Notes from the Field: Treating Endangered African Vultures

This is the second in a series detailing the Detroit Zoological Society’s recent vulture conservation fieldwork in South Africa. For Part I, click here.

The Detroit Zoological Society’s latest field conservation project was with VulPro, an organization in South Africa that works to rehabilitate sick and injured vultures in order to return them to vulnerable wild populations. With seven of the 11 African vulture species currently endangered or critically endangered, the DZS is working with VulPro to reverse the crisis literally one vulture at a time.

Through community outreach efforts, sick vultures come to VulPro from as far as eight hours away. They arrive in all sorts of conditions, sometimes with broken bones or open wounds, signs of poisoning or evidence of electrocution, and they’re often dehydrated and starving.

I traveled to South Africa this winter to assist VulPro in their efforts. During my time there, a farmer discovered a Cape vulture on his land that was weak and unable to fly, and a VulPro volunteer drove several hours to collect the bird and bring him back to us. He was an older adult male who we affectionately called “Old Guy”, and when he arrived, he was too weak to stand or even lift his head. We immediately got to work. A brief assessment revealed that he was severely dehydrated. We secured an identification band, placed an intravenous catheter in a vein in his leg, and examined, cleaned and bandaged a wound on his left wing. The wound – as well as bruising along his elbow – were presumably caused by barbed wire and likely left him temporarily unable to fly.

We then moved Old Guy into an ICU unit – a small space that prevented him from pulling on his fluid line but also allows us to see him at all times – which also happened to be the shower in the VulPro director’s house. VulPro is a small but mighty non-profit, and the team makes creative use of every resource available, even if that means sharing the bathroom with a critical vulture patient. After 15 minutes, Old Guy was still quite lifeless, with a heart rate two times slower than a healthy vulture. We continued to keep a close watch, and after 45 minutes on fluids, he was able to stand on his own. Over the next several hours, Old Guy slowly came back to life. He was given a companion vulture overnight and both were moved to the outdoor hospital enclosures in the morning. Over the next few days, Old Guy improved dramatically and began eating on his own. He even got a bit feisty with us, which is a true sign of a healthy vulture.

Over the past two months, Old Guy has continued to improve, and he will be released later this month at VulPro’s release site in the Magaliesberg mountains.

VulPro also conducts many crucial research and population-level conservation initiatives, but saving individuals like Old Guy – one vulture at a time – is at the core of the mission of both the Detroit Zoological Society and VulPro. This truly exemplifies compassionate conservation.

– Dr. Sarah Woodhouse is a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society and operates out of the Detroit Zoo’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

Animal Welfare: How do You Know if They’re ‘Happy’?

Think about the term, “animal welfare”, and what it means to you. When you encounter an animal – in any setting, be it a zoo, a friend’s house or even your own living room – are there certain cues that help you decide if you feel the animal is having a good or a bad time – or experiencing positive or negative welfare? It may be the animal’s appearance, behaviors, what the space looks like where they live, or perhaps it’s based on your knowledge about that species.

In some cases, it’s relatively easy to determine that an animal is in a poor welfare state. If they’re living in dirty and cramped conditions, don’t have access to social partners – or perhaps too many – or if they have obvious signs of injuries or illness without any indication they’re under veterinary care, it’s likely the animal is not experiencing good welfare. But when you look at other, less obvious factors, such as if the animal is quietly resting in a spacious habitat, or if the animal is moving back and forth in one area of their space, the answers are less clear.

The concept of animal welfare refers to an animal’s physical, mental and emotional states over a period of time. It is based on the individual’s experience, which can be different from one species to another, and from one animal to another. It is not about what is provided to an animal, such as food and water – this doesn’t automatically ensure good welfare. Although having access to these resources is critical to creating conditions that may lead to good welfare, it is actually how the animal perceives those conditions that determines their welfare. We can’t simply measure welfare in terms of square footage, gallons of water or the nutritional content of food items. We must use indicators from the animals themselves, such as behavior, physical condition and even emotional responses.

These indicators represent the three different concepts of welfare. The first has to do with an animal’s ability to engage in natural behaviors, or live in a way it has evolved to. The second involves biological functioning and prioritizes an animal’s physical health. The last focuses on the animal’s feelings and emotional states, with an emphasis on minimizing negative emotions and promoting positive ones. Should we favor one concept over another, it is possible we would miss something important to an individual animal.

If two people were to assess an animal using two different concepts, they could come to conflicting conclusions about that animal’s welfare state. This is why we incorporate aspects of all three of these concepts when evaluating animal welfare. This allows us to gain a much more holistic picture of the animal’s experience and to consider all of the factors that impact their well-being.

– Dr. Stephanie Allard is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics.

Notes from the Field: Saving Endangered African Vultures

Most people probably don’t consider vultures to be lovable creatures. But I do, which is why I spent a month this winter working with VulPro, an African vulture conservation organization that rescues and rehabilitates sick and injured vultures. I first fell in love with the African vultures who live here at the Detroit Zoo – there are four different species with as many different personalities as there are individual vultures. By caring for these animals, not only did I gain affection and respect for African vultures, but I also gained special skills in the veterinary care of these amazing birds, and I was thrilled when the Detroit Zoological Society gave me the opportunity to use those skills to help directly with the conservation of wild vultures in Africa.

You may wonder why African vultures need saving. Groups of turkey vultures soaring overhead are a common sight here in Michigan. Fortunately, North American vulture species are doing well, but all across the continent of Africa, populations of wild vultures are declining rapidly. There are 11 species of vultures in Africa, and according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List, seven of those species are currently endangered or critically endangered.

Vultures play a significant role in the ecosystem health; they are essentially nature’s clean-up crew. By scavenging and cleaning up carcasses, they can prevent the spread of deadly diseases, such as anthrax and botulism, and they have an amazing ability to clean up these diseases without becoming infected themselves. Without vultures around to provide their sanitation services, infected carcasses disappear more slowly and attract more mammalian scavengers, resulting in a huge increase in the potential for disease transmission. Thus, it is hugely problematic that African vulture populations are plummeting and so quickly.

There are numerous threats to wild populations of vultures. In South Africa, power line collisions are one of the biggest threats to vultures. In other places, vultures are subject to poisoning; for instance, poachers will often poison carcasses to prevent circling vultures from alerting rangers to the poached animal’s remains. Sometimes vultures are unintentionally poisoned when a farmer is trying to target a predator, such as a lion, that has been preying on cattle. Vultures can also face long-term health problems from eating carcasses that have bullet fragments in them, causing lead poisoning.

African vulture populations are in serious need of help, and the Detroit Zoological Society is working with VulPro, an African vulture conservation organization based near Pretoria, South Africa, to rehabilitate the sick and injured wild vultures they receive and release them back into the wild. When staff are unable to restore a vulture’s ability to survive in the wild, the bird becomes a resident at VulPro and has the opportunity to nest and breed. The offspring are then released into the wild.

In January, I traveled to South Africa to perform routine health checks for the more than 200 vultures that live at VulPro’s facility. This involved checking their body condition, listening to their heart and lungs, checking wing and leg joints, and looking into their eyes. We also set up a small laboratory for VulPro, where we collected blood to look at red and white blood cell counts, measure blood protein levels, and test for the presence of lead. I also checked fecal samples to look for parasites. Our results showed the overall health of the residents at VulPro is excellent!

This partnership with VulPro is the latest in the Detroit Zoological Society’s comprehensive wildlife conservation programs. We are committed to saving birds around the world.

– Dr. Sarah Woodhouse is a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Detroit Zoological Society Leads Task Force to Evaluate Risks Facing Honduran Amphibians

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently asked the Detroit Zoological Society to host an Amphibian Red List workshop in Honduras. The IUCN Red List is the world’s most comprehensive information source for understanding extinction risk for animals. To develop this list, a rigorous assessment process is conducted using all known data on each species. Based on what threats the animals are facing, e.g., habitat decline, population decline and habitat fragmentation, the animals are placed into one of eight categories:

  • Extinct – None left
  • Extinct in the Wild – None are left in the wild, but captive groups exist
  • Critically Endangered – These species are often labeled “probably extinct” and are in imminent danger of extinction
  • Endangered – These species are at high risk of extinction
  • Vulnerable – These species are at moderate risk of extinction
  • Near Threatened – These species are not currently at risk of extinction but are anticipated to be at risk in the near future
  • Least Concern – These species are not currently at risk of extinction
  • Data Deficient – Not enough information

It’s important to note that animals in the Least Concern category are still of concern and should not be ignored, but the threats facing animals in the other categories are currently causing more pressures. The Red List rating scale is often referred to as a “barometer of life”, with each category indicating the amount of pressure on a species pushing it closer toward extinction.

Hosting a Red Listing workshop for the amphibians in Honduras was an exciting and extremely intense process. Of all the countries in Central America, Honduras has the highest number of amphibians that are endemic – or found only in that country, which makes it a very important area for biodiversity. Unfortunately, Honduras doesn’t receive a lot of conservation attention and many of these amphibians are facing the threat of extinction. The Detroit Zoological Society was eager to help this underappreciated hot spot for biodiversity move forward toward understanding the conservation needs of its unique amphibians.

This IUCN assessment of amphibians was the first assessment of all amphibian species in Honduras for more than 15 years, and since the last assessment, 22 new amphibian species were discovered in the country. To assess the animals, the local Honduran amphibian experts were brought together at Universidad Zamarano outside Tegucigulpa for the workshop. With the help of myself, the IUCN facilitators, and two other amphibian experts from the U.S., we all sat down to share data on the 151 species of amphibians in Honduras and determine their IUCN categories. Holding this assessment in country was critical for the participation of these local experts who had intimate knowledge of the species, and who were able to discuss future steps in protecting species of critical need.

We learned a lot through this workshop. Although there were more species assessed in 2019 than in 2002, the overall number of species that are Extinct, Critically Endangered and Endangered all increased. This is especially concerning in this unique area of biodiversity. Because the Red List allows us to assess the specific threats facing the animals, we were able to discuss potential conservation actions needed. At the end of the workshop, a meeting was held with officials from Instituto de Conservaticion Forestal, the governmental institution similar to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in order to discuss the results of the assessments and what steps could be taken next. Additionally, we hosted a symposium at the Universidad Nacional Automona de Honduras in Tegucigalpa in order to raise awareness about the IUCN workshop and the state of amphibians in the country. More than 150 individuals attended the symposium, including government officials, researchers and students. It was encouraging to see the excitement within the country, especially in so many young students, for the preservation of amphibians. We will continue to evaluate what we’ve learned from this process and determine the next course of action to save these critical species.

– Dr. Ruth Marcec-Greaves is the director of the Detroit Zoo’s National Amphibian Conservation Center.