To Boldly Go Where Pachyderm Conservation Has Never Gone Before


Crows memorize human faces. Orcas express mourning. And that cockroach that skittered across your kitchen counter the other day? According to researchers in Belgium, that little fellow might have been shy or outgoing.


Recent revelations about the emotionally complex lives of many species have only been made possible by growing research on animal behavior and personality. This has led scientists like Dr. Shifra Goldenberg, an ecologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Conservation Ecology Center, to embark on “conservation behavior” as a focus of her work. Conservation behavior describes how experts like Dr. Goldenberg are seeking to better understand how animal decision-making and personality come into play in human-dominated landscapes.


After all, what “wild” increasingly means isn’t pristine habitat, with less terrain on the planet truly untouched by people than ever before. Getting insight into not just how animals relate to each other, but also how they relate to us, and the spaces we dominate, might be essential to their preservation.


And now Conservation Nation has joined the broader movement to better understand animal personality by funding a Smithsonian-led pachyderm project led by Dr. Goldenberg. While elephants have long been a source of fascination for behavioral study, this two-part project intersects personality testing with conservation efforts by focusing on a unique group: Asian elephants in Myanmar who have been “unemployed,” but still live in former logging camps and roam the forest at night.


Asian elephants gathered at a campsite.


For the first part of the study conducted earlier this year, a graduate student at Hunter College-CUNY, Sateesh Venkatesh, gauged whether elephants differ from one another in their response to novel objects by testing 31 elephants with specially designed puzzles.


They suspect certain personality traits revealed by individuals during the test, paired with tracking data of elephants moving around the landscape, might be related to their interaction with people. For example, elephants who displayed boldness while completing the test might be more likely to trespass into farmland and villages. With elephant-human conflict on the rise, those brave elephants more likely to venture into human areas—and less likely to fear people in general—would not be suited for rewilding.


The second part of the study is ongoing. Together, Sateesh and another graduate student at Colorado State University, Aung Chan, will track the elephants’ nighttime treks using GPS to record whether they enter populated zones. Then, the researchers can compare the data, assessing whether there is a correlation between the animals’ personality type and their decisions about where to roam at night. With these data streams compared, the study’s findings could be an important step forward in understanding elephant behavior, paving the way for conservation and rewilding efforts carefully tailored to an understanding of the species.


Look for more updates about this project in 2020, after the second part of the study is complete.


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A Wild Cat’s Scat


To collect the poo, or not to collect the poo—that is the question. It is, anyway, for Smithsonian scientists in the midst of a conservation project focusing on microbes in cheetah scat, and culminating in a graduate student’s Conservation-Nation funded trip to Namibia in two months.


That PhD student, Morgan Maly, has been focused on cheetah poo—and all poo-related quandaries—for the better part of this year, as she has studied samples from cheetahs at research institutions, including the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) in Front Royal, Virginia.


Key to this project’s success leading up to its next stage in the field? Understanding that not all cheetah scat is created equal—from a testing standpoint, anyway. To help ensure the best data is collected moving forward, Morgan and the team launched a preliminary experiment to determine how long samples can still be analyzed for microbial content after leaving a cheetah’s body. An hour, they wondered? A day? A week?





“If we wait too long to collect the sample, it may contain more environmental microbes than the microbes from the actual cheetah,” said Dr. Adrienne Crosier, cheetah curator & research biologist at SCBI.


After an experiment comparing the samples of eight cheetahs, the team have their answer: 48 hours. That means when Morgan’s in the field in two months studying wild scat, she’ll be better prepared to answer the (time-honored?) question of whether to collect the poo, or not to collect the poo.


This kind of preliminary work is a great example of just how much researchers have to do to prepare for any variables that might influence their results—often, those in the field have precious time to gather critical data.


Stay tuned for updates about the project, which will continue into 2020 as the team studies the samples Morgan gathers in Namibia to better understand vulnerable cheetahs’ diets.

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A Good Problem To Have
An Oryx is released in the Sahara.

A Good Problem To Have


Four years ago, scimitar-horned oryx were reintroduced to Chad. This was 30 years after the elegant two-horned animal was declared extinct in the wild. But now, thanks to a dedicated team spanning countries, oryx aren’t just roaming the dry plains of the Sahara again. They’re breeding, and their calves have grown up, and they’re breeding, too.  


“The reintroduced population is now so large and spread out across the [Ouadi Rimé-Ouadi Achim Wildlife] reserve, that we can no longer keep track of each individual oryx,” says Dr. Katherine Mertes, a Smithsonian scientist involved in the collaborative project.  


Talk about a good problem to have.


In 2017, Conservation Nation contributed to the project by purchasing GPS cameras to install on some of the satellite collars used to track and observe reintroduced oryx. Almost every released oryx wore a collar. This tech allowed collaborators monitoring the oryx at the Sahara Conservation Fund and the Zoological Society of London to receive updated locations for every individual oryx every 12 hours.  


The movement data proved informative, giving the team insights into why some oryx, which were released in separate groups, fared better than others. Dr. Mertes suspects that those individuals more accustomed to foraging and moving across greater distances before their release are more likely to thrive.  


Since August 2016, 169 oryx have been reintroduced; more than five females have had four calves; and more than 20 females have had three calves. Over 75 percent of those calves have survived to 6 months or older—an excellent rate.  



Scimitar-horned Oryx being reintroduced to the wild.


But the project hasn’t been without setbacks. In 2018, some oryx were lost to Rift Valley Fever, a mosquito-borne virus not officially listed as present in Chad by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) until the outbreak that year. Since then, in addition to vaccinating animals, researchers have collaborated with wildlife and agricultural vets, locally and internationally, to understand the dynamics of wildlife and livestock diseases in the reserve.


And the increased oryx population has presented new challenges. This “good problem to have,” requires a full re-think of the strategy to monitor and manage the population, Dr. Mertes says.


Nonetheless, the team has celebrated some significant milestones along the way.


“Observing the first wild-born calf of a wild-born calf was an amazing moment,” Dr. Mertes says. “However, perhaps even more dramatic was the first time our Chadian field monitoring team lead, Krazidi Abeye, successfully ear-tagged a wild-born calf.” Along with other members of the monitoring team, Abeye had recently been trained just this year to tag oryx by the Environmental Agency of Abu Dhabi.


The team will continue to add oryx to the reintroduced population, all while tracking where the new wild oryx wander and graze in their reclaimed native habitat. Stay tuned for more updates as the herd grows yet more.


This project was made possible because of the international partnership of the Environment Agency of Abu Dhabi, the Sahara Conservation Fund, and the Government of Chad, with technical advice and support from Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Zoological Society of London.

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Meet the Scientist

Dr. Maureen Kamau is based in Laikipia, Kenya at the Mpala Research Centre. As a veterinary research fellow for the Smithsonian’s Global Health Program, Dr. Kamau works to heal and save wild animals, conduct research and perform outreach.


With Conservation Nation support, Dr. Kamau has been part of a team helping eastern black rhinos. She also participated in a Conservation Nation-funded conference in Kenya focusing on rhino care. 


Q. When did you first know you wanted to save animals in the wild?

Becoming a wildlife veterinarian and researcher was one of those wildest dreams that you don’t think possible because opportunities are extremely rare. I consider myself lucky and honored to have the opportunity to work with wildlife in situ [in the field]. It is inspiring to see their fully assured forward progress in their natural habitat, which grips me with an earnest sense of responsibility to work towards their conservation.

It has been a dream come true to tangibly have an impact on individual wildlife species through clinical interventions and wildlife populations through research.



Q. What makes studying rhinos especially important to you?

Eastern black rhinos are a Kenyan heritage. They are native to the region and an umbrella species whose conservation has a trickle-down effect on the conservation of other species and habitats. Despite the sudden decline in their population numbers in the 1980s due to poaching to just 400 individuals, eastern black rhino populations are now gradually increasing with 726 individuals as of the end of 2017. With monitoring, appropriate security measures in place, law enforcement, collaboration with relevant stakeholders, and public support, poaching levels now stand at less than 1% annually in Kenya.



Q. What is the hardest thing about working with rhinos?

Eastern black rhinos are very shy animals, preferring bushy areas where they are not easily visible. They are also very aggressive when threatened and very compassionate to each other and their young.

The rangers have an unwavering grit to track these individuals, mostly on foot, on a daily basis, which inspires me.

Conservation Nation thanks Dr. Kamau and her fellow researchers for their dedication to saving animals! Stay tuned for more updates about conservation work in Kenya. 

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Solving a Rhino Mystery
Eastern Black Rhino

Solving a Rhino Mystery

To ensure a future for black rhinos, a network of the world’s top minds are seeking the answer to this question: How does a black rhinoceros’ diet influence its health?


Black rhinos are “specialized browsers”—meaning they are selective about food, and those decisions have been proven to result in healthy individuals in the wild. For conservation scientists, an understanding of normal gut microbial diversity in wild rhinos might be critical in the fight to save the species from extinction.


In partnership with SANParks, Stellenbosch University, Cape Town, George Mason University, and George Washington University, a Smithsonian team led by esteemed veterinarian Dr. Budhan Pukazhenthi is launching a three-year, Conservation Nation-funded project to compare black rhinos’ diets and gut microbial diversity at zoological institutions across the country with the results from wild rhinos. As a partner, the International Rhino Foundation is funding analysis on populations in human care. With all these players working together, researchers will be able to describe the normal gut microbial diversity of wild rhinos and recommend an appropriate diet or probiotics to keep black rhinos in human care healthy.


The data could also prove helpful as climate change rapidly impacts wild habitats—providing the researchers and conservationists of tomorrow with clear-cut information about how the diet of wild rhinos influence gut microbial composition. With this knowledge, future efforts to bolster the species or rewild populations on a warming planet might be more successful, as scientists will know how the plants wild rhinos eat influence gut microbial diversity and function.


According to Dr. Pukazhenthi, more than 50 wild black rhinos will be studied in total; already fecal samples of 25 wild rhinos have been gathered by partners in the field. “Once all samples are collected, we will begin analyses. The latter steps are likely to take some time because we use complex analytical approaches—genome sequencing [and] bioinformatics.”


Dr. Pukazhenthi emphasizes the importance of understanding diet and gut microbial composition in endangered species as we seek to combat a mass-extinction event. “We often hear, ‘We are what we eat.’ This is true. What we eat influences the gut microbial composition, diversity and/or function. … As a result, nutrients or factors derived from the diet, as well as the microbes, influence our overall health.”


Data from this project could serve to help the team understand the diets of other species who are choosy about what they eat in the wild, including tapirs, giraffes and other ungulates.


In addition to partially funding the cost of analysis, Conservation Nation also is making it possible for a researcher to travel within the next year to Kruger National Park in South Africa to process the samples collected by collaborators at South African National Parks Service.


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Nature: A Monstery Menagerie
A Mimic octopus, Thaumoctopus mimicus, crawls across the black sand seafloor of Lembeh Strait, Indonesia. This rare cephalopod can mimic the behavior and shape of other marine creatures.

Nature: A Monstery Menagerie

Elephant zombies? Octopi from outer space? This Halloween, read about some terrifyingly cool creatures—oh, and a spooky fact about humans, too.


Zombie elephants—they walk among us. To be more specific, modern elephants carry a “zombie” gene that evolved from a millennia-old mutation occurring in their ancestors. That very special gene protects these mammals from cancerous diseases by isolating and killing cancer cells before they can spread. From an evolutionary perspective, this ability also explains the species’ growth to such an enormous size, and their long lifespans, despite that size. The gene in question became dormant ages ago, before it was mysteriously resurrected to kick cancer’s butt, benefiting the elephant populations of today.



Xenomorphs—but scary smart, and they probably won’t kill you. It’s no wonder the original design for the terrifying “face hugger” in the Alien movie franchise was based on the octopus. According to scientists, the octopus is the closest thing there is to alien life on Earth, thanks to a large genome, which is sequenced in such a way that cephalopods can sport a distinctively unusual neurophysiology and still be able to accomplish difficult tasks, like puzzle solving.



The platypus—a Frankenstein’s monster of a species. It lays eggs, but it’s a mammal. Skin covers its eyes. It’s got a reptile skeleton. It hunts its prey at night with the aid of a sixth-sense in its bill that reads electric fields. It lost its stomach somewhere along the line. To sum up: it’s hard to believe the duck-billed platypus exists, and that it wasn’t conceived in some evolutionary biologist’s fever dream, but here we are. And just for kicks, the male platypus developed the fun ability to sting attackers and prey with its venomous, spurred hindfeet.



The Blob … is real? Meet Physarum polycephalum—a single-cell slimeball that is neither plant, nor animal, nor fungi. It has almost 720 sexes, can make complex decisions and has long-term memory. According to a story published by NPR this month about the unveiling of a new blob at the Paris Zoo, “its enemies include light, drought, salt and caffeine.” It enjoys oats, will absorb another blob, including that blob’s memories, and if cut in half, will regrow within minutes to its original blobby size.



Bad news—technically, the Body Snatchers already invaded. Guess what? The human body is creepy too! Turns out our genes might be overrun with more than 100 genes from other organisms that transferred into our genome from single cell creatures, bacteria and viruses during our species’ evolution. It’s called “horizontal gene transfer”—and while this doesn’t mean anyone’s about to metamorphose into a human-fly hybrid (as far as we know), it does mean our genes might be more connected and influenced by organisms very different from us than previously thought.


Are you inspired by these bizarre animals facts? As you celebrate the spookiest day of the year, remember small decisions you make, such as what candy you buy, or whether you use recycled materials to construct your epic costume, can impact animals. And stay safe! You never know what mutant mammal or blobby single-cell organism might be out there, lurking …(*cue spooky music*)

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A Flock in Trouble
Bright yellow Eastern Meadowlark bird singing in a springtime tree in Canada

A Flock in Trouble

Dinosaurs are vanishing again. Except this time, they’re disappearing in the form of modern birds. According to a paper published in Science and co-authored by researchers from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, 2.9 billion birds have been lost in Canada and the United States—a 29 percent decline—since 1970.


Grassland birds, like the meadowlark, are hit hardest, with more than 720 million birds gone in the past 50 years. Smithsonian researchers have worked tirelessly to save these threatened birds; for example, as reported in August, a Conservation Nation-funded meadowlark project seeks to track where these grassland species migrate across North America, so that efforts can be made to protect those lands.


“With more than 90 percent of our landscape under private ownership, the future of these bird communities relies almost entirely on decisions made by private landowners,” said Dr. Amy Johnson.


That’s why collaboration is key. Johnson is the director of Virginia Working Landscapes, a program based at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia, that acts as a bridge between conservationists and private landowners, creating a coalition to protect these species and help researchers understand their migratory patterns. But efforts have not stopped there.


“This project has sparked our participation in the formation of an informal ‘eastern meadowlark working group’ involving scientists from multiple states interested in collaborating to generate more knowledge about meadowlark ecology across their range,” Johnson said. “This is one of few projects actively trapping and tagging meadowlarks, with many other states eager to learn from our efforts. We have also benefitted through this working group by learning from researchers who have tried this in the past and have provided recommendations for improving capture rates and tag success.” Johnson says more meadowlarks with be tagged during the next trapping season in April of 2020.


You can make a difference, especially if you live in an affected region. Check out the Virginia Working Landscapes website to learn more about what you can do to protect birds, and how you can participate in citizen science efforts.


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Gather your Herd to Help Animals

At Conservation Nation, we want to inspire you to fundraise to make an impact this holiday season—all while having a good time. As you raise awareness for conservation, your friends and family can support your fundraiser confident that no matter how much or how little they give, they are directly contributing to Smithsonian projects that save animals in the wild. Here are some ideas for how you can create a compelling—and, dare we say it, fun!—fundraiser:


Take the polar plunge. What’s better than jumping into freezing water at the height of winter? Getting your friends to do it, too, and making them donate for the privilege of the experience.



Fan the flames of a fantasy football feud. Not to promote gambling, but what’s the harm in gambling for a cause? Donate all, or a portion, of your fantasy football league’s winnings to conservation, maybe in honor of the animal associated with your team (Miami Dolphins, anyone?).



Bake to make a difference. Let’s say you work at an office. Let’s say everyone you work with likes to bring in delicious treats, and during the holidays, your office becomes an amateur—yet equally entertaining—version of The Great British Bake Off. Why not monetize the competition? Every week, have participants chip in $15 to enter. The winner gets respect … and the pleasure of knowing their creation not only has expanded waistlines, but also has raised money to help endangered species.



Host a conservation-themed shindig. For example, last year, a donor hosted a “Penguins & Pumpkins” brunch. With one fun morning of gourd painting and treats, a group of families raised enough as a team to fund more than 50 nest boxes for South African penguins. Interested in hosting a similar event to fundraise for one of this year’s projects? It’s easy—either you can create a fundraising page here for your guests, or you can set up Conservation Nation as your charity of choice on Evite so you can collect donations via your digital invitations.


Share our mission and our stories. As you recruit friends and family to give, share stories about our impact here and encourage them to sign up for our monthly newsletter.


Finally, whether your fundraiser raises $1 million or $1, thank you! Every gift counts as we strive to protect animals from extinction.

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Rhino Experts to Meet in Two Weeks
Black Rhino at Amboseli National Park, Kenya

Rhino Experts to Meet in Two Weeks

Their bags are packed. Thanks to Conservation Nation, Smithsonian scientists are headed to Kenya in two weeks for a conference uniting the world’s top rhino experts with vets who are working to save rhinos on the ground. There, they will share research and resources, including special kits designed to make it as simple as possible to capture diagnostics and samples correctly for analysis.


“Despite being considered critically endangered … Kenya’s black rhino population has increased in recent years, and field vets play a critical role in this recovery,” says James Hassell, a Smithsonian scientist working on the project. “This workshop will educate these vets in the most recent advances in rhino medicine that can be applied when treating individual animals that are injured or fall sick, and monitoring the reproductive performance of rhino populations.”


The four-day conference is structured to imitate how a veterinarian would provide care for any rhino patient. Beginning with how to safely capture a patient, the conference will then move onto other topics, such as diagnostics and treatment. It will include post-mortem training, so those on the ground will know how to gather the most accurate data should they need to determine why a patient passed away. And the final day will include a round table focusing on conservation planning for rhinos in central Kenya.


“The conference is unique in that it is gathering together vets from across Kenya to ensure that the best information about rhino health is getting to those who need it most,” Hassell says.


James Hassell talking about the project at a recent conservation fundraiser.
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Red Siskin Initiative Soars to New Heights

After receiving Conservation Nation support to launch key aspects of their project, the Red Siskin Initiative (RSI) was just awarded a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the American Bird Conservancy to continue their important work on this endangered South American bird.


And this is just one of many big steps recently taken by the coalition—our friends at RSI also recently completed a new center specially designed to preserve the species and grow its numbers in the wild. The new Red Siskin Conservation Center (RSCC) is located in Aragua, Venezuela, and earlier this year, opened its doors to rescue, rehabilitate and reintroduce siskins, aiming to bolster wild Venezuelan populations of this bird.


None of this would have been possible without the initial fundraising boost provided by Conservation Nation donors in 2018. This funding directly empowered the project’s in-country lead, Miguel Angel Arvelo, to devote his time to the initiative in its early stages, while receiving critical support and guidance from Smithsonian experts.


A screened corridor at the new conservation center in Venezuela.


And the momentum isn’t slowing down—in the last three months, the RSCC has rescued eight siskins. Two birds came from confiscations by the wildlife authorities, and six came from new members of RSI’s program designed to foster sustainable behavior among aviculturists, encouraging people who used to participate in illegal trade to instead surrender their birds, pledging to no longer participate in the trade. Now, they help RSI with Red Siskin conservation.


Smithsonian researchers are invested in this struggling species here in the states, too. The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia was the first facility to have siskins in 2015. Researchers there have fledged 16 chicks, including two chicks they hand-reared.


These combined efforts from dedicated conservationists thousands of miles apart have ignited hope for this national symbol. And now, with the recent grant from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the future of the species looks even brighter—the grant will boost RSI’s Birds and Coffee project, focusing on expanding shade-grown coffee practices and restoring tropical forests, so that siskins in the wild can flourish yet again.


Congratulations to our friends at the Red Siskin Initiative!


Red Siskin chicks at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. | Note: photo in header features siskins at SCBI as well.
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