Since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, public health-related restrictions and changing rules made it difficult, if not impossible, to travel and perform many aspects of conservation fieldwork. The importance of flexibility and partnerships came to the fore and people learned what worked and where there might be room for improvement.
Program partners in three AZA SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction programs have been working on the conservation of tree kangaroos in Papua New Guinea, African vultures, and Andean highland flamingos long before SAFE came into being. They have built resiliency into their conservation programs, and that resiliency allowed them to adapt and continue their work throughout the pandemic.
Dr. Lisa Dabek is the senior conservation scientist at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Wash., and director of the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program in Papua New Guinea (TKCP-PNG). Dabek has been studying tree kangaroos since 1987, including community-based conservation and research in-country for the last 25 years. Initially, very little was known about these species.
Over the years, Dabek took her findings from AZA zoos (like the tree kangaroo’s reproductive biology and behavior) back to Papua New Guinea, and her and her team’s findings from the wild (like their feeding ecology) back to AZA zoos in an effort to work on conservation across both fronts.
In 2020, when the pandemic canceled travel plans to Papua New Guinea, Dabek and her colleagues were able to get all the right people together via Zoom and apply to become an SAFE program.
“We’ve had an AZA Tree Kangaroo Species Survival Plan since 1991, but now as part of SAFE we have the ability to better link conservation in the field and in the zoos,” said Dabek.
Most of the on-the-ground work continues through the pandemic thanks to the leadership of the local staff members of the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program in Papua New Guinea. Virtually, the SAFE tree kangaroos of Papua New Guinea program is able to further their goals of working with in-country partners at the Port Moresby Nature Park to get tree kangaroos out of the illegal wildlife trade, while also creating more genetically sustainable managed zoo populations.
“No programs should rely on people having to travel internationally, that’s been the big lesson,” said Dabek. “This highlighted how valuable capacity building and investing in local staffing is.”
Understanding the nuances of local culture helped, too.
SAFE tree kangaroo’s partner, TKCP-PNG, also supports One Health, education, and livelihood initiatives for local communities as complementary aspects of its conservation efforts. The land in Papua New Guinea is mostly owned by local clans, who have agreed to protect it, allowing tree kangaroo populations to grow. This agreement created the first Conservation Area to be recognized by the national government. In return, one livelihood initiative invites clans to participate in a conservation coffee program with a Seattle-based coffee roaster, which helps them earn income. This program has expanded to include other roasters in Australia.
What Dabek is most excited about is what she calls “the experiment we didn’t think we would ever do.”
Right before the pandemic began, researchers removed the GPS tracking collars on wild tree kangaroos, but never got a chance to re-collar them. After being undisturbed for over two years, Dabek is hoping to return to the field site with the team and GPS collar animals and see if there are impacts from a long break.
Dr. Corinne Kendall, curator of conservation and research at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, N.C., was one of the founding members of the SAFE African vulture program, which includes six different vulture species. Since 2013, Kendall has helped to manage a program in Tanzania in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, N.Y. North Carolina Zoo has two full-time staff members based in Tanzania. In addition, the SAFE African vulture program includes partners from The Peregrine Fund, VulPro, and Raptors Botswana in addition to 15 other AZA institutions.
SAFE African vulture gets its funding from several revenue sources, including grants, which became even more important when zoo partners were affected by shutdowns. Across parks in Tanzania and Kenya, financial issues related to COVID shutdowns have negatively affected vultures and other wildlife.
“At a lot of sites, we are seeing increased human-wildlife conflict. As the benefits of wildlife tourism declined with travel restrictions, there has been less tolerance and protection for wildlife,” said Kendall. “People lost other sources of income, so they fall back on use of natural resources—not always in a positive way.”
SAFE African vulture has a large on-the-ground component, which helped everyone address human-wildlife conflicts during the pandemic. Vultures are frequently victims of poisoning. When a bird with a GPS tracker was poisoned, the collar sent a mortality signal at the bird’s final location. From there, a local ranger would collect samples to determine which pesticides were used. Creating a map of poisoning locations has helped identify culprits and target other interventions with local communities.
However, limitations on large gatherings meant that the SAFE African vulture team had to scale back its community initiatives in 2020. In Kenya, planned trainings from The Peregrine Fund around the dangers of using illegal pesticides, emphasizing the risks to human health component as well as wildlife preservation were put on hold. In Tanzania, North Carolina Zoo staff teach rangers how to dispose of poisoned carcasses and collect evidence. Those trainings continued on a smaller scale, thanks to local staff.
“The biggest setback for us was we had a SAFE grant for all our field partners to attend a conference in Zimbabwe, where we plan to work on consolidating lessons learned from addressing poisoning in different parts of Africa and share those with others. That was postponed to 2022. You can only do so much with Zoom and we’re looking forward to having our main field partners together,” said Kendall.
As is the case with many other facilities, the pandemic gave SAFE African vulture program the chance to fine-tune their action plan. The education subcommittee worked on developing materials to help with learning opportunities across different country programs and various AZA facilities with a focus on digital resources during the pandemic. There aren’t many African vultures in AZA facilities, so SAFE garners support by focusing on the broader roles all vulture species have in the landscape ecosystem, including their connections with the conservation needs of lions and elephants.
SAFE Andean highland flamingo includes three species of flamingoes found in Chile’s Andean highland habitat. Dr. Daniel Hilliard, executive director of Zoo Conservation Outreach Group (ZCOG), first started working with Chilean flamingo conservation in 2003 when ZCOG was based at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, La.
Now, Hilliard co-chairs SAFE Andean highland flamingo. The SAFE program is funded almost exclusively by contributions from AZA facilities and has several government-affiliated partners in Chile, including the Zoológico Nacional, CONAF, and Ministerio del Medio Ambiente.
Like other SAFE groups, Andean highland flamingo had to put their fieldwork on hold, but they could continue their in-depth analysis on previously-tagged birds and Hilliard and the Chilean field researchers were able to show real-time flamingo data on maps. Frequent Zoom meetings became so popular that Chilean partners gradually brought additional scientists into the meetings as they connected the research with wildlife and habitat recovery. Eventually, CONAF, the Chilean agency responsible for managing national parks and protected areas, requested that the group expand the geographic scope of research and offered up extended-length permits for this work.
“In a sense, the pandemic helped this project. Out of crisis, we have renewed a shared sense of purpose,” said Hilliard. He believes the high frequency of Zoom meetings helped develop stronger personal relationships within the group and allowed government agencies and new AZA partners to better understand the objectives and goals of the program. Potential education partners were invited to participate in early planning meetings.
“Zoom meetings will continue to be part of our regular processes as pandemic-related restrictions are removed, because we can use them to share real time data and program updates,” he said. It also helped strengthen AZA partner relationships in a new way. “Having an open format where people can join and see if the program is a good fit for their institution can sometimes be more helpful than an in-person meeting because it removes social barriers. Individuals can participate anonymously until they are comfortable joining the group.”
Many conservation projects and roles were put on hold over the last two years. While no one can predict the future, creating programs that are as flexible as possible helps ensure their long-term success under even the most unexpected circumstances.