by Diane Toroian Keaggy, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
May 5, 2004

The St. Louis Zoo has spent 10 years and $70 million restoring its home in Forest Park. Now, it wants to help restore the planet. Today, the Zoo will announce a major conservation initiative that will put Zoo scientists and resources in 12 troubled habitats across the globe. Leaders say the St. Louis Zoo WildCare Institute will establish reserves, study endangered species and teach indigenous people how to best manage their land and wildlife.

Zoo President Jeffrey Bonner calls the project "one of the most momentous steps the St. Louis Zoo has ever taken," and conservationists praise the effort as a comprehensive approach to ecology.

"The Zoo is in fabulous condition," said Bonner, who joined the Zoo in 2002. "We've spent an awful lot of money on infrastructure and exhibits. We're now in a position to really make a contribution nationally and internationally. We have the talent and the expertise."

The Zoo already participates in dozens of conservation initiatives, but Bonner says its efforts "have been a mile wide and an inch deep." Zoo scientists hope a more focused approach will lead to lasting change.

"We went to our people and said pick something you're really passionate about, someplace where you think you can make a difference," said Dr. Eric Miller, who has been named director of the WildCare Institute.

Miller, a veterinarian, has served as director of animal health and conservation for the past decade. "Conservation has always been very important at the Zoo, but we expect to make a real impact here."

The Institute's work, which has started already in some locales, will span the globe. Conservation centers will be established in a dozen habitats: the Galapagos Islands, the Ozarks, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru, Madagascar, Armenia, the Horn of Africa, southern and western Africa and Papua New Guinea.

Some 40 universities, conservation groups and zoos will partner with the institute at the centers.The institute will primarily focus on species that live at the Zoo, such as Grevy's zebras, antelope, Humboldt penguins, echidnas and cheetahs.

On the coast of Peru, for example, uncontrolled commercial fishing and farming have damaged the breeding ground of the Humboldt penguin. On the Galapagos Islands, introduced diseases threaten numerous bird species. And on the Horn of Africa, overgrazing has pushed Grevy's zebras off their land. Closer to home, in the Ozarks, river pollution could be killing off giant salamanders known as hellbenders.

The strategies to protect these species are as diverse as the habitats they call home. Typically, conservation biologists will survey wild populations and assess threats such as disease, habitat loss and pollution. But scientists are not the only ones who will assist in conservation.

In western Africa, lobbyists will fight for the ban of uncontrolled hunting. In Peru, guards will protect the fragile coast.And at every center, local people will work with scientists and educators to protect their native lands. The institute will provide teacher workshops in Papau New Guinea, train park rangers in the Galapagos Islands and employ local workers to survey animal populations in Nicaragua and Africa.

"It makes no sense to work with Grevy's zebras if you are not working in the classroom with those little kids, ensuring when they grow up and become decision makers that value Grevy's and will continue to protect them," said Bonner. "In the end, the biological problems are the easy ones. It's the human dimension that creates the most intractable issues."

Miller said local people valued their native species just as Americans valued the buffalo and eagle. Still, it's difficult to ask societies to consider the long-term good of the ecosystem when their children need to eat today. In those cases, the institute will appeal to the population's pocketbook. For instance, in Kenya, the institute will install permanent water for the community. In return, ranchers won't graze on the zebras' land.

"At this stage of our development, it's easy to say, 'What are those people doing?' Well, at this point of our development in the U.S., we've hunted the passengerpigeon to extinction and we nearly did it to the buffalo. So we're trying to help them not follow in our footsteps," said Miller. "Most of them don't set out and say, 'We want to trash our wildlife.'"

If indigenous communities struggle to find the relevance of the Armenia n mountain viper or lemurs in Madagascar, why on earth should St. Louisans care about such species? Because we have as much to lose as they do, said Bonner. As an example, he cites overgrazing in Africa, which has led to harsher weather patterns here.

"The Sahara is getting bigger and bigger because there is less and less vegetation to hold it back. If the desert doubles in size, everything in our climate will change, and, in fact, everything is changing because of changes in Africa," said Bonner. "You cannot be divorced in St. Louis from what's happening in Africa. Everything is connected to everything else."

That message will be brought home to the St. Louis Zoo through new exhibits, zookeeper chats, publications and even a new marketing campaign.

"For years we've had the tagline, 'Can you come out and play?' and it's a fantastic tagline because it helps people understand that this is a delightful place to come and visit," said Bonner. "And we want to always be that. But you're also going to hear the message 'animals always.' Your concept of a zoo has to change."

Conservationists applaud the Zoo's initiative. Though the Bronx Zoo is the undisputed leader in research and conservation efforts, zoo professionals and ecologists say the WildCare Institute boosts the reputation of the Zoo, already an authority in animal contraception and nutrition."Their approach is absolutely correct," said Nat Frazer, chairman of the Department of Wildlife Ecology at the University of Florida and adviser to the institute. "They were one of the first zoos to become concerned not only about animals in captivity but in the wild. When they contacted me, I did not hesitate. They are an excellent collaborator and one of those places that really brings people together."

The institute will be funded by a $19 million gift from the St. Louis Zoo Friends Association, as well as revenue from the Zoo's Conservation Carousel, grants, gifts and interest from a new endowment fund. No tax revenue generated from the Zoo-Museum District will be used.

Still, Bonner hopes the community will support the endeavor, perhaps financially but mostly through continued visits.

"When you go talk to Conservation International or the World Wildlife Fund, they envy us to the nth degree, because no one ever visits the WWF. It's a building in D.C.," said Bonner. "But we have 3 million people clamoring to visit us. It's the educational component that really makes zoos very unique and powerful forces for conservation and research. We can take the message to the public so they understand why caring for living things on this planet is such a critical endeavor."

Republished with the permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Copyright 2004 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Courtesy of STLtoday.com