From its creation in 2015, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction has grown to 30 species programs as of 2021. SAFE species programs measure and report conservation progress by creating, implementing, and evaluating three-year species program plans and submitting annual reports that monitor their progress.
Established in 2017, the SAFE African vulture, giraffe, and radiated tortoise were among the first member-led SAFE species programs and, since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, they have faced challenges to advancing their program plans. Nevertheless, these programs’ commitment and dedication to their SAFE goals and objectives persisted, and recent annual reports highlight accomplishments that reflect successes from the implementation of their first program plans.
SAFE African vulture has continued conservation efforts in collaboration with field partners in Tanzania, Kenya, and South Africa, maintaining momentum for addressing the threats facing Africa’s vultures.
Highlights include receipt of AZA’s 2020 William G. Conway International Conservation Award of Significant Achievement for efforts by North Carolina Zoo and the Wildlife Conservation Society to save African vultures in Tanzania. In 2020-2021, this program was able to tag nine white-backed vultures and alert authorities to a poisoning event in Wami Mbiki Game Reserve near Nyerere National Park; poisoning is a major threat to African vultures. While follow-up investigation of mortalities and poison response training have been limited due to the pandemic, the program continues to monitor 20 tagged vultures in southern Tanzania, has trained 39 rangers in northern Tanzania, and supports three graduate students.
The Peregrine Fund in Kenya and their partner communities in Laikipia built 310 predator-proof bomas (livestock corrals) in the reporting period. They also trained 145 people on how to build these predator-proof bomas even as they adjusted sessions to accommodate COVID-19-related restrictions on gatherings. This is significant as it has a direct result in minimizing retaliatory killings of carnivores, in turn minimizing the secondary poisoning of vultures.
In South Africa, VulPro made progress as their conservation breeding program expanded with a new facility that allows them to house breeding pairs across two separate facilities. VulPro’s population augmentation program has expanded with 11 parent-reared chicks released with GPS tracking devices at a new release site in Eastern Cape Province, with plans for an additional nine birds to be released in the near future. In addition, their rehabilitation facilities, including a newly constructed hospital, allow VulPro staff to conduct veterinary treatments and research on-site, reducing travel expenses and stress to injured birds. Over the year, 45 vultures were rescued from across the country and 20 were released.
SAFE African vulture has also made progress towards their objective to increase public engagement in vulture conservation by creating accessible resources for a variety of audiences to accommodate the sudden shift in virtual learning. Through education toolkits, conservation organizations, educators, and care givers had the ability to continue their efforts regarding vulture conservation education and engagement.
Over 2020-2021, and mainly due to COVID-19 restrictions, SAFE giraffe field conservation work often depended on NGO field partners based in the giraffe range countries of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Much of this was work done by the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) and Save Giraffes Now (SGN).
Based on in-country partnerships and meetings organized and funded by GCF, all three of the giraffe conservation priority countries detailed in the current three-year program plan now have government-approved giraffe conservation action plans (Kenya 2018-2022, Tanzania 2020-2024, Uganda 2020-2030).
Anti-poaching and community work continues in multiple giraffe range countries, with support from multiple AZA zoos. Two giraffe translocations took place during the reporting period. In Uganda in November 2020, 15 subadult Nubian giraffe were translocated and reintroduced to historic habitat in Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve with the work led by the Uganda Wildlife Authority with technical and financial support from GCF. Additionally, SGN funded and coordinated with the Kenya Wildlife Service and Northern Rangelands Trust to move a small group of Rothschild’s and Nubian giraffes by barge from a flooded small island in Ruko, Kenya, to the mainland. AZA zoos provided behavioral and husbandry guidance for conditioning and training some giraffes to load voluntarily onto the barge.
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance in San Diego, Calif., continued its work with Twiga Walinzi to monitor the Ruko giraffe and conduct community outreach and the North Carolina Zoo continued monitoring giraffe skin disease during the dry seasons in both Ruaha National Park and Selous Game Reserve in southern Tanzania.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, SAFE giraffe has worked to create realistic giraffe conservation priorities and actions for their new, upcoming three-year program plan, including how best to complement other conservation plans and support a global approach to giraffe conservation.
In 2020-2021, SAFE radiated tortoise’s efforts to return confiscated radiated tortoises to the wild to re-establish locally extinct and depleted populations slowed. Despite the challenges, 1,000 confiscated radiated tortoises were placed in soft-release pens in a community committed to protecting them. This is the critical first step for returning them fully back to the wild. Each tortoise was carefully selected by staff from the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Turtle Survival Alliance to be among the first to be repatriated.
The tortoises will be monitored as they adjust to their new surroundings in reintroduction sites selected and surveyed for appropriate conditions. Relationships are being strengthened, and community needs are being met for successful stewardship of reintroduced populations. This lengthy process allows the tortoises time to develop site fidelity and should minimize the number of tortoises that will wander from this protected location.
This approach is based on a project that the Turtle Survival Alliance initiated in Myanmar with Burmese star tortoises. Approximately 25,000 additional radiated tortoises are being cared for in a variety of rehab facilities across southern Madagascar. Over time, and as relationships build with other communities throughout the range of this tortoise, SAFE radiated tortoise team members are optimistic that they can return these other tortoises back to the wild, as well. Funds from both AZA’s Conservation Grants Fund and SAFE granting program support the program’s work.
As each program evaluates their progress, assesses current needs and opportunities, and develops a new three-year program plan, they would benefit from additional partners and support. Join SAFE African vulture, giraffe, and radiated tortoise to preserve species in Africa by reaching out to the program leaders below, and visit AZA SAFE to learn more.
Please contact AZA to help implement the programs below:
SAFE African Vulture Program Plan, led by Dr. Corinne Kendall at North Carolina Zoo, and Molly Maloy at Denver Zoo.
SAFE Giraffe Program Plan, led by Dr. Liza Dadone at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, and Andi Kornak at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.
SAFE Radiated Tortoise Program Plan, led by Michael Ogle at Zoo Knoxville, and Rick Hudson at Turtle Survival Center.
Gillian Cannataro is the program assistant for conservation programs at AZA.