The Majestic Elephants at Oakland Zoo…
by | January 21st, 2014

Often, we at the Zoo are asked about the history of our majestic and beautiful African elephants. In her blog below, Gina Kinzley, Oakland Zoo Elephant Keeper, shares a little of the history and personalities of Donna, M’Dunda, Osh and Lisa. Now that you know them a bit more intimately, come to the Zoo and say hi! You can also see how Gina ‘trains’ our elephants to for situations involving medical procedures, foot-maintenance, and mental stimulation exercises in this video, filmed recently.

The African Elephants of Oakland Zoo:

All of the girls come from Africa originally, but their families were killed in a culling. Culling is the very controversial method of population management. At that time, the young orphans were caught and sold for profit, which is how they ended up in the United States. I won’t name the previous facilities that they were all at, but all of them have a history of abuse in ‘free contact’ management. At Oakland Zoo, we practice ‘protected contact’, as we explain is for the safety of the both our elephants and their keepers, in the HBO documentary “Apology to Elephants”.

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Donna, 34, came to OZ in 1989. She very quickly became the the dominant female because she had the biggest attitude. She is the most playful out of the girls and loves to have big play bouts at nighttime with large tractor tires and will charge into the pool for a cool down! Personality-wise Donna is impatient, loves to participate in training, and is closely bonded with Lisa, whom she sleeps with every night.elephantpedi

M’Dunda, 44, came to OZ in 1991. She has a bad history of abuse at her previous facility which is amazing because she is an extremely gentle soul and wouldn’t hurt a fly. She loves to solicit play from Osh, and is often spotted at night over the fenceline trunk twirling with him. She can be a little insecure, and scared of new situations. When she first came here she wouldn’t eat her treat boxes! She also has long beautiful tusks.

Lisa, 36, has been at OZ since she has been two years old. She came from Kruger National Park in South Africa and went briefly to a “training” facility for several months then came to the zoo. Lisa is an elephant’s elephant, she likes all of her pachyderm friends, and wants to make everyone happy. She loves her pool, we call her our water baby, and will take daily dips if the weather is right! She is sneaky, agile, and can be very stubborn!

Osh, 19, has been at OZ since 2004. He came from Howletts Wild Animal Park, where he was born and with his family group. Young males in the wild get kicked out of their herd from ages 8-12, and that is what Osh’s mom and aunts started to act toward him, so we gave him a home here. Osh is extremely active, exploratory, and curious. He’s got a very lively and chipper walk, loves to play, browse and graze.

At Oakland Zoo we care deeply about the well-being of elephants in captivity, as well as their conservation in the wild. Currently 96 elephants a day in Africa are being killed for their tusks, or ivory. Now that you’ve learned about how intelligent, unique, and beautiful our elephants are here at the zoo, please visit www.96elephants.org for more information on how you can help elephants in the wild. This issue is very important to us, and increasing public awareness is a priority. Stay tuned over the coming months for more information about the fight against the illegal ivory trade and the work of www.96elephants.org.

Food favorites: Pumpkins, Melons, and Pineapples. Want to feed our elephants? Come to our next Feast for the Beasts event on March 29th!

 

 

The Loss of a Lion
by | January 13th, 2014

Oakland Zoo is proud of and inspired by the work we do with conservation partners dealing with human-wildlife conflict. We are thrilled that our own volunteers have stepped up with such passion to engage in solutions with these partners. Volunteer Carol Moen Wing shares her experiences with one of our current Quarters for Conservation partners, the Uganda Carnivore Program, which helps conserve African lions.

by Carol Moen Wing, Oakland Zoo  and Uganda Carnivore Program Volunteer

                    The news came via e-mail, from half a world away: Fiona and her family were dead.  I felt a deep sense of sadness as I read Dr. Siefert’s message — “Fiona’s group is no more.  We found, after many days and a few nights, her and her cubs’ carcass; most likely poisoned…”  Just a few months earlier, I had been sitting on the roof of the Uganda Carnivore Program’s research vehicle with Dr. Siefert’s assistant James, watching the lioness Fiona and her two cubs as they rested high in the spiny limbs of a euphorbia tree in Queen Elizabeth National Park.  The cubs, Haraka and her brother Saba, had climbed quite a bit higher than their mom and were peering through the thick green branches at us, curiosity evident in the prick of their ears and the flick of their little tails.  Fiona-cub-Haraka

 

From this close vantage point, I could see the soft sheen of their fur and smell the musky warm scent of the big cats.  Finally caution got the best of them and they climbed even higher and deeper into the shelter of the tree, while their mother continued to snooze on a big branch below, hardly bothering to open her one good eye and acknowledge our presence.  Reading the news from Uganda now, it was hard to imagine that they were all gone. Fiona+cubs

And yet, I was not surprised.  Late last summer Fiona had moved her family into one of the most dangerous regions of the national park, where wildlife frequently come into conflict with local people.  This is where we had tracked them, in the Crater region not far from several large villages.  Tough old Fiona was a bit of a legend: she survived the loss of an eye in 2001 while hunting a buffalo, and still managed to be a successful hunter and excellent mother to many offspring throughout the years.  At one point she’d even moved her small cubs into the shelter of an abandoned building, a crumbling structure with decorations around the missing roofline that made it look like a small palace — Dr. Siefert had pointed it out to us on our drive.  For many years she had lived in the Mweya Peninsula area of the park, and had only moved into the Crater region because of increasing pressure to find territory unclaimed by younger lions.  In other words, she was just being a good mom, looking for a safe place to raise her cubs.  Could she have known that another lion pride had been poisoned by villagers in this same area not long ago?

 

This is one of the most difficult challenges in wildlife conservation: human-wildlife conflict.  Animals and people are competing for limited resources, for land and food and water, and too often it is the large predator species such as lions, leopards and spotted hyenas that end up in the worst conflict situations with a rapidly-growing human population.  Queen Elizabeth National Park is not unique in this sense, but it does have an even greater challenge than other parts of Africa because human settlements are located both around the borders and within the park itself.  There are 11 enclave villages with a total population of 50,000 people living inside the park, and many more in towns and villages just beyond its unfenced boundaries.  The depletion of prey species such as antelope (due to habitat loss and poaching) motivates wild predators to seek an easier meal such as a goat or cow.  To make things worse, people unwittingly encourage the predation of their livestock by illegally grazing their animals on park land and building flimsy, easily accessible corrals for their animals to sleep in at night.  Little wonder that a lion like Fiona would kill an easy target like a cow to feed her family.

 

Most local people living in and around the park do not see lions and other predators as beautiful creatures worth saving — rather, these animals are viewed as direct threats to the security and livelihood of human families.  In response to livestock predation, people will frequently retaliate by poisoning animal carcasses and leaving them out for the lions, hyenas and leopards to consume (not to mention other unlucky passersby such as vultures).  For cattle-keepers, a good lion is a dead lion.  On a basic level we all understand it: people want to protect their families, their livelihood and food security, particularly in a place as impoverished as Uganda.  “Not in my backyard,” as they say (even here in California).  But we also know that an ecosystem will suffer and eventually collapse without its predator and scavenger species.

 

The loss of individual lions like Fiona, Haraka and Saba may not seem like much in the big scheme of things, but considering the current conservation status of their species every loss is significant; fewer than 30,000 lions remain in all of Africa, and the lion population has declined by 30% over the last 20 years.  African lions are now officially classified as “vulnerable, with a decreasing population trend.”  In Queen Elizabeth National Park the statistics are even more grim, with fewer than 150 lions present.  Leopards are threatened as well, and spotted hyenas have suffered the greatest population loss of all the large predators in the region.

 

The Uganda Carnivore Program, one of the Oakland Zoo’s Quarters for Conservation partners, has been working hard to find solutions to these problems and mitigate human-wildlife conflict through community outreach and education, as well as using radio collars to monitor predators’ movements into conflict hot spots.  Dr. Ludwig Siefert and his Senior Research Assistant, James Kalyewa, work tirelessly to protect lions, leopards and hyenas by tracking and collecting data on the predator populations, as well as working with local people to find solutions that will protect their communities and their valuable livestock from predation.  The UCP’s efforts have had a positive impact in other areas in and around the national park.  For example, in the past lions had frequently been poisoned near the village of Hamukungu.  The UCP has been working with the village leaders for the past year to design safer, predator-proof livestock corrals, including solar lighting to scare away potential predators at night, and to educate people about the importance of predator species in their environment.  Since this partnership began, no lions have been poisoned in Hamukungu, even though there have been instances of livestock predation.  And in the village of Muhokya, where leopards have been preying on goats, the UCP has worked with the local community to establish a conservation education center and a cultural- and conservation-based tourism initiative called Leopard Village, in thanks for the community’s willingness to learn to live with wildlife and protect it rather than destroy it.  It is significant that Fiona was poisoned in an area that the UCP is not currently working with the community, due to limited funding and manpower… and that other lions are likely to move into this area now that she is gone.

 

The loss of Fiona and her last two cubs is discouraging to all of us who care about African wildlife, but we must keep working toward solutions.  Conservation is not just something that happens somewhere far away, someone else’s problem, particularly when we consider that some parts of the world have more resources and ability to help wildlife than others.  Even if you never met Fiona and her cubs, the Earth is an increasingly small backyard and the loss of a species has an effect on us all, and on future generations.  Conservation is personal.  As for Fiona, despite her tragic end she had a good life for a wild lion, surviving 15 years in a dangerous environment and successfully raising many other cubs to adulthood.  We can mourn her loss, but we must also look to the predator populations of Queen Elizabeth National Park as a whole — lions, leopards and spotted hyenas — and continue striving to find the best possible solutions for the challenges of human-wildlife conflict.

 

Please join us to learn more and support the Uganda Carnivore Program on Wednesday January 15, 2014 at Oakland Zoo’s Conservation Speaker Series Saving the Savannah event.

Fulong Means Forest: Our Time with Sun Bears
by | January 3rd, 2014

Time with Bears:

Fulong means forest in Lundayieh, a tribal language in Borneo. A tiny sun bear cub, the smallest of all bear species, was found in the forest by a hunter’s dog and brought to the master who gave him the name Fulong.  The man kept the bear in a cage as a pet — but when he found out he could give her a better life, he relinquished her to the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, where we sat this morning in rapt attention as Gloria, the head of education, told us the history of some of the beautiful sun bears at the centre.Bear2

Sun bears and the work of Siew Te Wong was our inspiration to embark on a conservation expedition to Borneo in the first place. We have been in full support of his efforts to give a wonderful home to sun bears that all have a different conservation back story. This new center is right next to the Sepilok Orangutan Center and sure to be a hit. Many visitors to Borneo know about Orangutans, and now many will know about this amazing bear.BearGifts

After six years of helping Wong work as the founder and raise funds for this center, it is a THRILL for our group to be here to help them get ready for their soft opening to the public in January. After a survey of our skills and their needs — Gloria and I put together a schedule – and we rolled up our sleeves and got to work!IMG_7531

What a day we are having! In the rain and heat, one group is moving gravel with shovels and wheelbarrows, watching for venomous snakes and tiger leeches. Another is in the bear house, chopping diets of banana, papaya, green beans – and heating an oatmeal-like super nutritious bear meal. Some even enjoy cleaning the night houses in this sparkling new facility.IMG_7523

Carol and Jereld are off with Ling Mai to set up camera traps. We then work with her to create a matrix for observing bears which we will try out this afternoon. Diana then helps create a program to illustrate the data that will be gathered. Carol and Rob sit together at a laptop editing copy for the educational signage for hours and hours, quite happily. Tina then gives her ideas around signage design. We hardly want to break for lunch, but we do, ‘cause it is hot and we have worked up quite an appetite.IMG_7650

After lunch with the bear staff, Lovesong and Mary go off with the bear keepers, exchanging stories and ideas on how to best care for a sun bear. A crew works with Gloria to envision the visitor center’s future displays and interactives. Another crew gathers around Ernie to discuss the gift shop and other ways to bring in extra funds to the program. Apparently t-shirts and postcards are the big sellers, but creativity is flowing. I get to download about education programs, volunteer positions and conservation action and messaging. I also got the pleasure of taking portraits of the staff for their website.
IMG_7658As the afternoon rolls along, I feel so fortunate to have gotten to be here on this day atthis time in the center’s history. What a joy to share what we could with them, and how inspiring to meet this talented and dedicated staff who shared so much with us. We are all lucky, especially bears like Fulong!

 

Deep Dive
by | January 2nd, 2014

I live for a night like this. It is a perfectly warm and still after an evening rain, there was a beautiful sunset and a magnificent full moon, we are on a gorgeous island in the Celebus Sea. How can this be my last night in the wilds of Borneo? Visiting Mabul Island has been the cherry on top of an expedition that went beyond my greatest expectations. Today, we got to truly witness the wonders of the oceans. Some of us went scuba diving, but most of us snorkeled in the reefs and outer islands around Mabul. It is no-wonder this area around Sipidan Island is rated as a world-class dive site.IMG_4907

Some of the group had never seen such underwater wonders and it was a joy to witness the reactions, such as “I’m in a fish tank! “ and “how can this be real?”. Indeed, there were fish of every color, shape and size, like cigar fish that seemed to stand on their tails, bobbing up and down as they moved, parrott fish who you could hear munching on their lunches, lion fish and harlequin sweetlip fish, peacock rabbit fish and even a ray. You cannot help but respect the ocean after you have seen the wild beauty of a coral reef world.

I am so happy that Intrepid Travel, our travel company, chose Scuba Junkie’ Mabul Beach Resort as our place to stay, because on top of the beauty of the habitat, we got to learn about their excellent conservation work. Roan, their conservation manager, gave us an impromptu presentation on the challenges facing sharks due to shark finning and all that they are doing to help with Project AWARE. IMG_4897

We were so inspired, that late this afternoon we spent a few hours combing the beach for garbage. The island is challenged by this issue due to garbage washing in from the open sea, and to the many nomadic people who are currently living on the island. Scuba Junkie is working with them to do better when it comes to throwing away garbage – and it made me think of the challenges on my own street in Oakland, California – not so very different. Joining them in their beach clean-up efforts felt great.IMG_7871 IMG_7849

It is late and most of the group has lumbered off to bed. We spent the night in joyful competition with other divers in a trivia night that raised funds for the victims of the typhoon (we did not win). We also gave toasts to a wonderful expedition.  Toasts were made to the rain, to the orangutans, to the sun bears, to the leeches, to the ocean, to the forest, to our incredible luck at viewing wildlife, to the flying squirrels, to the inspiring people and to the feeling of having been part of something that only happens once in a lifetime. I toasted to Oakland Zoo, for employing me to help wildlife in Borneo and around the world and for allowing me to give others the gift of experiencing the wildlife first hand. It’s been another deep dive conservation expedition that changes lives.

 

Out to Sea with Sea Turtles
by | December 23rd, 2013

We spent last night in the town of Sandakan which used to be the capitol of North Borneo. It is nice to get needed provisions and have a good sleep. It was especially great that we all got to have dinner with Siew Te Wong, the founder of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre and bombarded him with questions that he answered with humor and grace. We are very excited to spend time at the center later this week.

This morning we had an adventurous boat ride into the Sulu Sea to Turtle Island. Turtle Islands Park is located 40 km north of Sandakan and consist of tree islands, Pulau Selingaan, Pulau Bakkungaan Kecil and Pulau Gulisan. The park is known for its protection of the nesting of two endangered species of the sea turtle, the green turtle (Chelonia mydas) and the smaller hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata). The two turtle species lay their eggs here year-round.

This afternoon was free beach time and everyone had a ball snorkeling in the clear waters and relaxing in the sand. As only 50 people can come to the conservation island per night, it was a peaceful and relaxing experience. We all got to see one of my favorite sea creatures, the Christmas tree worms, a very bright and colorful polycheates, or marine burrowing worm.IMG_7316

Finally, after dinner and a film about the program, the announcement was made, “It’s Turtle Time!”. We followed the turtle team into the night and onto the beach where a huge mama green turtle had crawled up and dug herself a trench. We watched in awe as she laid around 100 wet, white eggs that looked like ping pong balls.  The staff collected the eggs and took them to a hatchery, where they buried them and labeled the nest. This keeps them safe from feeding reptiles, or other turtle mamas laying their own eggs.IMG_7348

Next, we walked to the edge of the sea and lined up behind a drawn line in the sand, cameras at the ready. In the arms of the staff was a laundry basket filled with a new clutch of hatchlings. They squirmed about all over each other, waiting for the moment when they were let loose. The basket was gently tipped over, and out they scrambled. As a conservationist, I am not allowed to use the word “cute”, but WOW — it was hard not to pick one up and give it a kiss for good luck. Instead, we did get to steer a few wayward ones towards the sea, but in general, the 100 babies knew exactly where they were going.

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I am now writing by headlamp, Lovesong fast asleep. Another big day in Borneo! I can’t help but marvel over the wild miracles of nature. After those babies enter the big sea, they experience the “lost years”, and only 1% will survive long enough to return to lay eggs themselves. We were told they navigate through crystals  in their heads that work as a magnetic compass. These are the mysteries of nature. I couldn’t dream up more miraculous stuff.

Into the Jungle…
by | December 19th, 2013

Another day up before the sun and we sleepily gulp down our cups of tea as we wait for our boats. Our guides from Red Ape Encounters greet us once again, and we push off shore and down the windy, lush tributaries of the Kinabatangan River. I can’t believe we get to do this again! Everywhere, we hear animals – and we decide to just sit a moment and look up at the trees and listen. Someone notices a snake coiled up on a branch directly above us; a gorgeous reticulated python, just minding his own business. As we snap photos and contemplate his age, the snake suddenly springs uncoiled into the river, missing our boat by inches. We are awake now! IMG_4650

 

Ken and our other guides steer our boat through a beautiful stretch of river and to a place where most tourists cannot tread, into the HUTAN-KOCP orang-utan study site. The HUTAN – KOCP’s (Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Project) work in Sabah began in 1998 with the first ever study of wild populations of orang-utans living in previously logged forest (secondary forest).  Our boat drifts slowly under a few very creatively designed rope bridges, made to connect fragmented corridors for orangutans. Orangutans do not swim, nor leap – and the lack of a large tree canopy makes it impossible for them to cross over the river. The bridges are the solution –  and it is a thrill to look up at them and imagine the red apes walking over them, gaining access to the food, shelter and other orangutans on the other side. IMG_4641

 

We pull up to the shore and in small groups, we climb out and into the jungle. Armed with Mosie Guard (bug spray) and leech socks, we are hoping that leeches are not part of the wildlife that we view today. We climb up a steep hill to a hidden cave where birds nest soup has been harvested from swiftlets and marvel at the richness of the forest. After a strenuous hike, we emerge out of the forest to find coffee and snacks laid out for us by the river. Life is good. IMG_4620

 

Seeing animals is a thrill, but meeting people who are heroes for animals is just as exciting and inspiring. It is wonderful to watch our group engage with these fellow-humans. Some of our group is now up in a tree-hide, talking with orangutan researchers as they stay out of the rain and safe from meandering pygmy elephants. IMG_4673Some of our group is out with reforestation workers who are planting trees all over the Kinabatangan River.  How great to meet the people who are part of the on-the-ground solutions. What a morning! As we finally jump back in our boats, we notice that behind much of the beautiful foliage, we can see rows of the palm kernel tree where there was once a diverse forest.  There is a lot to learn about conservation challenges in Borneo…..