One program aims to reduce threats to critically endangered western lowland gorillas in the Congo Basin. (Photo courtesy of Zoo Atlanta.)

By Hannah E. Jones

Today, more than 150,300 animal species worldwide are listed on the IUCN Red List, with over 42,100 species threatened with extinction. With so many at-risk species around the world, it’s crucial for local zoos to be part of the conversation about conservation and preservation. The folks at Zoo Atlanta take this role seriously, and the team recently announced its support and involvement in five international conservation programs in Africa and Asia for 2023. 

These initiatives aim to protect vulnerable species around the world, including red pandas, clouded leopards, drill monkeys, west African slender-snouted crocodiles and western lowland gorillas. The chosen programs offer a comprehensive approach to conservation, ranging from anti-poaching efforts to habitat restoration. 

The five species that the conservation programs aim to protect. (Photos courtesy of Zoo Atlanta.)

“There’s no such thing as one size fits all,” Zoo Atlanta Vice President of Collections and Conservation Jennifer Mickelberg said. “Every really successful conservation program is going to do a threat assessment, then develop strategies to help mitigate those threats [through] both the short-term mitigation like reintroduction, then longer-term mitigation like policy change or habitat restoration.”

The 2023 global programs include:

  • Reforestation in Nepal. Zoo Atlanta has worked with Red Panda Network for several years, and the funds will continue to support an established reforestation nursery in Jaubari, Nepal, to counteract habitat loss for the endangered species. Other native species benefit from the initiative, including Chinese pangolins, musk deer, dholes, leopards, clouded leopards and Himalayan black bears.
  • Anti-poaching in Cambodia. The Wildlife Alliance’s anti-poaching program aims to reduce the mortality of clouded leopards by working with local law enforcement and removing snares in Cambodia’s Cardamom Rainforest. 
  • Reintroduction efforts in West Africa. The Florida International University project aims to advance the practice of reintroducing critically endangered crocodilians into the wild, using west African slender-snouted crocodiles as a template. “Reintroduction can be really useful to keep that population from being sucked into what we call the ‘extinction vortex,’” Mickelberg said. “You have to keep the numbers up enough while you work on efforts that are longer term — you don’t want your species going extinct while you’re trying to pass new policies or bills that help protect them.”
  • Reducing threats to apes in the Congo Basin. Congo-Apes works to alleviate threats to apes in the Congo Basin, including critically endangered western lowland gorillas and endangered central chimpanzees. 
  • Protecting biodiversity in Central Africa. The Pan African Sanctuary Alliance’s Green Project is a community-based effort to protect biodiversity in Mount Cameroon National Park, including a population of endangered drill monkeys. The local community will also help grow food that will be used to feed the animals. “We’re the only zoo in North America that has drills,” Mickelberg said. “It’s a great way for us to connect what we have in the Zoo with work in the wild.”

The five projects are financed through the Mabel Dorn Reeder Conservation Endowment Fund, annual grants allowing Zoo Atlanta to broaden its global conservation impact. Projects are suggested by team members and selected based on the species’ conservation status, significance and community outreach opportunities.

A key component to these initiatives, Mickelberg explained, is collaborating with the surrounding communities. This is a critical step in creating long-term change, rather than a band-aid approach.

“We look at [community engagement] for all of these programs,” Mickelberg said. “Part of our scoring rubric is to make sure there’s a community component because we know to be successful in conservation, you have to engage with the local community.”

Ultimately, the team at Zoo Atlanta sees their conservation efforts — both international and domestic — as a crucial part of spreading an appreciation, knowledge and awareness of these vulnerable species to the public. 

“Zoos certainly have evolved over the last 50 years,” Mickelberg said. “Zoo Atlanta has been doing conservation for a long time, but zoos are seen more and more as conservation organizations and that’s really an important component of the work that we do.

She continued: “We know that not everybody’s going to have a chance to go to Africa to see lions or gorillas. Everybody can come to Zoo Atlanta to see gorillas, hear them, smell them and watch them play. Those interactions are really critical for people to understand the importance of diversity and to help make a change in the long-term future of the species.”

To learn more about Zoo Atlanta’s involvement in global conservation efforts, click here.

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Hannah E. Jones

Hannah Jones is a Georgia State University graduate, with a major in journalism and minor in public policy. She began studying journalism in high school and has since served as a reporter and editor for...

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