This Issue: Beyond the Ark
Zoos and natural history museums showcase specimens of strange and rare creatures from around the world. Once associated with carnival sideshows, both venues have become cultural institutions. Yet some of us harbor doubts about their nature and intent. Alan Rabinowitz, director of science and exploration at the Bronx Zoobased Wildlife Conservation Society, expressed doubts in his book Beyond the Last Village: "I still felt that museums and zoos were mankind’s trophy rooms, appealing to our basic desire to dominate and be entertained by a semblance of nature that can’t threaten us."
At the same time, Rabinowitz works wholeheartedly to fulfill the society’s mission "to save wildlife in their natural habitats and to find ways in which people and wildlife could live together throughout the world." Beyond the Last Village tells his story of leading expeditions into the icy mountains of Myanmar (formerly Burma); discovering a species new to science (the tiny and primitive leaf deer); and helping to create sanctuaries for the region’s imperiled wildlife.
In this issue Greg Breining tells the story of similar conservation work through the Minnesota Zoo. The work starts at home with captive breeding populations of endangered animals and reaches beyond this "ark" to far-flung places. Traveling to China and Indonesia, zoo conservation director Ron Tilson brings to bear his knowledge and experience in an effort to protect animals where they live.
A commitment to conservation has also led a few DNR staff to apply their expertise abroad. For example, landscape architect and DNR parks planner Dennis Thompson traveled to Sri Lanka for a month to work with villagers and officials at Yala (Rahuna) National Park. His charge: to help create a plan for protecting wildlife and habitat while allowing local trackers to bring foreign visitors to see elephants, leopards, crocodiles, and other wildlife. Among his recommendations: to set up viewing blinds and to make roads one way so animals could anticipate the arrival of tourists.
In Minnesota, conservation has led to a wealth of bears and, therefore, a wealth of information, which DNR wildlife biologist Dave Garshelis uses to advise graduate students who work with threatened bear species in Bolivia, Taiwan, Thailand, and Indonesia.
Gabriella Fredriksson, from the Netherlands, was studying orphaned orangutans on the island of Borneo. When she found herself in charge of confiscated sun bear cubs, she contacted Garshelis for ideas on how to release, track, and study them. Eventually, she raised and released three radio-collared sun bears.
El Niño of 1997 brought severe drought to Borneo. The drop of a match could ignite and burn huge areas. Determined to save a patch of forest for orangutans and bears, Fredriksson used her credit card for cash to pay 60 local people to haul water and cut fire lines around the habitat. The forest patch survived, while everything around it burned. All fruits vanished for two years during the drought. Astonishingly, the fruit-eating sun bears adapted, coming down from the trees and digging up colonies of termites and ants for food.
Fredriksson began bringing city officials to the forest and sharing her discoveries. They not only were amazed at how she’d saved the forest from fire, Garshelis said, but they also marveled at how she could walk with her three radio-collared sun bears, least-known of the world’s eight bear species. "There’s nothing like actually seeing it with your own eyes," Garshelis said. Excitement grew as she showed videos of the bears to people in the small city nearby. Eventually, the government officially protected the area.
Fredriksson succeeded on a small scale, at a local level. The scope of conservation needs to reach beyond an island or an ark. Yet the everyday work requires local hands. Lasting conservation depends on them.
Kathleen Weflen, editor