July 19, 2018
By Christy Poelker, Antelope Keeper
When most visitors to the Saint Louis Zoo meander up the hill to Red Rocks, they are in search of lions, tigers, giraffes or zebras. All these species are beautiful, large animals that are well known to adults and children. You can find them in books, movies and even as school mascots. But my favorite species in Red Rocks is the Speke’s gazelle. Among mammals, ungulates (animals with hooves) tend to be less known. So, these gazelles, the smallest species of gazelle in fact, tend to go unnoticed. They don’t mind keeping a low profile as they are unassuming and shy – as all prey species should be. But their kin in the wild need us to take notice.
I am fortunate to be a keeper at a zoo with a rich history of conserving this species, among others. I am also lucky to be the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ North American Regional Studbook Keeper and Species Survival Plan® Coordinator for Speke’s gazelles. This allows me to specialize in all things Speke’s gazelle. I track their genetics and make recommendations on pairings for mating and zoo-to-zoo transfers. It also allows me to share information about the species with other zoos around the country. One of my favorite parts of my job is getting to share my Speke’s gazelle experiences, knowledge and enthusiasm with other Speke’s gazelle keepers.
Speke’s gazelles are found in the arid and semi-arid lands of Somalia. These areas are not visited by many people, so this species has not often been photographed or studied. Speke’s gazelles are endangered in the wild. The Saint Louis Zoo has been collaborating with conservation scientists to learn more about them in order to help protect them from extinction.
Our most recent collaboration involves making identification cards to aid scientists when counting the wild population. In this project, Zoo volunteer photographer Robin Winkelman is partnering with the Zoo team to take photographs of male and female Speke’s gazelles of several different age classes, including adult, sub-adult, juvenile and calf. She is also taking photos of calves of different ages next to their mothers to help scientists estimate the ages of calves in the wild.
The Saint Louis Zoo has had over 200 calves born during our long, proud history of conserving the species, making us the perfect zoo to partner on this project. We have Speke’s gazelles of both genders that fit the needed age classes. We have even had five calves born so far in 2018! This allows us to collect a great amount of data to share. The photos that we take will be used on identification cards that scientists in northwestern Somalia will use to identify the gender and age class of gazelles that they see in the wild. Having a more accurate count of the animals in the wild helps Speke’s gazelle conservationists across the world figure out just what needs to be done to keep this important ungulate around.
Through this project, our Speke’s gazelles at the Saint Louis Zoo have a direct impact on the conservation of their relatives in Africa! Beyond this important collaboration, we will also be providing expertise on the care of rescued wild Speke’s gazelles. The Saint Louis Zoo is currently home to 19 of the nearly 60 Speke’s gazelles living in 11 North American zoos, so everything that we have learned about the species will be put to great use.
Now that you know how unique it is to be able to see this rare species at the Saint Louis Zoo, I hope you make a trek to the Antelope House to see them and marvel at their tiny stature, inflatable nose and adorable babies. On July 19, the 200th day of the year, we announced the birth of our 200th Speke’s gazelle calf and asked you to vote for his name.
Click on a picture below to enlarge the image.