Oregon Zoo’s top ten conservation stories of 2012

December 31, 2012 - 11:44am

From pinhead-sized caterpillars to California condors, spanning locations as far flung as Uganda, Peru and Estacada, the Oregon Zoo's conservation efforts made a difference for dozens of threatened and endangered species in 2012. Here's a look back at our conservation highlights from the past year.

1. Zoo finds home for orphan black bear cub from southern Oregon

In April, a Medford family took a young bear cub from the wild and into their home. With no idea how to care for the helpless yet wild animal, they turned to professionals, and the cub found its way to Oregon Zoo keeper Michelle Schireman. Schireman got permission to house the cub temporarily at the zoo's Veterinary Medical Center during her workday, taking the demanding tyke home with her at night since the he was still of nursing age and required around-the-clock care. Within a week, officials located a permanent home for the cub in Wisconsin's NEW Zoo. He's since been named Aldo. "If you see a young animal alone, leave it where it is," said Meg Kenagy of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "It's likely that its mother is nearby. Most animals leave their young to forage or hunt."

2. Pygmy rabbits brought back from the brink

The Oregon Zoo's 12-year effort to save the endangered Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit concluded on July 19, when the zoo released its last 14 breeding rabbits and their offspring at the Sagebrush Flat Wildlife Area in eastern Washington. Only 15 of these minuscule bunnies remained when the program began in 2000. In 2001, the Oregon Zoo became the first in the world to successfully breed pygmy rabbits. Since then, more than 1,600 pygmy rabbits have been born among the Oregon Zoo, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Northwest Trek.

3. Zoo releases more than 3,000 endangered butterflies into wild

This spring, Oregon Zoo keepers awakened more than 3,000 checkerspot caterpillars from their winter dormancy, transferring 2,000 of them to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for release on prairies near Olympia, where some of the region's best habitat remains. In August, the Oregon Zoo's butterfly conservation lab successfully released the last of this season's 1,183 zoo-reared Oregon silverspot butterfly pupae. Before the release, Zoo photographer Michael Durham succeeded in capturing the first-ever time-lapse video of a silverspot caterpillar transforming into a chrysalis.

4. Condor breeding facility hatches four healthy California condor chicks

From 22 birds in 1987, California condors are beginning to reach larger population numbers. Today, more than 200 condors fly free and 180 more live in condor breeding programs. Since 2004, 20 Oregon Zoo-reared birds have moved onto field pens, with most released into wild areas in California and Arizona.

5. Peruvian Humboldt penguins get a community conservation boost

The Oregon Zoo has long supported Peru-based conservation organization ACOREMA's work to protect the vulnerable Humboldt penguin. In 2012, ACOREMA continued monitoring penguin mortality and worked closely with San Andrés fishermen to mitigate the practice of hunting penguins for food. ACOREMA also trained volunteer rangers and reached out to 3,000 students, teachers and Pisco-area residents to raise awareness about the penguin conservation. Here at home, the zoo's Humboldt penguins returned to their Penguinarium and continued to inspire visitors following a filtration upgrade that will save 7 million gallons of water a year.

6. Tiny turtles head-started

June ended with the release of 51 endangered western pond turtles into sites along the Columbia Gorge. To help restore these rare pond turtles to their natural habitat, experts collect eggs from the wild in the fall and allow the quarter-sized hatchlings to grow to safety at the Oregon Zoo. Fed throughout the winter, the turtles are stronger and more predator-resistant when they're released in the summer. Two decades ago, western pond turtles were on the verge of completely dying out in Washington, with fewer than 100 turtles left in the Columbia River Gorge. Today, researchers estimate that there are more than 1,600.

7. Zoo helps inspire young Ugandans to conserve wildlife

2012 saw a continuation of wildlife conservation and education efforts by Uganda-based Kasese Wildlife Conservation Awareness Organization, headed by Oregon Zoo keeper Asaba Mukobi. Kasese reaches more than 400 schools and 300,000 citizens to bring awareness about the wildlife and the importance of conservation in their home region. Highlights of the year included student field trips to nearby Queen Elizabeth National Park to observe wildlife.

8. Zoo finds home for orphaned Washington cougar cub

An orphaned cougar cub with a penchant for meatballs was moved to a new home after receiving medical care at the Oregon Zoo's veterinary hospital. The male cub, who was found by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife near Twisp, Washington after a hunter killed his mother, stayed at the zoo from late March until mid-April. Thanks to Oregon Zoo cougar keeper Michelle Schireman, the cub was settled into a sunny new home at Florida's Palm Beach Zoo. Schireman has served as puma population manager for 17 years, placing more than 70 orphaned cubs.

9. Oregon Zoo researcher uncovers survival secrets of endangered spotted frogs

We may be a step closer to saving threatened Oregon spotted frogs thanks to a study conducted by Oregon Zoo research associate Kyle Tidwell. His investigation into "superfrogs" – the only known population of spotted frogs that has survived the bullfrog invasion – revealed an important survival strategy: superfrogs are faster than other spotted frogs at evading predators. Tidwell's valuable research may improve the success of captive breeding and release efforts for this rare native amphibian.

10. Chendra offers researchers window into Borneo elephant genome

The zoo's Asian elephant Chendra is helping researchers protect her endangered subspecies of elephants on the island of Borneo. They're examining the DNA of Chendra and other Borneo elephants in Malaysia to understand the pachyderm's genome and protect the genetic diversity of Borneo pygmy elephants, which number only about 2,000 in the wild and are highly threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation. Chendra arrived at the Oregon Zoo in 1999, from Malaysia, where she was born in 1993. Wildlife officials had found her — orphaned, alone and hungry — near a palm-oil plantation on the island of Borneo. She had wounds on her front legs and left eye, which ultimately left her blind in that eye. Because of the injuries and her age, Chendra was a poor candidate for relocation and release back into the wild. She is the only Borneo elephant in North America.