The San Diego Zoo's Long-Term Conservation Loan Agreement with China has come to a close. This means Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu will be headed to China sometime this spring as a new phase of panda conservation is set to begin.
For the past 25 year, the San Diego Zoo has been part of an international effort to prevent panda extinction that has met it's conservation goals. The news of this program ending is therefore heartwarming and heartbreaking all at the same time. It's incredibly impressive that the program has been such as success, especially in San Diego with our rock star Bai Yun as the helm. But, it's going to be sad and strange for the San Diego Zoo to not have any pandas, even if it's only for a short time. I'm also super bummed I won't have a chance to see them in person again before they head back to China but I am honored to say I was a part of such a successful conservation effort!
Gao Gao was the most recent panda to head back to China. He has been living it up at a panda retirement home while his offspring have been pumping out more little pandas as part of an ongoing breeding program. Now Mama and baby brother will be joining them in their native land.
Plans for the next phase haven't been revealed yet and when I asked for the inside scoop they just replied "stay tuned."
Check out all my panda posts. I love those pandas!
The Perspectives Series is a student-created, student-managed publication whose mission is to communicate conservation research being conducted by undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty in the field of applied biodiversity to a broader audience of academics, practitioners, and the public.
The collection of articles in this year's Perspectives Series shares with you the insights and experiences of graduate students and faculty focused on conservation and biodiversity issues in Africa.
Applied biodiversity brings multiple perspectives together—from ecology and psychology, to genetics and anthropology—to address the global challenge of reducing the loss of biodiversity and its impacts on human livelihoods.
This year’s issue can be read and downloaded at:
For the second year in a row, I am a recipient of the Dan L. Duncan Scholarship presented by the Houston Safari Club and the American Conservation and Education Society. This year, 24 students with a desire to protect and promote hunting and the principles of conservation were given the award in front of Houston Safari Club members at their September monthly meeting. Gary Rose (far right) did a remarkable job introducing us all, bragging about all our various accomplishments like a proud parent.
This was my last year of eligibility for the award but so far during my tenure as a recipient, I've met many interesting people and have learned a lot about the industry. Thank you to Houston Safari Club for supporting me and my goals of African lion research and conservation!
Other news on the funding front, my project received 2 grants from Dallas Safari Club! An anonymous donor through the organization is paying for the Freezer/Mill I need to process all my bone samples and I received their general grant, highlighted on the grants page of their website with a photo of a lion!
Coupled with the money you all graciously donated through the Experiment.com Cat Challenge crowdfunding campaign (for which I came in 2nd), my project has enough funding to get me through the year!!!
The Challenge is 2-fold:
The project with the most BACKERS will receive an extra $1,000 added to their GOAL.
Our GOAL is $5,000 and we must receive 100% of our GOAL to get any of the money donated by the BACKERS.
Go to Experiment.com/liondiversity and show some support by making a donation. Any little bit helps! The more people who make donations the better. You can also help by spreading the word.
The Challenge (# of BACKERS) runs from today to Friday, June 10 @ 6PM ET
The Campaign (100% of GOAL) runs from today to Saturday, June 18
Your support is much appreciated! THANKS!!!
The manuscript I have been working so hard on for most of the year has finally been published!
My first publication, Mitochondrial Haplotype Diversity in Zambian Lions: Bridging a Gap in the Biogeography of an Iconic Species, was made live today, December 16th, 2015! I am now officially a published author!
The paper is about matrelineal gene flow and genetic diversity of lions in Zambia. We found that lions in Zambia have a high level of diversity but can be separated into two sub-populations with little to no matrelineal gene flow between the two. The separation could be historical but it more likely due to an expanse of cities and roads that inhibit modern day dispersal because, when put in context with the entire range of the African lion, Zambia acts as a bridge connecting Southern and Eastern lion populations. This is all based on analysis of mitochondrial genes and the discovery of 5 sets of DNA variations (haplotypes) thus far not seen anywhere else in Africa.
Here's my official citation:
Curry CJ, White PA, Derr JN (2015) Mitochondrial Haplotype Diversity in Zambian Lions: Bridging a Gap in the Biogeography of an Iconic Species. PLoS ONE 10(12): e0143827. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0143827
I am currently working on a press release for this paper and I have already started writing my next publication, hopefully with two others soon to follow after that. My goal is that by the time I finish my PhD I will have at least 5 publications. Let the fun begin!
The lions have been almost fully "reintroduced". They have been awakened in Rwanda and initial introductions have been made in the form of quarantine bomas. They will spend 14 days in these bomas acclimating to their new Rwandan home and getting used to the sites, sounds and smells of their new home. Apparently, the local baboon troupe isn't too happy about it.
The non-profit African Parks, an organization charged on taking total responsibility for the rehabilitation and long-term management of national parks in partnership with governments, wildlife organizations and local communities, was responsible for the management of the translocation efforts. They are a management organization with a focus on the generation of sustainable income streams to pay for running costs and capital replacements. Although they seem to have an economic focus, they do have a conservation approach and mention long-term biodiversity restoration in their model. This seems like a great organization, taking on the financial burdens that often plight national parks, my only concern is that with this move of South African lions into Rwanda rather than eastern African lions into Rwanda is that the individuals making the decisions regarding long-term biodiversity restoration may not fully understand what biodiversity and biodiversity restoration means.
Lions went extinct in Rwanda 15 years ago after the 1994 genocide when the Akagera National Park went unmanaged and cattle herders poisoned many of the animal species. And this week, in a big conservation effort, seven lions, 5 females and 2 males, are being relocated from the South African province of KwaZulu Natal to repopulate Rwanda with lions. They are starting their journey from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg to Rwanda today!
7/1/2015 - While doing a bit more research combing through article after article reading the same shpeal over and over I finally found something that somewhat confirmed my suspicion but with no real concrete evidence... there is political mumbo jumbo afoot....
The Christian Science Monitor (um, the what?) says that Kenya offered to donate eight lions to Rwanda last year but Kenya's wildlife conservation groups fiercely opposed the plan saying "Rwanda had not sufficiently addressed issues that resulted to the loss of its own lion population."
There isn't much genetic research on the puma (FYI: puma, cougar, mountain lion, catamount, panther... all the same thing, just depends on where you are and who you talk to). The scientific community seems to be quite torn about taxonomic assessment and there has been much debate around subspecies distinction, particularly in the case of using cougars in Texas to repopulate the Florida panther population. Some say they are distinct enough that they shouldn't be hybridized while others say they are the same so one can successfully repopulate the other. According to the Federal Register, "the best available information continues to support the assignment of the eastern taxon to Puma concolor couguar as distinct from other North American subspecies" based primarily on biology and life history.
The proposal to remove the eastern cougar from the endangered species list does not affect the status of the endangered Florida panther subspecies, a cluster of conservation genetics issues to discuss in more detail at another time. But, although the extinct animals will no longer be protected under the Endangered Species Act, which is intended to save animals and plants that still have a recorded population, it will also no longer be able to be used to protect similar animals, such as the Florida panther. Not sure if that matters since the Florida panther is already protected (and possibly diluted with Texas cougar) but its interesting nonetheless.
A ban on the hunting of big cats in Zambia, which has been in effect since January 2013, was officially lifted a few days ago. Hunting of leopards will resume at the end of this year/beginning of next and hunting of lions will return about a year after that.
Zambia, however, is one of 5 countries to have lion populations 1000+ individuals strong and, in areas with thriving lion populations, a hunting ban could actually have potentially deleterious effects (and not just on eco-tourism). Studies have shown that the presence of hunters deters poachers, providing protection for the habitat and other animals. Revenue brought in by hunters also contributes to anti-poaching efforts as well as community assistance by providing jobs and other resources.
So, after the realization that a continued full ban in Zambia on hunting for big cats could be damaging for the population (and economy), the government decided to reinstate hunting under the pretense there will be “cautionary quotas.” Tourism and Arts Minister, Jean Kapata, said "safari hunting was profitable and good for off-take of wildlife and could benefit the whole country if well nurtured." The study I just submitted for publication will (hopefully) be used to help with decisions for setting quotas and implementing management to prevent loss of diversity while big cat hunting is permitted.
2015 is turning out to be a pretty good year! I just got back from a long day at the College of Veterinary Medicine Graduate Student and Postdoctoral Symposium where I presented a poster on my preliminary results of the diversity and distribution of lions in Zambia and was the winner (that’s 1st place) for the graduate student poster presentations!!!!
As a graduate student, there will be times when you feel like a fraud. In an interdisciplinary program and a member of the college of veterinary medicine I am often surrounded by microbiologists, biochemists and veterinarians who’s use of medical jargon and super cellular hoopla puts my macro-brain into a tailspin. Today was such a day. I read many posters and listened to even more talks which exceeded my veterinary knowledge. So, I didn't think I was in the running to win an award. But, rather than let it get the best of me, I stayed for the entire symposium, listened and tried to broaden my scope.
I was literally shocked when I won and I feel incredibly honored. What I forget is how different my field, conservation genetics, is than medical based science. To others, my poster may have been just as confusing as fibroblastomas and hepatic lipidosis is to me. I was never really sure how my work compared and I sometimes worried my work wouldn't come across as being as impressive as others. This win was the confidence booster I needed to help me along and I am now SO ready to keep this streak going! Next… Big funding.
Some interesting news on the African lion front.... On October 27, 2014, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposed listing the lion as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act – a similar listing to the current International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listing of “vulnerable”. The curious thing is that, for the most part, both sides, the activists and the hunting community, are considering this to be a win. The activists get some regulation but the hunters don’t get so much that they're banned. It will be interesting to see how it will all play out in the long run.
Prior to this decision the lion wasn’t listed under the USFWS Endangered Species Act at all; meaning, there were no US government mandated regulations for the species. Interestingly enough, however, USFWS recognizes African lion sub-species, a designation debated by many scientists and policy makers (especially since the discovery that the distinguishable fluffy mane of the Cape lion, thought to be an extinct sub-species, is simply a morphological result of colder weather, i.e. any lion can become a fluffy Cape lion if it’s chilly). Over the years, scientists have given 23 different scientific names to the African lion. Currently the IUCN Red List recognizes only the African and Asiatic sub-species while the Catalog of Life recognizes eleven sub-species (listed below) and USFWS recognizes four. According to the USFWS website, the new “threatened” designation only applies to Panthera leo ssp. leo. Panthera leo persica, the Asiatic lion, has been “endangered” since 1970 but Panthera leo ssp. melanochaita and Panthera leo ssp senegalensis remain “not listed”. Panthera leo ssp. leo is considered to be all lions on the African continent by IUCN but is considered to be the extinct North African Barbary lion in other circles. In the case of USFWS, it could be that Panthera leo ssp. leo is simply a new distinction which will encompass all African lions, as it does for IUCN, and they just haven’t removed Panthera leo ssp. melanochaita and Panthera leo ssp senegalensis from their list yet. Either way, some kind of agreement across organizations needs to happen if we think any kind of international/interorganization regulation is going to happen.
Su Lin, third cub to Bai Yun and second of the Bai & Gao Gao super team, has given birth to twins! This boy and girl pair are her second and third contributions to the panda gene pool.
Su Lin was one of the pandas I was trained on. From 2007 to 2010 I watched her grow from a newly weaned cub to a full grown, independent panda before being sent to China. All captive pandas are owned by China, on loan as part of a research agreement. Part of the agreement requires all pandas born to loaned research pandas to be returned to China when they turn 3. Su Lin's 3rd birthday, however, was only a matter of months after the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 which leveled much of the Wolong National Nature Reserve and the Panda Research Center where she was supposed to be sent. So, Su Lin stayed with us at the San Diego Zoo until she was 5 and traveled to China along side her sister Zhen Zhen shortly after her 3rd birthday.
Turns out twins might run in the family. This was actually Su Lin's second set of twins. Her first had one healthy cub and a still born. Her older half-sister, Hua Mei, has given birth to three sets of twins and Bai Yun, although none came to term, has been suspected to have been developing twins when vets did ultrasounds during pregnancy. In the wild, having twins isn't advantageous. The amount of energy it takes to raise two cubs far exceeds what mom is capable of providing so the panda mother is forced to pick the stronger cub to raise. Lucky for these ladies, they are part of breeding facilities equipped with all the "energy" needed to provide for both cubs.
It is so wonderful to see all the success of the San Diego Zoo's Panda Research Facility's breeding program. Not only have six cubs been born in the program but they have given birth to 14 cubs of their own! So many sets of twins really help them up their numbers.
I am a biologist and my life is crap!