Donor and former Zoo Commission President, Shelby Kaplan Sloan established the Sloan Animal Keeper Advanced Studies Fund in 2003 to provide keepers with opportunities for hands-on field experiences with particular animals. Upon completing their fieldwork, they share their experiences and insights with the staff and the animals at the Zoo.
Knowledge Is Power
Recipient of a 2010 Sloan Animal Keepers Advanced Studies grant, Animal Keeper Mike Bona used the funding to participate in field research at the Rothschild Giraffe Project in collaboration with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation and the International Giraffe Working Group at Lake Nakuru, Kenya. Among his tasks were to identify individual giraffe, conduct vegetation surveys, forage analysis, home range, behavioral observations and behavioral data collection, and group composition data collection.
“I’ve never requested to work with any specific type of animal,” Bona says. “I find something amazing about every animal I work with, but the Sumatran rhino was awesome, and at first I felt like, ‘Hey—they’re taking me away from my rhino!’ But it wasn’t long before I realized how amazing these giraffes are, and now I wouldn’t want to leave them.”
Although the World Conservation Union (IUCN) designates giraffes as a species of “least concern,” there are nine subspecies of giraffe, two of which, the Rothschild’s and the West African, are endangered, with only 640 and 200, respectively, remaining in the wild. The data gathered from fieldwork is critical in trying to understand the connections between the different subspecies of giraffe, and in devising strategies for protecting them.
“No research has ever been conducted on the Rothschild’s giraffe, so the Project I contributed to has been established to provide the first-ever scientific survey of its behavior, ecology, and social structure,” Bona explains. “The Project is also working collaboratively with Kenya Wildlife Service and others to develop a suitable conservation strategy for the Rothschild’s giraffe in East Africa.”
The Zoo focuses on Masai giraffes, but the various subspecies have few behavioral distinctions, and all the giraffes currently living in Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) institutions have been born and raised in zoo settings. Out in the field, Bona was able to observe large groups of giraffes in the wild and witness social behaviors that don’t occur in the small herd at the Zoo.
“Part of what the researchers in the Project do is to go through the conservancy searching for giraffes to see how the groups migrate from day to day, looking for patterns,” he says. “So you would go out and find a certain group of giraffes, and identify the individuals, and then the next day you’d find half of those animals with a different group. It was really interesting to see how they interacted with each other and moved from group to group. At the Zoo we only have four giraffes so they are a single group.”
Fieldwork such as this provides invaluable “back stories” for the species that keepers work with in zoo settings, offering insights about behavior and physical adaptations that keepers are able to share. Equally important, the experiences are also inspiring.
“It made me feel more passionate about conservation,” Bona says of his African sojourn. “I’m even more eager to explain to people that these animals, which are so familiar in zoos, are dwindling in the wild. It’s amazing to see them here in the Zoo, but they also really need to be out there in the wild. I feel more motivated to explain the problems they are facing and why we need to help them.”
Nothing quite has the same educational impact as personal experience, and Bona’s enthusiasm, shared with colleagues and the public, is vital to furthering the Zoo’s conservation mission.
“In the beginning my perspective was ‘Giraffes: They’re cool. They’re tall. They’re from Africa,’” laughs Bona. “But between my work here and my experiences in the field, I not only know more about them, but I have a greater appreciation for them. Knowledge is power.”