Ending Extinction

Challenge Accepted

BY Karen Worley

Photography by Ken Bohn

San Diego Zoo Global’s vision is to “lead the fight against extinction.” That’s a tall order. It’s an idea that gives one pause, an audacious undertaking with the potential for pitfalls, setbacks, frustrations, and uncertainty. But as the saying goes, “Fortune favors the bold.” Conservation cannot wait—the world has too much to lose. San Diego Zoo Global has rolled up its sleeves, pulled on its boots, and is hard at work, here in San Diego and around the world.

Victoria the southern white rhino is pregnant as a result of the first successful rhino artificial insemination, which took place at SDZG’s Nikita Kahn Rhino Rescue Center.

Making Strides

Even in the past few months, great things have happened. The Zoo saw the first birth in 30 years of an endangered Baird’s tapir; and 2 Amur leopard cubs were born, the Zoo’s first of a critically endangered cat with only about 80 individuals left in the wild. The Safari Park saw its twelfth birth of an African elephant calf to the herd that had been saved from being killed in Swaziland in 2003, and then brought to San Diego—a sign of hope for a species that is under seige.

We had exciting news at the Nikita Kahn Rhino Rescue Center in August: southern white rhinos Victoria and Amani are pregnant—the result of the first-ever artificial inseminations of southern white rhinos at the Safari Park. That’s not only a huge gain for southern whites, it’s also a step toward helping northern white rhinos, if genetic rescue techniques continue to progress.

The critically endangered akikiki is singing in Hawaii again, thanks to efforts to hand raise chicks in a protected environment.

Outstanding in the Field

The good news continued with field projects. San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG) researchers observing a group of burrowing owls noted they were in poor condition and needed help. The little owls were brought to the Paul Harter Veterinary Medical Center, where they were found to be anemic and weak from a particularly nasty flea infestation. Fortunately, the care they received brought them back to health, so that researchers could bring them back to their burrow.

In Hawaii, a critically endangered songbird called the akikiki bred and hatched a chick at the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program facilities for the first time. The staff was thrilled, not only because their propagation was successful, but also because the parents are raising the chick—a win-win. Another win was the release of 50 Jamaican iguanas, which had been raised in protected care by in-country partners until they were big enough to fend off predators. With this return to the native habitat, a total of 399 of these impressive lizards, which almost went extinct, are now living on their island home.

Studying the habits and habitat of radio-collared koalas provides key information for conservation management.

Conservation Matters

Still, the multitude of challenges facing wildlife today is daunting. Dwindling habitats and food sources, the effects of climate change, pollution, disease, wildlife trafficking, poaching, and more—all are cause for alarm. Taking action is more urgent than ever if we are to save endangered species from extinction. But that’s where conservation organizations like SDZG come in. Working in partnership around the world, a cadre of dedicated professionals is using ingenuity, experience, and determination to find answers and create solutions.

As a global, multidisciplinary organization, SDZG has more than 200 experts at work in the field, in the lab, and in communities and classrooms in over 35 countries worldwide. SDZG also has the valuable benefit of learning from the animals and plants at our Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research. By integrating these approaches, our organization can bring to bear the latest technologies and newest advances in biological, veterinary, and animal husbandry sciences.

SDZG researchers helped bring Jamaican iguanas back from extinction through headstarting, raising the lizards in a safe environment until they are large enough to fend off or escape from predators.

Long-term Commitment

Engaging in the complexities of conservation is not new to SDZG. Some projects harken back to the 1960s and 1970s, like efforts to help the Fiji iguanas, Przewalski’s horse, Arabian oryx, and southern white rhino. Successes led to the reintroduction of the horses and oryx to their native habitat, and much-needed increases in the populations of the iguanas and rhinos.

But the road of conservation is rarely smooth—there are many bumps, obstacles, and twists along the way. Due mainly to the introduction of non-native predators that threaten the iguanas, and unrelenting poaching of rhinos for their horns, today SDZG researchers are once again working with our partners to save both species, determined to prevent them from going extinct.

In the early 1980s, there were only 22 California condors left. Now, more than 200 are once again flying in their native habitat.

Some of SDZG’s long-term projects are also some of the best known. Work to save the California condor has been ongoing since the early 1980s, resulting in the release of condors to their native habitat.

Collaborative studies on the habitat use of koalas started in the late 1980s, and expanded to include studies of behavior and health—much-needed information as koalas face growing threats from drought and disease in their native forests.

SDZG has been working with colleagues in China on giant panda conservation efforts since the 1990s. Happily, giant pandas have recovered enough for their status to change from Endangered to Vulnerable.

The arrival of giant pandas Bai Yun and Shi Shi in 1996 famously began conservation research on panda reproduction, behavior, and habitat needs. In conjunction with researchers in China, that work resulted in increasing the number of pandas, and, along with protection of wild panda habitat, also resulted in a positive status change—from Endangered to Vulnerable.

For over two decades, SDZG has been in the thick of the ups and downs, disappointments and triumphs of conservation for so many species, including the San Clemente Island loggerhead shrike, okapi, alala, cheetah, and bighorn sheep, among others. At 102 years old, SDZG has the benefit of longevity with many projects. But in taking on the challenge of conservation, there is always more to do.

Establishing a disease-free population of Tasmanian devils is essential to the survival of this species.

The Next Generation

In recent years, SDZG has expanded its conservation horizons even further. Work to help species like Andean bears, giant otters, palms, and jaguars takes place in Peru, some of which is based at Cocha Cashu, one of the five conservation field stations SDZG operates. Other projects that SDZG has lent a hand to before have become a greater commitment. They include rescuing and rehabilitating African penguins in South Africa, and establishing protected populations of Tasmanian devils to shield them from contracting the deadly devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) that threatens the species.

SDZG works with the Twiga Walinzi (Giraffe Guards) to research and protect giraffes in Kenya.

One project has SDZG researchers looking up—way up: reticulated giraffes. Giraffes are experiencing what has been called a silent extinction: people weren’t aware that the populations were in rapid decline until recently. Having a long history with giraffes and partnerships in Kenya, SDZG was in a position to help. A corollary to that project has been the rise of citizen science—more than 12,000 volunteers have aided SDZG researchers in identifying and categorizing giraffes and other wildlife from trail camera photos they view on their computers. Their help has accelerated the research process so data can be compiled and analyzed much faster, and used to help guide decisions in the field.

SDZG has worked with our partners to help release light-footed Ridgway’s rails to San Diego marshes.

The Road Ahead

SDZG is more dedicated than ever to saving species from extinction, igniting a passion for wildlife, and joining forces with conservation partners to create a sustainable future. Looking forward, there is much yet to accomplish. Making conservation the heart of SDZG is not the easy choice, and leading the fight against extinction is not a simple vision. But wildlife needs champions. Challenge accepted.