Despite the sensation of tough gravel, I never expected a rhinoceros to feel so soft around the back of the ears and mouth.
Staff at the Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester, New York had graciously allowed me to come face to face with Bill, the resident southern white rhinoceros who, funnily enough, was more interested in being petted than eating his helping of bananas.
“He loves contact,” one of the keepers said as I reached out to touch his horns. Aside from the pleasant thought of the bond that humans have shared with animals for centuries, seeing those massive horns brought to mind the uncertain future that wild rhinos throughout Africa currently face.
Though normally reporting conservation stories from remote corners of sub-Saharan Africa, I’d arranged a visit to Seneca Park Zoo to find out how management and staff are leading the charge in saving threatened and endangered wildlife.
Bill, now 12, is part of the zoo’s Step Into Africa program, which includes lions, elephants, baboons, and even a Maasai manyatta (encampment) exhibit, commonly found throughout southern Kenya and northern Tanzania.
While I was given a behind-the-scenes tour of how keepers interacted with Bill, three lions, and four of their elephants, the focus of the visit was the the changing face of zoos, specifically their commitment to helping wild animals through fundraising, engaging in efforts abroad, and spreading public awareness.
Aiding in African Wildlife Conservation
Historically, zoos were purely for public entertainment with almost no focus on an animal’s well-being. Unfortunately, such a somber past means that people still sometimes have difficulty recognizing the much greater involvement zoos have in wildlife conservation today.
As an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), Seneca Park Zoo’s animal advocacy began through reintroducing North American river otters back to the wild. Since then, the society’s number one goal is reinforcing global habitat and wildlife preservation and restoration.
“Breeding is laudable but it didn’t translate to on-the-ground efforts,” County Zoo Director Larry Sorel said of Seneca Park Zoo’s evolution. “We wanted to elevate our conservation role that translates into metrics that reach programs we feel are effective.”
Though Seneca Park Zoo is fairly small compared to the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo, their mission to inspire communities to “connect, care for, and conserve wildlife and wild places” speaks in volumes.
The zoo’s focus is not only on the welfare of animals, but also includes wildlife rehabilitation, facilitating in projects in countries like Kenya, South Africa, and Madagascar, and helping educate people who might not get the chance to see rhinos, lions, and elephants in the wild about the importance of safeguarding the natural world.
Seneca Park Zoo Society Executive Director Pamela Reed Sanchez, who recently visited Madagascar earlier this year as part of National Geographic photographer David Liittschwager’s One Cubic Foot Project, stressed that Seneca Park Zoo is committed to wildlife conservation above all else.
“We’ve sent staff over to help the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds,” she said. “We’ve also made financial contributions to Madagascar, we support the International Elephant Foundation, Kenya’s Lewa Conservancy, and we had our first ever Cinco de Rhino fundraising event last May to help the International Rhino Foundation.”
Ensuring Stable Animal Populations
While conservation biologists, rangers, and game wardens working in the field often get the gold star for their dedication in service to wildlife, it is zoological institutions that not only foot the bill in many circumstances, but also work diligently behind the scenes.
The Serengeti National Park, for example, wouldn’t exist today had it not been for Bernhard Grzimek, former director of Germany’s Frankfurt Zoo, nor would huge tracts of African wilderness be preserved without the dedicated work of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
In similar fashion, Seneca Park Zoo is one of the largest conservation funders in New York State, and on the leading edge in assisting some of the most important fieldwork, both in Africa, and elsewhere around the globe.
Their work in Africa is especially critical since wildlife populations have dropped significantly, largely due to human-wildlife conflict, habitat loss, and illegal poaching.
Though alarming, Larry Sorel sees a greater opportunity for members of the zoological community to share their unique wildlife management strategies with field conservationists, and to foster a greater partnership through other shared innovative solutions.
One such approach is the Species Survival Program (SSP), developed by AZA in 1981 to maintain healthy animal populations in the event of any seen or unforeseen environmental disasters.
While Seneca Park does not participate in the capture of wild animals directly from Africa or elsewhere, a critical aspect of their SSP is ensuring that, should the absolute worst happen, animals like lions still have a future in the wild.
For Sorel, this means, “healthy populations [of lions] that exist 100 years out to fight against inbreeding and extinction.”
Another critical objective is helping offset human-wildlife conflict. Nowhere is this scenario more dire than in rural pockets of Africa, where pastoral and farming communities still live with the threat of losing livestock and harvests to lions and elephants. A huge part of the challenge is figuring out how humans and animals can share rangelands equitably.
“Conservation problems are human challenges,” Sorel explained. “How do you mitigate that human-animal interface? Animals don’t live in a vacuum. So if we don’t focus on addressing the needs of humans too, then wildlife [survival] is doomed to fail.”
A Message of Hope
In a recent interview with Mongabay, Jane Goodall discussed zoos, stating that larger enclosures and qualified staff now foster an environment where, “great effort is put into [animal] enrichment activities, both mental and physical.”
Her words not only bring to mind the importance of an animal’s well-being, but the necessary part that these institutions have played throughout the history of wildlife preservation.
Today, many of Seneca Park Zoo’s animals cannot be returned to the wild due to injury. But while they may never see the wild again, their presence is a continued reminder to men, women, boys, and girls, that the fight to save wildlife is far from over.
Management at Seneca Park Zoo are currently looking for other programs in East Africa in the hopes of offering services and financial support. They are also preparing to expand the zoo’s Step Into Africa program, and stepping up their partnership with ongoing projects in Madagascar.
Overall, the visit was a healthy reminder that there are zoological institutions whose leaders are committed to helping wilderness, people, and animals, all three of which live in very precarious times.
For this 15-acre zoo, which opened in 1894, the days of animals in small cages for the amusement of the public are long gone, replaced by the vision to be “a national leader in education and conservation action for species survival.”
“The diversity of our conservation work has grown immensely over the past 10 years,” Reed Sanchez added. “And while fundraising is important, it’s really about being involved regionally.”
Michael Schwartz is a journalist and African wildlife conservation researcher. With field experience around the continent since 2005, his passion for Africa’s wildlife is matched by his compassion for the people who live there.
A significant portion of his field work is carried out in Uganda.