ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In this season that celebrates birth and blessings, that bestows wishes of health and peace, New Mexicans don’t need to look for a manger.
Thanks to the efforts of animal and facility experts at the Rio Grande Zoo, the snow leopards, Socorro doves, Guam Micronesian kingfishers, Abyssinian ground hornbill and slender-snouted crocodile that call Albuquerque home won’t be the last of their species in the world.
When it comes to successful breeding programs, zoo manager Lynn Tupa says “we’re doing some amazing things here. … The BioPark is changing, really focusing on conservation. We have to walk the talk. Habitats are depleting, (there’s) poaching, it’s getting to that dire point.”
And the work in Albuquerque – with animals that, with rare exception, have themselves been bred in captivity – is “going to make a difference to some of these animals out there.”
That includes animals like the endangered snow leopard. Tupa says there are between 3,000 and 5,000 left in the wild and breeding programs, which started in the 1970s, have been hit or miss. Yet the BioPark’s pair is “one of the most successful in the last eight years,” with 14-year-old male Azeo and 13-year-old female Kachina producing seven litters with 11 surviving cubs, including Karli, who was born last year and can be seen with her parents.
Tupa says the BioPark team works with those from other facilities to figure out what makes for healthy cubs and, though the exhibit here is older, “proper care can really make a difference.”
Tips includes things like adjusting the big cats’ diet to include more vitamin B, understanding that Azeo and Kachina want to be together 24-7 and Azeo cries when they are separated, and providing Kachina with the empty nest box she prefers. (Fun fact: Kachina will adjust her position to shield her new cubs from the camera keepers installed.)
While the snow leopards are a fan favorite, the BioPark’s Socorro doves are an equally amazing success story. Extinct in the wild since 1972 because of predation by feral cats on their native island off the coast of Baja, Mexico, the dove is making a comeback thanks to efforts at the BioPark, home to 26 percent of the world’s population, including six on exhibit in Tropical America and two in the parrot walk. Kieth Crow, the BioPark’s bird department supervisor, says the breeding program here sent six chicks to Mexico for its breeding program in 2013, has 20 to 26 to send next year and now accounts for 40 percent of annual Socorro dove chick production.
Another avian success story is the kingfishers, extinct in the wild since the 1980s due to predation. A team was able to gather just 29 of the species on Guam in 2003 and BioPark experts discovered they needed soft or rotting logs to nest in and found a perfect replica in the cork blocks used for duck decoys. Now those 29 birds have become 200; the BioPark has eight on exhibit and Guam has a five-year-plan to reintroduce the birds on a neighboring island, likely one without the brown snake that drove it close to extinction on Guam.
And then there’s Maybelline the hornbill, on display at the BioPark while teams continue to examine genetics of the available birds for suitable pairings. Crow says the birds, native to Africa, imprint on humans and Maybelline recently greeted the Omaha zookeeper she hadn’t seen in a decade with bill slaps.
Biopark reptile department supervisor Matt Eschenbrenner explains “getting captive husbandry down pat is essential to holding and keeping (endangered species) until there is a shred of a chance at reintroduction.”
That’s what he and a BioPark team have been working on in Cote d’Ivoire, Africa. Two trips to the zoo there have provided equipment and training to save the critically endangered slender-snouted crocodile that has been reduced to just 50 in the wild.
The BioPark has just one of the crocs – Adjoua has been here six months and is hard to spot, as Eschenbrenner explains that hers is a “shy, secretive” breed that prefers to be “in the water, near the bottom.” Yet the expertise here has helped double the population in Cote d’Ivoire in just two years.
It included laying out a protocol for the Africa keepers, starting with ensuring the crocs’ diet includes bones for calcium rather than whatever could be obtained in a war-ravaged country, then marking the tops of eggs with an “X” before removing them from a nest so the embryos, which have attached to the shell, have an air pocket in the same spot and don’t drown, and then regulating the temperature and humidity around the eggs instead of pulling them from a cooler to show off to all visitors.
Eschenbrenner says it was eye-opening to work with zookeepers who routinely slept at work to protect the animals from hungry people who wanted to break in and eat them. The BioPark team “MacGyvered” an incubator out of an abandoned fridge, set up a filtration system for the animals’ tanks to save thousands of gallons of precious water and schooled keepers on the fact a crocodile’s jaw is “loaded with sensory organs,” so herding them with bamboo poles around their heads was the exactly wrong way to go (a nudge behind the leg works much better). Eschenbrenner says the BioPark hears from the Cote d’Ivoire keepers regularly and a real professional partnership has been born, along with 50 crocodiles.
Crow says we’re “at a paradigm shift where the public expects zoos to do this” and there is the “potential within our lifetimes of (many of these species) being reintroduced” into the wild.
And that is a holiday story, right here in Albuquerque and minus the manger, that’s worth telling.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to assistant editorial page editor D’Val Westphal at 823-3858 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.