Conservation at the Zoo

adult Black-footed Cat, (Felis nigripes)
- Photo Credit: The Birmingham Zoo
young male African Elephant (Loxodonta africana)
- Photo Credit: The Birmingham Zoo
one of the African Lion (Panthera leo) cubs born in 2011
- Photo Credit: The Birmingham Zoo
Hairy-nosed Wombat (Lasiorhinus latifrons)
- Photo Credit: The Birmingham Zoo

As a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the Zoo participates in Species Survival Plan (SSP) programs to ensure their rarest animals thrive and receive the best attention available. The Zoo participates in the Survival Plans for nearly 90 species under its care. A portion of each ticket or membership sold at the Birmingham Zoo goes toward the Zoo’s conservation initiatives and helps prevent extinction of these species.

Our Zoo’s most important contribution through the SSPs is carefully managing the breeding of its rarest animals. Many rare and endangered species do not readily breed in human care. This is often because scientists don’t yet know what environmental cues in the wild are needed to trigger reproduction. When zookeepers discover how to trigger a rare animal to breed, they share this information with other zoos around the world. The Birmingham Zoo recently discovered how to encourage reproduction in Meeka and Tut, two Black-footed Cats (Felis nigripes). This highly endangered species is native to southern Africa and is one of the world’s smallest cats. Zoos have had little success breeding the species and had resorted to expensive techniques such as in vitro fertilization and embryonic transfer. As an experiment, the Zoo programmed the lighting in the Meeka and Tut’s indoor enclosure to match the daylight seasonally available in southern Africa. Not only did the pair breed, but to everyone’s surprise the cats produced two litters.

Zoos participating in SSPs will sometimes play matchmaker with other zoos in hopes of creating a successful breeding pair. In 2009, the Birmingham Zoo imported two Southern Hairy-nosed Wombats (Lasiorhinus latifrons), marsupial mammals native to Australia. This addition to the Zoo increased the total number in the US from four to six. When the female Victoria died of disease, the Zoo loaned Wilbur to the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago. Successful matchmaking produced some of the first of the species to be born in the US. By loaning Wilbur, the Birmingham Zoo is entitled to some of the baby wombats but instead has elected to let the family stay together as the Brookfield Zoo establishes a captive breeding population.

While zoos share offspring of captive animals with one another, reproduction is carefully controlled to prevent the creation of too many young animals. Breeding is allowed only when there is a need, such as when the genes of captive animals are rare within the populations maintained in zoos.

Young zoo-born animals are usually raised by their parents then shared with other zoos. Such is the case with the Birmingham Zoo’s two adult African Lions (Panthera leo), Kwanza and Akili. One of these lions is a descendant of a lion from Kruger National Park in South Africa. The lion population in Kruger and elsewhere in southern Africa is declining at an alarming rate due to the spread of introduced diseases and killings by herders and ranchers. Sustaining the stock of Kruger lions in captive populations is important to maintaining the survival and genetic diversity of the species. In 2010 the Birmingham Zoo decided it was time to allow its lions to breed, and five cubs were born in 2011. At the recommendation of the AZA’s SSP, the two male cubs were relocated to the Montgomery Zoo, and the three female cubs will be going to Africam Safari in Puebla, Mexico. The goal is for the females to breed with Africam Safari’s male lions, and the males will stay together at the Montgomery Zoo until they receive breeding recommendations from the SSP.

The study of animal behavior is another way zoos contribute to Species Survival Plans. Knowing how animals respond to other animals and environmental cues helps zookeepers design better environments for animals, and provides biologists with discoveries difficult to obtain in the wild. The Birmingham Zoo’s new Trails of Africa exhibit provides insights into the behavior of male elephants. Beginning June 2012, the Zoo became home to four male African Elephants ages 31, 12, 11, and 6. This is the first such experimental exhibit of its kind in the world. Little is known about male-male interactions among African Elephants (Loxodonta africana) because they are difficult to keep in human care and dangerous to follow in the wild. The elephants are being introduced to one another through carefully chaperoned “play dates,” hormone levels are being monitored weekly, and behavioral observations are recorded by video and trained observers. Scientists are studying how changes in hormone production correspond to the behavior of the males as they mature. This monumental effort by our Zoo is certain to provide science with new insights into this majestic species.

– Scot Duncan