Creatures in Crisis
The Milwaukee County Zoo houses many exquisite and rare birds. But the Guam kingfisher is the rarest animal in the entire Zoo. The bird, also known as the Micronesian kingfisher, was driven to extinction in the wild after the introduction of brown tree snakes to the island of Guam. These snakes wiped out nearly all of Guam’s native birds. In the 1980s, some of the few remaining kingfishers were brought to zoos in the U.S. The last wild kingfisher was seen in 1988.
But there is still hope for the Guam kingfisher. Thanks to breeding programs through the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), the captive population of the bird has increased fivefold to 146 as of 2016, according to the National Aviary. The AZA hopes to reintroduce some of these birds into the wild at some point, but first conservationists will have to find a way to protect the birds from predation by the brown tree snakes.
While the Guam kingfisher is the only animal at the Zoo that is classified as extinct, several are almost there. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) considers an animal critically endangered when it faces “an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.” An animal could end up on the list for several reasons, including a population reduction of more than 80% in the past 10 years or three generations, a severely limited geographic range, or a population of fewer than 50-250, depending on circumstances.
As more and more animals become in danger of extinction, their counterparts in zoos and aquariums become even more important. These animals preserve the precious genetic details of a species and could eventually help conservationists establish new wild populations. They also remind visitors about the importance of conservation and inspire them to save animals in the wild.
Here are some of the critically endangered animals that are on exhibit at the Milwaukee County Zoo. Conservation information comes from the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species unless otherwise noted.
By Stacy Vogel Davis
Remaining in the Wild: About 4,880 as of 2010. That’s double the total from 1995, when the population bottomed out at 2,410. Range: Three subspecies of black rhino roam eastern and southern Africa. Threats: Illegal killing for their horns. Rhino horn is used in traditional Chinese medicine, even though it is made of keratin, the same material as people’s hair and fingernails. The horns also are highly prized for ornamental use in Asia and the Middle East. Zoo Presence: The Zoo has two female black rhinos, Mimi and Jozi. Zoo staff raises money for the International Rhino Foundation through an annual “Cinco de Rhino” luncheon, a “Bowling for Rhinos” fundraiser and matching Zoo funds.
Chinese alligator (also known as Yangtze River alligator)
Remaining in the Wild: Fewer than 150, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society Range: The lower reaches of the Yangtze River in eastern China Threats: Loss of habitat to a growing human population. Much of the alligators’ habitat was converted to rice paddies, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society. Zoo Presence: Two Chinese alligators, male and female siblings, live in the Aquatic & Reptile Center.
Eastern bongo (also known as mountain bongo)
Remaining in the Wild: About 100. The bongo is not endangered at the species level, but this subspecies is nearly extinct. Range: Montane forests in the Kenya highlands Threats: Habitat loss, hunting and disease transmission from grazing cattle Zoo Presence: Two female eastern bongos are on exhibit in warm weather next to the African savanna exhibit. The Zoo contributed a bongo to a repatriation program in Kenya in 2004.
Remaining in the Wild: 50-115. The population fell to just six birds in 2001 but has since risen with reintroduction efforts. Range: Island of Bali, Indonesia Threats: Illegal poaching for the pet trade Zoo Presence: The Zoo has a male and female Bali mynah in the aviary. The female just arrived in fall 2017, and the Zoo is hoping the birds will breed.
Remaining in the Wild: About 6,000 Range: Colombia Threats: Habitat loss as their forest home is cleared for agriculture and pasture. The monkeys were previously threatened because of export for the pet trade, zoos and biomedical research, but export was banned in 1974. Zoo Presence: The Zoo currently has five cotton-top tamarins, four females and one male, in the Primates of the World and Small Mammals buildings.
Grand Cayman blue iguana
It might seem like endangered animals are a lost cause, but that’s not true! Some animals have been brought back from the brink of extinction, such as the Grand Cayman blue iguana. The iguana, once down to fewer than 20 individuals in the wild, was recently upgraded from critically endangered to endangered. The Milwaukee County Zoo and Zoological Society of Milwaukee have played a part in that success. Each year, zookeeper Stacy Whitaker and veterinary technician Joan Maurer travel to Grand Cayman Island with support from the Zoological Society to help with the Blue Iguana Recovery Program. Maurer assists Wildlife Conservation Society veterinary staff in examining young iguanas that have been hand-raised before they’re released into the wild. She also helps with routine exams of wild and captive adult iguanas. Whitaker helps monitor how the population is doing through surveys and tracking. The program has released about 1,000 young iguanas into the wild. Although the animals still face threats from free-roaming dogs, cats and rats along with habitat destruction, conservationists are hopeful that they can now make a complete recovery.