Zoos unite to keep animals in the wild

Bushwack, an orangy-brown and black Matschie's tree kangaroo, ambles down the tree to nibble on the bamboo leaves that Lisa Dabek holds.

This endangered three-foot-long animal is found only on the Huon Peninsula of Papua New Guinea and in certain zoos, such as this one, the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, R.I. Ms. Dabek is the zoo's conservation and research director.

Most people have never heard of these cuddly, docile kangaroos, but Dabek has spent much of her life trying to protect them. She is doing this quite successfully, thanks to a zoo conservation program, the Species Survival Plan (SSP).

The American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) started the plan in 1981 as a way to maintain healthy populations of endangered and threatened animals in their zoos. (The AZA, a professional organization based in Silver Spring, Md., helps maintain quality zoos and aquariums in the United States and Canada.)

"Before the SSP, individual zoos would breed tigers and other animals in-house and send them to other zoos," says Michael Hutchins, the AZA's director of conservation and science. After a while, there were too many tigers and no place for them to go. Zoos stopped breeding them. Eventually, this would have caused the captive population to die out. More animals would have had to be caught in the wild. Capturing endangered animals is not only expensive, Mr. Hutchins says, but it also seems wrong.

To try to maintain a captive species, zoos often mated animals that were closely related. This process, called "inbreeding," reduces genetic diversity. The offspring of inbred animals have shorter lifespans and fewer babies. They tend to be more susceptible to disease and genetic abnormalities. Inbreeding can lead to extinction.

So the AZA devised a program in which animals in member zoos and aquariums are managed as a single population. "We keep computerized records of the animals," Hutchins says. "Then we use special software - some call it our 'dating service for animals' - with which we can calculate who should be mating with whom to maintain genetic diversity."

The AZA organizes the transfer of animals from one zoo to another so they can breed. For example, one tree kangaroo, Paul, is on loan from the Miami Metro Zoo in the hope that he and Mia will mate.

Restocking the wild from zoos

Although the SSP program was started to manage and sustain zoo populations, it has evolved to include conservation activities in the wild, and more. Last month, for example, 18 zoo-bred bongos - a kind of African antelope - were flown to Kenya. Although Kenya is the bongo's native country, they're nearly extinct there.

These antelopes won't live in the wild. They will be kept at a protected game ranch and their offspring will be released into the adjacent Mt. Kenya National Park to try to establish a wild population there.

Closer to home, the black-footed ferret and the California condor were saved from extinction in the US through captive breeding and reintroduction into the wild. "The only reason these animals are around at all is because of captive breeding programs," Hutchins says.

For some endangered animals, though, reintroduction isn't practical. "Because of quarantine issues, we would never be able to send these tree kangaroos back to New Guinea," Dabek says. There's a danger the animals would transmit disease. Also, zoo-raised animals aren't likely to have the skills they need to survive. So zoos have also gotten directly involved with preserving animals in the wild.

Every year, Dabek spends two or three months in Papua New Guinea studying the tree kangaroo and working with villagers.

After visiting universities and nonprofit organizations and meeting with local experts, Dabek realized how little was known about tree kangaroos. She devised a three-step plan involving research, conservation, and education to save it.

Research hasn't been easy. "The animals are quite shy and well camouflaged," Dabek says. Their orangy fur is the same color as the moss that hangs in the trees of New Guinea. "You look up and think you are seeing tree kangaroos, but it is really moss - and vice versa." That was one of the biggest challenges, she says. So a lot of her work is done on dung samples. "We can do a lot of genetics and feeding ecology work from dung," she says.

Educating local hunters helps

Dabek's group plans to capture animals and put radio collars on them. Then they can follow kangaroos at a distance. "Now that we have areas that are protected," she says, "we are seeing more animals. Maybe they aren't feeling as shy now that they aren't being hunted as much."

Dabek's conservation goal is a 150,000-acre wildlife-management area. So far, local people have pledged 80,000 acres of land to protect the kangaroos.

"Papua New Guinea is unique in that 95 percent of the land belongs to the indigenous people," Dabek says. "They have control over their own forests." For the past eight years, Dabek has taught people there about the importance of saving tree kangaroos. She asked them to set aside part of their hunting land for this purpose. The people know that if they don't act today, the tree kangaroo may disappear forever.

Tree kangaroos give birth to only one offspring every 1 or 2 years. That makes them more susceptible to hunting than animals that reproduce more often and have several offspring at a time. "I tell hunters that tree kangaroos are vulnerable because of their slow reproductive rate and suggest that they focus on other animals."

One reason for Dabek's success is that she hasn't asked people to change their culture. "We aren't asking the people not to hunt tree kangaroos," she says. "But we are suggesting that if they let the tree kangaroos breed in this managed, safe area, the offspring will move into areas where they can hunt."

But perhaps the biggest impact of Dabek's program has been on the lives of the people she reaches through education. "We are doing so much more than just protecting a population of an animal," she says. "We're helping the people, too."

Dabek uses some of her grant money to give local schools much-needed pencils, paper, scissors, and other supplies. Schools are poorly equipped, she says, "and we realized that we needed to support the schools and the community if we were going to do this type of work."

'Growing' more local biologists

Dabek even organized a scholarship for local students who want to go to college and learn to teach. "We help fund their education," she says, "and in return they make a commitment to come back and teach for at least 10 years."

She also trains local people and students from the University of Papua New Guinea for her research team. "My goal is to get some of the New Guinea students into graduate school," Dabek says. "They are going to be the world's future biologists, and we need them."

Dabek's education program spans the globe. "We exchange art and ideas between kids in Rhode Island and the village schools in Papua New Guinea," she says. The first project was a tree kangaroo coloring book written in English and Pidgin, the official language of Papua New Guinea. "We had kids in New Guinea draw pictures of tree kangaroos and the kids in Rhode Island draw animals of New England." The art is carried back and forth.

Giving back to the local community has shown that the researchers don't just care about the animals; they care about the people as well, Dabek says.

And the local people care about Dabek, too. "I am very much at home there," she says. She even has two godchildren in the village, both of whom are named Lisa, after her.

Facts about tree kangaroos

Tree kangaroos are marsupials, which means they carry their young in pouches. They live in the rain forests of Australia and New Guinea.

They are nocturnal (active at night) herbivores (plant eaters). They feed mostly on leaves but have been known to eat more than 90 kinds of plants, including ferns, fruits, and orchids.

Ten species of tree kangaroo are known: two in Australia and eight in New Guinea. More may exist. A new species was discovered in 1995.

Tree kangaroos are very territorial and tend to stay in a small area. They are very good at hiding. Researchers had trouble spotting tree kangaroos in trees with sparse foliage even when signals from the animals' radio collars indicated where they were.

What you can do to help wild animals

You don't have to work at a zoo to help endangered and threatened animals. 'Aza,' the 'spokescritter' for the American Zoo & Aquarium Association (AZA), has lots of ideas on how kids can get involved with conservation. He also has tips for living a 'green' (environmentally friendly) lifestyle at home. Log on to: www.azasweb.com/kids

Eric Reinhard, the AZA's associate director of conservation education, suggests contacting a local zoo or aquarium at: www.aza.org/FindZooAquarium

Local zoos and aquariums often have educational and volunteer projects where they need helping hands. The Baltimore Zoo, for example, enlisted middle and high school students to help restore a bog for endangered turtles.

These programs are often carried out through schools, so ask your teacher to call first.

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