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November/December 2009 cover
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Back From the Brink

After decades of poaching, civil strife, and habitat degradation, small populations of the red-necked ostrich subsist in only a few isolated places. Smithsonian’s National Zoo scientists are engaged in an all-out effort to save them.

By Harvey Leifert

Visitors to the National Zoo search in vain for ostriches. For more than a decade now, the world’s largest birds have been absent from the Zoo. Their former enclosure is currently home to kori bustards (Ardeotis kori), the largest birds that can fly. But does that mean the Zoo is not interested in ostriches?

Quite the contrary. Zoo staff members, starting with Acting Director Steve Monfort, are engaged in an all-out effort to save a critically endangered race of ostriches from extinction. A century ago, the red-necked ostrich (Struthio camelus camelus) roamed Africa’s Sahara and Sahel regions, ranging across the territory of more than a dozen present-day countries. Today, however, after decades of poaching, civil strife, and degradation of their habitat, small populations of this bird subsist in only a few isolated places. In Niger’s Aïr (pronounced ah-EER) Mountain region, where they were once abundant, not a single wild ostrich remains, and that is also true for the country as a whole.

red-necked ostrich eggs
Red-necked ostrich eggs. (John Newby/Sahara Conservation Fund)

A History of Unrest and Drought

Aïr in northwestern Niger is part of Africa’s largest protected area, covering 40,000 square miles, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Aïr Mountains themselves are a unique geological feature, comprising nine circular massifs. The mountains channel occasional rainwater (about three inches per year) to the plateau below, which includes a number of oases. This green area in the middle of the Sahara has long been a magnet for birds and other wildlife, but many animal species in addition to the ostrich, such as the dama gazelle (Gazella dama), are now threatened or critically endangered there.

Niger’s ostrich population suffered severe collateral—and intentional—damage during an anti-government rebellion of Tuareg nomads during the early 1990s. An estimated 1,500 birds, the last of Niger’s wild ostriches, were slaughtered. A drought in the 1980s had disrupted the Tuareg’s traditional way of life, and they felt that the government had diverted international food aid, intended to assist them, to other uses. Also, traditional trading routes across the Sahara had been disrupted, and tourists stopped coming, further exacerbating the economic crisis.

Saving the Ostriches
Conservation-minded villagers from nearby Iférouane were able to rescue just a dozen of the birds, which they brought to holding pens in their town. These are among the estimated 70 captive adult red-necked ostriches in Niger now, which also include some birds brought in from neighboring countries.

The effort to save the red-necked ostrich is directed by the Sahara Conservation Fund (SCF), an international nonprofit organization in which the National Zoo is a key participant. Monfort was one of SCF’s founders and is its chair. SCF was created in 2004 and began its Niger ostrich project the following year, in direct response to a request from conservationists in Iférouane for help. Recognizing that all of Niger’s ostriches are now in private hands, SCF has worked closely with their owners to achieve a sustainable future for the birds.

Enter National Zoo biologist Sara Hallager, who serves as chair of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Taxon Advisory Group (TAG) for ratites, the family of flightless birds that includes ostriches. The TAG, she says, provides tactical and husbandry advice to Niger, a country with limited resources. In 2008, Hallager participated in a field trip to Niger to individually identify as many of the captive birds as possible. On the trip, Hallager was accompanied by staff members of the St. Louis Zoo and Disney’s Animal Kingdom, active participants in the project, and they were joined on-site by Nigerien conservation officials.

nesting red-necked ostrich

The effort to save the red-necked ostrich is directed by the Sahara Conservation Fund (SCF), an international nonprofit organization in which the National Zoo is a key participant. (John Newby/ Sahara Conservation Fund)

Blood samples are the preferred source of DNA for analysis, says Hallager, although feathers and fecal samples can also be used if you are sure that you know which bird is their source. How do you get an ostrich to hold still, in order to take a blood sample? If one is in a small enough pen, says Hallager, you just grab on, preferably with lots of helpers, until the veterinarian can insert a needle. The ostrich is, of course, determined to get away from the crowd of hangers-on, making for some tense moments, as these nine-foot-tall, 300-pound birds can unleash a powerful kick. “They can kill a lion,” she notes.

“It was scary,” concedes Hallager, “but I had the easy job. I just put the hood over the ostrich, while the big guys restrained it. Basically, you herd the ostrich into a corner, and then there’s a hook you can put around the neck to pull it in, and at that point everyone kind of piles on. Yeah, it’s dangerous! But, amazingly, nobody got injured, other than some scrapes.”

“The birds we couldn’t get our hands on were in a very, very, very large pen, and those are the birds we ended up getting fecal samples on; we just couldn’t catch them.” Ostriches, she notes, can run at 40 miles per hour or more.

The final step in the identification process was to attach a transponder to as many of the captive birds as possible so individuals can easily be located later for mating purposes. Unfortunately, not all of the tested birds wear transponders, Hallager says, because some of the devices were in baggage that never arrived in Niamey, Niger’s capital.

DNA information is essential to organizing a breeding program, said Jon Ballou, a specialist in population genetics. The next step, he says, is to create “a computer dating service” for the ostriches, based on a listing all of the birds from which DNA samples were taken, a so-called stud book. Then scientists can begin devising ideal match-ups.

Robert Fleischer, who heads the Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics, says that two questions were paramount. First, which birds are pure rednecked ostriches and which are hybrids (as the various races can interbreed)? Second, which birds are closely related, running the risk of inbreeding?

As it turned out, all DNA samples collected in Niger were from pure red-necked ostriches; none had been hybridized. This, Fleischer says, greatly eases the logistics of the breeding program. As for the second question, some captive birds proved to be siblings of other birds held far away, in other pens. He believes that these birds must have been given or sold by their owners when they were still chicks. The DNA database will assure that no siblings are mated simply because they are currently  located far from each other. Ballou and his computer dating program will recommend
matches, seeking to develop the strongest possible gene pool.

A team of biologists will visit Niger during the winter of 2009-2010 to begin moving selected birds and improving the infrastructure at Kellé, a key holding site in southeastern Niger. Although it is surrounded by mountains, fencing is required in some areas, and what is there now, Hallager says, is in some places just a few sticks. Fortunately, a recent donation to SCF of four kilometers of high tensile steel game fencing will mitigate that problem.

Under the breeding program, half of the chicks will be retained by the owner of their parents and half will go to SCF, which can move them to other sites to prepare for the next generation of matches. Some eggs might go abroad to zoos, to spread out the population geographically, as protection in case of a natural disaster, epidemic, or renewed unrest in Niger or neighboring countries.

Fertilized ostrich eggs can be flown to the U.S. in special insulated cases for hatching here, says Monfort. The chicks can then be dispersed to various zoos and even back to Niger. Ostriches are prolific breeders. “With a couple of females, you can have a hundred eggs in a year. You can get the numbers up pretty quick with this kind of program,” says Hallager.

“The ultimate goal is the reintroduction of the Nigerien ostrich,” says Hallager. “It’s going to take a massive education campaign,” she adds. “Lots of people think that ostriches are still living wild in Niger,” unaware of the massive poaching that took place during the 1990s. “It’s also going to take long-term monitoring.” Realistically, she says, there will always be some poaching, but the scientists hope that with a nationwide campaign, the Nigerien government and SCF will be able to educate people and reduce that risk.

Ostriches at the National Zoo

Of course, the National Zoo would like to have ostriches again at some point, says Monfort, and especially, the now-rare red-necked race. But ostriches are not likely to find a new home at the Zoo until the planned renovation of the Bird House is completed, around 2016. Some birds may, however, be raised at the Zoo’s Front Royal, Virginia, facility before then.

The Zoo’s Bird House project is third in line after completion of the Elephant Trails exhibit, currently in progress, and construction of a new seal and sea lion facility, says Monfort. “The Bird House is a historic structure,” he notes. “It won’t be demolished and rebuilt; it will be renovated and refined and upgraded.” It will be an opportunity to better explain the life stories of birds, including the large flightless ones, like the red-necked ostrich, he adds. “It’s not just that we have, or want to have, rednecked ostriches, but that we’re actually taking a leading role to study and understand the plight of the species.

“But,” he acknowledges, “it’s harder to make the case for an animal that you don’t have in your zoo. You need to meet the visitor’s expectation. They’re here to have fun. They want to see animals—and that’s your entry point. Having pandas is a fantastic draw for us, having elephants, having other species—it’s how you begin the conversation, really, about wildlife and about animals,” he says.

The Zoo’s bird collection will be “dramatically improved” in the next five to ten years, says Monfort. The renovation project will cost some $30 million from the federal government’s grant for capital improvements, says Monfort, but that does not include funds for outfitting the exhibits with interpretive materials, horticultural elements, and other materials, so a major fundraising component will complement the physical renovation project.

The Zoo is fortunate to have a wealth of extremely talented staff and inspirational champions for the species they are working with, says Monfort. “People like Sara Hallager, I think, represent the very best of what our profession has to offer, with respect to an animal care professional— someone who goes way beyond the simple acts of taking care of an animal.” Through passionately championing a species, the Zoo’s staff members can inspire others to want to support them, he says. “They make things happen.”

Hallager works from a small office, festooned with photos of birds, in the basement of the Bird House. But living birds are just outside her door. A parrot, isolated to check for possible disease, calls out frequently. Nearby, a staff member from the Atlanta zoo nurtures newly hatched kori bustard chicks, preparing herself to care for birds her zoo will soon acquire.

The Conservation Message

Regarding red-necked ostriches, Hallager says that it is often difficult to get across that today there are exactly zero ostriches living in the wild in Niger. Many Nigeriens believe that flocks of ostriches still populate the vast desert areas of their country, but in fact, all of Niger’s living ostriches are captive birds. They are raised for meat, feathers, and hide. In some cases, they are status symbols for their relatively wealthy owners.

John Newby, CEO of the Sahara Conservation Fund, reports, “We have just finished our first trial year using a new incubator. Working with local ostrich owners, we are now set to make substantial improvements in their capacity to breed and raise ostriches, a significant part of which will go into developing breeding capacity for reintroduction projects, in Niger to begin with. To accompany the plans to increase production, we are also raising funds to improve infrastructure, breeding pens, and food rations.”

red-necked ostriches

A flock of red-necked ostriches gathers in Aïr, Niger. (John Newby/Sahara Conservation Fund)

Just as the ostrich project evolved from the SCF antelope project, notes Monfort, the ostrich project has awakened interest in saving other Sahelo-Saharan animals, including cheetahs, foxes, African wildcats, and jackals. “They’re all in the middle of nowhere, in a place most people would say is a barren wasteland,” he says, “but now that we have demonstrated that these species are there, we have attracted people who want to do carnivore studies, bird studies, antelope studies, and we’re establishing the largest protected area in the world in Niger, 40,000 square miles.” The reserve is being established with the cooperation of the Niger government and nomadic groups who use the same land for grazing their herds of cattle.

As for the red-necked ostrich, Fleischer notes that the DNA samples collected in Niger suggest that it may actually be a separate species, not simply a race of Struthio camelus. That would, he notes, raise its nine-foot profile even higher among conservationists and others devoted to wildlife conservation.

—Freelance writer  HARVEY LEIFERT has travelled and written extensively about life and the animals in Africa.

Did You Know?

The red-necked ostrich (S.c. camelus) is one of four living races of ostrich, a fifth one having gone extinct in the mid- 20th century on the Arabian Peninsula. The most common race is perhaps S.c. australis, which thrives in South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia and is extensively farmed in southern Africa and as far away as Arizona. The others are Somali (S.c. molybdophandes), found in the Horn of Africa, and the Masai (S.c. massaicus) in East Africa.

Editor’s note: The San Diego Wild Animal Park has been an invaluable partner in the effort to save red-necked ostriches, providing substantial financial support, including the purchase of an incubator.

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Smithsonian Zoogoer 38(6) 2009. Copyright 2009 Friends of the National Zoo. All rights reserved.