Tuesday, July 31, 2018

I am back in El Paso

Read see our first blog about this Madagascar radiated tortoise rescue effort here.  The El Paso Zoo is working to save endangered species here in El Paso and around the world.  

Hello everyone.   This is El Paso Zoo Keeper Luis Villanueva.  I am back in El Paso after completing my 16-day trip to Madagascar!   ​My experience was incredibly rewarding and it has been an honor helping the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) team with such an important project.  One thing I have learned is the importance of protecting such majestic animals. Poachers continue to take radiated tortoises from their natural habitat and there are constant confiscations.  To learn more about this project check out the Turtle Survival Alliance Radiated Tortoise Project page.

Here are some more pictures.   If you have any questions please contact me by email at villanuevalm@elpasotexas.gov.

Here I am working with Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) team members labeling and measuring rescued radiated tortoises near the Madagascar Rescue Center near Itampolo.  Each tortoise was sorted by size and weight and given a number.

Water is not readily available in the Itampolo area so every day we had to collect water from wells in different villages to support our efforts. 

I worked with Kate Leach a Veterinarian from the Atlanta Zoo when helping to access the health of each rescued tortoise.

Illegally collected radiated tortoises are often confiscated by government officials.  These tortoises were temporarily held at a TSA facility in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar.  

Here I am with fellow turtle rescue team members near Itampolo. 

 Special thanks to all the guests at the El Paso Zoo who rounded up their purchases at the Zoo gift shop and restaurants.  If it wasn’t for your donations I would not have been able to go on this important conservation trip.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Hello from Madagascar!

El Paso Zoo Keeper Luis Villanueva, is in Madagascar this month working with Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) as part of an effort to save more than 10,000 critically endangered radiated tortoises. Last month the El Paso Zoo answered a call for help dispatched to Animal Experts from Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

The tortoises were discovered in April by local police in a private residence in Toliara, Madagascar. The floors of virtually every room in the house were covered with tortoises that had no access to food or water. The tortoises have since been transferred to “Villages des Tortues,” a secure wildlife facility in Ifaty where conservation partners from around the world are headed to assist.

“The radiated tortoise is critically endangered due to poaching and deforestation. These magnificent animals can live up 180 years old and are some of the most beautiful Tortoises in the world, which leads to exploitation in the pet trade,” said Villanueva. Hundreds of the tortoises have already died from dehydration and illness. 

Luis does not have much access to WiFi but the other day was able to send the following message:

Today we visited one of the TSA locations here in Antananarivo. Here they keep around 1800 tortoises that have been confiscated.   Here are some pictures of the place. 

After we visited the TSA facility we went to a crocodile farm.  Here are some pictures.

 Verreaux's Sifaka, an endangered species of lemur.

As soon as we hear from Luis again we will post new information and pictures here.

This is not the first time EPZ has sent staff to help an international cause. In 2016, EPZ worked together with other AZA Zoos to help hand rear baby Penninsular pronghorn antelopes in the El Vizcaino Biosphere Preserve in Baja California Sur, Mexico to create an insurance population for the diminishing species. “El Paso Zoo, as an AZA accredited zoo, demonstrates that its staff has acquired the experience needed to work with endangered species,” said Villanueva.

It is estimated that the radiated tortoise population in the wild has declined more than 80 percent in the last 30 years. There is a real chance they could be extinct in the wild in less than two decades.

About El Paso Zoo

The El Paso Zoo is a 35-acre facility that houses animals representing over 220 species, including critically endangered species. Accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), the El Paso Zoo celebrates the value of animals and natural resources and creates opportunities for people to rediscover their connection to nature.

About the Turtle Survival Alliance

The Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) is an internationally recognized action-oriented global partnership, focusing on species that are at high risk of extinction, and working in turtle diversity hotspots around the world. The group was originally organized in 2001 in response to the rampant and unsustainable harvest of Asian turtle populations to supply Chinese markets, referred to as the Asian Turtle Crisis. Since then, TSA has evolved to respond to other endangered turtle species around the world with current projects or programs in Belize, Colombia, Europe, Madagascar, and throughout Asia. Today the TSA supports projects or programs – both wild and captive - that benefit 21 of the World’s 25 Most Endangered Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles. For more details on TSA’s programs, visitwww.turtlesurvival.org or follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @TurtleSurvival.



Friday, May 25, 2018

During the summer of 2014 the El Paso Zoo sent Dr. Vikki Milne to Borneo to help with conservation projects in cooperation with UTEP.   

In the picture above Dr. Milne is seen holding a rehabilitated Golden Eagle in the Sierra Blanca area of west Texas as part of the Zoo’s wildlife conservation and rehabilitation efforts.  The eagle named Sierra was taken to the zoo in January, 2018 after she was found with a broken bone in her wing and general weakness and dehydration.

El Paso Zoo veterinary staff provided medical care until the eagle healed and could be transferred for further rehabilitation and flight preparation by the Gila Wildlife Rescue in Silver City, New Mexico.

We hope you enjoy reading Dr. Milne's blog post from her memorable trip to Borneo.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Kutai Experience

Early morning along the river In Kutai National Park
I have to admit, I was warned in advance: you can make all kinds of plans, but once you're in Indonesia, you never know how it's going to go. That was definitely the case for the latest segment of this project. Originally I was going to spend this week visiting Kutai National Park and then an oil palm plantation with the UTEP student team focused on a project that uses imaging technology to track the progress of forest cover and to categorize habitat type (primary forest, secondary forest, agriculture, settlement, etc).  The plan was to observe first hand how orangutans make a living in natural forest and try to cope in the plantations that are replacing much of Indonesia's forests. However, an injury on the team (don't worry dear readers, all turned out OK) forced an early return from Kutai to Smarinda (5 hr drive). So a day later I returned to Kutai (another 10 hr round trip) with a different UTEP student team focused on ecotourism, and did not get to see the oil palm and eucalyptus/acacia paper plantations up close. In between Kutai trips we wrapped up the sign and animal enrichment projects with Mulawarman University (UNMUL) students at Kebun Raya Botanical Garden.

UTEP and UNMUL students and staff with one of the finished signs,
and a timely orangutan photobomb by Hercules

UTEP - picks up!

Landmark at the equator - I've driven across 6 times now on this trip!
Kutai National Park is approximately 2000 sq km, located on the central east coast of East Kalimantan province in Indonesia, on the island of Borneo (Borneo parks map). Unfortunately, even this protected area has not escaped serious damage from illegal encroachment by logging, mining, and settlers. In addition, large fires in the mid-80's damaged much of the primary growth forest, though with time that is recovering as secondary forest. There are 2 areas of the park that are accessible to tourists - Sangkima and Prevab. Prevab is more remote and less damaged, and must be accessed by a 30 min boat ride from Sangatta.

Just getting to Sangatta is a challenge! Rain and Indonesian
roads is a bad combo.
Boat ride to the camp

Along the river in Kutai

We spent a day and night at Prevab, where we were able to observe orangutans and other forest critters. The camp at Prevab is quite rustic, and not for the delicate traveller. So considering the conditions and the ongoing damage to the park, it will need a lot of infrastructure improvement, enforcement of forest protection, attention to orangutan welfare, and attention to guest safety before it can become a serious ecotourism destination. We knew what to expect, and the wildlife and forest experience were definitely worth the effort.

Students cross a foot bridge in Kutai

Lunch at the Prevab camp in Kutai
Students chatted about educational programs
and opportunities in each other's schools

Shelf mushrooms on a log in the forest
Huge tree in Kutai

Feeling short in this forest!

Many different types of mushrooms were
springing from the moist forest floor

With the help of park guides, we were able to observe 4 wild orangutans - 2 sets of mothers with offspring. The orangutans in Prevab are somewhat habituated and tolerant of human observers, so we were able to watch them foraging for fruit and tasty vegetation for several minutes at a time. It was so impressive to see them move easily through the canopy of the forest, pulling some leaves closer for snacking, and using the flexible branches to swing across to the next tree. We could also see several orangutan nests - beds of vegetation they make almost daily for sleeping safely and comfortably in the canopy.

Can you see the orangutan high in the trees?

Here's a zoomed in version... she is checking us out too!

Orangutan watching

We hiked some trails during the day and at night, and found lots of interesting animals, especially invertebrates and amphibians!


We woke up before dawn the next morning, packed up camp, and took another longer boat ride to see proboscis monkeys (named for their large noses - see proboscis info) along the river. They were shy though, and I only got a brief view and no pictures. Several other monkeys, and birds including kingfishers (stork billed kingfisher), sea eagles (sea eagle info), and broadbills (black and red broadbill info) also made appearances along the river. Now we have made it back to Balikpapan, and will catch a flight to Bali tomorrow. We are headed for West Bali National Park next, to check out Bali Starling (aka Bali Mynah) breeding and recovery programs, as well as community based ecotourism. More on that for you next time!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Busy Day at Kebun Raya Botanical Garden

11 year old orangutan at
Kebun Raya UNMUL Samarinda
Today was a very busy day finally getting to work for Kebun Raya UNMUL Samarinda (KRUS), the education forest and botanical garden managed by the University Muluwarman (UNMUL) near Samarinda. We have visited KRUS twice already during our stay in Samarinda. Those visits let us explore the grounds and get to know KRUS, and talk to the faculty in the Forestry School at UNMUL who are responsible for the facility. One of the major goals of this UTEP project is to make some improvements at KRUS.

KRUS is an Education Forest used by UNMUL for student projects and classes, as well as being open to the public. There are some amusement facilities (paddle boats, train, bumper cars, local food cart vendors) to make it a family fun destination - one of the few outdoor fun destinations available in crowded Samarinda. The facility now also houses several animals that are rescued from illegal pet trade, injury, or habitat destruction. While there are several large enclosures with lots of climbing and playing structures for the orangutans and the sun bear, many of the other animal enclosures are very small and do not provide much comfort or behavioral stimulation. Most also have signs that have faded away or broken, and there isn't any education info for the public.

Small gibbon enclosure
Gibbon at KRUS

Sun bear enclosure at KRUS - nice!

One of the orphan orangutan enclosures at KRUS
Lots of toys and climbing structures!
So today, after previous days of planning and buying materials, the UTEP students and I worked with UNMUL students and faculty to make frames for educational signs that the students designed and will have professionally printed, and to make enrichment devices to improve the daily lives of some of the animals. We aren't finished, the students will have a couple more days to keep up the work!

UTEP and UNMUL students working on signs

As for bigger solutions to the cramped housing, that will take longer than the 2 weeks we have left here. I'll provide a document with recommendations to the KRUS managers, including some enclosure modifications, animal care, and enrichment strategies. Luckily, there are some folks already involved at KRUS who have some very similar ideas but need the support and resources to make it happen. They are from an organization called the Center for Orangutan Protection (COP), and they are already the primary caretakers of the orangutans at KRUS. They designed and built, with volunteers, the climbing structures in the larger enclosures, and they have a lot of knowledge and ideas about enrichment and improving animal care at KRUS. COP also helps rescue "pet" orangutans and orphans, are activists trying to raise awareness and fight forest destruction for palm oil plantations that are rapidly eradicating vital orangutan habitat and creating more orangutan orphans and injuries, and holds training workshops for Indonesian zoos to improve their standard of animal care. I hope that together we can spread some of the love to the rest of the KRUS residents!

One of COP's eye catching trucks 

Breakfast time for orphans - these guys will hopefully
make it back into the wild after COP staff help them learn
forest survival skills and they are big enough to be on their own

Me with veterinarian Dr. Iman and Area Manager Dhani from COP

And finally, just for fun, I have to tell everyone that most of the Indonesians I have met like taking pictures and being in pictures, and they LOVE taking pictures with us foreigners! So we are now in a LOT of photos with a lot of very friendly Indonesians, and on who knows how many Indonesian Facebook pages! So here are a couple of groups of school kids at KRUS who were very excited to pose with us. The UTEP students are teaching as many as they can to put their "picks up" too!