Releasing Orangutans in Borneo

December 29th, 2017

Earlier this month, I took part in the Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Foundation’s “Year of Freedom” campaign as a 2017 Como Conservation Champion grant awardee.  BOS Foundation currently cares for more than 600 orangutans between two rehabilitation centers on the Indonesian side of Borneo: Samboja Lestari in E. Kalimantan and Nyaru Menteng in C. Kalimantan.  Now that suitable land has been secured, the goal is to reintroduce 100 orangutans to protected forests, and release 100 onto pre-release islands to complete their forest training before reintroduction by the end of this year.  This will alleviate the overcrowding at the centers and fulfill their mission to rescue, rehabilitate, AND release Bornean orangutans- a critically endangered species- back to the wild. 

I have been fortunate to visit and volunteer at several orangutan rescue sites on Sumatra and Borneo (including Samboja Lestari) with the support of Como Park Zoo & Conservatory and Como Friends in the past.  My focus on those trips was on the orangutans that must remain permanently in human care due to medical or behavioral reasons.  Typical projects include enclosure design and propping, enrichment, teaching husbandry workshops, and training caregivers on the use of positive reinforcement techniques when working with orangutans.  This year, I did something very different…  I was invited by BOS Foundation CEO, Dr. Jamartin Sihite, to go on a journey to release a group of rehabilitated orangutans back into the wild – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and dream for any orangutan zookeeper!

After 30 hours spent in airports and on airplanes, I arrived in Balikpapan in E. Kalimantan, Indonesia, on the island of Borneo on November 29th.  From there, it is about a 45-minute drive to BOS Foundation’s Samboja Lestari center.  I brought along Ronda Schwetz, Director of Henry Vilas Zoo.  She and I have been traveling to Southeast Asia together on an almost annual basis since 2010.  Along with serving at our zoos, she is the Field Advisor and I am the Vice Chair of the Orangutan SSP – the species management program for orangutans in AZA-accredited zoos.  I also serve as the International Orangutan Studbook Keeper.  Ronda started a keeper exchange program for rescue centers and zoos in Malaysia and Indonesia and Como has supported my assistance with this program.  We make a great team!

Megan and Ronda reunited with BOS Foundation Samboja Lestari staff member Wiwik Astutik… and orangutan “Romeo” (in background) both of whom we worked with in 2010.

Our first order of business was delivering over $1200 worth of medical donations to the veterinary clinic at Samboja Lestari.  Items included stethoscopes, pulse oximeters, formulary references, surgical supplies, and some apparel from our zoos.

We underwent a quarantine period at Samboja Lestari to ensure that we were healthy and not at risk of transmitting any illnesses to the orangutans being released.  BOS Foundation also ensured that we were fully vaccinated and tested negative for tuberculosis since orangutans can catch any diseases that humans carry.  This is something that we are always aware of at Como when working with primates – especially great apes during cold and flu season.  We spent our days of quarantine touring the new man-made islands, Special Care Unit, and observed the immobilizations and transfers of three orangutans (one of which had been in a cage for 20+ years and that we met during our 2010 trip) to one of the onsite man-made islands. We also created and delivered enrichment to some of the ~150 residents cared for at the center.

Woven palm fronds with nuts and seeds inserted, smeared with jam.

We also had the opportunity to observe “Forest School” training for various age groups.  Orangutans stay with their mothers for up to 10 years.  She teaches them everything they need to know to survive in the wild.  Orphan orangutans are taught these life skills by human “baby sitters” at the center.  These skills include nest building, searching for edible fruits and plants, as well as identifying potential predators.

Orphans leaving their night cages to spend their days in the forest.

Nest Building 101 as taught by a caregiver.

Then on December 4th, we departed for the release trip.  Following a ceremony with local officials, we traveled to the capitol of E. Kalimantan, Samarinda, for a second ceremony with wildlife officials, witnessing the signed authorization for the release of the five orangutans and participating in a media event.  Then we set off for the 20-hour journey to Kehje Sewen- an 86,000-hectare protected rainforest that is home to 80 rehabilitated BOS Foundation orangutans.

Team cheer before heading out.

 

Driving through palm oil plantations to reach the release site. The cutting down of forests for timber and conversion of land to palm oil plantations is one of the biggest threats to orangutans as they lose their habitat. Coal and gold mining along with poaching, also threatens their existence Go to http://bit.ly/2zNa8ls to learn more about the situation and what you can do as a shopper. 

Unloading where the road ends….

….crossing a river….

…. and carrying the crates through dense, leech-infested rainforest.

We released five orangutans on this trip.  I was given the honor of opening the first crate containing 7-year-old “Santa” who was found near a village at the age of 3 with no sign of a mother.  She was too young to survive on her own at that age and was taken in by BOS Foundation for release later when she was at an appropriate age and level of training.   Here is her story as well as the others: http://bit.ly/2k7N9iW

I spent time with the release monitoring team collecting data on her first day of freedom.  Santa was observed finding food in the forest and nest building that very day.  She will be monitored closely for the first 30 days and then less intensively for two years.  BOS Foundation has a high success rate and it was an honor to support and be a part of this amazing program.  To learn more about BOS Foundation, go to: http://bit.ly/2bmLOi9

Arriving home, I always look forward to returning to the five orangutans that I care for at Como Zoo (three of whom I’ve cared for 15 years) and sharing my experiences with our zoo visitors and donors.  Thank you, Como Friends! – Zookeeper Megan

Visiting and assisting with enrichment at Nyaru Menteng (made famous on Animal Planet’s “Orangutan Island”).

...

Helping Turtles in Texas

December 8th, 2017

As a conservation champion, I spent a few days in September with the The North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (NAFTRG), which is an affiliate of the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) a long-term monitoring project surveying protected freshwater habitats in Pennsylvania, Florida and Texas.  NAFTRG staff  and volunteers from all over the country, survey all the sites several times each year.  Comal Springs, in New Braunfels, TX is the site where I volunteered.

My first day began with setting small hoop traps baited with chicken livers to capture eastern musk turtles.  Then, before the Texas heat gets too hot, we don the wetsuits and snorkel gear and head into the Comal River!  I have done a lot of herping over the years (looking for amphibians or reptiles in the wild), but this was a first for me to search for turtles IN the water using snorkel equipment.  The group included several veteran turtle researchers who assisted me in honing my skills on where to search for these turtles who obviously had the home field advantage.  Searching underneath platforms of vegetation and rock crevices, we slowly made our way down river.  Some people were in canoes and boats following us.  We placed any found turtles into the boats and continued the search.

Several hours later and two laps up & down the Comal River, the group headed back to shore to the processing station.  After separating by size and species, the first step is to determine if the turtle was previously captured using a chip reader.  If not, a pit tag ID chip is inserted and a hard mark is etched into the marginal scutes as a secondary identifier.  Data collected includes weight, carapace (top part of the shell) length, height and width.  Also noted are any anomalies such as an injury, malformities or other unique characteristics.   Then, using a wax marker, an ‘X’ (or other creative mark) is drawn onto the carapace. This is for reference on day 2 and day 3.  When collecting, if we see a turtle with this wax design it will not be collected again this trip since it was already processed.  A yellow marker was used on day 1, a pink marker on day 2.

After all the data is collected, the turtles are then released back into the Comal River.  Some turtles are quick to flee and hide as soon as they hit the water.  Others are timid and wait to make sure all is safe before diving back into the water.  We checked the traps throughout the day and rebaited the next morning.

The research group repeated the same schedule on days 2 and 3: snorkel to find turtles in the morning and process in the afternoon.  The turtles were quite aware of us swimming in their territory and seeking them out was more difficult on days 2 and 3.  My ease at being in the water and getting used to the process increased each day.  What an incredible way to spend three days and help NAFTRG with native turtle conservation.  I would like to thank Como Friends for the grant to participate with this important work to continually monitor protected North American turtle species and advancing Como’s conservation mission. – Zookeeper Ruthie

Species captured and processed include Sternotherus odoratus, Eastern musk turtle, Chelydra serpentina, Eastern snapping turtle, Pseudemys texana, Texas river cooter and Trachemys scripta elegans, Red ear slider turtle.

...

Insect Pollinators – Beyond the Honey Bee Volume 2 – Now Open!

November 18th, 2017

Photo Exhibit Featuring Ultra Close-up Macro Photography to be Displayed at Como

Como Park Zoo and Conservatory proudly presents a stunning photo exhibit by Minneapolis artist Bill Johnson on display in Como’s Exhibit Gallery November 18 through January 21. Over 40 extreme close-up images will highlight the amazing colors, shapes, and diversity of the insect world.

Mr. Johnson specializes in plant and insect photography, from full-specimen to ultra-close-up macro photography.

Mr. Johnson’s images have appeared in over 900 national and regional publications, including nature magazines, gardening books, field guides, and most recently a children’s book to entitled Minnesota Bug Hunt which explore insects, friendly and fierce, that live as close as our own backyard. His photography travels have taken him to a variety of geographic regions nationally and internationally.

The exhibit will be on display November 18 through January 21, 10am – 4pm. Admission is free.

**Media Availability: More images, as well as high resolution images, & additional information about the artwork & artist are available for all television, radio and print requests. Please call 651-487-8294 or e-mail: [email protected] to schedule.

...

Zookeeper Jill in South Africa with the Balule Conservation Project

November 17th, 2017

As a Conservation Champion, I spent two weeks volunteering with the Balule Conservation Project in South Africa. The Balule Conservation Project  is a conservation management project based in the wilderness of  the Balule Nature reserve in Greater Kruger National Park. The experience was awe inspiring!! I was able to see the wild counterparts of the animals I am lucky to work with as a zookeeper. During my time spent in the bush camp, at least ten rhino were poached in close vicinity of the reserve. The news is heartbreaking and there is little end in sight with the current political climate in South Africa. The volunteers, staff of the Balule Conservation Project and the Black Mambas (the world’s first all-female anti-poaching unit) are an inspiration to those of us who want to change the way the world sees animals and save endangered species. I am so grateful to Como Friends and the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory for supporting my travel and funding the project to let me do a small part in the larger fight for conservation. If you liked to know more, please find me in the giraffe barn hanging with the tall blondes. Enjoy!

 

October 19, 2017:

Today, I arrived at the Olifants West Gate of the Balule Nature Reserve!! After a quick introduction to the team, we headed straight into the field to hunt and destroy alien vegetation also known as invasive cacti species. Lodges and landowners in the reserve planted ornamental cactus in the past which have spread throughout the reserve, damaging the ecosystem and posing a threat to the native plant species. We recorded the GPS coordinates and method of destruction (biological or chemical) used for the plants we found and later entered the information in a database. The team will use the information to monitor the plants in the future and make sure the spread is stopped.

 

October 20, 2017:

Field technician Warren and I traveled to Nourish, a local nonprofit organization, who has partnered with Balule Conservation Project by donating hundreds of tree saplings. The tree saplings will be donated to the Bush Baby education program in the community and to the lodges in the reserve when the elephants knock over mature trees. We transported, replanted and watered the saplings from Nourish to the small nursey within Balule.

 

October 21, 2017:

The morning was spent fixing the fence line which had previously been damaged by elephants. The fence line is very important to the anti-poaching team. It is the first line of defense if a poacher enters the reserve and the last line of defense to keep the animals away from the highway. The fence is electrified and has a number of sensors which send an alert to the monitoring system if disturbed. The Black Mambas, the unarmed anti-poaching unit utilize the fence data, informant information and foot patrols to monitor Balule. They are a mostly women ranger group who have been highly successful protecting the area rhino from poachers.

 

 

October 22, 2017:

Sundays are reserved for cleanup and data entry. The volunteers and staff spent the day cleaning the camp, pumping water, preparing for the week and doing a little bit of relaxing.

 

October 24-25, 2017:

I was lucky to spend two days off on a trip to Kruger National Park with Warren, the awesome camp field technician and fantastic guide. We drove during day light hours for two days and saw tons of animals. I saw my first wild rhino, lots of giraffe and hundreds of elephant. I saw giraffe and zebra hanging out together in the bush and even saw a giraffe taking a nap with her head on her rump – something we didn’t know they did until very recently.

 

October 26, 2017:

We spent another day maintaining the fence line within the reserve. The service roads were recently graded and the bottom wire of the fence was buried in some places. We spent the day checking the fence and digging the wire up when necessary. Today was well over 100 and this Minnesota girl was HOT!!

October 28, 2017:

We spent the morning searching for snares in the buffer zone. The buffer zone is an area outside of the reserve along the railroad tracks. The buffer zone does have wild animals but is not considered a big five protected area. Because of its proximity to the railroad tracks, it is easy to access for poachers. We spent four hours walking through the bush and found at least 20 snares.

Can you find the set snare in the picture?

 

October 30 and November 2, 2017:

I was able to participate in a new research project documenting the elephant herds within the reserve. The project is an aerial demographic survey of the elephant herds. The goal was to determine how many elephants were in each herd, the location (GPS) of the herd and the age and sex of the individual elephants. To obtain the data, I was able to do a ride along with a nonprofit organization called Flying 4 Rhino and Conservation. Flying 4 Rhino and Conservation provides aerial support over conservation areas that house rhino. We flew in a small South African plane called a Bat Hawk. Rob, the pilot, and I flew two separate days at dusk. I took as many pictures as possible while Rob checked the reserve fence lines and investigated vehicles within the park. The data will supplement the data acquired during the game count census and will aid the warden in deciding the carrying capacity for the reserve.

November 1-3, 2017:

My favorite part of my trip had to be the days spent tracking rhinos and monitoring the camera traps. Balule Nature Reserve is home to approximately 60-75 rhinos of both African species – black and white. A few years back, 20 black rhino were transported into the reserve as part of a rhino range expansion program. To maintain the program, the rhinos are tracked and monitored weekly. Our days began early as we set out to look for rhino evidence at the watering holes, known middens (rhino toilets) and to retrieve the camera trap memory cards. During the day, we observed a number of species that call Balule home including giraffe, greater kudu and zebra. I even saw an adult giraffe taking a snooze in the shade of a large tree!

The first two days we saw a lot of rhino evidence in tracks and middens but didn’t see a rhino in the field. Finally at the end of the third day we came across a white rhino cow and her calf relaxing under a tree!! The female was not in the database of known animals in the area which was good news, she most likely moved in from a nearby reserve and will hopefully call Balule her home. During the afternoon, we combed through the camera trap data to monitor the rhino and elephants using the watering holes as well as documenting which other species were caught on camera. The camera traps are set up at watering holes within the reserve. They are triggered by movement and have night vision. These are used to monitor which species are using the watering holes and used to monitor the usually reclusive black rhinos in the reserve. Thanks for reading about my adventures! – Zookeeper Jill

...

Zookeeper Adam in Namibia with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation

November 7th, 2017

I arrived in Windhoek, Namibia late on September 15.  Windhoek is the capital of Namibia.  Today, I met Emma Hart from the Giraffe Conservation Foundation and the rest of our team.  After packing our equipment we set off for our 10 day trip into the field.  From Windhoek it is a 2 day drive northward to reach the study site.   On the way we spotted lots of amazing animals including our first giraffe!

We arrived at the study site, setup camp and met Dr. Julian Fennesy (Co-Founder and President of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation).  The Giraffe Conservation Foundation is a leader in giraffe conservation and research. One of the major goals of this trip was to fit seven giraffe throughout the study area with solar powered GPS satellite tracking units.  Over the next few days we immobilized seven giraffe and got all of the transmitters mounted.  In the short time it took to get the GPS units fitted we also collected other important data such as body measurements, tail hair, and DNA samples.

Last night my tent mate and I where awoken in the middle of the night to the sound of branches breaking in the tree above our tent.  This was followed by the sound of chewing and footsteps all around our tent.  Elephants!  In the morning we discovered that elephants had visited our camp and had stopped for a midnight snack from the tree above our tent.  In this photo you can see an elephant’s footprint about a foot from the door flap of my tent.  This was the start of a day full of elephants!

The second half of this trip was spent collected data on the rest of the giraffe in the study area.  During this trip we identified 145 different giraffe.  We collected data on the type of trees they were feeding on, herd size, and GPS coordinates of their location.  The data collected on the trip will help to answer many questions about the giraffe’s natural behavior.  With this information, we will be able to make more informed and productive conservation and management decisions to help stop the giraffe’s declining population and secure the future of these amazing animals. Thanks to Como Friends for funding my trip! – Zookeeper Adam

More information on the Giraffe Conservation Foundation can be found at: https://giraffeconservation.org/.

...