News / USA

New Life for Vanishing Species

New technologies aid in conservation efforts at the National Zoo

The National Zoo opened a cheetah science facility in 2007 at its conservation center in Front Royal, VA.  Cheetahs are considered vulnerable.
The National Zoo opened a cheetah science facility in 2007 at its conservation center in Front Royal, VA. Cheetahs are considered vulnerable.

Multimedia

For more than a century, the National Zoo in Washington has attracted visitors wanting to learn more about animals.  Some 2,000 animals are currently in the collection, ranging from ants to elephants.

For half its history, exhibiting animals was its primary role, but the National Zoo has become a leader in wildlife conservation.

Resurrecting vanishing species

Visitors to the National Zoo can see animals representing nearly 400 species. About one fifth of them are considered threatened or endangered, like the Andean bear.

The media turned out in May for the formal introduction of two young cubs born this winter. They were the first to be born at the zoo in 22 years and the first to survive in North America since 2005.

"So we truly have a success story here, both for us and for conservation of species in its range country," says Dennis Kelly, director of the Smithsonian National Zoo.

Red pandas have been another success. There are fewer than 2,500 left in the wild, due to habitat loss in China, the Himalayas and Myanmar. The National Zoo has been responsible for the birth of more than 120 cubs.

Nurturing wildlife in the mountains of Virginia

Most were born about 100 kilometers from the zoo, at a 1,700-hectare campus nestled in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia, headquarters of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI).

"There are 225 zoos in the United States and only about five zoos have large off-site facilities like this one," says Steven Monfort, director of the SCBI. "What we try to do is have high profile species that are in need of science or breeding attention."  

Between 30 and 40 species of mammals and birds are at the campus. Species like the Przewalski's horse, which originated on the steppes of Western Europe and Asia.

"We have 27 individuals here, the largest managed population in the United States," Monfort says. "That species was down to 12 purebred individuals after World War II. Now there are more than 1,500 in the world."

More than 400 have been reintroduced to China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. Such successes lead to high expectations.

Monfort says zoos are too often asked to make miracles happen when a species is down to an incredibly small number of individual animals.

These Andean bear cubs, born in January 2010, were the first to be born at the National Zoo in 22 years.
These Andean bear cubs, born in January 2010, were the first to be born at the National Zoo in 22 years.

That was the case with the black-footed ferret, which is native to the American prairie. Twenty years ago, there were only 18 in the wild.  "They were thought to be extinct and a small population was found," Monfort says.  

Since then, more than 500 black-footed ferrets have been born at the National Zoo, many using artificial insemination and frozen sperm.  Through reintroduction into the wild, the population has grown to 700.

Scientific advances aid progress

Advances in science have helped conservation in other ways.  Scientists can now monitor hormones using fecal or urine samples. That helped researchers learn that when two female cheetahs are together, one can reproductively suppress the other.

DNA research also plays a role.

"They do population management designs for endangered and threatened species," says Rob Fleischer, head of the Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics in the SCBI.  "If the animals are in captivity, we try to mix them up more, try to make sure to design the breeding program so we don't lose genetic variability."

Rob Fleischer (right), head of the Center for Conservation and Evolutionary genetics, says scientists at the Zoo's new DNA lab work on nearly all of the Zoo's conservation efforts
Rob Fleischer (right), head of the Center for Conservation and Evolutionary genetics, says scientists at the Zoo's new DNA lab work on nearly all of the Zoo's conservation efforts

Although scientists at the zoo work with ancient DNA from animals that have been dead thousands of years or more, they won't be resurrecting any extinct animals any time soon, Monfort says.  

"One of the things that bothers me the most about these high technology ideas of bringing back species from the dead is that the problems that we are facing today are so dramatic and species are declining so quickly that it is triage at best."

As it works to preserve vulnerable animals, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute is also training the next generation of biologists to carry on their work. It has already trained over 4,000 professionals, as well as hundreds of graduate and post doctoral fellows from every continent.

"We need an army of people.," Monfort says, " The problems we are talking about aren't going to be solved in a single person's career."  He says the challenges to wildlife - climate change, invasive species, and other human impacts on the environment - will continue.  

You May Like

Photogallery Kyiv: Russian Forces Tightening Grip on East

And new United Nations report documents human rights abuses committed by both sides in conflict More

Locust Swarms Fill Antananarivo Skies

FAO-led control efforts halted plague More

South Africa’s Plan to Move Rhinos May Not Stop Poaching

Experts say international coordination needed to follow the money trail and bring down rhino horn kingpins More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ebola Vaccine Trials To Begin Next Weeki
X
August 29, 2014 2:18 AM
The National Institutes of Health says it is launching early stage trials of a vaccine to prevent the Ebola virus, which has infected or killed thousands of people across West Africa. The World Health Organization says Ebola could infect more than 20,000 people across the region by the time the outbreak is over. The epidemic has health experts and governments scrambling to prevent more people from becoming infected. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials To Begin Next Week

The National Institutes of Health says it is launching early stage trials of a vaccine to prevent the Ebola virus, which has infected or killed thousands of people across West Africa. The World Health Organization says Ebola could infect more than 20,000 people across the region by the time the outbreak is over. The epidemic has health experts and governments scrambling to prevent more people from becoming infected. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Asian Bacteria Threatens Florida Orange Trees

Florida's citrus fruit industry is facing a serious threat from a bacteria carried by the Asian insect called psyllid. The widespread infestation again highlights the danger of transferring non-native species to American soil. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Aging Will Reduce Economic Growth Worldwide in Coming Decades

The world is getting older, fast. And as more people retire each year, fewer working-age people will be there to replace them. Bond rating agency Moody’s says that will lead to a decline in household savings; reducing global investments - which in turn, will lead to slower economic growth around the world. But experts say it’s not too late to mitigate the economic impact of the world’s aging populations. Mil Arcega has more.
Video

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Pachyderms Play Polo to Raise Money for Elephants

Polo, the ancient team competition typically played on horseback, is known as the “sport of kings.” However, the royal version for one annual event in Thailand swaps the horse for the kingdom’s national symbol - the elephant. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Samut Prakan reports that the King’s Cup Elephant Polo tournament is all for a good cause.
Video

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

The United States along with European and Mideast allies are considering a broader assault against Islamic State fighters who have spread from Syria into Iraq and risk further destabilizing an already troubled region. But as VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, confronting those militants could end up helping the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Video

Video Made in America Socks Get Toehold in Online Fashion Market

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revolutionize the high-end sock industry by introducing all-American creations of their own. And they’re doing most of it the old-fashioned way. VOA’s Julie Taboh recently caught up with them to learn what goes into making their one-of-a-kind socks.
Video

Video Americans, Ex-Pats Send Relief Supplies to West Africa

Health organizations from around the world are sending supplies and specialists to the West African countries that are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. On a smaller scale, ordinary Americans and African expatriates living in the United States are doing the same. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video America's Most Popular Artworks Displayed in Public Places

Public places in cities across America were turned into open-air art galleries in August. Pictures of the nation’s most popular artworks were displayed on billboards, bus shelters, subway platforms and more. The idea behind “Art Everywhere,” a collaborative campaign by five major museums is to allow more people to enjoy art and learn about the country’s culture and history. Faiza Elmasry has more.
Video

Video Chinese Doctors Use 3-D Spinal Implant

A Chinese boy suffering from a debilitating bone disease has become the first patient with a part of his spine created in a three-dimensional printer. Doctors say he will soon regain normal mobility. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video India’s Leprosy Battle Stymied by Continuing Stigma

Medical advancements in the treatment of leprosy have greatly diminished its impact around the world, largely eliminating the disease from most countries. India made great strides in combating leprosy, but still accounts for a majority of the world’s new cases each year, and the number of newly infected Indians is rising - more than 130,000 recorded last year. Doctors there say the problem has more to do with society than science. Shaikh Azizur Rahman reports from Kolkata.
Video

Video Scientists Unlock Mystery of Bird Flocks

How can flocks of birds, schools of fish or herds of antelope suddenly change direction -- all the individuals adjusting their movement in concert, at seemingly the same time? British researchers now have some insights into this behavior, which has puzzled scientists for a long time. VOA's George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid