Pressed against the exhibit’s glass, parents and children “ooh” as the leopard Nelkan prowls across a log to rest. Despite his nocturnal nature, the big cat has become one of the Greenville Zoo’s star attractions since he arrived from Berlin last year.
But many guests aren’t aware of Nelkan’s true purpose. “This is an important move for the species, as it will introduce another bloodline into the North American population,” says Greenville Zoo administrator Jeff Bullock.
The Amur leopard is one of the world’s rarest big cat species, with just 70 in the wild and 200 in captivity. Their numbers have been dwindling for decades due to poaching for their fur, as well as the loss of natural habitat and diseases.
In 2016, there were 14 Amur leopard births, three of which happened in zoos across North America, according to Bullock. Nelkan, an 11-year-old male, has been paired with the zoo’s 7-year-old female Amur leopard, Jade, to boost that number.
The cats are part of the Species Survival Plan (SSP), a program developed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in 1981 to help ensure the survival of selected species, most of which are threatened or endangered.
The program, which protects nearly 500 species, ensures that captive populations remain genetically able to reproduce without taking animals from the wild. In this way, a captive population is bred in the event it is needed for a reintroduction program to save the species from extinction in the wild.
“Some animals only exist in captivity and more only exist in the wild because they’ve been boosted by captive bred animals,” Bullock said. “Our zoo, like many others, is much more than just a collection of animals and more important than ever.”
The Greenville Zoo, which houses an estimated 176 SSP animals, has fostered several births of threatened or endangered species since 2000. The ocelot couple Oz and Evita welcomed their second set of kittens in March. Bullock says Nelkan and Jade should produce at least one cub before 2018.
All creatures great and small
Over the past century, zoos have played a crucial role in saving hundreds of species from extinction. While most of the work has stemmed from breeding, more and more zoos are funding conservation in the field or even starting their own conservation programs. Bullock said the Greenville Zoo has spent more than $300,000 on conservation over the last seven years.
In 2010, the zoo’s conservation committee launched the Quarters for Conservation program to meet accreditation standards by creating a funding source for local and global conservation efforts.For each admission purchase, visitors receive a token representing 25 cents of their admission fee. Visitors use their tokens to vote for one of five highlighted conservation programs at a kiosk located at the zoo’s entrance.
“The conservation projects change yearly and the amount each project receives is directly related to the number of votes it receives from our zoo guests,” Bullock said.
In addition to funding from the general admission fee, the zoo allocates $3 from each annual membership fee to a fund for conservation. Each year, 50 percent of the program’s funds go directly to staff-selected projects, which currently include restoration of the Fijian crested iguana on the island of Monuriki; and efforts to help the Sumatran orangutan, Chilean flamingo, Amur leopard, and Angolan Colobus monkey.
“Quarters for Conservation gives our more than 300,000 annual visitors a way to connect with these conservation programs, and feel the power to make a difference,” Bullock said.
The program’s remaining funds are used to support grants to nonprofits, individuals, and educational entities with shared interests in conservation and research, and a small percentage is set aside for on-site conservation, research, and administration.
In 2011, the Greenville Zoo established a grant program for conservation efforts in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia that awards between $300 and $1,000 to recipients. The zoo also established a grant program for international efforts that awards up to $3,000.
The zoo has since funded more than 20 projects. It plans to award $12,910 to nine projects this year, according to Nikolay Kapustin, veterinarian and deputy zoo administrator. The request will go before Greenville City Council later this month.
Brad Lock, assistant curator of herpetology at Zoo Atlanta, has received more than $5,000 from the Greenville Zoo since 2013 to restore oak tree habitat for the critically endangered arboreal alligator lizard in central Guatemala.
“We’ve planted 60,000 trees, and it wouldn’t haven’t been possible without the Greenville Zoo’s support,” said Lock, director of Guatemalan programs for the International Reptile Conservation Foundation. “They’ve got the right attitude about conservation.”
Conservation in action
In 2008, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums estimated zoos and aquariums were spending around $252 million on conservation efforts every year, including captive breeding inside the institutions and supporting work in the field.
Some zoos are taking creative approaches to conservation, including efforts to educate the public about the plight of the world’s endangered species. For instance, the Greenville Zoo partnered with Furman University in 2014 to launch a free conservation lecture series.
The series, held periodically at the Children’s Museum in downtown Greenville, has since featured presentations about various critically endangered species ranging from Mexican gray wolves to orangutans to okapi.
“The goal is to help the public understand the importance of being responsible stewards of the planet,” said Kapustin. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a student or businessperson from downtown. We just want everyone to come out to the lectures.”
Many zoos also educate conservation workers in foreign countries or send keepers abroad to contribute their skills and knowledge to zoos and preserves helping to improve conditions and reintroductions all over the world. For instance, the Greenville Zoo has launched a scholarship program to send staff on overseas conservation missions.
Jennifer Stahl, a zookeeper, was awarded about $2,000 in 2016 to visit Malaysia’s Melaka Zoo and Night Safari. While there, she spent two weeks renovating exhibits, participating in orangutan conservation efforts, and teaching foreign handlers training techniques.
“It was an eye-opening trip, because I realized we can impact international conservation,” Stahl said. “They’re trying to protect animals from extinction like us, but they need money. Luckily, we’re able to help through our Quarters for Conservation program.”
The future of conservation
In 2015, the AZA called on zoos to spend at least 3 percent of their operating budgets on conservation. The call comes after scientists have warned that human activities are pushing life on Earth toward a mass extinction event.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, global populations of vertebrates have dropped by a staggering 52 percent from 1970 to 2010; during the same time, the number of humans on the planet has grown by nearly 3 billion.
Now the Greenville Zoo is attempting to step up its conservation goals.
The city’s 2017-2018 budget proposal includes an increase in zoo admission. The cost to enter would increase by $1 and individual memberships would increase by $10. Some of the funds would go to Quarters for Conservation, allowing the program to collect 50 cents instead of 25 cents from each admission and $5 dollars instead of $3 for each membership.
City Council is set to give final approval on May 22. If approved, the increased rates would take effect on July 1. “Our zoo can become a force for conservation,” said Kapustin. “The proposed increases would double our conservation fund and provide more money for various research projects across the globe.”
The city’s $185.4 million budget proposal also calls for a $1 million investment in the zoo’s master plan. The money, which comes from the city’s tourism tax, is part of a $3 million pledge to complete the plan’s first phase, which costs an estimated $15 million.
The first phase includes a 10,000-square-foot tiger exhibit with a glass viewing wall, tiger training wall, overlooks, waterfalls, streams, and artificial rockwork and exhibit spaces for Asian bears, siamangs, and birds.
The zoo is considering Sumatran or Malayan tigers for the exhibit, according to Bullock. Each of the tiger subspecies are thought to number less than 500 in the wild as they’re in high demand in many parts of Asia and Indonesia for traditional medicine.
“We identified the Sumatran and Malayan tigers as the species that could have the largest impact on conservation,” said Bullock. “Our guests might see some cubs running around here at some point in the future.”
He also said the zoo is exploring sponsorship opportunities with Clemson University so researchers can study the tigers. The exhibit would feature a research lab and holding area beside the den. It would have glass windows for observing.
Phase one of the zoo’s master plan also calls for upgrades to the lion exhibit that meet the AZA’s required standards for breeding. The zoo plans to obtain a female lion for breeding purposes sometime in the future, according to Bullock.
African lion populations have declined 43 percent in the last two decades due to habitat loss, difficulty finding prey, and conflicts with humans. Certain subspecies were protected under U.S. law in 2015, months after the killing of Cecil the lion stoked global outrage.
The master plan also includes a “Blue Ridge Backyard” exhibit, which could house a bear, otters, wolves, and other regional animals. “Many people don’t know about our region’s animals,” said Bullock. “The exhibit will give us an opportunity to discuss conservation, because our animals are running out of places to go due to the region’s rapid growth.”
From Greenville to Guyana
Guyana’s people call the country’s inland “the bush.” It encompasses tens of thousands of square miles of South American rain forest and savannah, and it’s home to more wildlife than people.
“It’s very pristine in most of the country unlike certain Latin American areas where there is intense habitat loss,” said Kapustin. “There is a great sense of awareness of the need for sustainable practices within Guyana natural areas.”
Kapustin has been to the country’s interior on numerous occasions. During his time as senior veterinarian for the Jacksonville Zoo in 2006, Kapustin traveled more than 2,000 miles to the Guyana Zoo, which is located in the capital of Georgetown, to transport two jaguars and one giant otter to Jacksonville.
Guyana had previously signed an agreement with the Jacksonville Zoo for a cooperative conservation initiative focused on wildlife surveys; support for policy, legislation, and development; and environmental education at the Guyana Zoo.
Kapustin has since maintained his relationships and collaborations with the zoo. He hopes to bring some of them to Greenville. “It would be great to participate in efforts to assist with garnering more awareness of conservation practices and identifying baseline wildlife information there,” Kapustin said.
Currently, Kapustin is working to identify conservation efforts in Guyana that he and his colleagues could participate in through staff scholarships. Some of those possible efforts include education and capacity building at the Guyana Zoo, which according to Kapustin, is key to increasing environmental awareness among the country’s urban population.
Other possible efforts could include collaborative work to protect the country’s jaguars.
“I’m looking forward to possibly continuing and identifying wildlife studies there in which we could participate for the benefit of their native wildlife management. They have some they are currently doing already,” Kapustin said.
Globally, jaguars are declining due to habitat loss and conflict with humans. As a result, they are listed as a near-threatened species. Guyana represents one of 18 Latin American countries that houses jaguars.
The Ministry of Natural Resource and other agencies have collaborated with international organizations over the years to survey Guyana’s jaguars, educate the public, and mitigate conflicts between jaguars and people.
Kapustin said conservation efforts could also span to other South American countries.
“Our efforts may dovetail in some efforts with Brazil,” said Kapustin. “Obviously, adjacent countries such as this have wildlife, like giant anteaters, that traverse the borders and can inhabit either country so there is nice continuity of such corridors and shows how wildlife can connect countries in such fashion.”
For more information, visit greenvillezoo.com.