In this two-part series AFKInsider’s Lyn Eyb reports from Dubbo in central western NSW on how Australian Zoo’s are helping conserve endangered African species and try to highlight the growing poaching crisis on the continent.
It may be an ocean and more than 10,000km from the plains of Kruger or the savannah’s of the Serengeti, but one of Australia’s leading zoos is playing an important role in the conservation of some of Africa’s most endangered species.
At Taronga Western Plains Zoo, on the fringes of the Australian Outback some 400km from Sydney, one of the world’s most successful conservation programs is taking place, and African species figure prominently on its list of achievements.
Recent additions to the zoo’s African enclosures include a zebra foal, three baby cheetahs and a new addax calf. The addax is critically endangered with more animals in captivity than in the wild; Taronga’s emergency population now stands at 11. The arrival also of a new lion from South Africa should see further good news coming out of that enclosure in the coming months.
Taronga is also home to emergency Black and White rhinos as part of international efforts to ensure both African species can be saved if the current poaching crisis leads to complete decimation in the wild.
More than 1000 rhino were poached in South Africa in 2013, compared to just a handful in 2007; 2014 figures are already looking grim.
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The current surge in poaching is cause for concern, with experts estimating that deaths could outnumber births as early as 2016 if the crisis isn’t reversed.
Taronga rhino keeper Nick Hanlon says the zoo’s aggressive approach to rhino conservation started as a direct result of poaching in Africa.
“Our breeding program started in the 1990s in response to the rhino crisis when the [black] rhino population got down to as few as 2500 in the wild,” he said. “We started working on an insurance population at that point, and we still see our program as serving as an insurance population.”
The zoo imported six Black Rhinos from Zimbabwe in 1994 as part of an initiative by the International Rhino Foundation, of which Taronga was a founding member.
Since then the zoo has bred 11 Black Rhinos, with the first second-generation calf from two zoo-bred rhinos arriving in 2010.
The zoo continues to work closely with international organizations to raise awareness of the plight of one of the giants of the African wilderness.
“We use these guys to educate people about the recent crisis and what’s happening in South Africa and in other parts of Africa,” he says.
The rhino conservation program mirrors the approach taken by the zoo across other species. Taronga chimpanzee program is also recognized internationally.
In 1988 Taronga co-founded the Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust, which manages the Ngamba Island Sanctuary, in Lake Victoria. The 100-acre rainforest sanctuary houses orphaned chimps that have been saved from poachers and the illegal pet trade.
The zoo also supports the Jane Goodall Institute’s work to expand the Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Centre in the Congo Basin, the largest chimpanzee sanctuary in Africa.
With the zoo’s core market domestic – 99 percent of visitors are Australian – there is also a real emphasis on raising awareness among Australians of issues facing animals in the wild.
Keeper talks, fund raising efforts, and public relations work via local media and the internet all raise awareness of issues affecting animal populations across the world. One recent art-based program saw 75 life-size rhinos decorated and displayed both locally and in Sydney.
“Some people who visit us are aware of the issues facing the rhino – a lot of kids are especially aware, though we find adults aren’t so much aware,” Hanlon told AFKInsider, adding that there is also a trickle of Australians who have visited Africa and who share or relive their African adventures during their visit to Taronga.
The ongoing rhino campaign is running alongside a push to raise awareness of the impact of palm tree plantations in Asia, which is decimating the Sumatran tiger population there.
While it is hoped that the zoo’s emergency populations will never be called upon, the zoo – run by a charitable trust that injects all profits back into its conservation programs – has a solid track record when it comes to saving species in the wild.
All animal populations are meticulously curated, genetics logged, and breeding programs carefully managed in conjunction with partner zoos and conservation bodies worldwide.
In 1995, Taronga Zoo and the Royal Zoological Society of South Australia led international efforts to reintroduce the Przewalski’s Horse back into its natural environment in Mongolia after it had been declared extinct in the 1960s. The zoo relocated seven horses from its emergency population to Takhin Tal in Mongolia. By 2005, the Mongolian population numbered 87 animals in 7 groups, including one female from the 1995 re-introduction effort.
But conservation isn’t the only success story here: it’s tourism that generates the bulk of the zoo’s income and makes its extensive breeding, research and education programs both possible and highly, highly effective.
Taronga Zoo’s expanse of land on the edge of the desert is home to an animal-based tourism project so vast that it provides many Australians with African wildlife encounters as close to the real thing as they are ever likely to get.