Posts Tagged ‘wildlife’

posted by | on , , , , , , | Comments Off on Can the COVID-19 pandemic help us learn how to save our planet?

By Elizabeth Hogan

My every day during this strange experience of quarantine and pandemic is largely spent – as it is for many of us – in front of a laptop.  Almost all of my time at my computer has been focused on combatting the latest efforts of the plastic industry to exploit COVID-19 to reverse regulations on plastic bans and fees, which limit ocean plastic pollution. The plastic industry is asking state and city governments to reverse the laws that do so much good for the environment and wildlife, claiming that plastic is more “hygienic” and “safe” than other materials. Actually, the reverse is true – coronavirus can last longer on plastic than any other material.

I’ve spent my career working to raise awareness about how plastic impacts marine wildlife and seafood. My anxiety about this global pandemic, the tanking economy – and my inability to actually see other human beings — is compounded by a roiling anger at the willingness of a spiteful and greedy industry to exploit people’s fears and cause more harm has overwhelmed and motivated me.  This isn’t just my personal soapbox.  This is my job, how I’m spending my time and how I earn my living.

The uncertainty of what the world will look like when this is “over” – if such a time exists – infects my thoughts and distracts from my work. Worries about my parents’ health, my own career, the community that I love, my nieces and their future, the stories I hear of people dying painfully and alone and wondering what on earth I can do to help beyond just sitting in my house – all swirl around in my head.  

This is mollified by the images and reports that I see of a planet slowly recovering; once polluted water becoming clearer by the day with less trash floating on the surface.  Species on the brink of extinction, due to our carelessness and exploitation, suddenly have a brief window of recuperation.  I’m trying hard not to feel guilty at my relief that our dying world seems to be getting a small chance at a recovery, while knowing that it comes at a great price to humanity.  I would not have wished this disease or the accompanying economic strain on anyone, yet my greatest hope during this time comes from the miraculous ability of our planet to heal itself from so much damage in so little time. 

It simultaneously makes me sad for what our planet could be if we only gave it the chance.  I’m ashamed of my excitement to see what our world might become at this great cost, at this opportunity for it to thrive and other species to breathe because their apex predator is taking a break from its usual relentless pursuit.  But I also want to embrace any source of optimism that I can. I think about the satellite images of cleaner air in China and Italy, stories of wildlife returning to places once avoided due to human activity, and the crash in the value of petroleum

What humankind has learned from all the recent changes forced by the pandemic – things like working from home, virtual conferences instead of travel, and limits to consumerism as we prioritize what we need versus what we want – all have the potential to change our standards and behavior long after the threat of coronavirus dies down. 

I realize that this is highly unlikely; most of the world eagerly awaits a return to life from “before.”  But some positive changes have potential to become permanent: Fewer airlines exist now, once “temporary” road closures have become permanent, and regulations on wildlife markets and trade are being established or enforced. And perhaps most importantly, the visual reminders of how the natural world and wildlife can thrive without human interference has raised critical awareness to protect habitats and migration corridors.  We simply have to be willing to learn the lesson that is right in front of us and allow it to inform how we will live beyond this time.

Elizabeth Hogan ran the Oceans and Wildlife program of World Animal Protection in the United States for seven years, specializing in marine wildlife entanglement and sustainable fisheries.  She now works as a consultant on ocean conservation for organizations including USAID, Pew Charitable Trusts, CSIRO, and the Aquarium Conservation Partnership on marine wildlife conservation and ocean plastic pollution.

posted by | on , , , , , , , | Comments Off on With Zoo Science, Extinction Isn’t Forever

Three Fascinating Animals Extinct In The Wild,  On Exhibit At The Zoo

Right now, people are flocking to the Zoo to see a cuddly, chubby, toddler: giant panda cub Bao Bao. I’d be the first to admit that she sure is cute — I was fairly panda-agnostic before she was born, but now I’m as besotted as everyone else. But what sometimes gets missed in all the fuss over the fubsy is that she’s also part of an important conservation story:

Giant pandas are an endangered species. Fewer than 2,000 remain in the wild mountains of China, and habitat loss, climate change, and human encroachment threaten their future. Zoos and breeding centers, and celebrated births like Bao Bao’s, are helping save pandas.

But the Zoo holds even more dramatic stories — some of the animals at the Zoo wouldn’t be around at all if it weren’t for zoos. Once an animal has disappeared from its natural habitat, but before it disappears entirely from the planet, it can become “extinct in the wild.” That means that, while the wild animal is extinct, the species lives on in human care, in zoos, aquariums, or breeding centers.

(Not) the Last Unicorn

via Smithsonian National Zoo

For most people, extinction means gone forever. And sometimes it does. But with extraordinary efforts, unusual resources, and dedication, extinction doesn’t have to be a death sentence.

Take, for example, those animals you rushed past in a hurry to get to the pandas. Did you see something that looked a bit like a white deer out by parking lot A? You might have stopped to marvel at its long, arching horns, but you probably didn’t stay long. That’s a scimitar-horned oryx and may be the animal that inspired the legend of the unicorn.

The oryx is a fascinating species. Native to the sub-Saharan grasslands, they’re adapted to make do with very little water. Back in 1988, only a handful lived in the wild, and none have been seen since then.

However, the species survived in private hands, in zoos, and in conservation centers. Careful management, including strategic breeding and research on oryx biology, is helping bring the species back from the brink.

In addition to the oryx at the Zoo, 15 oryx live at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), the Zoo’s 3,200-acre facility in Front Royal, Virginia. Out there, animals have more space to live in a naturalistic herd environment. There are a handful of other institutions in the country like Front Royal; together they form the Conservation Centers for Species Survival, and they work with endangered species that need open spaces.

Conservationists hope to reintroduce oryx into their native habitat. But that won’t happen until scientists are sure that the threats that drove them to extinction the first time around — habitat destruction and poaching — are under control.

BFFs: Best Ferrets Forever

Another phenomenal extinction story lurks somewhere you might never look: In a corner burrow in the Small Mammal House. Curled up next to the prairie dog exhibit is a small, sleeping, critter: a black-footed ferret.

North America’s only native ferret, black-footed ferrets used to be abundant, feasting on prairie dogs and living in prairie dog burrows for centuries. With the advent of the John Deere plow and programs to poison prairie dogs, black-footed ferret populations crashed.

In 1967, the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed it as endangered. No black-footed ferrets were seen between 1975 and 1980, and scientists assumed they were extinct. Until 1981 when a ranch dog named Shep killed a small animal and brought it home. It was a black- footed ferret.

Biologists moved quickly and discovered a colony of at least 129 black-footed ferrets near Meeteetse, Wyoming. Three years later the population had fallen to 31. Canine distemper and sylvatic plague were devastating the last surviving black-footed ferrets.

Researchers collected the remaining 24 ferrets, of which 18 survived (seven males and 11 females). No one knew much about black-footed ferret reproduction or biology, but through careful study and breeding, the population is recovering. The National Zoo has a colony of black-footed ferrets at SCBI Front Royal and has bred more than 750 kits, both through natural breeding and through artificial insemination.

Thanks to all this effort, black-footed ferrets are no longer extinct in the wild. Reintroduction began in 1991 and continues today; more than 2,000 ferrets have been reintroduced to their native habitat.

Wishing for Horses

via Smithsonian National Zoo

This last example of an extinct-in-the-wild species may be my favorite: who doesn’t love a horse story? Przewalski’s horses (which are typically called “P-horses”) went extinct in their native Mongolia and China in the 1970s. Some Przewalski’s horses survived in zoos and in private hands. Breeding, including at SCBI in Front Royal, has helped build up the population.

The Zoo had the first surviving foal born from artificial insemination in August of 2013. Zoo scientists have also done some ground-breaking work on Przewalski’s horses, including performing the first reverse-vasectomy on a genetically valuable horse. You can see a Przewalski’s horse on exhibit at the National Zoo next to the Small Mammal House.

The Neverending Story

These aren’t the only three species zoos have rescued from extinction. If you take care to read the signs, you’ll discover many more: a golden frog species that’s suffering from a fungal plague, birds extirpated from their island homes, and cat species that are so genetically similar that one bad plague might wipe them all out.

All of these species (and many more) have teams of National Zoo and SCBI scientists working to ensure their future survival, through techniques including improved veterinary knowledge, assisted reproductive procedures, improved insight into diseases and pathogens, environmental studies, and nutrition research.

It’s all happening at the Zoo!

Brittany Steff is a freelance science writer, web editor, and zoo devotee who lives in DC. Find more of her work at

Editor’s Note: Eager for more on extinction? If so, join the DC EcoWomen Book Club on February 12 to discuss “The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival.” This book combines the natural history of the Amur tiger, the illegal trafficking of animal parts to China, the sociological history of the Russian people in the Far East, and the difficulties faced by conservationists on the ground, all while following the hunt for a man-eating tiger in Eastern Russia. We hope you will join us for what will be a fascinating discussion (even if you don’t get a chance to read the book)!