center at a
site so private that visitors are reportedly asked
to keep the location top secret. Among the
species Reillo breeds are golden lion tamarins,
pygmy marmosets, bongos, and about a
dozen tropical birds, including the only 28
red-browed Amazon parrots in captivity, up
from 10 when the center opened in 1994.
Endangered species can still be
imported if zoos demonstrate that they are
being taken from the wild to advance conservation.
The SSP structure enables participants
to claim that they are not simply seeking novel
creatures for exhibit. Thus Kansas City Zoo
curator Conrad Schmitt was recently allowed
to import two female eastern black rhinos from
the Addo Elephant Park in South Africa, for
$90,000 apiece. About half the money was a
“donation” to the South African parks board.
The wild population of eastern black
rhinos has plunged from 65,000 to circa 2,400
during the past 40 years due to poaching. The
71 eastern black rhinos in North American
zoos would normally be enough to maintain a
captive population––but for reasons unknown,
of the 21 surviving rhinos most recently born
in North America, 17 have been male.
The London Zoo in April 1997
obtained two baby female one-horned rhinos
from the Royal Chitwan National Park in
Nepal through a similar deal, for essentially
the same reason: the zoo had male one-horned
rhinos, but no females of reproductive age.
The deal was protested in Kathmandu by about
35 Nepalese––a noteworthy number for a
nation with little tradition of public dissent.
Many AZA zoos also assist captive
breeding programs abroad. But captive breeding
abroad has had mixed results.
The Pretoria Zoo, Johannesburg
Zoo, and other zoos, parks, and game farms
in South Africa and nearby nations recently
formed the African Preservation Programme,
modeled after the AZA Species Survival Plans.
Recent APP successes included the
September 1997 first birth of a whitebacked
vulture and the June 1997 first birth of a bongo
at the Pretoria Zoo in South Africa, along with
the sixth birth there of a red forest buffalo calf
since a breeding pair of red forest buffalo
arrived from The Netherlands in 1989, and the
birth of an Arabian oryx, extirpated from the
wild by 1972 yet still thriving in captivity.
The Johannesburg Zoo started an
APP cheetah breeding effort in July, after taking
in a 12-year-old female cheetah and three
cubs whom a Namibian farmer live-trapped in
response to predation on his cattle. The cheetahs
were taken first to Elandsvreugde, a farm
owned by the Cheetah Conservation Fund,
where experts determined that the mother’s
age and poor condition made the family
unlikely to survive if returned to the wild.
Menaced in the wild by habitat loss,
competition with African lions, and an unusually
narrow gene pool due to an unknown
calamity that apparently hit the species several
thousand years ago, cheetahs were once considered
to be among the most difficult of
felines to breed in captivity, but are now
breeding readily at both the White Oak
Conservation Center and the St. Louis Zoo.
Earlier, the Johannesburg Zoo in
January 1997 announced the birth of the second
pair of red panda twins to be born to the
only breeding pair of red pandas in Africa.
They had already raised five young, four of
whom joined a breeding colony in Australia.
There are now about 300 red pandas
in captivity. Some of their offspring––according
to plan, anyway––are eventually to help
replenish the wild population at the Langtang
Reserve in Nepal, which has as few as 30.
Leaping lemurs
Australian media in January 1997
revealed two disastrous failures of captive
breeding under the Australasian Species
Management Program, which resulted after
Queensland environment minister Brian
Littleproud contradicted the advice of his own

staff in allowing the Western Plains Zoo to
take into captivity a northern hairy-nosed
wombat and 14 bridled nail-tail wallabies.
Just 65 hairy-nosed wombats
remained in the wild, of whom only a third
were believed capable of breeding. A young
male captured in June 1996 died at the zoo
from a twisted bowel less than six months
later. Wildlife officers meanwhile trapped
another hairy-nosed wombat in the Epping
Forest National Park, who died of stress and
exposure. London Zoo expert William Holt is
now trying to save the species by seeking a
means of cloning them.
The 14 wallabies fared little better:
eight died the morning after they arrived at the
Western Plains Zoo.
A more typical disaster came on
May 6, 1997, when thieves stole two adult
female ploughshare tortoises and 73 of their
hatchlings from a pen at the Ampijoroa
Forestry Station in Madagascar. About 90
hatchlings were left behind, but will not reach
breeding age for 20 years. Jersey Wildlife
Preservation Trust field staffer Don Reid had
spent a decade protecting the two mothers.
Trying to safeguard the remaining hatchlings
will be difficultt. Ploughshare tortoises fetch
$3,000 to $25,000 on the international collector
market, depending on age. The average
annual income in Madagascar is by contrast
just $200 per year. Easily corrupted officials
are notorious for ignoring illegal traffic in
more than 1,000 unique indigenous species,
including 32 types of lemur, 144 kinds of
frog, and 800 much-sought butterflies.
Twenty-three of the lemur species
are considered highly endangered, partly
because about 80% of the Madagascaran forest
has been logged and/or burned to clear fields
during the past two centuries, and partly also
because of meat poaching.
Despite the evident perils, the Duke
University Primate Center in mid-November
planned to release five black-and-white ruffed
lemurs into the Betampona Natural Reserve,
in hopes of bolstering the wild genetic diversity
of the fast declining species, and as a gesture
of faith in the Madagascaran government.
The lemurs will be habituated to their native
habitat in holding pens for a few weeks before
release, and will be tracked thereafter via
radio collars. They were flown to Madagascar
from the Duke facility in Durham, North
Carolina, on October 17, coincidental with
the designation of Masoala National Park, an
840-square-mile biological reserve in northeastern
The Madagascar Fauna Group,
headed by San Francisco Zoo director David
Anderson, plans to send 15 more black-andwhite
ruffed lemurs back to their native forest
during the next two years.
Of the total $300,000 estimated cost
of the three-year reintroduction, only half had
been raised when the first lemurs were sent.
Skeptics suggested the timing didn’t just accidentally
coincide with the optimum mailing
date for holiday-season funding appeals.
No dove in sight
For the foreseeable future, despite
the success of reintroductions here and there,
participants in Noah’s ark programs can be
expected to continue making more progress in
learning how to manage the ark than in actually
restoring endangered species to native habitat.
Adequate habitat to restore some small
species might be just a few well-guarded acres,
but because such species tend to be little
known and may not be “warm fuzzies,” financial
support for recovering and reintroducing
them is generally sparse. Attempts to restore
large species do attract funding, and protecting
the habitat required by large species usually
protects many endangered small species,
too––but the world must change before captive-reared
specimens of popular large species
such as gorillas and rhinos could be expected
to have much chance back in the wild.
Friends of Animals tried to jumpstart
progress, against the skepticism of the
accredited zoo community, by founding a
chimpanzee orphanage in Liberia in 1990.
Within less than a year civil war broke out.
Troops overran both the FoA compound and a
nearby research chimp colony set up by the
New York Blood Center. The personnel of
both facilities barely escaped with their lives,
while all the chimps were apparently eaten––
including some Blood Center chimps who carried
the deadly hepatitis B virus.
Gerard de Nys, trustee of the Dutch
charity Step By Step, on November 2, 1997
wrote to ANIMAL PEOPLE about a similar
crisis at the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary
in Sierra Leone. A coup d’etat on May 25
closed banks, embassies, consulates, and
most offices of foreign enterprise. They have
not reopened. The sanctuary, Step by Step
director Rosalind Alp explained, “is fast running
out of food and money, and it is not clear
how much longer the dedicated staff who
remain can keep the 21 chimps under their
care fed.” Three chimps had already died, de
Nys added. Sanctuary director Bala
Amarasekaran “was forcibly evacuated,” Alp
said, and is now in London with his wife and
newborn child, fundraising to assist the
Tacugama veterinarian, a Dr. Jalloh.
Jalloh, says Alp, visits the sanctuary
every other day, taking food and supplies,
but as the crisis deepens, famine stalks the
whole nation, and chimps won’t be a high priority
for many humans.
(Contact Step By Step at Achter de
Brinken 14, 9462 RH Gasselte, The
Netherlands; 011-31-0599-564795.)
Lack of safe release habitat is reportedly
the major obstacle to reintroducing the
red siskin, a canary native to Venezuela. The
American Federation of Aviculture has
encouraged fanciers to
breed red siskins, whose
decline in the wild
occurred because they
readily hybridize in captivity
with the familiar brown
and yellow canaries to produce orange offspring.
The hybrid offspring became so popular
that demand by hobby breeders brought the
near extirpation of wild red siskins. The Wild
Bird Conservation Act of 1992 cut off exports
to the U.S., but demand continues abroad.
“I probably have more red siskins in
my basement than there are in Venezuela
today,” says AFA breeder Ray Smith of
Carbondale, Illinois.
Still aboard
Back aboard the ark, the London
Zoo and Birdlife International in November
1996 began trying to collect breeding populations
of unique insects, mollusks, and the
Seychelles magpie robin from a 520-acre
Indian Ocean island called Fregate, whose
unique species were menaced by the 1995
arrival of Norway rats. The idea is to replicate
the habitat in a controlled environment,
hoping to restore the species to Fregate later if
anyone can get rid of the rats.
New Jersey State Aquarium research
biologist Alejandro Vagelli meanwhile
achieved the first-ever captive breeding of
eight goby species, and identified a new member
of the family, the golden goby, from a
specimen obtained at an unknown Caribbean
location. Noting that the new goby hybridized
with a neon goby, Vagelli theorized that they
might be closely related. A Brazilian team
used that clue to find the new goby in the wild.
The real importance of Vagelli’s
work, New Jersey State Aquarium director of
husbandry Robert Fournier said, is not that
gobies are ever likely to be returned to the
wild via captive breeding, but rather that
“Commercial collecting of gobies and other
tropical fish who live in coral reefs often damages
or kills portions of the delicate corals,”
as collectors use cyanide and/or explosives to
stun fish in great numbers.
“By learning how to breed gobies
and other tropical fish,” Fourinier explained,
“we hope to contribute to the creation of commercial
saltwater breeding programs that will
eliminate” demand for wild-captured gobies.
To many activists, that sounds a lot
like the argument for propagating species in
captivity just to keep them in captivity, in situations
the activists see as inherently abusive
because even at the best zoos, the animals do
not have full freedom to roam.
That’s an issue that accredited zoos
had hoped to lay to rest by increasingly clearly
distinguishing themselves from roadside zoos,
some of the most notorious of which have
recently collapsed into insolvency through
inability to compete. The formula for economic
access, the AZA zoos have learned over the
past quarter century, is to build ever bigger
and more lavish animal quarters. Relatively
small collections of evidently happy animals
bring more visitors, more often, than the usually
much larger, less focused menageries of
the 1950s and 1960s, when zoos looked more
like Noah’s Ark but functioned less so.
Among the 176 AZA-accredited
zoos, at least two dozen replaced old exhibits
in 1997 with major new facilities that were
notably better for the animals. Another two
dozen have projects of comparable scale in
planning or under development. Eight allnew
zoos are in planning or scheduled to open
soon, most notably Walt Disney’s Animal
Kingdom, an $800 million, 500-acre facility
in Orlando, to debut May 6. Walt Disney Co.
hired an all-star cast of consultants from other
AZA facilities, who promise that the quality
of animal care and nature education will equal
or surpass anything done anywhere else.
New competition will include four
zoo/mall/amusement centers run by Ogden
Entertainment under the American Wilderness
Experience title––one just opened in Ontario,
California, others opening at Christmas in
Dallas and Phoenix, and the fourth to open in
mid-1998 near Miami. Each site includes multiple
replica habitats, but early reports indicate
that commercialism takes the focus.
Yet while facilities, on average,
keep getting newer and mostly more ambitious,
the most charismatic animal inhabitants
are aging. The last pre-Endangered Species
Act animals will pass on soon, and for better
or worse, both zoos and many increasingly
stressed individual species may depend for
survival on the success of captive breeding.

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