Celebrating zookeepers' conservation successes

by ZSL on

Being a zookeeper isn’t a job, for most it’s a calling and for ZSL’s devoted zookeepers at ZSL London and Whipsnade Zoos this couldn’t be truer.  

You may think that a zookeeper’s role at ZSL London and Whipsnade Zoos is all about the day-to-day care of the Zoos’ residents. But mucking out and feeding our residents isn’t all our experts do: from preparing an animal’s breakfast to supporting its global conservation, zookeepers not only look after the animals you see on your visit, but also help to ensure their future.

To celebrate International Zookeeper Day, here’s a selection of the incredible work our zookeepers are involved in, to show just how diverse their role can be…

Mountain chicken frogs

Mountain Chicken frog

Native to the Caribbean islands of Montserrat and Dominica, the Critically Endangered mountain chicken frog is a species that has seen a population decline of 90% in the last ten years, primarily due to a devastating fungal disease called chytridiomycosis.

There are only believed to be around 100 wild frogs left on Dominica, and just two on Montserrat. ZSL works with the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, Chester Zoo and Norden’s Ark as well as the governments of Montserrat and Dominica to create both in-situ and ex-situ conservation breeding programmes, with the hopes of re-introducing this species back into the wild.

So where do the zookeepers come in? Well, not only have keepers from ZSL London Zoo’s reptile and amphibian team travelled out to the Caribbean to help study the animals and assist with maintaining frogs in a special facility, but they have also played an instrumental role in the successful breeding programme for this species back home in London, helping to ensure its future and publishing award-winning research at the same time. So far, the collaborative project has seen four research releases of the species back to the island of Montserrat with the fourth release made up entirely of frogs bred at ZSL London Zoo.  

Our work with the mountain chicken frog isn’t restricted to the population at ZSL London Zoo, with ZSL staff recently involved in a trip which saw the last two wild mountain chicken frogs to have survived the chytridiomycosis outbreak on Montserrat paired together in the hope that they will mate and have offspring of their own. They’ve also hosted colleagues from the Caribbean here in London, sharing their knowledge on amphibian care, as well as running an annual Mountain Chicken Frog Day to raise awareness of this amazing amphibian.

Partula snails

Partula snails getting ready to be released from ZSL London Zoo

Critically Endangered in the wild, Partula snails have been under threat in their native home of French Polynesia since the 1970s, when almost all species of the snail were wiped out  by predator snails introduced to their habitat as a form of biological control. ZSL and various partners have been working for the last 35 years on a project aiming to re-establish the Partula snail in the wild and are on the verge of carrying out a second release of 10 species back onto various islands in the South Pacific, where they are currently extinct.

Zookeepers at ZSL London Whipsnade Zoos have been vital to the conservation programme for the species, maintaining and breeding populations at both Zoos. From carrying out fieldwork in their native regions to overseeing the species’ studbook, ZSL zookeepers have dealt with all elements of the snail’s survival, including the vital maintenance of their enclosure at ZSL London Zoo, which takes five hours to clean. There’s also a huge amount of preparation that goes into their release, with every snail having to be screened for diseases before specially designed enclosures are used to transport them to French Polynesia, where they will eventually be released into the islands’ forests.

There are currently only 15 species of the snail left in the world, with around 85 already having gone extinct. Without the incredible work of zookeepers at ZSL and their partner organisations around the globe, their future could have had a very different outcome.

Corncrakes

Once inhabiting every county in the UK in their thousands, corncrakes are now sadly extinct from the UK mainland due to the mechanisation of farming and habitat loss. In efforts to reintroduce this once prominent British bird to its wild habitat, keepers at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo have been working with other organisations such as the RSPB to establish a breeding programme for the species.

More than a decade a later and after years of painstaking research, a wild population of corncrakes now inhabit an RSPB reserve in Cambridgeshire. The project is the only zookeeper-based bird conservation project in the UK and has revealed a wealth of important new facts about the species.

Instrumental in the successful breeding of this species was the entire bird team at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, with around 100 chicks being hand-reared every year before being released to the RSPB reserve. While there is still plenty of work ahead for all those involved, the released birds have already taken a number of integral steps towards their survival, such as completing a migration to the Congo in Africa before returning to the UK to breed. 

Special measures ensuring the best possible chance of survival for the corncrakes once they’re in the reserve means keepers at the Zoo have to hand-rear each chick for 14 days before they’re moved to Cambridgeshire. The level of care required sees keepers at the Zoo feeding the chicks hourly from 7.30am until 10pm at night between the months of April and August. 

Zookeepers have to feed the birds using a hand-made puppet so that they don’t imprint on them, and also have to keep the birds from seeing the night sky – they use the stars for navigation and we don’t want them returning to Whipsnade once released, so we don’t let them see it until they’re released. 

But it’s not just all about the breeding programme for the keepers who care for the corncrakes; they’ve also been able to make important new observations about the species. For example, it was thought that the females made the nest for their young, when in fact, it’s the males that build their home.

 

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