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Monday, June 29, 2009

Forest Cobra on Display

This very dead, vary deadly snake was splayed out for the photographer in the rain forest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the former Zaire) in the mid-eighties. There was not much that the villagers feared more than snakes and all snakes of all species were killed whenever they were encountered.

The western form of the forest cobra is a relatively timid creature that is not known for aggression when encountered by humans. It may flair a narrow hood, but does its best to avoid contact. However, if cornered, or trod upon, a forest cobra's bite packs a venomous punch that can quickly kill an adult human within hours.

This cobra is adapted to wet forests and is known to eat fish, as well as small mammals. It hunts on the ground, but may climb up to 30 feet in trees in search of prey.

Photo by D. Messinger

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Challenges of Field Work

"As we proceed with the Bososandja forest plans, our goal is to organize and fund a large mammal inventory (using a consistent methodology) for the entire Lukenie-Sankuru forest block and the Lusambo forest block. Only with this data can we make an unequivocal case for the importance of protecting a particular area (the Bososandja). This effort will continue to rely on provincial, territorial, and local (groupement, localité) review, as we have done in the past to ensure that they have a say in the process and geographic boundaries. Critical to the process is formal mapping that will assure that authorities (government and traditional) are very clear what we are discussing."

These words, so straightforward, were recently written by Dr. Jo Thompson, who studies bonobos in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. What is not apparent are the physical hardships that are part and parcel of working in the field. One has to deal with slippery log bridges across steams, stinging insects, thorny plants, exhausting days, and lonely nights of solitary work. On the human side, one faces demanding officials, deals with a foreign language and culture, and endures the high costs and unavailability of almost everything. The lack of transportation, communication, and access to health care requires a fearless approach to life. Many may dream romantically about studying wildlife, but few have the ability to do so.

Photo by R. Ross

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Twin Tree Kangaroos

This photo documents twin Matschie's tree kangaroos sharing their mother's pouch. They were born at the Lincoln Children's Zoo in Lincoln, Nebraska in December, 2008, but poked their heads out of the pouch for the first time in June. One of the fraternal twins (on the left) seems to be to be about one week ahead of the other. He opened his eyes earlier, has more fur, and peaked out of the pouch earlier. The babies weigh only about eight ounces.

Twins are rarely reported in kangaroos, so this double surprise is a welcome success for the Matchie's tree kangaroo that is collectively managed by participating member AZA (American Zoo and Aquarium Association) zoos. The species is found in the rainforests of Huon Peninsula of Papua New Guinea, with perhaps only 2,500 animals left. AZA zoos, led by the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle are actively involved in tree kangaroo conservation in the wild.

Photo by Lincoln Children's Zoo

Monday, June 22, 2009

At the Zoo

In September 1991, with the eruption of the looting and military mutiny across the capital of Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), 15,000 expatriates fled the country, leaving only a few hundred behind. Robert Weller, a journalist with the Associated Press wrote an article about how I repelled the rioters by painting the word AIDS in sheep's blood on the entrance wall of the compound where I worked and lived. I was shown with a bonobo clinging to my neck -- the reason that I stayed was to protect the animals.

Weller wrote, "But the soldiers who ransacked Kinshasa's stores, businesses and residences for three days in September kept clear of the center until French Foreign Legionnaires arrived to restore order and supervise the evacuations. For anyone who couldn't read her "AIDS" warning, it didn't hurt that Messinger also had a reputation locally as a handler of vipers and pythons. Indeed, when the Legionnaires saw the snakes, they left too."

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Domestication and the Basenji

Along with educating the reader, the children's magazine Bleu/Blanc tried to engender a sense of pride in those things Congolese. Few knew that the tough, quiet, little African hunting dog was a pedigreed breed overseas. In fact, small numbers of village dogs were exported from Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) since the thirties. In 1987 and 1988, 19 Basenjis were exported and many of them became foundation stock for the breed.

The story of the Basenji was coupled with an explanation of agriculture and domestication (using a cartoon of a man using his dog Fifi to pull the lawnmower, as a "domestication trial"). A drawing illustrates the pointed ears, forehead wrinkles, short hair, curled tail, and the fact that the breed does not bark.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tropical Agriculture and Monkeypox

Showing behemoth tree skeletons left behind after felling and torching a patch of forest, this photograph illustrates "slash and burn" agriculture. The ash enriched soils support a diverse harvest of corn, peanuts, manioc, yams, beans, okra, peppers, squash, amaranth, and bananas.

One of the interesting facts about monkeypox was that the primary cases were mostly children between five and ten years of age. This is the age of boys too young to hunt who accompanied their sisters and the village women to the fields to work. Besides planting, weeding, chopping firewood and harvesting, they also protected the crop from marauding pests, such as baboons and wild pigs.

To occupy their time, and because they were hungry, the young boys would learn life skills by hunting the small mammals, mostly rodents that lived in the vicinity. Mostly, the captures were made by the clever use of snares, traps, and nets. The catch would be butchered, cooked, and eaten out in the field by the boys and girls. The agricultural areas seemed to be the interface between some animal host carrying the monkeypox virus and humans. What was this animal host?

Photo by D. Messinger

Monday, June 15, 2009

Growing Up Jaguar

The 49th jaguar cub born at the Jacksonville Zoo made his debut on 1 January, 2009, in a hay-bedded, camera monitored den. Staff remotely observed the mother interact with the newborn singleton cub, licking, licking, and licking some more. The reason for the hands-off was that the mother had been wild caught and human reared from a cub in Guyana. Her mothering skills were at first in question, but she proved to be an exemplary parent.

These photographs were taken in an off-exhibit holding yard, where the cub is playing with his mother. In the first, momma still tries to pull him around by the nape of the neck or the head -- she can barely fit her mouth over his broad body. He is about five months old in these images, and like a kitten, his antics are non-stop, punctuated by cat-naps, snuggling with momma, and watching the guests go by. He is also eating an adult meat diet, just like his momma.

Photos by J. Reed

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Jo Thompson with Village Chief

An important factor of long-term success for conservation initiatives in developing countries is having respectful human relationships, based on an understanding of the culture. This grassroots approach is voiced by Jo Thompson, who works directly with, and for, the local population where she studies wild bonobos:

"Having a long-term presence and association with the project identified with one consistent outside international person has strengthened the Project with local people. (True story: in 2003 the Administrateur du Territoire Zone Monkoto told John Hart that he had known me since I was a small child. He came from Dekese and had known me for many years in the Lukuru. Later, John was quick to ask me, in all seriousness, how long I had been working/living in DRCongo. He believed the story literally, but the comment was figurative and demonstrated our deep history together.) This capacity has provided an intimate understanding of both biological and social knowledge. This person-to-person familiarity provided the foundation for working to encourage the revival of traditional land-use practices and, particularly the practice of seasonal hunting laws and rotation of hunting areas.

"....our objectives are focused very closely to the ground and efforts to identify regional threats, facilitate implementation of a locally appropriate framework for protection, and participate with the local people in the conservation of bonobos and their habitat. We strive to change human behaviors that are contrary to bonobo conservation, encourage behaviors that support bonobo conservation, and minimize protected species loss. It is our investment in the long-term relationships with the people of the Lukuru and their own observations of the situation that has motivated them to work for conservation."

Photo by R. Ross

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Lucy Bonobo With Frozen Treat

Lucy, a young bonobo at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, is enjoying a cup of frozen fruit juice, and fruit, provided by the keepers on on hot summer days (today it reached 95 degrees!). The bareness of Lucy's forehead is from were she has been groomed. Bonobos stare intently into the other's eyes while grooming the hair on the forehead -- this physical feature can also be seen in the wild.

Photo by M. Brickner

Monday, June 8, 2009

Eggs for Apes

James Brooks is twelve years old. He has been campaigning for apes through a project called 1000classrooms that he started a year ago, in conjunction with the Canadian Ape Alliance. His idea is to get 1,000 Western classrooms to each donate three dollars (only pennies per child) to pay for a dozen eggs in Africa.

The eggs are sold by park ranger widows in the Kahuzi Biega Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, so the purchase helps the local economy by supporting a poultry collective, while providing nutritious meals for the children. The goal of "eggs for kids" is to give each child and teacher one egg to eat per day.

As James explains, the project helps with fighting poverty, promoting education, improving health through nutrition, creating global partnerships, and encouraging environmental sustainability. Kahuzi Biega is the park where tourists go to visit the eastern lowland gorillas. Eggs for kids will indirectly help peoples from around the world appreciate indigenous wildlife including flagship species like gorillas.

James interest in apes was first sparked when he was only eight, when he learned about Kanzi, the bonobo who communicates via sign language. Since then he has become more involved with ape issues. He has recently been announced as one of "Twenty Under Twenty" for 2008. This award is given to twenty youth by the Canadian non-profit called Youth in Motion, to honor innovation, leadership, and achievement.

James has recently visited the bonobos at the San Diego Zoo. He says that one of his goals is to see he wants to see all of the bonobos in the United States. We hope to see him someday at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens!

For more information on James' project, see

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Birds Appreciate Enrichment

These images are highlights of the monthly special enrichment day at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, and provides insights into normal animal behavior. These birds -- a hadada ibis and a harpy eagle -- naturally manipulate the "toys" provided as they would manipulate items in the wild.

The hadada ibis is a widespread African species that feeds by tweezers-like probing in soil with its long, sensitive bill. When the bill touches a prey item, there is a rapid, almost instantaneous "bill snap." If the prey is small, the ibis may do a head toss, flipping it in the air, then neatly catching it. Or, it drops it, while simultaneously moving the head forward, so that the food item ends up in the mouth.

If, however, the hadada ibis finds something too big to handle easily, it uses the bill like a tool. It will hammer, shake, rip, and otherwise dismember the prey so it can be swallowed in pieces. Our hadada in the photo uses its bill to pull the cheerios off of the sting, to eat them one by one.

The harpy eagle weighs up to twenty pounds, one of the largest raptors in the world. Harpies live in deep forests in central and South America and they hunt by perching quietly and waiting for monkeys, sloths, birds, iguanas, or large rodents to pass by. They then ambush the prey in a swift, surprise flight. The bird's talons are up to five inches long and extremely powerful.

The harpy in the image above is excited when given a new item to play with, such as the pinata football. He will use his talons to grab and crush the cardboard, just as he would kill a prey item in the wild.

Photos by D. Bear-Hull

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Bonobo Meals in Kinshasa

The bonobos in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) received, to the best of our ability, a nutritious diet. We used ovens normally used to sterilize laboratory glassware to bake a bread that was made from wheat flour mixed with powdered milk and a vitamin/mineral "premix." We also added a small amount of blood or meat meal.

The "bread" was the concentrate base that provided protein and essential vitamins and minerals for optimal health and growth for the young bonobos. Small amounts of calorie dense, starchy, or high protein foods such as eggs, peanuts, manioc, corn, cooked rice, squash, and pumpkin were also eaten. The bonobos were given imported whole grains, raisins, cereals, and bird seed that was blended together. This was called the "scatter mix" because it was spread out on the ground for the animals to pick through, as an occupational activity.

The bulk of the diet consisted of locally available fruits and leafy greens. These included papaya, oranges, bananas, sugar cane, pineapple, spinach, hibiscus leaves, amaranth leaves and a wide variety of other indigenous fruits, greens, and vegetables. The goal of of the diet was to provide 25 different foodstuffs per day. The diverse array of local products made this a reasonable goal, but one that varied in composition tremendously throughout the seasons.

Imported foods, such as apples, were too expensive to feed the bonobos. Other foods such as carrots, lettuce, cucumbers, eggplant, tomatoes, and watermelon were grown for sale to expatriates, but they were largely too costly for animal food.

The dishes above are being prepared, to be stored in a refrigerator until use. The plates represented the three "squares" given per day to each animal. They were topped off with the more bulky greens that were given at odd intervals. The bonobos were fed five or six times per day.

Photo by D. Messinger

Monday, June 1, 2009

Manatee and Calf Return to the Wild

The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens has a very successful, very active volunteer team of employees who help officials with stranded, injured, or otherwise compromised marine mammals in northeast Florida. In this case, a mother and calf were found cold stressed, this past February, near an outfall of a water plant (the water here is a degree or two warmer than the surrounding river. Manatees have an uncanny ability to find these spots -- but they quickly become death traps, because they cannot endure the winter temperatures for long and there is little food for them).

The Zoo team helped to rescue the pair and transport them to Sea World in Orlando, where they were successfully rehabilitated. Finally, four and a half months later, on the 28 of May, the two animals were returned to the area, to be released back to the wild not far from where they had been originally found. In the photo, the calf is carried in a sling to the edge of Julington Creek.

State officials, Sea World biologists, and four members of the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens team all shared in the exhilaration of having made a difference for wild animals. As reported by J. Fleming, a keeper and team member:

"A quick plan of action was shared by the Sea World leader and we quickly got to work, The calf weighed ~ 400 pounds, while the cow weighed over 1,500 lbs, (she's huge)! After unloading them onto the boat ramp and into the shallows, the cow, named Bella, swam off followed shortly thereafter by the calf, Edward. We saw them surface for air as they swam away in a western direction. It was an awesome experience and a privilege to a part of a positive outcome."

Photo by: H. Zirhut