The fight against an­i­mal ex­tinc­tion

Zoo says it has a role, but not ev­ery­body agrees

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A world with­out gi­raffes is one Menita Prasad doesn’t want to con­tem­plate.

But with a re­cent study show­ing the world’s gi­raffes are at in­creas­ing risk of ex­tinc­tion, con­ser­va­tion is top of mind for the an­i­mal care man­ager at the Greater Van­cou­ver Zoo.

Pom­padour, the Alder­grove fa­cil­ity’s 10-year-old Roth­schild’s gi­raffe, is not the only mem­ber of a dwin­dling species. A few weeks af­ter sci­en­tists sounded the alarm con­cern­ing the world’s tallest land an­i­mal, an­other study raised fears about the chee­tah, re­port­ing only 7,100 of the speedy cats left in the wild. The Greater Van­cou­ver Zoo is home to two chee­tahs, Duma and Malkia.

“We want to do as much as we can to help,” said Prasad. “This news em­pha­sizes that.”

But in rainy Bri­tish Columbia, an ocean away from the African sa­van­nah, that amounts to ed­u­ca­tion and do­na­tions to groups work­ing on the ground. For var­i­ous rea­sons, the zoo’s gi­raffe and chee­tahs are not part of their breed­ing pro­grams, nor are they can­di­dates for rear­ing and re­lease.

“Just be­cause we have an an­i­mal in cap­tiv­ity doesn’t mean they need to be bred,” said Prasad.

Var­i­ous fac­tors de­ter­mine if an an­i­mal is a can­di­date for what the zoo man­ager called the “glo­ri­fied dat­ing ser­vice” that is the As­so­ci­a­tion of Zoos and Aquar­i­ums’ species sur­vival plan. Through co­or­di­nated breed­ing loans be­tween fa­cil­i­ties, the pro­gram strives to main­tain pure blood lines, in ad­di­tion to en­sur­ing there are ad­e­quate homes for cap­tive off­spring. Pom­padour, Duma and Malkia are not in con­sid­er­a­tion for breed­ing at this time, said Prasad.

“Our fo­cus is on lo­cal an­i­mals,” she ex­plained, point­ing to the zoo’s work in rear­ing and re­leas­ing Ore­gon Spot­ted Frogs and West­ern Painted Tur­tles.

But Prasad em­pha­sized the zoo’s role in ed­u­cat­ing the pub­lic about en­dan­gered species around the world, cre­at­ing a “con­nec­tion” be­tween an an­i­mal in a far­away place and a per­son in their ev­ery­day life. Twenty-five cents from ev­ery zoo ad­mis­sion goes to con­ser­va­tion projects, in­clud­ing the Ira­nian Chee­tah Project, which works to pro­tect the small chee­tah pop­u­la­tion in Iran.

“Our main ob­jec­tive is to in­spire a con­nec­tion with the an­i­mals which can then lead peo­ple to un­der­stand and sup­port con­ser­va­tion ef­forts,” said Prasad.

But the ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Van­cou­ver Hu­mane Society ques­tioned whether a zoo can truly ful­fil that goal.

“What they’re re­ally do­ing is teach­ing peo­ple that it’s OK for an­i­mals to be in cages, that they ex­ist for our en­ter­tain­ment,” said De­bra Probert, call­ing the zoo’s ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams “in­ad­e­quate.”

“Keep­ing en­dan­gered species does noth­ing for con­ser­va­tion,” she con­tin­ued, ques­tion­ing the idea that zoos can help stave off ex­tinc­tion by rein­tro­duc­ing gi­raffes and chee­tahs to the wild.

The Greater Van­cou­ver Zoo har­bours no il­lu­sions about rein­tro­duc­ing (or, more ac­cu­rately, in­tro­duc­ing) Pom­padour to the wild, said Prasad. “Pompy,” as he is af­fec­tion­ately known, was born in cap­tiv­ity at a fa­cil­ity on the east coast. Like many North Amer­i­can zoo an­i­mals, he has never been to Africa. He ar­rived in Alder­grove in 2012, around the same time the zoo was deal­ing with the deaths of three gi­raffes, in­clud­ing a baby that was born at the fa­cil­ity.

The chee­tahs, Duma and Malkia, were also born in cap­tiv­ity. Duma was born at a fa­cil­ity in Africa that re­ha­bil­i­tates and re­leases an­i­mals back into the wild. He was hand reared and had im­printed on hu­mans, mak­ing him in­el­i­gi­ble for re­lease.

Now the chee­tah is one of the zoo’s star at­trac­tions. A bit of a “ham,” he loves at­ten­tion an d crowds. He also seems to like the rain and chooses to be out­side in the win­ter. Pompy, on the other hand, prefers the warmth of his en­clo­sure in cool weather and is not al­lowed in his yard when there is ice on the ground. “They are such amaz­ing crea­tures. Car­ing for them, you gain an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of that,” said Prasad. In early De­cem­ber, sci­en­tists moved gi­raffes from be­ing a “species of least con­cern” to “vul­ner­a­ble” on the In­ter­na­tional Union for the Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture’s (IUCN) of­fi­cial watch list of the world’s threat­ened and en­dan­gered species. In 1985, there were be­tween 151,000 and 163,000 gi­raffes, but the num­ber dropped to 97,562 in 2015. Ex­perts blamed habi­tat loss for the pop­u­la­tion de­cline, com­pounded by poach­ing, as more peo­ple move into gi­raffe ter­ri­tory in cen­tral and eastern Africa. A study re­leased af­ter Christ­mas sounded an even more dire warn­ing about chee­tahs, with the au­thors urg­ing the IUCN to re-cat­e­go­rize the fastest land an­i­mal from “vul­ner­a­ble” to “en­dan­gered.” The re­port es­ti­mated there are only 7,100 chee­tahs left in the wild, with about 77 per cent of their habi­tat fall­ing out­side pro­tected ar­eas that are now be­ing threat­ened by hu­man en­croach­ment.


Pom­padour, the Greater Van­cou­ver Zoo’s pop­u­lar male gi­raffe, was born in cap­tiv­ity on the east coast. — GREATER VAN­COU­VER ZOO

One of the zoo’s two chee­tahs en­dures the rain and cold at the Greater Van­cou­ver Zoo.

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