Sedgwick County Zoo plan aims to ensure endangered species will survive

03/31/2013 6:33 AM

08/06/2014 2:28 AM

Move over, Jarod. A new jaguar is coming to town.

Jarod, the Sedgwick County Zoo’s lone jaguar, will head to another zoo sometime this year to make way for a “more important” jaguar that zookeepers hope will mate with a female jaguar arriving next month from Panama. The jaguar taking his place hails from the Tulsa Zoo and Living Museum.

“He’s deemed not good enough for the girl,” Sedgwick County Zoo Director Mark Reed said of Jarod. “He comes from a family of jaguars whose genes are well-represented in the North American population. We want to get Tulsa’s male jaguar, and there’s a strong possibility that our jaguar will go to Louisville, Kentucky. The jaguar we’re getting from Panama was born in the wild. Her genes are real important. She’ll be at the top of the list of important jaguars in the United States.”

The zoo is spending $14,600 — and counting — to transport the jaguar, which was confiscated by authorities, to Wichita in a crate that’s being specially made for the trip.

Behind the scenes, zoos across the country accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums are managing animals, often those threatened or endangered, to increase their numbers and boost their genetic diversity. They do so through more than 300 Species Survival Plan programs, 129 of which are represented at the Sedgwick County Zoo. The programs manage populations across the 221 zoos and aquariums accredited by the association.

The program “started as a hedge against extinction,” said Ryan Gulker, deputy director of the Sedgwick County Zoo.

Jarod’s move is all part of a master plan. So is the addition of two female gorillas that the zoo hopes will lead to — drum roll! — baby gorillas. Kivu, an older female gorilla from Philadelphia, is expected to be moved to Wichita in May. The zoo is about to submit an endangered species permit application to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to get permission to import another female gorilla from Calgary who could arrive as early as this fall.

The Species Survival Plan program helps ensure that future generations will get to see animals from the Arabian oryx to the Grevy’s zebra — if not in the wild, at least at a zoo.

“They’re the spokescritters for their wild brethren,” Reed said of the fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals managed under the plans.

Levels of risk

The Species Survival Plan program began in 1981, said Candice Dorsey, director of animal conservation for the zoo association.

Many of the species managed in the program were at risk in the wild, with their numbers dwindling because of habitat destruction or poaching.

Participation in one level of the program, the “green” plan for species considered the most sustainable over time, is mandatory among the association’s institutions.

Species in green plans have a population of 50 or more individual animals and are believed to be able to retain 90 percent genetic diversity for more than 100 years. Examples of mammals in green programs at the Sedgwick County Zoo include the Western lowland gorilla, Amur tiger, chimpanzee and red panda. Reptiles represented at the zoo in the green program are the radiated tortoise and Aruba Island rattlesnake. Birds at the zoo represented in the program are the Inca tern, Roseate spoonbill, greater flamingo, Humboldt penguin and king vulture.

Species in “yellow” plans are considered potentially sustainable but require additional attention and effort to increase their sustainability, according to the association. Species in yellow programs have a population of 50 or more individual animals and are not able to retain at least 90 percent genetic diversity for more than 100 years. Examples of such mammals at the Wichita zoo include the okapi, Amur leopard, African elephant and giant anteater. Reptiles in the yellow program include the Komodo dragon and Chinese crocodile lizard. Birds in the program include the Indian pygmy goose, European white stork and Hyacinth macaw.

Species designed as “red” are considered unsustainable, which means future generations may not ever see them at a zoo unless steps are taken to increase their numbers through breeding. Examples locally include the vampire bat, Tammar wallaby and Malayan tapir. Reptiles include the spotted turtle and Grand Cayman blue iguana. On the bird side of things, species include the trumpeter swan, Caribbean flamingo and pink pigeon.

There are three amphibians in plans at the Sedgwick County Zoo — the Puerto Rican crested toad (green), Texas blind salamander (yellow) and Panamanian golden frog (red). There is one freshwater fish, the white-blotched river stingray, in a yellow plan.

Dorsey said the Species Survival Program is a crucial educational component of conservation.

“You think of AZA institutions as being on the ground floor of educating all of America’s youth and having these animals there, they may never get a chance to see them in the wild,” she said. “I know growing up and going to zoos inspired me to be a conservationist. It really got that message across.”

Committees write new management plans once a year, every two years or three years — depending on the species.

“Population advisers get together and look at genetics and the demographics of the population. They see what animals are breeding and might suggest switches between zoos,” Dorsey said.

Participation in green plans is mandatory, Dorsey said, because “everything is working well, and we want that pattern to continue. Everyone needs to engage in the process and communicate with each other.”

Making species decisions

Not only does the Sedgwick County Zoo participate in the Species Survival Plan program, some of its staff oversee them. That means they help make decisions about where animals are located, when it’s time for them to move to another zoo and when they should mate and with whom.

Reed serves on the steering committee for the Amur leopard. The zoo has two of the rare leopards, about 40 of which are left in the wild. There are 117 Amur leopards at 48 zoos across the country.

Gulker, the deputy director, said the Amur leopard has suffered from poaching and habitat loss, “the main reasons for its current status as being very likely the most endangered big cat in the world. Today it still faces numerous threats, including encroaching civilization, new roads, poaching, exploitation of forests and climate change.”

The Amur leopard also is in a precarious situation, Gulker said, because poachers are taking its prey species. No food equals fewer leopards.

Nia, the zoo’s female leopard, is believed to be pregnant. She came to the zoo from Erie, Pa. The male leopard, Diesel, was imported from England.

Gulker sits on steering committees for Old World monkeys and the Colobus monkey.

Scott Newland, curator of birds, is vice chairman of the plan for the greater flamingo and serves on steering committees for passerine birds, song birds, hummingbirds, mouse birds and trogons and for doves and pigeons.

Nathaniel Nelson, curator of amphibians and reptiles, sits on steering committees for turtles and tortoises and amphibians.

The zoo’s curator of mammals, Mike Quick, is the coordinator for the African painted dog. He also keeps the studbook — think a fancy pooch’s papers — for the Chacoan peccary and serves on steering committees for elephants and canids.

Katie Kimble, the zoo’s senior mammal keeper for the Asia and South America exhibits, rules over meerkats. She is their plan’s coordinator and keeps their studbook.

Danielle Decker, senior mammal keeper for the Downing Gorilla Forest, serves on the behavior advisory group for the gorilla.

The zoo has 407 species of animals and 1,500 to 1,600 individually identifiable animals plus hundreds of other animals that live in groups such as fish, amphibians and invertebrates, said Gulker.

The Sedgwick County Zoo had the 13th largest number of species among zoos with budgets of more than $10 million, the association’s latest report showed.

Plans’ impact

Reed lights up when he talks about proof that the plans are working.

The zoo sent thousands of Puerto Rican crested toad tadpoles to Puerto Rico to release in the wild to try to boost the toad’s population.

“Through genetic testing, DNA analysis, we know that the adult toads that are coming back to the ponds to reproduce and lay their eggs are from captive stock from the Sedgwick County Zoo, the Toronto Zoo. … There’s no question that we have helped guarantee and save a species in the wild.”

Zoo visitors help, too.

“By coming to the zoo, they’re having a global impact because some of the money raised here is going to field conservation programs in the wild,” Reed said.

Conservation programs such as the Species Survival Plan are crucial to the future, he said.

“We’re trying to guarantee that our children and grandchildren will have the same opportunity to enjoy these animals in the zoo,” he said. “Seeing pictures in books is not going to get anyone excited.”

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