AZA's Conservation Grants Fund: More Than the Sum of its Parts

October 2016

By Shelly Grow

Every year since 1984, nearly 200 commercial, accredited, certified related and individual members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) express their commitment to their AZA colleagues to help save species, improve animal management and push the limits of engaging communities by contributing to the Conservation Grants Fund (CGF). This flagship fund was established explicitly to support the AZA community’s conservation-related scientific and educational endeavors and began awarding grants in 1991.

Over the past 25 years, the CGF has provided AZA members with more than $7 million for 389 projects around the world, with grant funds nearly matched by The Walt Disney Company and Disney Conservation Fund.  On their own, these modest grants may not be game-changers, but they have been leveraged wisely and their impacts have often resonated for years.

What One Grant Can Do

In 2009, the Bahamas government announced the expansion of the Andros West Side National Park specifically to include critical Andros rock iguana habitat and populations of special concern.

“This expansion would not have been realized without support from the CGF and the research it supported back in 2002,” said Dr. Chuck Knapp, vice president of conservation and research at John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Ill.

The Andros rock iguana (Cyclura cychlura cychlura) is among the most endangered lizards in the world, as a result of habitat loss, introduced mammalian predators and illegal hunting. In 1999, Shedd Aquarium began studying and implementing conservation strategies for the iguana, and the 2002 CGF award was received at a time when the program was expanding and in need of critical funding.

An Andros Island Rock Iguana © Chuck Knapp, Shedd Aquarium

“Not only was the financial support important, but we were able to leverage it as an endorsement within our own organization to affirm the importance of the program,” Knapp said. “As a result, Shedd Aquarium continues to advance a holistic approach in our iguana research program by involving local participation, citizen scientists from outside the region, college students and biologists.”

Funding from CGF allowed Shedd scientists to perform detailed natural history studies of this unique iguana. Using radio telemetry, Shedd staff documented habitat use, seasonal movement patterns and home-range size of adult iguanas. The Andros rock iguana is the only iguana in the world to deposit its eggs in termite mounds, and studies determined why some mounds were used over others and which habitats supported the most appropriate mounds for nesting. These studies affirmed the need to protect open pine habitat. Radio telemetry also allowed staff to record survival and dispersal patterns of hatchling iguanas, which underscored the importance of mangrove habitats. Finally, CGF funds allowed researchers to survey and interview two key audiences—tourists and locals—to explore the possibility of establishing protected areas and promoting ecotourism in The Bahamas using the Andros rock iguana as a non-traditional flagship species.

“The results of this research ended up being critical when drafting management recommendations, especially as they pertained to defining the scope and placement of potential protected areas,” Knapp explained. Findings were shared at a November 2005 International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Iguana Specialist Group meeting that Shedd Aquarium had organized on Andros Island, which included both local experts and stakeholders. It was at that meeting that the group drafted a comprehensive species conservation and management plan for the Andros rock iguana and prioritized the conservation actions necessary for its long-term survival throughout its natural range—actions that included expanding the Andros West Side National Park.

“Our research will continue to guide efforts to protect the iguana, along with a diverse suite of ecosystems,” said Knapp. “Because of this work, our research on the Andros rock iguana is viewed as an example of how to successfully develop and execute research goals.”

Investing in Innovation

In 2007, Drs. Nadja Wielebnowski and Jessica Whitham—animal welfare researchers for the Chicago Zoological Society (CZS) in Brookfield, Ill.—first discussed the idea of a user-friendly web application that would track zookeepers’ assessments of individual animal welfare.

“We wanted experienced caretakers to become the ‘voices’ for the animals under their care,” said Whitham.

“The goal was to create an instrument that would monitor both positive and negative indicators of an animal’s physical, mental and emotional states,” said Wielebnowski, now at the Oregon Zoo in Portland, Ore., “and it would be designed both by and for those who work directly with zoo animals.”

Their vision was realized in 2013 when WelfareTrak® was launched by CZS’ Center for the Science of Animal Care and Welfare.

Jessica Whitham of the Chicago Zoological Society © Chicago Zoological Society

Initially, the team created species-specific surveys for a variety of mammal, bird and reptile species by consulting primarily with CZS zookeepers and animal managers to identify and define 10-15 welfare indicators, such as body condition, attitude and activity. In 2009, CZS received a grant through the CGF-Disney Conservation Fund that was leveraged with additional support from CZS’s Chicago Board of Trade Endangered Species Fund and the Women’s Board of the Chicago Zoological Society to conduct pilot testing for 12 species.

“Over a six-month period, we asked zookeepers to complete weekly pencil-and-paper surveys for individual animals while we carried out behavioral and fecal glucocorticoid metabolite monitoring,” said Whitham. Although the sample sizes were small, the team found that weekly scores for specific survey items were associated with the behavioral and/or hormonal data for some individuals. CZS staff also provided valuable feedback regarding the tool, and in particular, suggested the creation of a web application that would allow for online survey completion and could generate welfare reports.

Armed with these results, the team pursued an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) National Leadership Grant to expand the project. This grant, combined with additional support from the Kenneth A. Scott Charitable Trust—A KeyBank Trust, led to the creation of a beta version of WelfareTrak® that allowed zookeepers to complete surveys online on a weekly basis, document special events believed to impact welfare scores (e.g., severe weather) and review reports that “flag” potential shifts in welfare status.

“We then partnered with 50 animal care professionals from five AZA-accredited facilities and asked them to evaluate and provide feedback on what we’d created,” Wielebnowski said. The positive response was encouraging. Over a one-year period of testing, participants reported that they regularly used welfare reports to: 1) promote discussion, 2) identify welfare issues proactively, 3) evaluate the success of efforts to improve animal welfare and 4) gain insight into whether individuals prefer particular conditions, events or practices.

Today, the WelfareTrak® system ( has 20 species-specific surveys available for use, along with options for monitoring additional species. In 2015, the project received a second IMLS National Leadership Grant to validate the use of WelfareTrak® for monitoring the welfare of chimpanzees. Thanks to the support from AZA’s CGF-Disney Conservation Fund during WelfareTrak’s infancy, this tool evolved from an in-house, pencil-and-paper survey into a system employed by zoos throughout the U.S. and abroad.

Determined Hope

“Our project began as a collaboration among three biologists that had each witnessed and studied the decline of the Panamanian golden frogs—along with a number of other amphibian species in Panama—during the rapid spread of chytridiomycosis in the early to mid-2000s,” said Dr. Cori Zawacki, associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Golden frogs are members of the genus Atelopus, which is among the most imperiled of all amphibian taxa, likely in part due to its members' extreme susceptibility to this fungal disease.

“We were not ready to give up on these frogs,” said Zawacki. “And, since we knew that no organized effort to re-survey historic populations for survivors had been done since the epizootic, we began doing just that.”

The researchers initiated field surveys in late 2011 when they began hearing accounts of Panamanian golden frogs being extinct in the wild.

“We were not ready to give up on these frogs,” said Zawacki. “And, since we knew that no organized effort to re-survey historic populations for survivors had been done since the epizootic, we began doing just that.”

A few individuals of one golden frog species were found during that first survey season.

“With that good news, we submitted an application to the CGF in hopes of ramping up our efforts to include more survey seasons and sites,” said Zawacki.

Panamanian Golden Frog © Dr. Cori Zawacki

Project goals included collecting a range of ecological information that might shed light on why some populations survived the epizootic while others did not and ultimately could inform strategies for reintroductions.  With support from the CGF in 2013 and 2014, two additional sites where golden frogs persist in Panama were identified, and valuable information was gathered about the seasonality, prevalence and intensity of chytridiomycosis infections in amphibians at sites where the golden frogs had and had not been rediscovered.

Leveraging their findings, the team was awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that has resulted in three more years of funding for survey efforts, along with a more in-depth analysis of the biotic and abiotic factors important to the persistence of Atelopus populations in the wild. The NSF grant is now in its second year and has already begun to shed light on the dynamics of chytridiomycosis infections in Panamanian amphibian communities 10 years after the epidemic. It is also helping the team distinguish whether the persistence—and even apparent recovery of species like Panamanian golden frogs and Panama rocket frogs—is due to changes in the virulence of the fungal pathogen that causes chytridiomycosis, changes in the abilities of amphibian hosts to fight off infection or both.

Zawacki credits support from the CGF for some of the current successes.

“CGF funding allowed for the collection of the preliminary data needed to craft a research proposal that was competitive for funding at the national level.”

More than the Sum of its Parts

The impacts of the CGF are felt around the world, in our communities and in the daily operations of AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums. These impacts are magnified as funds are leveraged to expand project scopes and strengthen partnerships. This is all by design. Each year, more than 150 members of the AZA community review grant applications, and their insight and expertise determine which projects are recommended for funding.

The AZA membership is innovative, enthusiastic, intelligent and generous. Together, we have created a fund that represents these same qualities.

Shelly Grow is Vice President for Conservation and Science for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. 



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