The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, MO
May 5 2004
The Zoo is going global with conservation efforts
By Diane Toroian Keaggy
Of the Post-Dispatch
The St. Louis Zoo has spent 10 years and $70 million restoring its
home in Forest Park. Now, it wants to help restore the planet.
The Zoo will announce Wednesday a major conservation initiative that
will put Zoo scientists and resources in 12 troubled habitats across
the globe. Leaders say the St. Louis Zoo WildCare Institute will
establish reserves, study endangered species and teach indigenous
people how to best manage their land and wildlife.
Zoo President Jeffrey Bonner calls the project “one of the most
momentous steps the St. Louis Zoo has ever taken,” and
conservationists praise the effort as a comprehensive approach to
“The Zoo is in fabulous condition,” said Bonner, who joined the Zoo
in 2002. “We’ve spent an awful lot of money on infrastructure and
exhibits. We’re now in a position to really make a contribution
nationally and internationally. We have the talent and the
The Zoo already participates in dozens of conservation initiatives,
but Bonner says its efforts “have been a mile wide and an inch deep.”
Zoo scientists hope a more focused approach will lead to lasting
“We went to our people and said pick something you’re really
passionate about, someplace where you think you can make a
difference,” said Dr. Eric Miller, who has been named director of the
Miller, a veterinarian, has served as director of animal health and
conservation for the past decade. “Conservation has always been very
important at the Zoo, but we expect to make a real impact here.”
The Institute’s work, which has started already in some locales, will
span the globe. Conservation centers will be established in a dozen
habitats: the Galapagos Islands, the Ozarks, Mexico, Guatemala,
Nicaragua, Peru, Madagascar, Armenia, the Horn of Africa, southern
and western Africa and Papua New Guinea. Some 40 universities,
conservation groups and zoos will partner with the institute at the
The institute will primarily focus on species that live at the Zoo,
such as Grevy’s zebras, antelope, Humboldt penguins, echidnas and
cheetahs. On the coast of Peru, for example, uncontrolled commercial
fishing and farming have damaged the breeding ground of the Humboldt
penguin. On the Galapagos Islands, introduced diseases threaten
numerous bird species. And on the Horn of Africa, overgrazing has
pushed Grevy’s zebras off their land. Closer to home, in the Ozarks,
river pollution could be killing off giant salamanders known as
The strategies to protect these species are as diverse as the
habitats they call home. Typically, conservation biologists will
survey wild populations and assess threats such as disease, habitat
loss and pollution. But scientists are not the only ones who will
assist in conservation. In western Africa, lobbyists will fight for
the ban of uncontrolled hunting. In Peru, guards will protect the
And at every center, local people will work with scientists and
educators to protect their native lands. The institute will provide
teacher workshops in Papau New Guinea, train park rangers in the
Galapagos Islands and employ local workers to survey animal
populations in Nicaragua and Africa.
“It makes no sense to work with Grevy’s zebras if you are not
working in the classroom with those little kids, ensuring when they
grow up and become decision makers that value Grevy’s and will
continue to protect them,” said Bonner. “In the end, the biological
problems are the easy ones. It’s the human dimension that creates the
most intractable issues.”
Miller said local people valued their native species just as
Americans valued the buffalo and eagle. Still, it’s difficult to ask
societies to consider the long-term good of the ecosystem when their
children need to eat today. In those cases, the institute will appeal
to the population’s pocketbook. For instance, in Kenya, the institute
will install permanent water for the community. In return, ranchers
won’t graze on the zebras’ land.
“At this stage of our development, it’s easy to say, ‘What are those
people doing?’ Well, at this point of our development in the U.S.,
we’ve hunted the passenger pigeon to extinction and we nearly did it
to the buffalo. So we’re trying to help them not follow in our
footsteps,” said Miller. “Most of them don’t set out and say, ‘We
want to trash our wildlife.'”
If indigenous communities struggle to find the relevance of the
Armenian mountain viper or lemurs in Madagascar, why on earth should
St. Louisans care about such species? Because we have as much to lose
as they do, said Bonner. As an example, he cites overgrazing in
Africa, which has led to harsher weather patterns here.
“The Sahara is getting bigger and bigger because there is less and
less vegetation to hold it back. If the desert doubles in size,
everything in our climate will change, and, in fact, everything is
changing because of changes in Africa,” said Bonner. “You cannot be
divorced in St. Louis from what’s happening in Africa. Everything is
connected to everything else.”
That message will be brought home to the St. Louis Zoo through new
exhibits, zookeeper chats, publications and even a new marketing
“For years we’ve had the tagline, ‘Can you come out and play?’ and
it’s a fantastic tagline because it helps people understand that this
is a delightful place to come and visit,” said Bonner. “And we want
to always be that. But you’re also going to hear the message ‘animals
always.’ Your concept of a zoo has to change.”
Conservationists applaud the Zoo’s initiative. Though the Bronx Zoo
is the undisputed leader in research and conservation efforts, zoo
professionals and ecologists say the WildCare Institute boosts the
reputation of the Zoo, already an authority in animal contraception
“Their approach is absolutely correct,” said Nat Frazer, chairman of
the Department of Wildlife Ecology at the University of Florida and
adviser to the institute. “They were one of the first zoos to become
concerned not only about animals in captivity but in the wild. When
they contacted me, I did not hesitate. They are an excellent
collaborator and one of those places that really brings people
The institute will be funded by a $19 million gift from the St. Louis
Zoo Friends Association, as well as revenue from the Zoo’s
Conservation Carousel, grants, gifts and interest from a new
endowment fund. No tax revenue generated from the Zoo-Museum District
will be used.
Still, Bonner hopes the community will support the endeavor, perhaps
financially but mostly through continued visits.
“When you go talk to Conservation International or the World Wildlife
Fund, they envy us to the nth degree, because no one ever visits the
WWF. It’s a building in D.C.,” said Bonner. “But we have 3 million
people clamoring to visit us. It’s the educational component that
really makes zoos very unique and powerful forces for conservation
and research. We can take the message to the public so they
understand why caring for living things on this planet is such a
The Zoo’s conservation initiative will focus on the following species
Cheetah: The world’s fastest land mammal, cheetahs number less than
Armenian viper: Farming has led to an 88 percent drop in Armenian
vipers over the past 20 years.
Addax: As few as 200 addaxes may be left in Africa. Hunters consider
them a prize kill.
Hellbender: Hellbenders – an ancient breed of salamander – are
disappearing from the Ozarks, and scientists don’t yet know why.
Lemur: Lemurs live exclusively in Madagascar, where logging has
reduced the forests by 85 percent.
Horned guan: Only 1,000 horned guans remain in Mexico and Guatemala,
where loggers and coffee farmers have destroyed their habitat.
Echidna: The spiky echidna is one of many unique species at risk in
Papua New Guinea.
Humboldt penguin: Farmers have damaged the rocky coastline where
Grevy’s zebra: Unlike the plentiful plains zebras, Grevy’s zebras are
losing their land and water supply to farmers and ranchers.
American burying beetle: The American burying beetle, which once
resided in 35 states, has not been seen in Missouri since 1982.
Galapagos Islands: Introduced diseases threaten the wild birds of the
Galapagos Islands. Though several species are critically endangered,
none are extinct.
Bosawas Biosphere Reserve in Nicaragua: The indigenous people of
Bosawas are trying to stave off settlers who steal parrots, cut
mahogany trees and practice slash-and-burn farming.
Reporter Diane Toroian Keaggy
E-mail: [email protected]