Notes from the Field: Detroit Zoo Continues to Save Once-Extinct Snail Species

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is continuing to bolster the wild population of a species of Tahitian land snail called Partula nodosa, which we are credited with saving from extinction. At one point, all the P. nodosa in the world lived at the Detroit Zoo as part of a breeding program that began in 1989 after the species had been declared extinct in the wild. Last summer, 100 of these snails were carefully packaged before embarking on a journey to the tropical island of Tahiti. Last month, an additional 60 snails began their voyage, departing the Detroit Zoo on a path first to the Netherlands before their eventual release into the wilds of the South Pacific.

P. nodosa were once found across Tahiti and other south Pacific islands among more than 125 different species of land snails. These beautifully striped snails were important in the ceremonial jewelry and decorations of native islanders, and the snails served as an ideal study group to learn more about the evolution of diversity.

Much of the Partulid snail diversity was lost because of a botched attempt at what is known as “biological control”, or the control of a pest by the introduction of a natural enemy or predator. In 1967, giant African land snails were introduced to Tahiti and other south Pacific islands to serve as a source of protein for local people. However, some African snails escaped, bred very rapidly, and began eating farmers’ crops, threatening the local economy. To control the African snails, Florida rosy wolf snails were introduced a decade later, but the wolf snails preferred to eat the Partulid snails, which caused the extinction of many of the Partulid species.

For nearly three decades, the DZS has been breeding these snails in a behind-the-scenes area as part of a collaborative effort with other zoos. The project began in 1989 with 115 Tahitian land snails of five different species – while the DZS focused its efforts on P. nodosa, other zoos began working on the others. Our program led to the rescue and recovery of the species – currently there are 4,000 individuals living in North American zoos, all descendants from the Detroit Zoo’s original small group.

Paul Buzzard, Ph.D., is the Director of Conservation for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Detroit Zoo Honored with International Conservation Award

The Detroit Zoo was recently honored along with eight other zoos with the 2016 International Conservation Award from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) for our work with the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center. Located in the Democratic Republic of Congo, GRACE is dedicated to rescuing orphaned Grauer’s gorillas, which are among the most critically endangered primates in the world. As the conservation and preservation of wildlife is paramount to the mission of the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS), we couldn’t be more proud of this partnership or of this achievement.

Sadly, the Grauer’s gorilla is endangered due to widespread habitat destruction, poaching and threats associated with the ever-growing human population, caused in part by regional conflicts and government unrest. However, GRACE bravely fights against this, taking in the gorillas that have been separated from their birth families and/or confiscated from illegal trading. The rescued animals are provided nutrition and medical care as they explore the facility’s 370 acres – the largest gorilla enclosure in the world – situated within a 1,235-acre forested area of Central Africa. The hope – and the goal – is that these majestic animals will also learn the skills necessary for an eventual return to the wild.

 

Founded in 2009, GRACE is overseen by a dedicated board of directors, which includes Ron Kagan, DZS CEO and executive director, who has also served as board chair. In addition to Ron’s valuable leadership, the DZS’s involvement with GRACE has also included financial and staff support. In 2015, Ron helped secure funds for a new night house enclosure for the gorillas. Also that year, DZS Director of Animal Health Dr. Ann Duncan traveled to the Congo to perform health examinations on 12 gorillas, which had never been done before.

This amazing conservation, welfare and humane education initiative is a wonderful collaboration of important organizations working together with a very special Congolese community to ensure that this population of extremely endangered gorillas survives.

The AZA’s International Conservation Award annually recognizes accredited AZA institutions and conservation partners that make efforts to restore habitats, preserve species and support biodiversity.  Our zoo partners who join us in receiving this award include the Los Angeles Zoo, Utah’s Hogle Zoo, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Nashville Zoo, Houston Zoo, Dallas Zoo, Sedgwick County Zoo and Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

We are looking forward to continuing our partnership with GRACE and dedicating our efforts to ensure the safety of the beloved Grauer’s gorilla for generations to come. This partnership is arguably the most exciting, unique and promising conservation, welfare and humane education initiative the Detroit Zoological Society has ever been involved with.