Smithsonian baby boom helps grow endangered species

By Josette Keelor

At the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, endangered species from all over the world have found a home where they can flourish, but for all the knowledge and resources its scientists have, the reproduction and promotion of a species in captivity can remain out of their hands.

The institute has seen several animal births since January, beginning with a kiwi chick born Jan. 31.

One of only five zoos outside of New Zealand to successfully breed a North Island brown kiwi chick, the SCBI welcomed Manawa Ora, whose name means “hope” in Maori. Even more valuable, an SCBI press release said, is a female kiwi born to a population that heavily favors males.

Paul Marinari, head of animal care, said female births are always good for the promotion of endangered species animals in captivity.

“We can do our best to play matchmaker,” he said by phone recently, but “what looks good on paper, the animals they sometimes have to make the final decision of whether or not they’re compatible.” Nutrition and animal husbandry also play a big role in the outcome of hatchlings.

“It’s a lot science, it’s somewhat art,” Marinari said.

“Most of our species at SCPI are in trouble,” he said. “The bottom line is habitat.”

According to the website, nationalzoo.si.edu, about 2,000 animals from about 400 species currently make up the animal collection at the National Zoo and the SCBI. About one-fifth of the species is endangered or threatened.

This spring, the SCBI also welcomed a white-naped crane chick hatched April 14, two male maned wolf pups born April 14 and two clouded leopard cubs born Feb. 6. The cubs were transferred to their new home at the Nashville Zoo on June 20.

Marinari said the SCBI produces more maned pups than any other zoo in America. Its goal is to have a sustainable population in the wild, but researchers in Brazil currently are studying how members of the species interact with other animals and humans to help diagnose problems the species has with interspecies interaction.

But one of the SCBI’s biggest successes has been helping revive the wild population of black-footed ferrets, which Marinari called “wildlife that’s really, really in trouble but making a comeback.”

“[It’s] one of the few species here that can be released back into the wild.”

He said the SCBI, now in its 25th year of breeding black-footed ferrets, has helped produce over 750 ferret babies, called kits, including about 150 born through artificial insemination.

This year the institute has welcomed the birth of 44 black-footed kits, which are indigenous to North America, he said.

“We’ve actually pioneered the process for the ferrets,” Marinari said. “This was a species that was completely gone from the wild.”

“The fate of the species was entrusted to animals in captivity,” he said. “Now we have a wild population of between 500 and 800 brown-footed ferrets.”

Marinari said the SCBI also is expecting some more births this month.

As part of its mission to encourage and train a future generation of conservationists, the SCBI hosts a Friends of the Zoo nature camp through an ongoing partnership with the Smithsonian Zoo, offering students a hands-on experience with living landscapes, Marinari said.

Also, once a year on the first weekend in October, the SCBI is open to the public for its Autumn Conservation Festival. Visitors can meet the zookeepers, see wildlife and learn about the history of the facility. The SCBI also hosts Conservation Campouts on weekends through August, scheduled through the Friends of the National Zoo office.

Many of the SCBI’s new animals this year have moved to new homes, already matched or preparing to be matched with their mates. But Manawo Ora will stick close to her nest in Front Royal until she is 2-3 years old, when she’ll reach sexual maturity.

Then, it’s up to her and her mate — and a lot of luck, but Marinari said the SCBI has science as a guide.

“There is a whole slew of genetic programs that will tell us what will be the best mate for that kiwi.”

For more information on the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, call 202-633-2614 or visit www.nationalzoo.si.edu/scbi.

Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com