More than a Zoo - Oklahoma City Zoo Leads Conservation Efforts Locally and Globally

Splurge OKC, January 18th, 2016

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Elephants in Africa are facing threats daily thanks to poaching, dramatic loss of habitat, disease and more. In the past 25 years, the population of African elephants dropped from 1.6 million to less than 500,000.

In Oklahoma’s northwest region, the lesser prairie chicken, a gorgeously colorful ground bird, is facing the same threats. Loss of habitat, the growth of the wind farm industry and disease are also reducing numbers of the birds, which were until only recently on the endangered and threatened list.

The Oklahoma City Zoo may be a favorite destination for tourists and families and a fun place to spend an afternoon, but on a major scale, the zoo is a big player in conservation efforts worldwide and at home. Behind the scenes, zoo officials are fighting against decimation of rainforests from the palm oil industry, counting Oklahoma bat species and working to save Ecuador’s biodiversity.

“We have both local and global efforts here,” said Jennifer D’Agostino, director of veterinarian services at the Oklahoma City Zoo. “Our message is that this isn’t just our problem or their problem. It’s the world’s problem. We’re all connected globally, and what we do here has a global impact.”

Keeping It Local

Besides saving elephants and protecting rainforests, The Oklahoma City Zoo also works closely with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation on projects close to home.

“Local conservation is critically important and oftentimes overlooked,” said D’Agostino. “Usually when you think conservation, you think of rhinos, elephants and giraffes, but we have to protect our wildlife in Oklahoma. We’re so worried about global habitats, we forget about the habitats in our own backyard.”

Along with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC), the zoo participates annually in the Winter Bird Survey, which counts birds in ODWC land areas to help study the health of the bird population.

Every spring, the zoo spends four weeks counting the lesser prairie chicken populations. The lesser prairie chicken is a unique land bird that has experienced sharp population declines, and in 2014, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed it as a threatened species.

“Wind turbines have been a big problem, because the lesser prairie chicken needs open land to breed,” D’Agostino said. “There’s no land left. But OG&E and other energy companies have invested in research to work with us on where the habitat is so they can place their turbines responsibly. It’s the No. 1 conservation effort for the ODWC.”

The final project partnership with ODWC is the annual bat survey.

“We have a lot of species of bats in Oklahoma, so we trap them, measure them, weigh them to see if the population is maintaining,” D’Agostino said. “Local conservation is so important. People don’t realize that amphibians are in trouble, birds are in trouble and we need to do a better job protecting our animals and habitats at home.”

Global Work

Through large project grants, The Oklahoma City Zoo is also making an impact on a global level.

“One of our major projects is with the Lekirruki Conservation Trust through the Northern Rangelands Trust in Kenya,” said Laura Bottaro, animal curator at the zoo.

Due to its diverse landscape, Lekurruki Conservation Trust is home to many different species of wildlife and plants and large herds of buffalo and elephants.

“We contributed money to support Lekurruki and helped build their ranger station,” said Bottaro. “We provided local jobs and funds to help those rangers who risk their lives every day to stop poachers. The 60,000-acre conservancy has two villages and an eco-lodge that’s very small, but what they have been the most successful at is land management.”

The Oklahoma City Zoo has provided a total of $34,000 in grants for the construction of the Lekurruki manager’s house and office, security head office and radio room. The buildings have been constructed to comply with regulations requiring little environmental impact.

“Because the rangers walk those 60,000 acres every day, no elephant has been poached in a very long time,” said Bottaro. “I think this conservation model will prove to be the most successful model in Africa.”

Another major grant project is the Jatun Sacha Foundation , an Ecuadorian non-governmental and non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of ecosystems of Ecuador.

For more than 25 years, the Foundation has been promoting and preserving Ecuador’s biodiversity and improving the quality of life of local communities through technical training, scientific research, environmental education at national and international level, community development and sustainable resource management.

“We were able to help them build their education center and build a breeding facility, which was needed because nearly all the animals were hunted out of the rainforest,” said Bottaro. “Our funds were the only way the center could have been built. They also have a rehab center for orphaned or poached or injured animals. But, conservation education is what they excel at.”

The zoo has also made an impact in Sumatra, where tigers, elephants and orangutans face extinction thanks to habitat loss and the palm oil industry through the PanEco Foundation. The OKC Zoo specifically supports PanEco’s Orangutan Rehabilitation and Quarantine Center, which works with Sumatran and international vet hospitals developing field vet training. They have rehabilitated more than 180 orangutans, with more than 120 re-released into Bukit Tigapuluh–an area that had been wiped out of orangutans and other wildlife.

“We also created an emergency fund to combat wildfires,” said Tara Henson, OKC Zoo PR & Marketing director. “The wildfires are devastating, and sometimes it’s caused by arson, by burning land to clear the way for palm oil.”

The zoo also has provided nearly 20 small grants for projects around the world. All funding for the grants come from zoo membership fees.

How You Can Help

“We talk a lot about conservation, but our challenge is getting the message out and our call to action,” said Bottaro. “It can also be overwhelming for people. But, if everyone did their part–whether it’s recycling, reusing or reducing our own footprint–we could have a chance.”

Bottaro knows that flooding people with the devastation of rainforests or the fact that 100 African elephants are killed daily can be overwhelming. But her message is that small steps have big impact.

One step is recycling cell phones. Cell phones have a direct effect on wildlife. Coltan is a substance frequently used in small electronics, and mining for coltan causes loss of gorillas and their habitats.

“We are part of the Eco-Cell Recycling Program,” said Henson. “You can take your older cell phones to the zoo. In fact, we collect all used electronics and batteries. The old cell phones are repurposed, which cuts down on the need for more products.”

The Oklahoma City Zoo is one of 110 zoos helping save gorillas through the Eco-Cell Recycling Program. Items accepted include smart phones, cell phones, handheld gaming systems, tablets, iPods and iPads as well as any chargers or accessories that come with these devices.

Visitors to the zoo who visit concessions or gift stores can participate in Round Up for Conservation. By “rounding up” the amount of your purchase to the next dollar, donations go to one of the zoo’s conservation initiatives. Since inception of the program in 2011, guests have contributed $25,000 to zoo conservation efforts.

“Every dollar that the zoo uses for conservation comes from zoo membership,” said Bottaro. “Just by visiting the zoo or becoming a member, you’re helping conservation efforts around the world.”

For more information on Zoo efforts, visit