Combining Conservation and Commerce

January 05, 2017

Conservation commerce in Tree Top Shop Conservation commerce in Tree Top Shop

By Tommy Brown
Saint Louis Zoo Gift Shop Manager
Winner of a 2016 Hermann Foundation Outstanding Employee Award
Vice President of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Buyers Group


Elephant figurines made from repurposed plastic Elephant figurines made from repurposed plastic

Conservation and commerce are not always mutually exclusive. In fact, at the Saint Louis Zoo, we have been involved for several years in some of the most heartening conservation success stories thanks to seeking out and purchasing products for Zoo gift shops

Purchase of a range of environmentally friendly products hand-crafted by artisans not only supports the Zoo's conservation initiatives, but it also helps eradicate poverty in developing countries.

We have learned that creating a market for products is critical to saving wild things and wild places.  Given economic incentives, those who live in areas of conservation concern will seek out opportunities to express their creativity and sustainably create products. Without the right economic incentives, everything from poaching for elephant ivory or rhino horns to depletion of arable land and available water will happen. 

Animal sculptures made out of auto parts and other recycled materials Animal sculptures made out of auto parts and other recycled materials

Conservation commerce sections of the Zoo’s Tree Top Shop in The Living World and Safari Gift Shop at the South Entrance, offer a range of interesting items for the home, personal accessories, collectibles, art, jewelry and much more. Here are some of the products we offer:

  • Metal sculptures in the shape of animals are made from wire recycled from snares once used to kill animals. 
  • Kenyan carvings are produced from sustainable, recycled materials that are harvested legally and in an ecologically friendly way. 
  • Elegant glass sun-catchers and figurines designed to capture nature’s marvels come from small studios in Ecuador. These and other glass pieces are made in part with recycled glass gathered in landfills to help protect children from broken glass as they hunt through these wastelands for aluminum and food scraps.    
  • Animal sculptures of rhinos, ostriches and giraffes are made by Indonesian and Kenyan artists using discarded plastic, pop tops and soda cans. 
  • Auto parts are the core component in hand-crafted Kenyan animal sculptures, with spark plugs and pieces of chain transformed into dragon flies, tarantulas and spiders.
  • Carved marble turtles and other animals come from enterprising artisans in Ecuador.
  • Many handwoven baskets are from The Blessing Basket Project, dedicated to helping artisans around the world become more financially independent. 
  • Accessories include elegant silk scarves, figures and purses made from discarded saris in India; other bags are hand woven in Peru using natural plant fibers and chemical-free dies.
  • Repurposed plastic bottles from China’s trash have been transformed into elephant figures for the Zoo to sell while helping keep plastics out of our oceans. 
  • Figures made from tagua nuts helps artists avoid using elephant ivory and protects the rainforest.
  • And for something truly unique, the Zoo’s shops carry corn plastics made in the USA from real corn, thus depleting our need for petroleum. 
Sculptures made with recycled soda and beer caps Sculptures made with recycled soda and beer caps

We even follow sustainable standards for more common products—like our candy, which is almost entirely free of palm oil or contains Certified Sustainable Palm Oil.  

The creation of palm oil plantations is causing the decline of animal and plant species in rainforests since massive trees and foliage are being cleared to make way for plantations. At the Saint Louis Zoo, our Palm Oil Task Force has been working to insure that as many products as possible come from manufacturers who use only sustainable palm oil.

Recycled glass sun-catchers Recycled glass sun-catchers

In addition, water conservation is encouraged with the sale of refillable water bottles, and the Zoo even sells Elephant Poo Paper made from elephant poop, which children and adults use for crafts, while helping preserve the endangered Asian Elephant.

How can you make a difference in the world of conserving wild things and wild places? By doing what we all do every day—consume! Knowing what you buy, where it comes from and how it is being made is to know a product's supply chain and when you know that, you can make informed decisions on how you spend your money.

Beautiful, Exotic, Sports Car Fast—and in Deep Trouble

December 15, 2016

By Steve Bircher, Saint Louis Zoo Curator of Mammals/Carnivores
Director of WildCare Institute Center for Conservation of Carnivores in Africa

Steve Bircher Steve Bircher

While the world's fastest land mammal may be racing toward extinction, the Saint Louis Zoo and its partners have been working diligently to slow and, ultimately, reverse this process.

For decades now, I have worked with big cats at the Saint Louis Zoo, and for the past 16 years, I have been deeply involved with cheetah conservation in the wild. 

Cheetahs occupy a curious place in the human imagination. Beautiful and exotic, sports car fast and famously docile, they are highlighted by filmmakers and advertisers the world over.  They are also the most endangered cat in Africa and Iran. In the last century, the cheetah population has declined from 100,000 to fewer than 10,000 individuals. A few centuries ago, cheetahs roamed from the Indian subcontinent to the shores of the Red Sea and throughout much of Africa. Today, the species is extinct in at least 13 countries.

The Saint Louis Zoo is home to six cheetahs: The females are  Kamaria and Sadie, both 11 years old, and Bingwa,  3.  The males are Jason, age 8, Joey, 7 and Suseli, 9. I never tire of watching these remarkable creatures.  We also enjoy educating visitors about them.  Every year in December, we celebrate International Cheetah Conservation Day to raise awareness about the plight of cheetah in the wild and to build appreciation for them.  

Cheetahs at the Saint Louis Zoo Cheetahs at the Saint Louis Zoo

We love to see our visitors admiring cheetahs’ slender, streamlined bodies, which allow them to run fast. Their flexible spine and long legs let them take big strides. They also have over-sized lungs, hearts, and breathing passages, so they're able to pump more oxygen during runs. Their long tails act like counter balances when running, and their semi-retractable claws (a feature they share with no other cat) are like spikes on a sprinter’s track shoe—offering a solid grip and quick acceleration.

Being fast helps cheetahs chase down prey, but these cats also have other traits that help them hunt. Their spotted coat provides good camouflage -- perfect for sneaking up on unsuspecting victims! And the black "teardrops" under each eye may enhance their vision by reducing glare from the sun.

For their meals, cheetahs like gazelles best, but they keep an eye out for many other mammal species. They must eat quickly, because their food is often stolen by larger, more powerful animals (like lions, leopards, and hyenas).  Those larger animals also kill a large number of juveniles.

Beyond avoiding large animals and competing for food, cheetahs face other challenges: They are a particularly wide-ranging species, requiring large swaths of land to support a viable population. This also makes them very susceptible to habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation---a primary threat to the species.  For this reason, cheetah conservation efforts must include improving land use planning and practice and working across a very large landscape.  

Outside protected areas, conflict with farmers and ranchers poses a significant threat. Though they prefer wild prey, cheetahs will occasionally kill livestock or animals on game farms, and many are killed in retaliation.

In addition, cheetahs are increasingly being illegally caught and smuggled into the Middle East to support the luxury pet trade.  Cheetahs are highly fashionable in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, where a cub can fetch upwards of $10,000.  Sadly, more than two-thirds of the cubs smuggled as luxury pets die in transport. 

Cheetah cubs Cheetah cubs

You might think that we could increase the world’s population of cheetah by breeding them in reserves and zoos.  But building populations of cheetah is tough as well. Unlike other big cats, cheetahs have very different breeding and behavioral needs—they are very selective about their mates. At the Saint Louis Zoo, what began as an interest in discovering what makes these animals so selective has now become an international cooperative effort to link captive breeding programs with research projects and protection in cheetah range countries.  

In 1974, the Zoo opened a facility for research and captive breeding and since then, has successfully raised more than 35 captive-bred offspring. The Zoo’s Cheetah Survival Center was renovated in 2001 to become part of the Zoo’s River's Edge. There we have a large naturalistic habitat with three viewing areas, an off-display building and seven off-display holding yards.   Working with these and other animals at the Zoo, we have gained valuable information about cheetah captive management techniques and its biology. In addition, we share information---the Zoo coordinates its cheetah breeding efforts with other North American zoos as part of the Species Survival Plan® (SSP). These animals may provide assurance for wild populations in the future.

Kamaria Kamaria

In the wild, the Zoo’s WildCare Institute Center for Conservation of Carnivores in Africa, which I direct, began by developing effective cheetah census techniques to determine baseline population numbers. These efforts have included visual counts of cheetah and identification by tagging the animals. We surveyed local people about whether they had spotted cheetahs and created a GIS satellite database of sightings. Other techniques have involved analyzing feces, tracks or markings or using local trackers and dogs trained to locate cheetah scat or droppings.  We have also supported projects that involve photo surveys and camera traps, which capture photographs of animals automatically as a cheetah triggers an infrared sensor. 

In recent years, we have worked with the Ruaha Carnivore Project in Tanzania, based at a camp a few miles outside the border of Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park.  The first challenge for RCP was to address livestock security by creating protective barriers. RCP brought in Anatolian shepherd dogs and designated local youth and expert trackers as “lion defenders” who monitor movement of predators, warn communities of carnivore presence, chase lions away from households and stop lion hunts.  RCP has also provided books and equipment to schools and medicine and equipment to local clinics.  In addition, herders receive veterinary care for their livestock. This work has been very successful at reducing carnivore attacks on livestock and carnivore killings by local people.

In the past few years, our Center has expanded its conservation efforts to include all 35 carnivore species in Tanzania. We are working with researchers in Kenya, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.  

In coming years, the Zoo’s staff and our partners in the Zoo’s WildCare Institute Center for Conservation of Carnivores in Africa will continue to educate the public about cheetah conservation, support sound scientific research and develop programs in Africa so that the cheetah's race will be one of survival, not extinction.

Climbing Mountains for Turtles

December 08, 2016

By Jeff Dawson, Herpetarium Keeper

Editor's Note: Turtles have been on the planet for 300 million years. But today, turtles are in real trouble. Roughly half of the world's 335 species of turtles are currently in danger of extinction. The threat to turtles is greatest in Asia, where human cultures have long hunted turtles for use as food, traditional medicines and, more recently, pets. Combined with habitat loss and pollution, over-hunting has now driven many Asian turtle species to the brink. The enormous Asian demand for turtles also affects other turtle populations, including some here in the US, Turtles from the United States and from around the world have been sent to Asia. Still, there is hope for these unique and likeable creatures. Conservationists, like Jeff Dawson, a keeper in the Saint Louis Zoo's Charles H. Hoessle Herpetarium, are working hard to save endangered turtles. Jeff's interest in helping turtles has taken him to Vietnam and Cambodia and with the support of the Saint Louis Zoo, most recently to China. Here, he reports on his latest efforts, which offer some good news for one imperiled species of turtle.

Black-breasted leaf turtle hatchling Black-breasted leaf turtle hatchling

On November 7, after 116 days of incubation, the Saint Louis Zoo's Herpetarium welcomed a new addition—a hatchling black-breasted leaf turtle. This exciting event was only the second time that this endangered species has successfully reproduced at the Zoo. Although the delicate young turtle is currently being cared for off-exhibit, visitors can see adults on display in the Herpetarium.

As a zoo keeper, my goal is to insure conditions are appropriate for animals in my care. However, the requirements of each species are a little different. To provide the best possible care, I typically try to learn as much as possible about how a species lives in the wild. Adequate knowledge of a species' biology is also important for field conservation efforts.

Turtles for sale in a Hong Kong pet market Turtles for sale in a Hong Kong pet market

Unfortunately, little is known about black-breasted leaf turtles in the wild. Many basic questions have not yet been completely answered, and time may be running out to resolve them. Native to the forested mountains of southern China, northern Vietnam and Laos, black-breasted leaf turtles are threatened with extinction. The main threat to the species' survival is over-hunting. These small, attractive, charismatic turtles are primarily caught for use as pets. In the past, these turtles were exported to pet shops in the U.S., Europe and Japan. Today, they continue to be sold at markets within China and Vietnam.

In an effort to learn more about this rare and enigmatic species, I am collaborating with colleagues from two Chinese institutions—Peking University and Hainan Normal University. This past spring, I traveled to Hainan Island, China, to participate in field work. The objective was to conduct surveys and find an appropriate study site for further research on species.

The mountains of Hainan Island The mountains of Hainan Island

About half the size of West Virginia, Hainan Island is the smallest province of the People's Republic of China. Hainan is also China's southernmost province, located just off the coast in the South China Sea. Most of Hainan has a tropical climate, but temperatures on the mountains in the center of the island remain cool and mild. Many of the peaks are over 4,000 feet high and are frequently shrouded in clouds and mist. The high humidity there results in lush plant growth and dense forests, making turtle spotting difficult. Black-breasted leaf turtles were confirmed to live on Hainan only a decade ago.

Keeper Jeff Dawson in the montane forest of Hainan Island Keeper Jeff Dawson in the montane forest of Hainan Island

To reach the island from the U.S., I traveled to Hong Kong and then flew to Haikou, the capital city of Hainan. There, I visited Hainan Normal University, where I visited research facilities and shared my knowledge of turtle care and reproduction with instructor Lin Liu and his students. Afterward, I traveled with Daniel Gaillard, from Peking University, to the town of Yinggen in the center of Hainan.

Yinggen served as our base for a few weeks while we surveyed the surrounding rural villages and mountains for turtles. We talked with local people and examined turtles in the villages to obtain data on current and past levels of turtle hunting and trade in the area. Our work with the villagers led to their guiding us into the mountains and showing us where and how they look for turtles.

From the local people we learned that black-breasted leaf turtles are usually found on mountain ridges above 2,500 feet. Getting to these locations required strenuous hikes of four to seven hours up steep slopes. Once we reached areas suitable for the turtles, we collected data on the habitat. We also searched for turtles in the leaf litter and among the trees, bamboo and large rock boulders. Our efforts were rewarded with the discovery of a single wild black-breasted leaf turtle.

Female black-breasted leaf turtle found in the wild Female black-breasted leaf turtle found in the wild

Was it worth all that work for just one turtle? Absolutely! With so little known about the species in the wild, every bit of information helps. Our find marked the first documented wild locality of the species on Hainan. Previously, scientists had only observed black-breasted leaf turtles in the villages. Also, our initial data collection has begun to enable us to answer questions about the biology of the species.

In the spring of 2017, I will be returning to China. My colleagues have identified another site as being suitable for a long-term research project and have received funding to continue our research. We will be further investigating the geographic distribution, habitat, movements, diet and genetics of the species. Our hope is that this pioneering work will result in knowledge that ultimately benefits all black-breasted leaf turtles, both in zoos and in the wild.