Posts Tagged ‘wild animals’

Just say Let Me Think Critically for a Moment to Palm Oil – In Preparation for Valentines Day

by | January 28th, 2016

The issue with palm oil is complex and evolving. It is true, forests have been devastated by the clearing of habitat in order to plant the oil palm plant, a plant grown commercially in rain-forests primarily in Borneo and Sumatra. These forests were home to tigers, sun bears, elephants and orangutans. Tragically, the industry poses a threat to these and other species, as much of it uses deforestation practices that are destructive to these animals’ delicate habitat. Ten years ago, biologists and environmentalistzoo grounds green signs 029ts were all encouraging a complete ban of the plant. It would be nice if it were that simple.

Endangered Sun Bear

Endangered Sun Bear

Palm oil is now in over 50 % of packaged goods like food, cosmetics and soap. According to most of the same biologists and environmentalists, it is here to stay, and is now best to use your purchasing choices as power to drive sustainable and responsible practices.

Responsible palm oil is produced without contributing to rain forest or peat land destruction, species extinction, greenhouse gas emissions or human rights abuses. Food manufacturing companies need transparent and traceable supply chains from the plantation where the palm oil was sourced to the final product on your grocery store shelf. There should also be requirements around what palm oil is called on the label, as there are currently dozens of acceptable names that lead to further confusion.

lableOn a bright note, there has also been much progress in awareness and positive action. Many organizations are doing their share to encourage industry change and increase public outreach. The Round-table for Sustainable Palm Oil is a start on the road to doing right, but it is our hope that the standards are increased for companies that produce, trade and use palm oil.

Individual actions truly matter when it comes to helping those sun bears, tigers and orangutans. You can help by reading labels when you shop. Choose products that don’t use palm oil (Palmitic acid, Palm kernel oil, Palm kernel) or that opt to use sustainable “orangutan friendly” palm oil. Explore companies that are part of the Round-table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), and learn all you can about this complicated conservation issue.






This Valentine’s Day season and every day, use the following lists and smart phone apps to help you be sweet to the beautiful animals that will survive only if humans stop, learn and think critically.

  • Purchase items that do not use palm oil or that use sustainable palm oil only
  • Support companies that have joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) by downloading the Palm Oil Shopping Guide for iPhones and Android smartphones. You can also download this cool Palm Oil Fact Sheet for kids too
  • Use your power as a consumer: Write to your favorite restaurants and companies. Let them know that you care about orangutans, sun bears, gibbons and their rainforest home, and that your concern is reflected in products you are willing to buy. Ask them to join the RSPO if they haven’t done so already. We have a sample letter you can use for your convenience
  • Go see wild orangutans, sun bears, gibbons. Your tourist dollars make the rainforests worth more standing than cut down for plantations. Check out Hutan Project and the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
  • Write to your local legislators and the President. Ask them not to explore palm oil as a biofuel option. Cutting down rainforests to grow palm oil is not a “green” substitute for gasoline
  • Write to Indonesian and Malaysian government officials. Ask them to preserve their precious natural resources. They are the only countries in the world that have wild orangutans!
  • Get involved in organizations that are purchasing land for conservation in affected areas
  • Learn more at

Big Love for Elephants with Big Life!

by | April 24th, 2015

It started with a book:  1,000 Places to See Before You Die. I was planning a trip to Kenya — my last one had been 25 years earlier — and read this:

“An Unspoiled Corner of Kenya:  Ol Donyo Wuas, Chyulu Hills. The owner and occasional resident personality, Richard Bonham chose the site for its view of Mount Kilimanjaro.  Bonham himself occasionally pops up…”

Big Life, one of our Quarters for Conservation partners for 2014-15, is headquartered in the Chyulu Hills at Ol Donyo; Richard Bonham is one of the co-founders, along with photographer Nick Brandt.  Big Life protects 2 million acres of the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem of East Africa, encompassing portions of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania.

Amboseli Tsavo ecosystem map
They implement the philosophy I heard about when I got there:  Wildlife Helping People.  Big Life is the largest employer of community members (predominantly Maasai) in the region, and the organization ensures that tourist revenue derived from wildlife in the ecosystem benefits the locals.

Richard Bonham grew up in Kenya, the son of a Kenya Wildlife Services ranger.  He recently received the Prince William Award for Conservation in Africa, and he thoroughly understands and appreciates Maasai economics and culture.


big life awardFor the Maasai, cattle are their wealth.  They live on semi-arid land that their cattle share with savannah grazers and browsers — elephants, giraffe, buffalo, wildebeest, antelopes, zebras — along with predators — lions, leopards, cheetah, hyenas.  Young boys grow up herding and protecting cattle among all the resident wildlife, and they have a deep knowledge and appreciation of nature, with one exception:  lions are a traditional enemy, and when a lion kills a Maasai cow, teenage warriors retaliate — and prove their manhood — by killing a lion.

Over the last 25 years, Maasai elders — who serve as mentors for adolescents — have realized that their lion-killing tradition can’t continue.  Lions are among the iconic tourist draws, and if every Maasai warrior proved his manhood by killing a lion, tourist revenue would die with the lions.  In 2008, the elders asked Richard Bonham to brainstorm a solution with them, and together they came up with two schemes:  a predator compensation fund, from which the community partially compensates a family that loses cattle in spite of their best efforts to protect them; and the Maasai Olympics, where young men compete in traditional Maasai skills for prizes, displacing the need to kill a lion as a rite of passage.  The elders spent six months on education about the importance of the young generation in implementing a cultural change that would preserve the best of their traditions — but update their values to the realities of the 21st century.

Big Life and their partners have organized Maasai Olympics competitions in 2012 and 2014.  David Rudisha, the Maasai gold medalist in the 800 meters at the 2012 London Olympics, is a fervent supporter, and guest of honor.
During the last quarter of 2014, not one elephant, among the 2,000 that pass through, was poached in Big Life’s area of operation.  Most of the danger for elephants now lies in conflict with farmers:  elephants raid crops, or drain the water supply, potentially destroying a year’s livelihood.  Farmers retaliate by spearing the elephants.

And Big Life comes to the rescue:  a Kenya Wildlife Service vet flies to Ol Donyo when the staff spot a wounded elephant, treats the wound and sends the elephant back to the wild, hopefully wiser about where and what he chooses to eat and drink.


elephant down
The community around Ol Donyo now Gets It about conservation.  Big Life’s latest story:

They arrived with a just cause, eight construction workers to build a classroom. They must have wondered at all the animals, living in peace and not terrified of humans. Clearly they didn’t take the time to find out why.

And this led to a very bad decision. If no one else was eating all these animals, well then they would. They chased down a lesser kudu, an uncommon and shy antelope, and snuck the carcass into the school through a hole in a fence.

But they misjudged the people around them. The message went from a set of community eyes, via the Big Life control room, and straight to the rangers. The cooking fire wasn’t even warm by the time the ranger team arrived, and the men found themselves on their way to the police station. A bad end to their day.

Despite the on-going conflicts with elephants and predators, this is a community that has decided to conserve wildlife, and the sooner visitors get the message, the better for them.

Note: Big Life will be presenting at our annual Celebrating Elephants event on May 16th. Join us!

Learning how to train animals…

by | March 10th, 2014
Me training a Scarlet Macaw to present its foot on the cage for a nail trim

Me training a Scarlet Macaw to present its foot on the cage for a nail trim

I recently had the privilege of attending a workshop on Contemporary Animal Training and Management hosted by

Me and my team leader training a Pied Crow to step on my hand

Me and my team leader training a Pied Crow to step on my hand

Me training a Blue-throated Macaw to land on my hand

Me training a Blue-throated Macaw to land on my hand

Natural Encounters, Inc. in Florida.  It was an amazing educational experience, and I honestly can’t stop thinking about it.

Me target training a Red-fronted Macaw

Me target training a Red-fronted Macaw

Just a beautiful photo of a Blue and Gold Macaw in-flight

Just a beautiful photo of a Blue and Gold Macaw in-flight

The 5 day workshop followed a format that balanced both theoretical presentations and practical hands-on training sessions. Experienced animal trainers and animal behavior scientists were on hand to share their expertise and answer our endless list of questions.  I got the opportunity to network with dozens of other zoo professionals, dog trainers, and companion parrot owners.  The challenge after any workshop, conference, or seminar that I participate in is applying my new or improved skills with the animals that I work with at the Oakland Zoo.  Fortunately, this challenge is the reason I love my job!

You may be wondering why we bother with animal training, who we train, or how we train.  Training has been described as the ultimate form of enrichment.  The application of enrichment seeks to stimulate our animals both physically and mentally while also empowering them to make their own choices and control their environments.  Perhaps that’s a bit of a “wordy” description of the concept.  Bottom line is the animal gets to exercise their brain and often their body by doing something…anything really.  At the Oakland Zoo, we do all kinds of training with all kinds of animals.  Leonard, our male African lion, is trained to place his paw on an x-ray plate and hold still for x-rays.  Tiki, one of our Reticulated giraffe, is trained to present her feet for hoof trimmings and acupuncture treatments. Torako, one of our tigers, is trained to position her tail through a hatch so that Zookeepers can safely draw blood from a vein in her tail.  The flock of Red-bellied Parrots in our Savannah Aviary exhibit are trained to perch on particular stations so that Zookeepers can examine them daily.

You may be noticing a theme.  Many of our training goals seek to empower the animal to willingly and eagerly participate in their own husbandry and medical care.  All of these animals have the choice to walk away in the middle of a training session if they want.  Ultimately, this allows the animal AND the Zookeeper to function in a low-stress, highly reinforcing tandem.  The animal is having fun, and the Zookeeper is having fun!

Thanks for reading!  I’ll leave you with some of my favorite pictures from the Contemporary Animal Training and Management workshop.

It Takes A Village: Hope for Mountain Lions

by | March 3rd, 2014

What a primal joy to awake each morning on the east side of the Bay Bridge in the beautiful Bay Area and know that somewhere up in the hills, quietly walking, sleeping, purring or chirping, caring for cubs, or hunting –  are lions. Lions! Known as mountain lion, cougar, puma and panther, the elusive “cat of one color” has inspired more names—40 in English alone— than any other animal in the world. The mountain lion is the biggest wild cat in North America and has the largest geographic range of any carnivore in the Western Hemisphere.  Mountain lions can be found from the Yukon to the southern Andes. Here in the Bay Area, lions are known to roam the Santa Cruz Mountains, and varies ranges in the East Bay, near me.

Chris Wilmers, a professor of environmental studies at the University of California Santa Cruz, is leading a team of scientists on the so-called Bay Area Puma Project, which hopes to tag mountain lions to study their movements, range, habits and physiology.

Chris Wilmers, a professor of environmental studies at the University of California Santa Cruz, is leading a team of scientists on the so-called Bay Area Puma Project, which hopes to tag mountain lions to study their movements, range, habits and physiology.

Our mountain lions are much different than African lions in that they are solitary and maintain territories that average 100 square miles in size. Males are highly protective of their large domains and will fight to defend it. A fortunate mountain lion can live a 10-12 year life in the wild. They eat deer and other small mammals which helps keep ecosystems balanced and healthy.

The status of mountain lions is very much in question. Though true populations in the United States, Mexico, Central and South America is virtually unknown, experts estimate 30,000 in the United States. Per the Mountain Lion Foundation’s sources, the California’s statewide population of mountain lions is approximately 4,000 animals and dropping.

As mountain lion habitat is increasingly fragmented and movement corridors are blocked by human development, more sightings and encounters with mountain lions are causing challenges.  Mountain lions are being killed more often by cars and depredation permits (issued when livestock or pets are attacked), and increasing news reports of mountain lion encounters are driving growing public concern for both people and the cats.

As the Conservation Director at Oakland Zoo, I work very closely with wildlife conservation issues all over the world, and habitat loss and the resulting human-wildlife conflict is a challenge we all share, whether that is elephants, tigers, African lions or our own apex predator. I have learned that it takes all stakeholders coming together to truly offer hope for these species.

Now, for the good news: in the Bay Area, mountain lions have friends. One of these friends is the Bay Area Puma Project, who is bringing their international cat research expertise home to the East bay with the aim of understanding these cats and improving our local co-existence with them. Oakland Zoo supports these efforts (they were our Quarters for Conservation project in 2013) and is excited to share their expertise with our public on March 5th at our Conservation Speaker Series event, Saving the Puma.

Other advocates are the Mountain Lion Foundation, the East Bay Regional Park District, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, to name a few.

On New Year’s Day, Senate Bill 132 went into effect, which allows the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to work with nongovernmental groups in capturing, tranquilizing or relocating the animals. With this new bill, and the new and improved policies of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, wardens and their supporting organizations will capture or scare off mountain lions unless they pose an imminent threat to people or public safety. Oakland Zoo is honored to help with this progressive effort.

In fact, Oakland Zoo has embraced mountain lion conservation in many ways. As we join forces with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, we are committed to both participate in response to mountain lion conflict calls, and to offer care for a mountain lion in need of recovery before it is hopefully released back into the wild. We are also assisting the Bay Area Puma Project with their vital research and launching various outreach and education programs to create greater mountain lion awareness.

What a joy to look out into those hills and feel thanks to working alliances, our own conservation village, there is hope for a peaceful co-existence with our very own native lion.

Helpful links about Mountain Lions and more


Conservation On-Site: The Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog

by | January 29th, 2014

As you visit Oakland Zoo this winter and spring you may notice that the animals and projects we are supporting at our Quarters for Conservation booth in Flamingo Plaza have changed.   I would like you to pay special attention to the developing partnership with the San Francisco State University Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog project.   This project teams up Oakland Zoo with San Francisco State University in bringing awareness to and supporting the recovery of this critically endangered species that is found right here in the mountains of California.


Once one of the most numerous species found in their alpine habitat in the Sierra Nevada, Transverse, and Peninsular ranges they are now one of the rarest despite this habitat being found in some of the most well-managed and inaccessible areas of the state.    During some of the initial research looking into this decline the focus was on the impact and removal of game fish that were introduced to their alpine habitats, such as trout.   The Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog evolved in a habitat where such efficient predators were not common and the eggs, tadpoles, and frogs themselves became easy prey.  With the management and removal of these introduced fish species some areas showed rapid recovery of frogs.    However, some did not, and in fact the overall population continued to decline.    The emerging disease known as the chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) was found to be the cause of this continued decline and was attacking the frogs during one of their most sensitive transitions in life, the one between tadpole and juvenile life stages.    The chytrid fungus works by attacking the keratin in the skin of juvenile and adult frogs preventing them from being able to use their skin to respirate and exchange water leading to their deaths, wiping out whole populations.   For some reason the disease does not affect the tadpoles of the Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog, but it will remain with them through the several years they spend as a tadpole.    This makes the tadpoles, along with several other frog species that are not affected, a means to not only infect their own kind with this deadly fungus, but to make it almost impossible to eliminate from the environment.

With this revelation the focus to save the Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog changed to not only manage and remove non-native fish, but to support the frogs in gaining resistance to the chytrid fungus during this transition in their life.   The support comes in the form of a bacterium called Janthinobacterium lividum.    The bacteria was discovered on the skin of a fellow amphibian, the red-backed salamander, and later discovered to also be present on the skins of Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog in varying levels.   This bacterium has the unique feature of having anti-fungal properties and when found in greater numbers on amphibian skin can help to increase resistance to the chytrid fungus.    Now, in steps Dr. Vance Vredenburg and the San Francisco State University Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog Project.   Dr. Vredenburg has been pioneering skin bio augmentation treatments using Janthinobacterium lividum to support juvenile frogs that are being rereleased or will be re-released into their habitats in both Northern and Southern California.     Through a partnership with San Diego Zoo, San Francisco Zoo, and soon Oakland Zoo, San Francisco State University is hoping to tip the balance for these frogs by collecting them as eggs from their habitat, hatching them in captivity, raise them to juvenile frogs, treating them with this anti-chytrid bacterium, and release them back into their natal ponds and streams.   It is hoped that not only will this prove to provide long term resistance to chytrid, but will be naturally passed between frogs as they naturally congregate together in the shallows off the banks of the rivers and lakes they live.

If you are interested in learning more about the plight of the Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog and supporting them as well during their most vulnerable transitions you can join us on Wednesday February 5th at 6:30 p.m. in the Marian Zimmer Auditorium at our Conservation Speaker Series event when Dr. Vance Vredenburg joins us to discuss his work with the Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog and the implications his research has to save this and potentially numerous other amphibian species worldwide.

 by Victor Alm, Zoological Manager


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.