The Washington Post
Hope for Animals and Their World: How Endangered Species Are Being Rescued from the Brinkby Jane Goodall, Thane Maynard, Gail Hudson
At a time when animal species are becoming extinct on every continent and we are confronted with bad news about the environment nearly every day, Jane Goodall, one of the world's most renowned scientists, brings us inspiring news about the future of the animal kingdom. With the insatiable curiosity and conversational prose that have made her a bestselling author,… See more details below
At a time when animal species are becoming extinct on every continent and we are confronted with bad news about the environment nearly every day, Jane Goodall, one of the world's most renowned scientists, brings us inspiring news about the future of the animal kingdom. With the insatiable curiosity and conversational prose that have made her a bestselling author, Goodall-along with Cincinnati Zoo Director Thane Maynard-shares fascinating survival stories about the American Crocodile, the California Condor, the Black-Footed Ferret, and more; all formerly endangered species and species once on the verge of extinction whose populations are now being regenerated.
Interweaving her own first-hand experiences in the field with the compelling research of premier scientists, Goodall illuminates the heroic efforts of dedicated environmentalists and the truly critical need to protect the habitats of these beloved species. At once a celebration of the animal kingdom and a passionate call to arms, HOPE FOR ANIMALS THEIR WORLD presents an uplifting, hopeful message for the future of animal-human coexistence.
The Washington Post
With the resurgence of red wolves and California condors, there is good news on the species front, as chronicled in this collection of success stories by renowned chimp researcher Goodall. Section one recounts the revival of six mammal and bird species, including Mongolian miniature horses and Australian wallabies, that became extinct in the wild but are being reintroduced to their natural habitat through captive breeding. Section two describes efforts to bring species back from near extinction, among them Brazil's golden lion tamarin and the North American whooping crane. Section three details continuing efforts to preserve 11 species, including the giant pandas of China, whose bamboo diet is disappearing, and the Asian vultures of India, whose "disastrous population drop"-from a reported 87 million birds to 27 breeding pairs in 2006-has led to a dramatic rise in disease incubated by putrefying cattle carcasses once scavenged by the carrion-loving birds. Goodall is no Pollyanna about species reclamation-she acknowledges that there have been more losses than gains-but these accounts of conservation success are inspirational. (Sept. 2)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Goodall's intimate writing style and sense of wonder pull the reader into each account... The mix of personal and scientific makes for a compelling read." Booklist
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Hope for Animals and Their WorldHow Endangered Species Are Being Rescued from the Brink
By Goodall, Jane
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2009 Goodall, Jane
All right reserved.
Lost in the Wild
Children are fascinated by dinosaurs. I used to imagine myself transported into the past, my imagination stimulated by Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. In my mind I would roam those ancient landscapes with the giant vegetarian brontosaurus, unharmed by the mighty tyrannosaur. I loved, too, mind-walking in the older world of the giant amphibians, that watery realm of swamps and huge ferns. And sometimes I dreamed of watching woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers. But they were gone, and I had no time capsule. And there were no marvels of technology to re-create those creatures of long ago—as did the extraordinary BBC TV series Walking with Dinosaurs.
And then I learned, from one of my books, about the dodo. That extinction was very different from the loss of the dinosaurs. The dodo (and countless others) would still have been around, I discovered, but for modern Homo sapiens. Of course, our Stone Age ancestors had hunted and killed animals. I would later see evidence of this when I worked with Louis Leakey in Olduvai Gorge. But it was hard work for them with only their primitive stone tools. Moreover, the prey animals in Africa had evolved along with the predators that hunted them, and had developed myriad ways to escape being killed. How different when Captain Cook and his sailors killed the unsuspecting flightless dodos, feeling safe on their island with no instinct for flight—and so they were eaten to extinction.
When I was a child, more than seventy years ago, there was no television and no Internet to trap me in front of electronic screens. Instead I spent hours watching birds and insects in our garden, and reading books. Back then most of the animals that are so endangered today lived safely in as-yet-unlogged forests, undrained wetlands, and unpolluted fields and oceans. Yet even then, of course, large-scale slaughter of wildlife was taking place. The American bison herds were being decimated, wolves were being exterminated, and animals in their hundreds of thousands were being trapped and killed for their skins, their fur, their feathers—and for specimens to stuff for natural history museums. Big-game hunters were “bagging” and bragging about trophies. And passenger pigeons were hunted to extinction. For the most part, no one thought much about any of that, and anyway nature’s natural resources, to most people, seemed inexhaustible.
But gradually our human populations have grown, and the destruction of the natural world has intensified. One after the other, more and more of the extraordinarily varied life-forms of our planet have joined the dodo and the passenger pigeon. Mostly they are small creatures and plants, often endemic to a particular area of rain forest or other habitat that has been destroyed. But fish and birds have gone as well. And Miss Waldron’s red colobus was pronounced extinct in Ghana at the end of the last century. So much has gone even during the seventy-five years since I was born.
Will a nature-loving child born seventy-five years from now long to see a live elephant as I longed to see a woolly mammoth? Will she wish desperately for a time machine in order to experience a real rain forest and watch orangutans and tigers? Will she yearn to know a lost and mysterious deep-sea world of the great whales? And if, in seventy-five years, these animals exist only in digital libraries or as dusty museum specimens, how will she feel?
When I was a young girl, it was possible for me to forgive Captain Cook and the people of his era, for they had no idea of the direction we were heading (though they were unknowingly mapping out the path of the future). But at that time, the world was largely unexplored, its wonders undiscovered—and there were far fewer human beings. Still, if a child seventy-five years from now finds that most animals have gone from the earth, she will not be able to excuse the behavior of those who destroyed them. For she will know that they were lost not from a position of ignorance, but because the majority of humans simply did not care.
Fortunately, some people do care a great deal, and sometimes heroic efforts are being made to save and conserve threatened and endangered species. But for them, the list of extinct animals today would be much longer. I have been privileged to meet many of them, and in this book I look forward to introducing as many as I can, along with the animals, plants, and habitats to which they have devoted their lives.
The stories we are sharing in the first two parts show how complicated a business this conservation of wildlife is. For it is necessary to integrate research, protection in the wild, habitat restoration, captive breeding, and raising awareness in the local population. And there are restrictions—everything must be undertaken under the watchful eyes of government authorities. Also, it is inevitable that when passionate people with different perspectives try to work together, differences of opinion arise, and these opinions will be hotly defended—and although, through discussion and compromise, agreement will usually be reached, a good deal of time and effort may be wasted along the way. In the best-case scenario, organizations working to protect an animal and its environment cooperate for the good of the species, and the public volunteers its help.
Part 1 tells the stories of six mammal and bird species that actually became extinct in the wild. They were saved only through captive breeding with the goal of returning their progeny to the wild once their numbers had increased and areas of habitat had been set aside for their lasting protection. But the issue of captive breeding was—and still is—highly controversial. There are objections to such projects from those who feel last-minute solutions will not work, and are a waste of time and above all money. Fortunately the passionate biologists who worked to save the six species in this section refused to listen to them.
In the Lakota culture, the black-footed ferret is called itopta sapa: ite—face, opta—across, sapa—black. The Lakota admired itopta sapa for its cunning and elusiveness and held it sacred. Creatures that were hard to kill, like itopta sapa, were thought to be protected by the earth power and the thunder beings. Today the Lakota still consider this ferret sacred.
At one time, short- and mixed-grass prairies, home to the black-footed ferret, covered nearly one-third of North America, from Canada to Mexico. This vast area was also home to the great bison herds as well as the prairie dogs that lived in huge colonies, and provided food and homes for the ferrets, who lived in their burrows.
When Europeans arrived in North America, things began to change. Human developments transformed the prairies, so that more and more prairie dog habitat was destroyed, and the ranchers began their ongoing campaign to poison as many as possible. They maintained that the rodents competed with their livestock for grass and that their burrows would cause broken legs. By 1960, using the most conservative calculations, prairie dogs had lost some 98 percent of the land they had once occupied. New diseases were also brought to the prairies: Sylvatic plague, for example, entered North America around the turn of the century and is having a devastating impact on prairie dog towns to this day.
Prairie dogs, being rodents, can quickly bounce back from a population decline, but not so black-footed ferrets. They are predators with a naturally low population that is spread out over a wide area. As their numbers declined, it became more and more difficult for them to replenish themselves.
Disappearing into Extinction
In 1964, the federal government was actually debating whether these wild ferrets should be listed as extinct when a small population (only 20 of the 151 prairie dog colonies in the area were occupied) was discovered in Mellette County, South Dakota. As time went on, however, it became clear that this small population was decreasing, probably because of fragmented habitat and the poisoning of prairie dog colonies.
In 1971, six of the Mellette County ferrets were captured to form the nucleus for a captive breeding program. Tragically, four of these precious lives were lost when they were vaccinated against distemper, even though the vaccine had not harmed the Siberian ferrets on which it had been tested. Three more were then captured, but the program seemed doomed. Over the next four breeding seasons, one of the captive females refused to mate, and although the other twice produced litters of five, each time four of the five were stillborn, and the fifth died soon after birth. Meanwhile, the wild ferrets of Mellette County were disappearing—the last time one was seen was 1974.
I can imagine the desperation of the team working on the captive breeding as they watched the species falling into extinction. In 1979, the last remaining captive black-footed ferret died of cancer, and the federal government again debated listing the species extinct.
A Fateful Encounter
And then, on September 26, 1981, two years after the death of the last captive black-footed ferret in South Dakota, something very exciting happened. In Meeteetse, Wyoming, on the property of John and Lucille Hogg, a small animal got too close to Shep, their blue heeler ranch dog, when he was eating his dinner—and Shep naturally killed it. John found the strange-looking animal by Shep’s dish and tossed it over the yard fence, but when he told his wife about it, she became curious and retrieved the body. She was enchanted by the beautiful little creature, and took it to the taxidermist to be preserved. And the taxidermist recognized a black-footed ferret!
A group of excited ferret enthusiasts quickly gathered to survey the area. How excited Dennie Hammer and Steve Martin must have been when they saw two emerald-green eyes shining as a little head popped up from a burrow—vindication at last for their conviction that wild ferrets still existed! Yet only pure luck had provided this proof. Over the next five years, private, state, and federal conservation biologists and many volunteers worked to learn more about the ferret population. They searched for the ferrets with spotlights, trapped them and marked them with tags, fitted them with tiny radio transmitters on neck collars (so the team could spy on the ferrets’ nocturnal habits), and used a new technology, tiny transponders that could be implanted in the neck (which allow short-range identification of an individual animal).
“None of us took them for granted,” Steve Forrest, a team member, told me later. “We knew the ferrets as individuals. We lived with them. We knew these were the last members of the species.”
My Night with the Ferrets
In April 2006, thanks to my friend Tom Mangelsen, the photographer, I met some of that original dedicated team—Steve and Louise Forrest, Brent Houston, Travis Livieri, Mike Lockhart, and Jonathan Proctor. We gathered in Wall, South Dakota, at Ann’s Motel. I soon found that this would be an all-night experience, for the ferrets are not active till around midnight. We set out in the evening, stopping for a picnic to watch the sun set behind the extraordinary rock formations of the Badlands, bringing out the fantastic colors—ocher, mauve, yellow, gray, and all the subtle shades between.
Gradually, as we drove toward the prairies, the day faded until all color was drained from the landscape. There was no light pollution apart from the headlights of our trucks, and the stars were large and brilliant in the wide sky. It was strange to think that we were driving over the thriving underground prairie dog towns—that were home, too, to the black-footed ferrets.
It was close to midnight when Brent called out: “There’s one!” And I saw the eyes of a small animal shining brilliant emerald green as they reflected his spotlight. As we drove closer, I made out the ferret’s head as she looked at us, listening to the engines. She did not vanish as we cautiously drove closer. And when she did duck down, she could not resist popping up for another look before disappearing. When we eventually went over to peek down the burrow, there was her little face, peeking back at us, not at all afraid. Travis later returned to take a reading of her transponder chip—which is how I know she was female.
Travis, who was in a second truck, found another ferret—a male—who soon darted into a burrow. It was the time of year, Travis explained, when males check out the burrows looking for females in estrus (in heat). Sure enough, after a while the ferret bounded out and raced to another burrow. He moved like lightning, his tiny body stretched out long and thin. We followed. Obviously, no suitable female there, for soon he reappeared, stood upright to look around, and stretched tall as he could—checking for coyotes and foxes. Then he streaked off and vanished into yet another burrow. That burrow was apparently female-less also, for he soon emerged again. During his next cross-country run, our ferret bumped into—physically bumped into—a horned lark! As the startled bird flew up, the ferret did a complete backflip to land, like the acrobat he is, on all four feet facing the way he was going before. Without a pause he raced on toward the next burrow. It was a fabulous show! I doubt anyone has ever seen a black-footed ferret–horned lark encounter of that sort.
How Bureaucratic Obstinacy Nearly Led to the Extinction of the Ferrets
The next day, Tom and I were able to sit down with Travis, Steve, and Jonathan (the others had to leave) and talk about the black-footed ferret recovery program. Steve described the harrowing events that took place four years after the miraculous discovery of the wild Meeteetse ferrets. In August 1985, they got permission to assess the status of the ferret population, as they had done each year. They found 58 individuals, a marked decline from the 129 found the previous summer. In September, they estimated there were only thirty-one, and by October the wild ferrets were down to just sixteen.
The biologists believed that the ferrets had been afflicted by distemper, and they sought permission from the Wyoming Game & Fish Department (responsible for the black-footed ferret program) to capture some individuals so they could get blood samples for veterinary testing. Permission was refused on the grounds that the procedures were too invasive. The situation worsened—it became clear that the juveniles were not surviving.
Brian Miller, whom I met later, was part of the team at that time. “Walking the area was not like previous years, when ferrets reliably occupied areas,” he told me. “Now you would see a ferret in his or her territory on one night, and the next night that area was empty.” This situation, while desperately alarming to the biologists, was ignored by Wyoming G&F. Finally, a meeting was arranged to discuss the ferrets’ plight. Steve, Louise, and Brent, along with other biologists, were all present, as were various staff of Wyoming G&F, a representative of IUCN, and a group of old-time game rangers who had no understanding of—or patience with—conservation biology.
At this meeting, the scientists were criticized for not providing good data—data about the suspected distemper epidemic that they had not been allowed to collect! The discussion became heated. The scientists stressed the urgency of trapping more ferrets for intensive captive breeding. Permission was again refused. Things were going badly for the researchers and, thus, for the future of the ferrets when the Wyoming G&F veterinarian came into the room, clearly agitated.
At that time, there were six ferrets in captivity, trapped earlier for the captive breeding program that had, after prolonged pressure from many sources, eventually been agreed to by Wyoming G&F. One of the six, reported the veterinarian, had died, and another was very sick. The reason—distemper, almost certainly contracted in the wild. “All at once it was very quiet,” said Steve, flashing a broad smile as he recalled the discomfort of their obstinate adversaries. At last, the scientists had their evidence.
Gone in the Wild
Yet even then, they were only allowed to catch animals from the central part of the range—leaving the most vulnerable individuals in the peripheral areas to disappear, lost forever. And despite the fact that the ferrets were clearly on the brink of extinction, Wyoming officials did not deviate from a planned strategy—only six more ferrets (the original six were dead or dying) could be caught. And they could only trap one per day—because that was the rate at which cages were being constructed. Offers to bring in a company to make them faster were ignored.
“We started right away,” Steve told me. Over the next three nights, they covered forty square miles of prairie, trapping ferrets in a desperate attempt to save the species. On the third night, Brent had just trapped two when an officious local game officer arrived and told him he had exceeded his quota. “He told Brent to release one of the two,” said Steve, “and Brent refused.” They practically came to blows as the game officer simply cut the trap open.
By that time there were so few ferrets, and Wyoming G&F had been so uncooperative, that there had been little choice as to which individuals were trapped. Thus the nucleus of the breeding group was three adult females and one juvenile (Emma, Molly, Annie, and Willa), as well as two juvenile males (Dexter and Cody). A specialist in captive breeding warned that without an adult male the onset of breeding would be delayed, but Wyoming G&F ignored this advice, and though an adult male was seen in a peripheral area, his capture was not permitted. Thus there were no litters in the captive group the next season.
It was an agonizing time. Brian Miller, who had paired the captive ferrets, told me how they had watched the breeding cages on a remote camera all night. “We were wondering,” he said, “if we were watching the modern version of Martha, the passenger pigeon.” Martha was the last individual of a species that is now extinct. She died of old age in a zoo and is now mounted in the Smithsonian. “I once went to see her,” said Brian. “Was that to be the fate of Emma, Molly, Annie, Willa, Dexter, and Cody, too?”
By the following summer, 1986, it seemed that only four adults—two males (Dean and Scarface) and two females (Mom and Jenny), each of whom gave birth—were left in the wild. Now, finally, Wyoming G&F agreed that all four adults and the eight remaining juveniles should be trapped for the breeding program.
The biologists worked hard for the rest of the summer, and eventually the last ferret was captured—Scarface. At this point, eighteen captive black-footed ferrets, a handful of biologists, and an unproven captive breeding program were all that was left to buffer the species from extinction. Despite the fact that discord and bad feelings continued to plague the program, the ferrets began to breed, and gradually other centers were established across the country, so that the outbreak of disease or some other disaster at one facility would not wipe out the entire captive population.
Hard Versus Soft Release
Next, the arguments began over when and how ferrets should be reintroduced into the wild. The most acrimonious argument concerned the pros and cons of “hard release” (when animals are taken straight from the cage and let loose, usually with some food provided for a while) versus “soft release” (when the animals are given a variety of opportunities to gradually get used to a new life in the wild). Many of the field biologists felt strongly that it was not ethical to suddenly dump ferrets from small cages into the dangerous world of the prairies with no experience or training, but in 1991 the first forty-nine captives were hard-released into Wyoming’s wilderness.
The next release site was Conata Basin in South Dakota, where I had met my first ferrets. Later I would meet Paul Marinari, who told me about one night he will never forget. He was searching for ferrets with Travis and four other biologists, spread out over the prairie. Suddenly his radio sprang to life and a message “crackled through the South Dakota night proclaiming that multiple ferret eye-shine was detected from one burrow. This signified the first observation of a wild-born ferret litter (from captive-born parents) in the state. Those moments were goose bumps on goose bumps!”
Eventually, it was proved conclusively that hard release is not the best option—not only does soft release lead to much better short-term survival rates, but more individuals live to breed the following season as well. Gradually, more and more released ferrets survived. It had been established that they could be bred in captivity and that they could survive and breed in the wild. But could their habitat be preserved?
Saving the Prairies
During my visit with the team, as I came to understand the challenges they faced, I was interested to talk further to Jonathan Proctor about his work with the prairie dogs and the prairie ecosystem. Jonathan explained that one of the main problems for conservationists is that almost no rancher has a good word for prairie dogs. I met one of these old-timers as he drove by Ann’s Motel. The prairie dogs, he said, were a real nuisance. There were all those holes in the ground that caused cattle and horses to break their legs. And, he said, the prairie dogs competed with the herds for the new grass. While no one I talked to had actually encountered any cows or horses with broken legs on the prairie, I listened to his point of view and respected what he had to say. I said it was a shame there wasn’t some way around the problem without poisoning those cute little animals.
“Best prairie dog is a dead one,” he said—but he reached out and touched my arm, as though he knew what I meant, and told me he’d watched my shows and thought I did a great job. It is so important to talk with people and listen to their point of view, to try to find solutions that will work for everyone. For this conflict between people and wildlife gets ever more intense as our human populations multiply and more and more wild land is taken over for development.
Perhaps, in the end, tourism will save the great American prairies, along with all the fascinating life-forms that make up the ecosystem. And the last of the old-time ranchers can offer visitors a taste of the old days, staying in an old-style homestead on land where, once again, bison roam. And where the Central Plains Indians (such as the Lakota and the Sioux), so much a part of the great prairies, and who are even now helping with restoration projects, will have a major role to play.
A Very Special Ferret
On the last morning of my visit to Wall, South Dakota, we gathered for breakfast, not wanting to part. How much I had learned, how complex the issues were, and how many challenges lay ahead. Before we said our good-byes, Travis told me about one of the individuals who had made a major contribution to the program. She was known, simply, as No. 9750 (the 97 indicates the year she was born). In 1996, Travis had released thirty-six captive-born ferrets into the wild, and No. 9750’s mother had been one of the only four to survive. No. 9750 was born the following year in the first cohort of wild-born black-footed ferrets in the Conata Basin. “Their future was uncertain,” Travis told me. “But No. 9750 survived and prospered and became a founder of the black-footed ferret population that now numbers approximately three hundred adults and kits annually in Conata Basin.” No. 9750 lived for four years, which is quite old for a wild black-footed ferret. She had produced four litters and raised a total of ten to twelve youngsters.
In October 2001, Travis came upon No. 9750. She looked exhausted after raising her last litter, emaciated and with thinning hair and deep-sunken eyes. Kneeling to look down at her in the burrow, he knew she would not see another spring. Listening to Travis, I was miles away from the breakfast table, with its empty plates and cups. I was out on the prairie, bleak with approaching winter, with this tough dedicated man who was talking softly, saying good-bye to a very small, very tired black-footed ferret. “I want to say thank you, honey. I know we’ll not see each other again.” I could tell, by his voice, that he was all choked up, but I could not see for the tears in my eyes.
Everything You Wanted to Know About Ferret Breeding but Were Afraid to Ask
In April 2007, I squeezed a morning out of my tour schedule to visit the captive breeding program at the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center in Wellington, Colorado, home to about 60 percent (roughly 160 individuals) of the captive population. (The rest are scattered in various zoos.) There I had a wonderful reunion with Travis, Brent, and Mike, who are all working there, and met for the first time Dean Biggins and Paul Marinari, both of whom I had heard so much about.
It is important, Paul explained, to determine exactly when the male and female are ready for breeding, whether the male’s sperm count is healthy, whether a female has been successfully inseminated, and so on. One three-year-old female was having a small amount of saline solution squirted into her vagina. Not far away, Paul encouraged a male to leave the lower portion of his housing and climb up a piece of black tubing into a small wire cage. Once the ferret was there, Paul demonstrated how to gently squeeze the scrotum, which needed to be firm. If it was, he would be anesthetized and subjected to electro-ejaculation.
Next, we looked through the microscope at the fixed sample from another male and saw the little sperm there. He was ready, anyway! The results of all these necessary but undignified procedures were displayed on charts pinned up on the walls—showing which female had bred with which male, which couples were really incompatible, how many offspring had survived, and which, from the genetic point of view, could be allowed to breed. Clearly, the program has been successful—since it was initiated in 1987, it has resulted in the birth of more than six thousand black-footed ferret kits.
There was one great moment when Paul opened the upper cage of a female who had given birth two days before and I got to peep in—one of the first people to see the five tiny kits pink, naked, and blind, curled up there. Paul told me he never tired of watching them change “from a pile of squirmy little worm-like beings to chattering kits at sixty days of age.” Some of them would be selected as reintroduction candidates. “Then,” he said, “they undergo the most dramatic events for any captive animal: release into a preconditioning pen and, hopefully, reintroduction to the wild.”
Travis was the one who first told me about the “ferret school” that starts when a captive ferret mother and her kits are placed in a large outdoor area where prairie dog burrows are occupied by prairie dogs. It will be the home and hunting ground of the kits for the next several months before they are sent for release into the wild, usually with their mother. This experience—living in a prairie dog burrow and hunting prairie dogs as prey—is a critical phase in preparing them for life on the prairies.
“It’s where the kits get to experience wind, rain, dirt, and all the outdoor sounds of the North American prairie—and ultimately live prairie dogs,” said Paul. “When the kits are placed into these pens, I often wonder what they must be thinking. They often stand in wonderment at such a large enclosure (compared with their indoor cage setting). Then they immediately play follow-the-leader as they almost stumble over their dam, who leads them around the pen, going in and out of each prairie dog burrow opening. Eventually, they settle down, becoming more and more secretive until the day arrives when it’s time to free them from their captive setting for life in the wild.”
The Future of the Black-Footed Ferret
The goal of the Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Plan is to reintroduce the ferrets into all eleven states where they once lived. Since the start of the program in 1991, Dean told me, more than three thousand ferrets have been released at reintroduction sites in eight of those states (Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and Kansas, and also into northern Mexico). Several of the sites, including the one I visited in Conata Basin, have successfully established wild black-footed ferret populations. Releases have occurred on federal, state, tribal, and private lands, and the black-footed ferret recovery program now encompasses many partner agencies, organizations, tribes, zoos, and universities. Wyoming Game & Fish, despite some of its past shortcomings, has been an integral and important part of the ferret program, overseeing a large population of ferrets in the state.
Dean, as mentioned earlier, was part of the team that captured the last wild ferrets in existence during 1986–1987 in Meeteetse. One of these was a female they named Mom. Before they captured her, she left a little paw print in the soil outside her burrow, and Dean had made a cast of it. As I was getting up to go, Dean gave me a replica of that cast. I looked down at the tiny print and thought of that bitter time when the dedicated team, to try to save a species, took the last wild individuals into captivity, and I was moved almost to tears. On the back Dean had written:
“Mom” August 30, 1986
One of the last 18 black-footed ferrets.
To Jane from Dean Biggins, Travis Livieri, Brent Houston, Paul Marinari, Mike Lockhart 4.25.07.
It is one of my most prized possessions and travels with me around the world.
Mala or Rufous Hare-Wallaby
I met my first mala in October 2008, and had the joy of releasing the captive-bred animal into a large fenced enclosure where she could get used to living in the bush. It was Polly Cevallos, CEO of the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI)–Australia, who first told me the heartwarming story of the rufous hare-wallaby, usually known by its Aboriginal name, the mala. She put me in touch with Gary Fry, director of the Desert Park in Alice Springs, where the mala are being restored. Two years after a first phone call, I arrived in the place I had wanted to visit ever since reading Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice, in the heart of the Australian continent.
It had been a scorching-hot day, but it was cooling off by the time we reached Gary’s house. I was traveling with Polly and the director of JGI’s Roots & Shoots program in Australia, Annette Debenham. We dumped our bags, said a quick hello to Gary’s wife and son, and met Dr. Kenneth Johnson, who had set up the mala captive breeding program in the 1980s. Then we all set off for the enclosure. Two of the Desert Park staff were already there with the mala, invisible in a cloth “pouch.” I sat on the dry grass, and the mala was gently placed on my knee.
Presently a small face peered out. Very slowly she emerged, hopped out of the bag onto the ground, and stopped right there, a couple of feet away from me, looking around. She was beautiful, a small, delicate kangaroo, with shaggy soft grayish brown fur tinged with red. Eventually, investigating her surroundings, she moved slowly away, though she did not go far. I noticed how her tail, hairless like that of a rat, trailed the ground behind her (Ken told me later that this is how the Aboriginals identify mala tracks in the bush). Soon we left her to settle into her new temporary home. Like many other Australian mammals, malas are nocturnal: She would be able to explore during the night and feel comfortable sleeping the next day. And indeed, we got the report next morning: She had eaten the food left out and was sleeping in the shelter set up for her.
That evening, during a wonderful dinner cooked by Gary’s wife, Libby, Ken and Gary told me the story of the mala. At one time, there may have been as many as ten million of these little animals across the arid and semi-arid landscape of Australia, but their populations, like those of so many other small endemic species, were devastated by the introduction of domestic cats and foxes—indeed, during the 1950s it was thought that the mala was extinct. But in 1964, a small colony was found 450 miles northwest of Alice Springs in the Tanami Desert. And twelve years later, a second small colony was found nearby. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, these two populations were studied and monitored by scientists from the Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory. Very extensive surveys were made throughout historical mala range—but no other traces were found.
Ken told me something of the heartache of the team working with the mala during those years. At first it seemed that the little animals were holding their own. But then in late 1987, the first disaster struck: Every one of the individuals of the second and smaller of the wild colonies was killed. From examination of the tracks in the sand, it seemed that just one single fox had been responsible. And then, in October 1991, a wildfire destroyed the entire area occupied by the remaining colony, and all the mala died. Thus the mala really did become extinct in the wild.
How fortunate that, ten years before, Ken and his team had captured seven individuals that had become the founders of a captive breeding program at the Arid Zone Research Institute in Alice Springs. And that group had thrived. Part of this success is due to the fact that the female can breed when she is just five months old and can produce up to three young a year. Like other kangaroo species, the mother carries her young—known as a joey—in her pouch for about fifteen weeks, and she can have more than one youngster at the same time.
Working with the Yapa People
In the early 1980s, there were enough mala in the captive population to make it feasible to start a reintroduction program. But first it was necessary to discuss this with the leaders of the Yapa people (yapa is their name for “Aboriginal”). Traditionally the mala had been an important totemic animal in their culture, with strong medicinal powers for old people. It had also been an important food source, and there were concerns that any mala returned to the wild would be killed for the pot.
And so, in 1980, a group of key Yapa men was invited to visit the proposed reintroduction area. Many of them, including the principal owner of the “Mala dreaming,” took some persuasion to make the 120-mile trip to the site, since he believed mala to be “all finished up.” But he did come in the end, this knowledgeable old man, and shared his vast understanding of the species with the group. It turned out that they were all as concerned for the future of the mala as Ken and his team, and the possibility of a food hunt was not even mentioned. The skills and knowledge of the Aboriginals would play a significant and enduring role in the project.
Ken and his team went ahead and built a fifty-by-fifty-yard enclosure out in the desert, and twelve mala from the successful breeding program were moved there, given some time to get acclimatized, and then set free. One year later some were still alive, and thirteen more were released. Unfortunately, through a combination of drought and predation by feral cats, all of them were killed or disappeared.
After this, with the help of the local Yapa Aboriginals, an electric fence was erected around 250 acres of suitable habitat about three hundred miles northwest of Alice Springs so that the mala could adapt while protected from predators. By 1992, there were about 150 mala in what became known as the Mala Paddock and another 50 in the Alice Springs colony.
However, all attempts to reintroduce mala from the paddock into the unfenced wild were unsuccessful. Over a two-year period, a total of seventy-nine were released; all disappeared or were killed (the evidence pointed overwhelmingly to cats and some foxes as the culprits). And so the reintroduction program was abandoned: The Tanami Desert was simply not safe for mala.
Ken and his team now faced a situation where mala could be bred, but not released. In 1993, a Mala Recovery Team was established to set new goals for the program. First, the team concentrated on finding suitable predator-free or predator-controlled sites within the mala’s known range. The first place selected was a new endangered species enclosure at Dryandra Woodland in Western Australia—an area where, before it had been converted into the “wheat belt,” mala had been common. Initially, captive-bred animals would live in a large enclosure; as their population increased, selected individuals would be radio-collared and released into suitable conservation reserves or national parks in the area.
Finally all arrangements had been completed, and in March 1999 twelve adult females, eight adult males, and eight small joeys were sent off from the Mala Paddock on a very long journey. Early in the morning, they were loaded into a station wagon for a bumpy three-hour ride along bush tracks to the nearest airstrip. Here a delegation of Aboriginals had gathered to see them off, a mark of their intense interest in the mala program. From there the precious cargo traveled on a chartered plane to Alice Springs, on a regular commercial flight to Perth, and finally by truck to their final destination. They arrived about four in the afternoon, and were released into their new home at seven o’clock. I can just imagine how anxiously the bags were opened—how would the little animals have survived that tough day? But all was well. The mala at once started feeding on fresh alfalfa, then hopped off to explore their new home.
The second translocation of mala from the Tanami Desert, a few months later, was to Trimouille, an island off the coast of Western Australia. First it had been necessary to rid the island of rats and cats—a task that had taken two years of hard work. Finally the island was ready to receive the mala, and the Aboriginal traditional owners had given their blessing to the project even though it involved sending some of their totemic animals far away from their “dreaming home.” Twenty females and ten males were selected for the long journey. Once again, all arrived safely.
Six weeks after their release, a team returned to the island to find out how things were going. Each of the malas had been fitted with a radio collar that transmits for about fourteen months, after which it falls off. The team was able to locate twenty-nine out of the thirty transmitters—only one came from the collar of a mala that had died of unknown causes. So far the reintroduction had gone even better than expected. Today there are many signs suggesting that the mala population on the island is continuing to do well.
Reintroduction to the Sacred Lands
During my visit to Alice Springs, Gary told me that his part in the story started with the plan to reintroduce a number of locally extinct species into the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. The 1,142-foot-high Uluru-Ayers Rock is the most sacred place for the Aboriginals. With Polly and Annette, I had flown over the area, and been amazed by the sheer size of this huge outcrop of red rock surrounded, for miles in every direction, by the flat expanse of the Simpson Desert.
In 1999, parks staff and other biologists met with key members of the local Anangu people to discuss which species should be reintroduced into the Uluru area. As with the Yapa aboriginals, the mala had played an important role in Anangu culture, and there was a real wish that it be brought back.
“This little wallaby,” Gary told me, “was the most preferred of all species for Anangu women and second most preferred for senior Anangu men.” Gary also learned that even after the mala had disappeared from Uluru, the Anangu had kept their memory alive and strong, for the mala are an important part of the creation stories. Indeed, Gary told me that the loss of the little wallabies from Uluru had been of great significance for senior and powerful Anangu people, and brought them deep sadness.
Jim Clayton, an inspired park ranger based in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, worked with the Anangu to map out where the enclosure would be, encouraging them to help in the building and maintenance of the all-important fences that would protect the mala from introduced predators. And Gary tried to persuade the Anangu to set aside a large area of their tribal land. In a big-enough enclosure, he felt, the mala would be able to get on with it, needing little assistance from humans apart from maintenance of the fence.
Some time passed during which Gary heard nothing. And then, finally, Jim called: “We had some difficulty mapping the area,” he said, “because we had to miss some sand dunes, and some stands of desert oaks… How does 170 hectares [approximately 420 acres] sound?”
It sounded great! An enclosure of this size was just the “fillip” (an Australian/British phrase for “boost”) that was needed for the program, Gary told me. He felt very strongly about the outcome of the reintroduction not only for conservation of the species, but also for the conservation of the culture of the Anangu.
Six years later to the month, at 7 AM on September 29, 2005, twenty-four mala were released into the newly constructed, predator-free paddock in the Uluru- Kata Tjuta National Park. Many Ananga were present, and the press was well represented. It was a fantastic occasion, the culmination of years of planning and hard work.
Just as I was completing the manuscript for this book, I received an e-mail from Peter Nunn, a staff member at Alice Springs Desert Park. “I thought you would love to know that the Mala you released into our Free Range area at the Alice Springs Desert Park is doing really well,” he wrote. “So well in fact that she has a young joey growing in her pouch! I was lucky enough to have her wander straight past me when I was spotlighting up there the other night, and she is looking wonderful. I hope that great news puts a big smile on your face!”
And, indeed, it did.
SURROGATE MOTHERING OF JOEYS
The Story of the Black-Flanked Rock-Wallaby
Just after I met my first mala, I also met my first black-flanked rock-wallaby at the captive breeding programs of Monarto Zoo, near Adelaide. Peter Clark, the senior curator, told me that as a result of environmental degradation and predation by and competition with introduced species, numbers of “warru” (to give the species its Anangu name) had plummeted to a low of only fifty to seventy individuals.
Then in 2007, a clever plan was implemented to try to save it—one that has been used very successfully to boost numbers of other endangered wallaby species. It is based on an unusual reproductive strategy: If a female wallaby loses a joey, she is able to replace it by activating a fertilized egg that she has stored internally. And so a team of biologists working in the field capture female warru, check their pouches, and if they find tiny, partially developed joeys, they “steal” them and take them by plane to Monarto Zoo, where they are implanted into the pouches of non-endangered yellow-footed rock-wallabies (Petrogale xanthopus). Because the stored “contingency” embryos soon start to develop in the wild mothers, there is no loss to the wild population.
Members of the local Anangu community accompanied the first twenty stolen joeys (each of which they had named) on the flight to Monarto. All survived the capture and journey and thrived in the pouches of their new mothers, Peter told me. But then, before they became too independent, they were taken away so that their rearing could be taken over by zoo staff. This was important, Peter said, since they will be used for captive breeding during which it will be necessary to check their pouches frequently, and this will be much less stressful if they are familiar with their human handlers.
Currently both the government and the local Anangu people are carrying out continuous monitoring of the warru population in three remnant rock-wallaby sites, using tracks, scats, and radio tracking of previously trapped individuals. While numbers are still low, it is encouraging that several new individuals have been found. These are the areas where the captive-bred warru from Monato will eventually be reintroduced once there are enough of them, and once predator control programs are working satisfactorily.
Before I left, one of the keepers, Mick Post, took me to meet a breeding female. She had arrived with the second group of joeys who had been named by zoo staff, and instead of having an Aboriginal name she was called Maureen! She was enchanting—an elegant-looking animal, about one and a half feet tall when she sat upright. Her fur was dark gray with blackish stripes on her face and flanks. She was completely at ease with us—and when I sat on the floor of her enclosure she climbed onto my knee and just sat there, looking around with interest at the cameras pointed at us. Mick said that she sometimes sits on his head as he is cleaning her enclosure, watching all that is going on. It was a real privilege to meet the dedicated team working to ensure the survival of Maureen and her relatives and descendants.
The California condor is one of the biggest birds in North America, weighing up to twenty-six pounds and standing nearly a yard tall, with a wingspan of nine and a half feet. As a child, I knew only about the vultures of Africa and Asia, for they frequently figured in my storybooks—usually in a somewhat sinister role as they patiently watched the hero, close to giving up as he struggled across the desert, thirsty and wounded. But one look at their hooked beaks, sharp talons, and cold greedy eyes, and he would summon the strength to reach safety. During my years in Africa, I have spent many hours watching the fascinating behavior of those vultures in the wild, but the California condor, which I learned about much later, I have seen only in captivity.
Initially, I was not attracted by its appearance. The bare skin of the head is so—well—bare! And its redness is the color of a boiled lobster. Truly, the condor is one of nature’s odd experiments, where so much of the poetry, so much of the magic, went into the fashioning of those glorious wings and stunning power of flight. Yet not quite all—for in photos of condors in the wild I’ve come to appreciate their splendid red skin standing out against jet-black feathers, glowing in the sunlight. And gradually, their faces have grown on me, slightly comical, endearing.
At one time, California condors ranged widely—from Baja California in Mexico all the way up the West Coast to British Columbia in Canada—but by the 1940s, they had disappeared almost everywhere, except for an estimated 150 in the arid canyons of Southern California. In 1974, there were reports of two condors in Baja California, and my late husband, Hugo van Lawick, was asked to fly down to try to film them. But the expedition never materialized, and the birds disappeared.
The decline in condor numbers was due to many factors, such as the number of people moving into the western United States, shooting by poachers and collectors, feeding on poisoned baits set out for bears, wolves, and coyotes by ranchers, and, perhaps most importantly, the unintentional poisoning from lead ammunition fragments in the carcasses and gut piles of animals shot by hunters.
A group of biologists decided that something must be done. True, an area of wilderness had been set aside for the condors, but it was not enough. It served to protect them when they were nesting—and it was a preferred place for that—but when they foraged, they would fly a hundred miles or so into the ranchlands, where there was no protection at all. Noel Snyder, a biologist and passionate advocate for the birds, helped to establish the Condor Recovery Program and subsequently led the condor research effort. Biologists sought to discover all they could about condor behavior and the causes for the decline in numbers, while at the same time planning a captive breeding facility so that additional birds would become available to boost the wild population.
But there were many people vehemently opposed to any kind of intervention, and a controversy began that continued for years. The “protectionists” wanted to give the birds better protection in the wild, and if this did not work, to let them gradually disappear, to die with dignity in their natural habitat. They maintained that some condors were sure to be accidentally killed during capture; that they were unlikely to breed in captivity; and that, even if they did, it would be impossible to reintroduce them to the wild.
I remember visiting the San Diego Zoo during that period and discussing the issue with some of the scientists, including my longtime friend Dr. Donald Lindburg. Part of me shrank from the idea of depriving the wild birds of their freedom, imprisoning those wondrous winged beings in enclosures, perhaps for the rest of their lives. But another part felt—along with Don and Noel Snyder—that it would be worth it to save such a magnificent species, so long as they could be released back into the wild. In the end, Noel and Don and the other interventionists prevailed.
The Condor Becomes Extinct in the Wild
In June 1980, five scientists, led by Noel, set out to monitor the progress of the single chicks in each of the only two known “nests” in the wild. (For condors, nests are simply ledges of rock, usually in caves.) Imagine the team’s dismay when, after they had checked on the first chick without problems, the second died of stress and heart failure during the process. This, naturally, led to a storm of protest from the protectionists—which Noel somehow weathered.
In 1982, a hide was built near a wild condor nest so that the behavior of the birds could be studied. The observers could hardly believe the extraordinarily dysfunctional behavior they witnessed. Every time the female returned to take her turn at incubating her egg, she was subject to violent aggression from her mate, who apparently did not want to relinquish care of the egg. The male repeatedly chased her from the nest cave, sometimes continuing to do so for days, while the egg meanwhile suffered unnaturally frequent and long periods of cooling. Finally, during one such squabble, the egg rolled out of the nest cave and smashed on the rocks below.
The observers thought that this meant a sad end to the pair’s reproductive activities for the year. But a month and a half later, they produced another egg, which was laid in a different cave. Although this egg was also lost when the pair resumed squabbling—this time to a raven—the study was important because it established that condors, like many other birds, will be stimulated to breed again and lay replacement eggs if they lose one to predation or some kind of accident. Noel and his team then began a major effort to establish a captive breeding population by taking first-laid eggs from all wild pairs for artificial incubation.
How fortunate that they did, for over the winter of 1984–1985, tragedy struck the wild population. Four of the five known breeding pairs were lost. Reasons for the birds’ disappearance were unclear, but there was mounting evidence that they were dying from lead poisoning. At this point, Noel and his team felt it imperative to capture the remaining wild birds. There were so few condors in the breeding program and they lacked the genetic variability to be self-sustaining—and there were but nine wild birds left. Only by establishing a viable captive population, Noel maintained, could the California condor be saved.
The National Audubon Society, however, strenuously opposed this plan, arguing that habitat could not be protected for the species unless some birds were left in the wild. In an attempt to prevent taking the last wild condors captive, the group sued the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). But after the female of the last breeding pair became a victim of lead poisoning and died, despite attempts by veterinarians to revive her, a federal court ruled that the USFWS did indeed have the right to capture the remaining wild birds. And so, between 1985 and 1987, the last wild California condors were taken into captivity, and the species became officially extinct in the wild.
Visiting the Breeding Center
By this time, two state-of-the-art breeding facilities had been established, one in the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the second in the Los Angeles Zoo, each with six enclosures. During five years, starting in 1982, sixteen eggs (of which fourteen hatched and survived) and four chicks were taken from the wild and shared between the two facilities. And there was one male, Topa-topa, who had been living in the Los Angeles Zoo since 1967. These captives were then joined by the last seven adults from the wild. Bill Toone was in charge of incubating the eggs, and thanks to the techniques he and his team developed, 80 percent of the eggs resulted in healthy young birds—compared with a 40 percent to 50 percent success rate in the wild.
In the early 1990s, Don invited me to visit the condor breeding center and flight cage at the San Diego facility. As with most such programs when reintroduction into the wild is an end goal, great care was taken to ensure that the captive-bred condors did not imprint upon their human keepers. Those caring for the chicks were equipped with glove puppets mimicking the head and neck of an adult condor, and no talking was allowed near the birds. In silence I peered through one-way glass and saw one of the original wild hatched females sitting, unaware of my presence, on a ledge of man-made rock. As I watched her suddenly take off and, with only a couple of flapping movements, glide on those majestic wings across her very large flight cage, I felt tears sting my eyes. Partly because of her lost freedom; partly because I knew that but for a handful of passionate, courageous, and determined people, this glorious winged being would almost certainly have died—shot or poisoned—like so many others before her.
More than two decades later, in April 2007 (on my birthday!), I visited the Los Angeles breeding program and met team members Mike Clark, Jennifer Fuller, Chandra David, Debbie Ciani, and Susie Kasielke. We gathered in a small room where video screens showed the twenty-four-hour recordings of behavior in the breeding enclosures. As we talked about the successes and problems of the program, we watched on a monitor (from a remote camera set up in a breeding pen) a wonderful courtship display by a young male. And there was a female there that was getting ready to lay her first egg. It was not due for several days, but already she was looking most uncomfortable, her tail raised and her head low. She pecked up and swallowed a few small fragments of bone, a behavior thought to provide extra calcium for building the egg’s shell.
Preparing Young Condors for a Life in the Wild
An urgent problem facing the pioneers who embarked on captive rearing was to find the correct method of raising the young birds for ultimate release. Because the California condors were so perilously close to extinction, they could not afford to make many mistakes. So the team decided to carry out a trial release with Andean condors, since this species, with its fabulous eleven-foot wingspan, is not nearly so endangered. Thirteen youngsters would be raised and released temporarily in Southern California, allowing the team to test their methodology before any of the precious Californians were freed. The Andeans, all females, were raised as a peer group and all released at the same time. It was thought that they would provide one another with companionship and support one another. And indeed, it worked well. (The Andean condors were later recaptured and ultimately re-released in Colombia, where many are now breeding and rearing chicks of their own.)
Flushed with the success of the Andean program, the biologists confidently raised their young California condors in the same way. Alas, Mike told me, group rearing simply did not work for them and led to all manner of behavioral problems. It seems that California condors need discipline from an adult bird. And so a new method was devised. Each chick remains for the first six months in a solitary nest box, in view of an adult male condor, cared for and fed by a disguised human using a condor head puppet. Then, at the time when a wild fledgling would leave the nest, the youngster joins an adult mentor—a male of ten years or older. This mentor competes for food with the young bird but without being aggressive and is, said Mike, “good for its mental development.”
However, as the condors matured, additional behavioral problems arose. For one thing, proper male–female bonding was not happening until, through trial and error, scientists learned that putting a mature male and female, genetically suitable for each other, in an enclosure with young birds worked best. “Each adult bird then prefers the other’s company over that of any of the youngsters,” said Mike.
Once bonding is achieved, mating is no problem, and such pairs regularly produce eggs. And the raising of chicks by parents in captivity was also relatively trouble-free. “The sight of an egg,” said Mike, “seems to trigger an instant paternal response in the male, who becomes very protective of it.” The pair take turns incubating the egg for the fifty-seven days before it hatches. After this the male continues to be very protective, though the mother tends to compete with her chick for its father’s attention.
Odd Parenting Back in the Wild
By 1991, eleven of twelve captive pairs had produced twenty-two eggs. Seventeen of these were fertile, and thirteen had hatched and matured. Things were going well. By 1992—less than ten years after the program began—the first two captive-bred condors, each with a radio tag, were released into 398,000 acres of protected wilderness, including thirty miles of protected streams, in Los Padres National Forest. In an attempt to protect these birds as much as possible from the risk of lead poisoning, food was (and still is) set out near the release site. Even though they can fly more than a hundred miles in a single flight, it was hoped that these California condors would, as had the test group of Andean condors, return to easily available food when hungry—which they mostly did.
In 2000, the first captive-bred birds nested in the wild—an event that is always awaited eagerly by the people who have worked so hard to return animals to a life of freedom. But it was at this time that some of the behavioral problems affecting the captive-raised birds became apparent. When biologists found the nest, they were amazed to see not one but two eggs! And they discovered that there were three birds to this one nest, one male and two females. They had, however, chosen a very appropriate cave, where the females had laid eggs several feet apart. The three took turns sitting at the nest site—but one bird could not sit on both at once, and so the biologists decided to intervene.
They found that one of the eggs was completely rotten. They then left a dummy egg and took the other to see if it was viable. It turned out to be in poor shape, but the skilled staff managed to hatch it at the zoo. Meanwhile, the unlikely trio was still caring for the dummy egg in the wild. Just before the egg should have hatched, it was replaced with a healthy, captive-laid egg. A chick duly hatched, but despite the presence of three potential caregivers, one of the females was left alone—first with the egg and then with the chick—for eleven days straight. And when the second female finally returned, instead of helping to nurture the three-day-old chick—she killed it. That was certainly not a very successful breeding season! Still, it was encouraging that the three would-be parents had nested in a suitable location and among them had at least hatched an egg.
Trash and Other Troubles
The following year, chicks were hatched in three nests. But initial excitement turned to dismay when, at about four months old, all three youngsters died. When they were subsequently examined, it was found that the parents, in addition to providing them with normal food, had been feeding them trash—items such as bottle tops, small pieces of hard plastic and glass, and so on.
Unfortunately, this has become a tradition in this population—and they are not alone, as vultures in Africa have also been observed feeding trash to their young. Biologists believe that the parents are picking up these inappropriate objects as substitutes for the bone fragments thought to help in bone development.
Today the recovery team keeps close watch on the nests to record parental behavior and chick development, and they check the health of eggs and chicks at regular thirty-day intervals—with a mandate to intervene if necessary. And it was necessary with the only chick hatched in the 2006 breeding season. This is a fascinating story. For one thing, the parents had both been considered too young to produce an egg—the female was only six years old and the male, only five. They had not even acquired adult plumage, and finding them with a nest and egg was a huge surprise. Mike told me that they were all worried because of the youth and inexperience of the parents—would they be able to sustain interest in the egg during the long incubation period?
So the team played a trick. Members took away the egg of the inexperienced couple, which would not hatch for another month, and left in its place an egg from the captive breeding program that was on the verge of hatching. The young parents, hearing the vocalizations of the chick inside the new egg and the pecking at the inside of the shell, instantly became very attentive. The chick hatched successfully and was well cared for.
When its health was monitored after thirty days, all seemed to be going well, although some trash fragments had been brought to the cave floor. The team spread five pounds of bone fragments around, hoping this might mitigate the extraordinary passion for feeding trash, and left, hoping for the best. The sixty-day checkup also found the chick healthy. The parents had left more trash fragments lying around, but the metal detector—now standard veterinary equipment!—showed that the chick had not swallowed any. However, when they checked up after ninety days, they found a very sick, underweight, and undersize chick that had swallowed a great deal of trash. It was obvious he would die if this was not removed.
Mike picked up the chick and took it back to the Los Angeles Zoo—which does veterinary work on all the wild condors in California—for emergency surgery. Meanwhile, another member of the team stayed overnight to keep the parents out of the nest site—for had they found it empty, they would almost certainly have left. Inside that chick was an extraordinary array of trash, ranging from bottle caps to small pieces of metal and hard plastic, all tangled in cow hair. I saw the collection, and it was hard to believe it all came from one bird, let alone a chick. No wonder it was sick! The surgery went well, and twenty hours later the youngster was returned to its nest by helicopter and delivered on the end of a rope by a search-and-rescue specialist. During this operation the parents were right behind the humans, peering past them at the nest—and five minutes after the helicopter left, they were back with their beloved offspring.
Without his load of indigestible trash, the chick’s health improved. But just before the 120-day check, the field biologist on duty, observing the nest through a high-powered scope, noticed the chick playing with three pieces of glass, swallowing them and spitting them out. And sure enough, when team members went in to check him at the prescribed time, they could feel something hard in his crop. Fortunately, they were able to massage the objects gently out of the crop and into the throat, then remove them with forceps—they were the same three pieces of glass that he had been seen playing with. This preoccupation with trash is certainly one of the worst behavioral problems that the team must try to solve.
One suggestion to reduce behavioral problems was to release some of the original wild-caught birds from the 1980s to serve as role models. This was done, but while these birds do indeed represent a priceless behavioral resource, part of their behavior is wide-ranging foraging, which can make them especially susceptible to lead poisoning—and in fact, one of the original females did suffer serious lead poisoning after her return to the wild. Noel feels strongly that no more should be released until the lead-contamination problem has been solved.
Faith in the Future
From the very start, Noel told me, nearly all program personnel have agreed that this issue is critical. But for more than twenty years—since the first sick condors were diagnosed with lead poisoning—nothing was done to remove the source of the problem, largely because no good substitutes for lead bullets existed. By 2007, however, a variety of nontoxic ammunition had come on the market, and on October 13 that year Bill AB 821 prohibiting the use of lead bullets for hunting large game in the range of the California condor was signed by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and subsequently passed by the legislature. This was the result of pressure on the lawmakers from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and many conservationists.
Some environmentalists felt that the bill was a cop-out—that so long as the bullets were made, it would be hard to enforce the law. But when I talked with Governor Schwarzenegger about this, he said that the range of the condors was so vast, there was not much of California left where lead bullets could be used. He thought manufacturers would not think it worthwhile to continue making them. In any event, passing this bill is a major step forward, and I, for one, congratulate the governor for supporting it.
Although the future of the released individuals is not assured, the investment, in time and the commitment and dedication of the men and women involved, has been a success—for without intervention, the California condor would most certainly have gone extinct. Instead, there are nearly 300 of these magnificent birds, and 146 of them are out in the wild, soaring the skies above Southern California, the Grand Canyon region of Arizona, Utah, and Baja California.
Those who watch the condors in the wild are moved. Mike Wallace, one of the field biologists who oversaw the release of captive-bred condors in the Baja, sent me a wonderful story about observing the mating rituals and unique personalities of these amazingly social birds (which you’ll find on our Web site janegoodallhopeforanimals.com). My friend Bill Woolam wrote to me about the wonder of seeing this giant bird when he was hiking in the Grand Canyon—watching the condor flying up and up with those huge and powerful wings, hearing the wings flapping and the air whistling through the feathers as the condor glides down—the music of flight. And Thane, too, recently wrote to me about the joy of seeing five of the fifty or so condors living near the Grand Canyon when he was rafting there in 2008.
The more people who have this kind of experience, and who realize how nearly this amazing bird vanished forever, the more they will care. And their number is growing—there are legions of people who are passionate about California condors and their future. Noel, though officially retired, still feels a great personal commitment. The condor, he told me, “comes to dominate your life whether you like it or not.”
I have a legal permit to carry a twenty-six-inch-long wing feather from a condor. During my lectures, as Thane mentioned in his foreword, I love to take this by the quill and pull it, very slowly, from its cardboard tube. It is one of my symbols of hope and never fails to produce an amazed gasp from the audience. And, I think, a sense of reverence.
Excerpted from Hope for Animals and Their World by Goodall, Jane Copyright © 2009 by Goodall, Jane. Excerpted by permission.
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