Zoos repay jungle for favors. Captive animals trained for the wild will help replenish nature's endangered species
Front Royal, Va.
PUSHING open the cage door sends the tiny monkeys inside scrambling for cover. ``They have to be taught everything, even how to peel a banana and look behind leaves for bugs,'' says Mike Morgan, a spokesman for the National Zoo, which runs the sprawling research complex here devoted to breeding and studying rare animals.Skip to next paragraph
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These golden-lion tamarins - named for their lion-like plumes of orange hair - are being groomed for the South American jungle. The animals, which have never been outside a zoo in their lives, will eventually be flown to Brazil and released into the rain forest in which the species once thrived.
They're just one of several species being ``reintroduced'' to the wild in countries around the world. Others include the Arabian oryx in Oman, the P`ere David's deer in China, and an exotic bird called the Jalak Bali in Indonesia.
The rise of reintroduction programs underscores a fundamental shift in the way zoos do business. These programs are costly and controversial but hold the allure of putting depleted species back into nature.
In the past, when zoos needed to replace an animal, they could just buy another pulled from the wild. But as a growing number of species have become depleted in their native habitats, zoos have had to become skilled at breeding the animals themselves. New reproductive technologies and a greater understanding of the biology of exotic animals have been crucial to this development.
Today, animals living in different zoos are managed as though they were one large colony, with mates sometimes transferred thousands of miles so that the population maintains genetic diversity.
Reintroductions carry this trend toward close management of endangered species one step further, using well-established zoo populations to restock the wild. The golden-lion tamarin, for instance, now has a self-sustaining captive population of about 500 animals in 90 zoos worldwide.
Before being released into the wild, small groups of the squirrel-size primates are given survival training, such as being shown how to forage for food. At last count, two dozen captive-born animals were living in Brazilian jungle preserves closely monitored by scientists.
Typical ``training'' procedures include offering the animals a wider variety of foods and hiding food around the animals' cage, forcing them to search it out the way they would in the jungle. Cage interiors are designed to include plenty of unstable branches, bunches of leaves, and other details that condition the monkeys for moving around unfamiliar surroundings.
``After the first year, we realized that the animals were klutzy - they didn't know how to move through the trees,'' says Devra Kleiman, associate director for research at the National Zoo.
The animals even had to be coaxed to go out on narrow branches, she says, since most zoo interiors had large, stable branches.
``These sorts of programs can't be undertaken by a single institution - so they literally force cooperation,'' says Richard Block, director of public programs at the World Wildlife Fund.
Eleven United States zoos contributed to the reintroduction of the Jalak Balis in Indonesia, for example. The effort began when it was found that the wild population of the birds had dwindled to about 60, while zoos in North America had more than 500 and could readily breed more. The US zoos agreed to produce 40 surplus birds last year, which were sent to a zoo in Surabaja, Indonesia.