Zoo’s mission takes it far outside Colorado Springs

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Zoo employees have repeatedly traveled deep into the jungles of Panama in their work to save endangered frogs.

On a mission: Zoo employees have repeatedly traveled deep into the jungles of Panama in their work to save endangered frogs.

The work of some of the people at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo may someday save your life.

With little notice or fanfare, the zoo’s CEO and employees regularly travel to exotic and often dangerous locales, trekking through thick jungles and crossing slippery streams to save creatures large and small that play a role in medical research.

In doing so, they have put Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, one of the few privately funded zoos in the nation, on the international field conservation map.

Among other projects, Cheyenne Mountain is one of only a handful of zoos in the world that is in the backcountry of Panama rescuing frogs.

Zoo personnel also can be found in Southeast Asia working to slow deforestation and to save the orangutan from extinction. The zoo’s research in this area is widely recognized as among the most authoritative in the field.

The palm oil crisis

Three Cheyenne employees — Dina Bredahl, the zoo’s animal care manager, Vice President Tracey Gazibara and animal keeper Mandy Hollingsworth — returned from their latest trip to Southeast Asia on June 14.

It was a whirlwind trip that included 18 flights in 22 days and long, strenuous hikes through the jungle. They visited primate rehabilitation facilities, and saw orangutans in the rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia, Malaysian Borneo and Indonesian Borneo.

The primates climb and swing in the trees at heights of up to 150 feet, building a new nest each day for naps and sleeping at night. Following and observing them isn’t easy.

Zoologists say these animals could be extinct within 10 years.

Deforestation, at the rate of 4.9 million acres each year in Indonesia alone, is threatening the orangutans’ habitat, as people — trying to avoid trans-fats — have increasingly turned to food products prepared with the oil made from the fruit of the oil palm tree. Palm oil is the most produced vegetable oil in the world. Palm oil is used in products ranging from margarine and cosmetics to feedstock and for biofuel.

As farmers cut away rainforests to plant the palms, the orangutans are forced to live in smaller areas, limiting their ability to forage. Essentially, they’re being driven out of their homes and dying of starvation.

Boycotting palm oil, however, is not the solution, conservationists say. Oil palms produce more fruit per acre than many other plants — and nine times more oil per acre than soybeans. In short, they’re valuable. So conservationists have been working to convince plantation owners to switch to sustainable farming techniques, Bredahl said.

An international group, Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, has developed guidelines that the zoo is helping to promote.

The idea is to protect not just the orangutans but also the indigenous peoples, ancient burial grounds and other cultural touchstones in these regions, all while ensuring that the oil palm growers can make a living.

The idea is starting to gain traction. This summer, the first shipment of certified sustainable palm oil arrived in the United States.

It was an important victory for the zoo, and the hope is that more companies follow the leads of giants like Unilever PLC, Nestlé SA and Kraft Foods Inc., all of which have repeatedly said they would seek to buy palm oil produced with minimal harm to the environment.

Fighting a fungus

Amphibians are another species the zoo is working to save.

Nearly half of the world’s amphibian species are threatened. Amphibians are vital to the balance of nature. Not only do they eat insects, but they act as a warning sign of environmental hazards to humans — especially water quality. They also are used for medical research including cancer treatments.

Because their skin is permeable, amphibians are used for medical research of central nervous system disorders, bacterial and viral infections, vision, hearing or respiratory disorders, and even cancer.

The Chytrid fungus is threatening one-third to one-half of all the world’s 5,700 amphibian species, including frogs, toads, salamanders and newts.

The fungus has spread south from Canada and north through South America — only a small area of Panama hasn’t yet been infiltrated.

Bob Chastain, CEO of the zoo since 2005, made three trips to Panama between November and February with other zoos and organizations that are members of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. Cheyenne Zoo is a founding member of the group.

Within the 120 days between those trips, he saw the population of Atelopus Limosus, or Limosa Harlequin, frogs, which are 1.5 inches long and black with bright green stripes, become “functionally extinct.”

After capturing 40 of the frogs in Chagres National Park, outside Panama City, the expedition realized the fungus had already reached the area.

For 10 hours a day, “in the middle of nowhere,” one of the expedition’s veterinarians sat in a little shack, dunking frogs in an anti-fungal bath.

Most of them didn’t survive. The fungus attacks and thickens the amphibians’ permeable skin, causing them to suffocate.

On his third trip, Chastain found only two of the Limosus frogs.

Last month, Chastain returned to Panama once more. The expedition collected 74 Atelopus Certus, or toad mountain Harlequin frogs, only 10 of which were female. They’d hoped to get 50 females. The frogs now live at the Summit Zoo in Panama.

The project’s goal is not only to breed them in captivity, but to figure out how to make the frogs immune to the fungus, so they can eventually be released back into the wild.

Optimistic outlook

Looking ahead, the zoo plans to continue doing all it can on these fronts, along with building more exhibits, raising awareness and finding ways to boost support for various conservation efforts.

Chastain’s hopeful.

“It’s easy to throw up your hands and say there’s nothing we can do. But that’s not the case,” he said. “People can make a positive difference. … They can actually be a part of (helping to stop) a literal worldwide crisis that they otherwise would not be able to do.”

There is hope so long as zoos, companies, like-minded groups and individuals work collectively, he said.

“Without finances and a vision, you can’t get anything done,” Chastain said. “If you (have both) the whole world opens up to you.”

The zoo has a ready audience. More than 500,000 people visit it each year.

“We’re trying to save between 10 and 20 species from extinction — and that’s something for the people of Colorado Springs to be proud of — we do that work on their behalf,” Chastain said.

Want to help?
Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is one of only a few zoos in the nation that is privately funded.
To make a tax-deductible donation to help preserve wildlife and habitat, visit the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s website at
store.cmzoo.org/donate.asp or mail a check to Cheyenne Mountain Zoological Society, 4250 Cheyenne Mountain Zoo Road, Colorado Springs, Colo., 80906.
Fundraiser at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
The zoo is holding a fundraiser from 6:30 to 9 p.m. July 10. “Swinging in the Rainforest – a Night with the Orangutans” includes an orangutan painting demonstration, orangutans working with trainers, activities for children, a silent auction, hors d’oeuvres and desserts. Proceeds go to orangutan conservation.

One Response to Zoo’s mission takes it far outside Colorado Springs

  1. Zoos and their employees have long been at the forefront of all kinds of conservation issues. When a zoo specializes in a particular species, such as the Indianapolis Zoo with their new cheetah exhibit, you can usually bet that they are coordinating with leaders in the conservation of that species.

    Allen Nyhuis, Coauthor: America’s Best Zoos

    Allen Nyhuis
    July 17, 2010 at 7:39 pm