Helping wildlife in El Paso

You can join the Zoo in helping wildlife in El Paso

By Rick LoBello, Education Curator

At the El Paso Zoo you can find many amazing and beautiful animals from around the world including critically endangered Amur leopards, Mexican wolves, Malayan tigers and Sumatran orangutans. As you walk around the zoo looking at these creatures you may have noticed some of our graphics and how we are trying to help people understand the challenges that many of these animals are facing to survive.

One of our strategic goals at the Zoo is to increase our conservation impact. Every day we try to focus on how best to improve the zoo so that we can reach more people and help them connect with wildlife, especially those species on the brink of extinction. We want people to be touched emotionally about our animals in such a way that they will be inspired to take specific actions to help them. A perfect example is the Sea Food Watch information we talk about at the California Sea Lion Exhibit. Healthy oceans are important to all of us and we need to make sure that our actions as consumers at the grocery store and at restaurants do not contribute to the decline of certain fish species. The collapse of the 500 year old Atlantic cod industry in the 1990s was a direct result of overfishing supported by consumers who purchased Atlantic cod unaware that numbers of cod in the wild had decreased by 99%. The free Sea Food Watch card and downloadable Sea Food Watch app helps consumers make ocean friendly choices when buying fish.

To increase our El Paso Zoo conservation impact we need to find more ways to get people involved. One of the ways we have identified is by focusing on conservation projects close to home in El Paso. El Paso Zoo is one of the facilities that helps to house the captive Mexican-wolf population before the wolves can be released in the wild.

The animals that live there are conservation ambassadors for their species and habitats around the world. Their wild relatives live in the mountains and deserts around El Paso and in faraway lands in South America, Africa and Asia. As you walk through the zoo and learn more about them, it soon becomes clear that many are endangered. Habitat loss and other factors, most often related to the activities of humans, are having a devastating toll on wildlife everywhere.

The zoo is encouraging visitors to round up their purchases at the gift shop, zoo restaurants and food stands to the next dollar to support wildlife field-conservation efforts. The round-up funds go to conservation efforts to help endangered bolson tortoises in New Mexico, African lions in Kenya and Tanzania and critically endangered Sumatran orangutans in Indonesia.

The effort also supports the critically endangered Mexican wolf that used to roam across the Southwest U.S. and northern Mexico, including El Paso. Round-up funds helped the zoo send three teams of employees to help with Mexican-wolf conservation efforts in Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico. Two teams helped repair barbed-wire fences that corral cattle and keep them from wandering into wolf hunting ranges. A third team helped transport a pack of 11 wolves from Washington state to a rendezvous point in New Mexico, where they were met by Mexican officials who took the wolves to a reintroduction site in Mexico.

The wolves were soon released in the wilds of northern Chihuahua, Mexico. It was the 10th release in Mexico, bringing the number of released wolves to 39, with the current wild population estimated to be about 30 wolves.

Next time you visit the zoo, be sure to round up your purchases. Together we can make a difference, even while we experience a part of the world right here in our own backyard.

Fourteen years ago the Zoo hosted a special meeting that Diane Perez of the El Paso Water Utilities and I organized to bring conservation educators together. Soon we formed a new organization called the Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition (CDEC). Today Dr. Gertrud Konings, a biologist at the El Paso Community College. Dr. Konings and her husband Ad have been championing conservation education efforts about native desert plants for many years and have brought their passion to CDEC.

In 2014 with support from the El Paso City Manager’s office CDEC launched a native plant conservation project designed to encourage El Pasoans to landscape their homes with drought tolerant and water saving native plants. The main goal of the project is to help homeowners make wiser choices when landscaping which not only saves water and helps homeowners lower their utility bills, but also creates more habitats for native wildlife impacted by urban sprawl. Last year El Paso Channel 15 produced a video on the project which is now available on YouTube. The Parks and Recreation Department also helped promote the project by installing seven interpretive signs about native plants at Cleveland Square across from the Digital Wall at the History Museum and the baseball stadium.

The Zoo encourages you and your family to purchase from local plant nurseries native plants like red yucca, desert willow, mesquite and ceniza. Many species of birds and butterflies will benefit from these plants helping to make El Paso a wildlife friendly city while improving our quality of life at the same time. The shade from trees like mesquite and desert willow helps to keep your home cooler in summer and lower your electricity bills. Cutting back on energy consumption helps to lower your carbon footprint and its effect on climate change. As an added benefit native plants help to capture carbon from the atmosphere.

CDEC offers a free Habitat Certification program that encourages people to make their yards Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition Certified Habitats. Anyone who registers for the free program will receive a signed certificate confirming the habitat level on their property and information on how they can get a yard sign designating their property as a certified habitat.

For more information visit CDEC’s website at Together Zoo visitors working with community groups like CDEC and other neighborhood and community groups can help the Zoo increase its conservation impact.

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