I recently got to experience a refreshing moment in my zoo career... I spent three weeks at Perth Zoo, in Western Australia, and went through this fantastic immersion in true zoo conservation, research and education!
Rewinding... How did it all happen?
I am currently doing my PhD at the University of Birmingham, funded by the UK's Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), via CENTA, a consortium of universities and research centres. As part of my PhD, I am required to do a work placement, doing something relevant to my career goals but significantly different from my PhD project. When the placement was introduced during my PhD induction back in October last year, I remember jumping off my chair with excitement, and immediately start thinking where to go. A couple of zoos (of course!) popped up in my head - institutions whose work have been compulsively following for years but never had the chance to visit... Perth Zoo was one of them!
Why Perth Zoo?
One of the great rewards I get from managing The Zoo Scientist is to follow and learn about the impressive conservation work of many zoos and aquariums throughout the world. This is something I have always done, in a personal capacity, but that got to be further enhanced with the creation of this page. I am not sure when exactly I first heard about Perth Zoo, but I do know it was many years ago, and that I became a virtual fan of the institution. The zoo's commitment to conservation and success in reintroducing several species in the wild were always the main reasons behind this admiration.
Reintroduction programmes have always been one of my main career interests. Very challenging and often controversial, these programmes have saved numerous species throughout the world. In the past, I have worked with a high-profile, and successful, reintroduction project - the Iberian lynx's, in Portugal and Spain. I wanted to take that experience further and diversify my knowledge on the subject. Perth Zoo just seemed like the ideal choice!
I got there!
The idea moved forward, the zoo kindly offered me a placement, which involved getting to experience and learn about their reintroduction programmes. CENTA approved it, flights were booked, logistics taken care of and a few months later, I was landing in Western Australia, tired and severely jet-lagged, but bursting with excitement! Despite the extremely high expectations I had for Perth Zoo, as I have been following their work for so many years, I was not disappointed!
One of the main things that I pleasantly noticed as soon as I entered the zoo was that the whole place "screams" CONSERVATION! It is of course great to see not only that the zoo has so much going on in this field but also that they are not shy in "shouting out loud" about the work they are doing. Especially considering that zoos in general so often get their work questioned and discredited.
Their Native Species Breeding Program (NSBP) is probably the highlight of all their conservation programmes (I may be biased though!). Running since 1992, it has resulted in the release of over 4,000 zoo-bred animals into the wild. Several species have benefited from this programme throughout the years, such as the chuditch (Dasyurus geoffroii), the Shark Bay mouse (Pseudomys fieldi) and the Lancelin Island skink (Ctenotus lancelini). All these species were successfully bred at the zoo and, thanks to the reintroduction of these animals and integrated efforts in the wild (in situ), the wild populations are now doing much better!
Currently, the programme houses five species: the dibbler (Parantechinus apicalis), numbat (Myrmecobius faciatus), Western swamp tortoise (Pseudemydura umbrina), white-bellied frog (Geocrinia alba) and orange-bellied frog (Geocrinia vitellina). All threatened in the wild, these species are struggling to survive human pressure and environmental changes. Within the zoo, these species are housed in special off-show facilities, where they are kept and bred according to their biology and reproductive physiology. I was shown these facilities by the NSBP's supervisor, Cathy Lambert, who kindly gave me an incredible insight into the methods, challenges and successes of the programme.
A particular challenge I found interesting is to provide the captive animals with a wild type diet. For example the numbat is a specialist feeder, which eats mostly termites in the wild. In order to recreate this at the zoo, they feed their numbats termites that are harvested from the wild (and a supplementary artificial diet for when termites are scarce), using a specific technique that does not disturb the termite colonies.
While the zoo is still learning about the challenging process of breeding Geocrinia frogs in captivity, they are collecting egg clutches from the wild every year and hatching them at the zoo, releasing them back at a safer stage of their development. As eggs in the wild are very susceptible to predation (which becomes a problem when the species are already highly threatened due to human impact), this increases juvenile survival rates from 10-15% to around 95%!
How amazing is that?!
On top of these, the zoo is also working to breed the critically endangered Western ground parrot (Pezoporus flaviventris), a species that has an estimated wild population of 150 individuals. The reintroduction of captive bred individuals may be the last hope for this incredibly rare species, but as the knowledge on these cryptic animals is very limiting, the zoo is still learning about their reproductive biology, hoping that will very soon successfully breed them. I was very lucky to be taken behind the scenes to see the work being done there, including the facilities where they remotely monitor the parrots (CCTV 24/7), as to reduce human disturbance, and the incubator room. My "tour guide" was one of the zoo's senior keepers, Matt Ricci, whose extensive experience and knowledge of parrots (and other taxa) was pure indulgence for my brain. I can only thank him for the interesting, and very nerdy, zoo chat!
And this is not yet the last of the zoo's reintroduction programmes... They are also working with partners to rewild urban areas in Perth, as part of their "Urban Renewal Project". The aim is to return species that went locally extinct to areas where there is still suitable habitat, such as local parks and reserves. Zoo-bred bush-stone curlews (Burhinus grallarius) and rakalis or water rats (Hydromys chrysogaster) have already been successfully reintroduced, and the zoo has plans for other species too!
Conservation medicine: Rehabilitating injured cockatoos.
Another of the zoo's projects that definitely caught my eye was their "Black Cockatoo Project", where they treat injured wild black cockatoos for further rehabilitation and, when possible, release back into the wild. These include all three species of black cockatoo found in the area: red-tailed (Calyptorhynchus banksii), Baudin's (Calyptorhynchus baudinii) and Carnaby's (Calyptorhynchus latirostris), the last two classified as "Endangered" in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The zoo has provided treatment, including emergency treatment, surgery and/or intensive medical care, to hundreds of black cockatoos.
However, Perth Zoo's involvement in conservation does not end there nor is restricted to Australia...
The zoo is involved in the conservation of numerous species throughout the world, and has invested over $4 million in field conservation since 2007. Wow! This includes habitat restoration and protection, anti-poaching initiatives and local community engagement and education. More groundbreaking conservation work by Perth Zoo is the pioneering reintroduction of zoo-bred orangutans into the wild, in Sumatra, which, if proven successful in the long-term, opens doors to potential reintroduction programmes for other great apes, which are all (except humans!) threatened with extinction!.
Explanatory video of the conservation work done by Perth Zoo. Source: Perth Zoo (Check here).
Science and Education at the Zoo!
As a researcher myself, I find that you can get an overall idea of a zoo's interest in research simply by the way you are welcomed there. When Perth Zoo opened their doors to me, not only by offering me the work placement but by sharing some of their work and knowledge with me, and even exchange ideas to my own PhD project, I could tell I was in a science-oriented zoo.
I would like to highlight Dr. Peter Mawson, Perth Zoo's Science Program Leader, who organised my stay at the zoo and made sure I got access to the different programmes I wanted to experience and learn about. Also, Dr. Mawson is a live encyclopedia of ecology and zoology, and for a zoo nerd like myself, just chatting with him was by itself a very rewarding experience. Caroline Lawrence, the zoo's Research Assistant, was also absolutely fantastic, always making sure I was having a good experience there!
Thank you both!
Perth Zoo applies a lot of effort into research on reproductive biology, which links with their captive breeding programmes and has been responsible for the high success the zoo has had in breeding species that were initially quite unknown to science. They are also partnered with several universities, collaborating with them on different research projects, covering topics such as veterinary science, animal behaviour and ecology. For me is always extremely inspiring to see zoos with active research departments and I was very pleased to witness that there.
As for the educational material at the zoo... It is abundant, interactive and very informative! The signs offer a mixture of relevant and attractive information on the biology and ecology of each species, their habitat, the threats they are facing and what the visitors can (or shouldn't!) do in order to help the species in the wild. There is also friendly staff spread out throughout the zoo, who often approach you to share some interesting facts about the species you are looking at, which is a very warming experience.
I had a great time listening to the educational talks, as they include an interesting range of species, some of them unique to the country or the region. In the orangutan talk, for example, the visitors get to learn about these animals, their situation in the wild and what the zoo is doing for their conservation in Sumatra. They also explain the importance of the "Jungle School", the complex process in which they teach the orangutans the necessary skills to survive in the wild, for further reintroduction. Being such an unique programme worldwide, it is great that the general public have the opportunity to learn about it too - I certainly enjoyed it!
Happy animals, a Pretty Scenery & a Lot of Fun!
A visit to a zoo is a much nicer experience when we see good animal welfare standards, which support the aims of modern zoos. It was therefore pure joy to walk around such a progressive zoo, with carefully designed enclosures, organised geographically, some of them walk-through, generally recreating to some extent the habitat of the species in them. Environmental enrichment was also not lacking, and I often got to see the animals interacting with the diverse enrichment items. Another thing I enjoyed was the clever balance seen in the enclosure design, giving the animals privacy and respecting their welfare, while still allowing the visitors to see and experience them.
Past VS Present.
Another feature that makes me respectfully bow to Perth Zoo is the display of old, no longer in use, zoo enclosures, accompanied by relevant educational signage. Zoos have come a long way in a relatively short period of time, and I always appreciate when zoos highlight that by showing the contrasting past and present!
Green, green everywhere!
Perth Zoo may be located just a couple of miles south of Perth city centre, but it offers its visitors a very non-urban scenery. Not only the animal enclosures but the whole area is so full of lush trees and other vegetation that you can easily forget you are in a city environment. Specifically the "Rainforest Retreat" is a little nature haven in the zoo, where I got to have a naturalistic "into the forest" experience and even got the opportunity to watch local wild birds from the rich Australian fauna.