The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

May 30, 2013

Zoo Tales: Zoo’s Field Conservation Programs Saving Endangered Species


NC Zoo

Thursday, May 30, 2013 —

Every year we put more and more pressure on the natural world, asking it to give us more and more natural resources. Throughout the world, human populations are increasing at an alarming rate--particularly in the developing countries. Many scientists think that we've already passed the point where we can fully replenish Earth's natural resources.

Unfortunately, this rapid consumption of our natural resources threatens the very survival of many animal species. Unchecked consumption of these resources and our pollution of the environment is reeking havoc on the natural world.

"If we do not change how we interact with the natural world in significant ways, we will soon run out of resources, disrupt the ecosystems in which we live and push hundreds--if not thousands--of species into extinction," said North Carolina Zoo Director Dr. David Jones.

Jones' view is that every major biological institution around the world should play a significant role in the maintenance of biodiversity and, in so doing, help to ensure the maintenance of healthy ecosystems. Only through these institutions, including the N.C. Zoo, making a significant contribution as part of that wider biological and conservation community can we hope to stabilize the situation for our children and grandchildren, Jones said.

In light of that need for, and commitment to, international conservation, the N.C. Zoo (in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society) launched the Cross River Gorilla Research & Monitoring project in Central and West Africa to help save that continent's most endangered gorilla.

Inhabiting the rugged highlands of the Nigerian-Cameroon border, the Cross River gorilla is the most critically endangered of all the African apes and one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world. Less than 20 years ago, scientists rediscovered this gorilla subspecies, once thought to be extinct. Only about 300 Cross River gorillas are believed to survive today, their disappearance brought on mainly by illegal hunting and habitat destruction.

Using GPS technology, the N.C. Zoo has developed a program to help park rangers there track the gorillas and collect data on them. Using hand-held computers and a software package called Cybertracker, the rangers record data such as gorilla tracks, nests, actual sightings and more throughout the range of the gorillas. Additionally, the rangers are able to record any signs of poaching they come across.

Once the GPS data is downloaded, the program automatically maps the rangers' route, allowing them to better understand where to target their patrols and identify key habitats for the gorillas. This data collection is also benefiting other species that coexist with the Cross River gorillas.

With the Cybertracker system (provided by the N.C. Zoo) in place at multiple sites across the gorillas natural habitat, more than 200 rangers and researchers were trained between 2009 and 2010. Data collected from the GPS devices has already proved so effective that the system has been expanded to other conservation projects in the region.

Dr. Rich Bergl, curator of conservation and research at the N.C. Zoo, has spearheaded the gorilla program and conducted conservation-related research in Africa for more than 10 years. In addition to his work on gorilla and other populations in the world, he oversees local research at the Zoo.

In addition to the Cross River gorilla project, the N.C. Zoo is on the forefront of other international conservation programs such as the Cameroon Elephant Tracking & Conservation program, also in Central and West Africa. This project, led by N.C. Zoo Chief Veterinarian Dr. Mike Loomis and in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund, concentrates on the elephant populations there that are increasingly threatened by direct and indirect contact with humans.

Loomis and his team collar certain elephants and then use sophisticated satellite tracking technology to monitor the movement of the elephants. With more and more elephant-habitat loss, local farmers and villagers are more often coming into contact with the elephants. This can be dangerous for the people and deadly for the elephants, which are often killed as they migrate through the farmers' crops.

The tracking program allows conservationists to follow the elephants' movements and intervene before the herds reach farmlands, preventing conflicts between the elephants and people.

Whether they're tracking elephants in Cameroon or box turtles right here in North Carolina, N.C. Zoo staff members continue to encourage understanding of and commitment to the conservation of the world's wildlife and wild places through the recognition of the interdependence of people and nature.