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Fewer animals, more research

Zoos are reviewing their role in the conservation of wildlife

EDUARDO CESARJaguar – the biggest wildcat in the AmericasEDUARDO CESAR

Many species of animals that live in the wild were previously kept in zoos. The golden lion tamarin, the American eagle, the Andean condor, a deer species native to Oceania and a horse species native to Poland, the Tasmanian devil and the panda – all of which were endangered species – were taken to zoos, produced offspring, and were then released back into their natural habitats. The Spix’s Macaw is no longer found in the jungle, but survives in Brazilian zoos. The white rhinoceros, chimpanzees and wolves would already be extinct were it not for zoos.

“For many species, the zoo is the last frontier,” says José Luiz Catão Dias, a professor at the School of Veterinary Medicine of the University of São Paulo and former technical and scientific director of the São Paulo Zoo, the biggest in Brazil. This zoo is home to approximately 3,100 animals; 2.5 million people (mostly children) visit the zoo every year. For many years, zoos have been trying to conserve wild animals, even though they are unable to keep up with the pace at which natural animal habitats are destroyed; of the estimated 2 million live species found around the world, 150 unique organisms become extinct every day. The zoos have begun to strengthen their ties with other institutions to expand scientific research that may benefit animals and human beings.

In brick troughs with green-painted wood fronts, placed on a patio surrounded by the Mata Atlantica, rainforest, a mixture of leaves, branches and crushed tree trunks, sawdust and mud rich with micro algae resulting from the treatment of lake water, waste and animal carcasses decompose for 90 days before being used as fertilizer for the gardens and plantations at the São Paulo Zoo. In the midst of this compost heap, a team from the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp) found nearly 400 species of microorganisms of biotechnological interest, because they produce enzymes that can facilitate the development of new antibiotics and of a number of wide-ranging products such as soap powder or sugarcane ethanol. If the research studies progress smoothly, various microorganisms might be used for environmental applications, because they digest polluting compounds such as phenols and hydrocarbons.

In another example, Fernando Soares, a researcher at the AC Camargo Cancer Hospital and coordinator of the Cancer Research, Innovation, and Diffusion Center (Cepid), funded by FAPESP, was pleased to see in December a collection of blades and blocks of paraffin with samples of organs and animal tissue that had been decomposing since 1958 – and he liked what he saw. “This is untouched material that opens up enormous research opportunities,” he said. “We want to start working as soon as possible, offering our 13 years of experience from the tumor bank at the Cancer Hospital to create an animal tumor bank.” One of the animals necropsied shortly before, while Soares was at the Center, was an anteater with liver cancer – these tumors are quite common, as animals living in captivity live longer than those in the wild. Another animal was an obese orangutan with severe atherosclerosis, caused by the accumulation of animal fat on blood vessel walls. This was very intriguing, as orangutans are herbivores.

EDUARDO CESARNocturnal curassow, king vulture and harpy – rarely found in the wildEDUARDO CESAR

Normally, the zoos approve research projects and access to animals, but they rarely see the end results. To align this contribution with the production of knowledge, João Batista da Cruz, the current scientific and technical director of the São Paulo Zoo, says that he rifled through possible sources of information and found approximately 1,100 academic publications (scientific articles, theses or dissertations) prepared by outside research groups in the last 50 years.

Unlike similar institutions in New York, Washington, or Berlin, Brazilian zoos rarely have their own scientific research teams. As a result, they depend on the initiatives, interests and teams from other institutions. Luiz Antônio da Silva Pires, president of the Brazilian Society of Zoos (SZB), director of the Bauru city zoo and a professor at the University of Marilia, helped approve approximately 150 papers that will be presented at the next zoo congress scheduled for late March in the town of Gramado in Rio Grande do Sul state; most of the papers were produced at universities. It is likely that the Brazilian zoos will be able to produce more research work at a faster pace once they evolve from being mere suppliers of animals or materials, but also have their own research teams.

By keeping up with recent research work, the directors of the São Paulo Zoo are trying to undo the image that a zoo is merely a place to show animals that do not always enjoy the comfort they deserve. Zoos are reviewing their role, in response to pressure from animal rights groups, government entities and visitors, who expect to see animals in captivity being well treated.

In November 2010, in one of the latest challenges faced by zoos, a group of NGOs filed a habeas corpus claiming that the animal was depressed and requested that a chimpanzee at a zoo in the city of Niteroi be transferred to a bigger space. A judge from Rio de Janeiro city denied the request.

Pedro Ynterian, a Cuban who heads this movement and chairs the Great Ape Project (GAP), says that he will not give up: “We will go all the way to the Supreme Court and we want the judges to decide whether an ape is a subject and, as such, entitled to rights, or an object, like a car. The apes are merely the first animals we have dealt with, because we want other animals – like dolphins, whose intelligence is very similar to that of human beings, to be acknowledged as subjects.”

Ynterian divides his time between his microbiology company in the city of São Paulo and GAP, in the city of Sorocaba, São Paulo State. He says that 50 chimpanzees live in a wide-open space in Sorocaba, having come mostly from circuses and zoos. No visitors are allowed into the facility. Based on this experience, he says: “In general, zoos in Brazil are animal warehouses, because of the way they are run. The animals will never leave the zoos. They do not represent wildlife species – they’re all stressed and live in small, inappropriate spaces. Some of them have mental problems, expressed in repetitive movements. Children see a caricature of what goes on in nature.”

He says that it would be much better for children to watch documentaries on chimpanzees moving around in the wild. “They’re intelligent animals and suffer a lot because the visitors harass them. If the zoos are unable to build big spaces for the animals to have some privacy, then it’s better not to have any zoos. I don’t want zoos to close down and leave zoo employees jobless; I want to change the focus of zoos, which should be centers of observation, and closed to visitors.”

Catão Dias disagrees. “Zoos are windows that raise the awareness of the world. When children see animals from the Amazon Rainforest or from the Cerrado region, they begin to understand the need for preserving animal species and the environments they come from. “In his opinion, zoos could go beyond their original intent if they also gave value to human cultures linked to each animal species. “In the Buenos Aires zoo, the walls of the snow leopards’ enclosures are decorated with drawings of Nepal, as these animals are native to the Himalayas; Buddhist groups sometimes come to the zoo to conduct leopard worshipping ceremonies,” he says.

Catão Dias states that in January 2005 in Buenos Aires he watched the Mapuche peoples honor the condors, this indigenous group’s messengers to the gods; these condors were kept in captivity.  A while later, he participated in a ceremony that released the condors on a peninsula in the south of Argentina. The condor feathers that fell to the ground were gathered and taken to a witch doctor, who blessed them and then let the feathers fly in the wind. Dias was given one of these feathers and placed it on his desk. “It would be fantastic to retrieve these cultural traditions with our animals, by using the traditions of the indigenous peoples, such as the Guaranis and their rituals with maned wolves and jaguars,” he says.

EDUARDO CESARBird aviary at the São Paulo ZooEDUARDO CESAR

The Brazilian Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources Institute (Ibama) is helping modernize zoos via stricter supervision. In the last few years, Ibama closed down a number of institutions that did not have teams, sanitary conditions or appropriate infrastructure, or closed the facilities off to visitors. “The zoos were not obliged to hire a technician to look after the animals; nowadays they have to have at least a veterinarian and a biologist on the staff,” says Pires. “There is no way one can justify keeping an animal in captivity if the animal is not in good physical or mental health.” However, there is still a lot to be done. Of the 129 institutions linked to the SZB, only 45 are registered with Ibama.

Maintaining animals in captivity is an ancient habit. Five thousand years ago, the pharaohs kept hyenas, monkeys, leopards, giraffes and birds. The Chinese and Roman emperors also liked exotic animals; later on, the European kings liked to show off their exotic animals, which attested to their vast domains. In Brazil, the first zoos were opened in 1882 at the Emílio Goeldi Museum, in the city of Belem, State of Pará, and soon thereafter , in the cities of Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba and São Paulo. Zoos were opened in other cities, especially from the 1970’s onwards. Now, seeking to reinvent themselves, Brazilian zoos have diversified the animals in their facilities. Today, the zoos have about 40 thousand animals from Brazil and other countries, including fish, which are not often remembered by Sunday visitors going to the zoo to see lions and giraffes. “An aquarium is also a zoo,” says Pires.

According to Catão Dias, zoos will tend to have fewer animals, but all of them will have a better quality of life. He says that in 2001, when he became the technical and scientific director of the São Paulo Zoo, it had roughly 4,600 animals. Based on a plan that focused on priority species for conservation and on information on the health conditions, age and abundance of the animals, he started to control animal procreation by means of sterilization or vasectomy. As a result, the total number of animals dropped to 3,100 in 2007, when he left this job. “In six years, we reduced the number of big carnivores, such as lions, jaguars and cougars, by half, as that population was far too big. The number was reduced without affecting the conservation of these species.”

Another decision was made in 2001. “Since then, we no longer accept apprehended or donated animals,” says Paulo Magalhães Bressan, director-president of the São Paulo Zoo. “We have no more space. We still have a long way to go, but the image of zoos as a warehouse for animals is misleading. The zoos used to be like that, but not anymore.” Like the drop in the number of animals, scientific research used to be conducted in silence. Research studies were rarely followed closely, as is the case in the search for microorganisms in the decomposing material at the back of the São Paulo Zoo.

This work started in an unusual manner: with a lost bag at the Chicago Airport. The luggage was coming from Japan, with samples of microorganisms extracted from the feces of zoo animals. Kohei Oda, professor emeritus at the Technological Institute of Kyoto, had planned to investigate the properties of these microorganisms at Unifesp, where he was doing temporary work in 2007. Oda had already discovered enzyme-producing microbes that had been used to develop new methods for the degradation of plastic packaging.

In his search for similar organisms, Unifesp professor Unifesp Luiz Juliano Neto took Oda to visit the compost facility at the São Paulo Zoo. Oda was ecstatic, but had to return to Japan. The team from Unifesp continued doing the work. “Nobody wanted to touch the animal waste, but suddenly everyone realized that those dejects were worth a fortune,” says Juliano, the group’s coordinator; the group has already attracted collaborators from USP and from Paulista State University (Unesp). Luis Fernando Tamassia, research manager at Tortuga, a company that manufactures animal feed, is following the research work, being particularly interested in phytase, a specific group of enzymes that can facilitate the absorption of food and generate less waste.

EDUARDO CESARWhite rhinoceros – endangered speciesEDUARDO CESAR

At least once a week, Renata Pascon and Julio Cezar Franco de Oliveira, Unifesp professors, put on boots, aprons and gloves. They climb into the troughs and collect samples of the decomposing material at different depths.  It used to take a long time to isolate and identify the microorganisms that could be cultivated. However, in 2008, Juliano found out that a piece of equipment in his lab – more specifically, a mass spectrometer used to separate and identify proteins – could be used to identify the microorganisms. “The time to identify the species was reduced from weeks to a couple of hours,” says Renata. The next challenge is to produce enzymes of more interest. According to Oliveira, microorganisms rarely grow outside their own environments. This is why researchers are creating a microorganism and genetic clone bank. They believe they can express the genes in bacteria that will produce the enzymes.

The São Paulo Zoo will probably take part in the management of the Research Center of Triage of Wild Animals (CPTRAS), expected to go into operation this year in the town of Cubatão, on the São Paulo State coast. Headed by Eliana Matushima and Luiz Carlos de Sá-Rocha, professors from the School of Veterinary Medicine at USP, the center is to focus on research on animals from the Mata Atlantica, rainforest, and help in the search for new criteria on what to do with these animals.

Estimates indicate that every year government entities apprehend millions of animals as a result of illegal trafficking; the São Paulo Environmental Police alone retrieved 25 thousand animals in 2005, the latest year with available data in this respect. Most of these animals die. The survivors are released, but not always in the environments where they came from; some of them go to authorized facilities. “Releasing animals carelessly can be disastrous,” warns Cruz. “Two species of tamarins – the Callithrix jacchus, which was trafficked from the Northeast region into the State of São Paulo, and the C. penicillata, found in the transition zones in the State of São Paulo, are more aggressive and threaten the C. aurita species that is native to the states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, as they compete for food and space. The result can be loss of biodiversity in the Southeast Region.”

Bressan and Cruz believe that, by means of this new center, they will be able to propose, based on international recommendations, criteria on the destination of the wild animals that are apprehended or abandoned. “There are no legal, technical or scientific guidelines that indicate clearly what to do,” says Cruz. “The euthanasia of wild animals, adopted by public institutions of other countries, is still a controversial issue here.” According to Pires, in some countries the animals are sacrificed at the airport where they are apprehended, which helps to avoid spreading unknown viruses. Catão Dias says that “Australian zoos were unable to deal with run-over kangaroos – which were subject to euthanasia – because the population of these animals in captivity was already very large.”

Bressan states that the labyrinth of laws makes conservation efforts difficult: “An animal raiser from Belo Horizonte is separating the male harpies from the female ones, because he doesn’t want them to reproduce anymore. We are interested in the harpies, but until we have the permits from the several federal government entities, they will not leave the facility.”

Cristiano Azevedo, a researcher of the Federal University of Minas Gerais currently working at the Belo Horizonte University Center, verified that the Brazilian zoos are far from representing the diversity of Brazilian birds. His survey, published in the Zoo Biology journal, stated that Brazilian zoos keep 350 species of birds – an insignificant number relative to the nearly 2,000 native bird species. Another conclusion is that the most endangered species are seldom found in zoos. Azevedo participated in the preparation of a mathematical index that evaluates the role of zoos in the conservation of wild animals: “The only zoo with satisfactory results was the São Paulo Zoo. The others are unsuitable.”

It will be difficult for zoos to keep up with the wishes of wildlife lovers. “Brazil has a huge diversity, with enormous problems and tiny budgets. We won’t be able to represent Brazilian biodiversity in zoos,” says Catão Dias. Bressan adds: “We have to identify the most important species.” Pires states that “zoos are not Noah’s Ark.”

EDUARDO PONTES/MATA CILIARAnhanguera, found on a highway and set free in the Serra do Japi mountain rangeEDUARDO PONTES/MATA CILIAR

Back to the jungle
Anhanguera, a puma aged almost two, 1.5 meters long and weighing 42 kilos, was set free on February 10. On that day, it was released from a 100-square meter enclosure surrounded by metal screens, where it had lived for 1.5 months in the midst of thick woods at an altitude of nearly 2 thousand meters in the Japi mountain range, a patch of Mata Atlantica, rainforest, not far from the capital city of São Paulo.

“We are achieving what I’ve always dreamed of,” celebrates Cristina Harumi Adania, fauna coordinator of the Mata Ciliar [riverside vegetation] association, one of the few NGOs in Brazil that looks after wild animals. This entity conducts research on conservation strategies jointly with universities from Brazil and the United States, as well as with government entities and companies.

Cristina headed the group of researchers that went up the mountain range to the enclosure where Anhanguera lived. Without letting the animal see them, they installed three cameras to record the animal’s departure; they opened the entrance and left silently, around 5:30 a.m. on February 10. Also without being seen by the puma, biologist Jairo de Cássio Pereira went up and down in two kilometers of thick vegetation. He did that once or twice a day in the previous month, to send live prey (quail and guinea pigs) through a PVC tube leading inside the enclosure. This way, the puma would be able to hunt the prey and get ready for its release, without associating food with human presence.

“We want to release the animals and also monitor them after their release. How are we to know if they will really be able to survive?” says Cristina. The puma had been found – wounded and with a broken tooth – after being run over on the Anhanguera highway in September 2009. Now, it is wearing a special collar. This way the researchers from the Mata Ciliar NGO intend to track its movements and become better acquainted with its behavior in the wilds. Since last year, the researchers have been keeping track of a jaguar and two maned wolves, all of which had the collars. Not everything has worked out as planned. In November 2010, one of the maned wolves, captured in Campinas, was run over on the Dom Pedro I highway, after having run 25 kilometers in a single day (much farther than the normal one or two kilometers of the previous days). The animal had been fleeing from a forest fire in the area of Bragança Paulista, where it had been released.

The Mata Ciliar association is sent an average of five wild animals a day from the Center for the Rehabilitation of Wild Animals (Cras) and the Brazilian Center for the Conservation of Neotropical Cats, both located on a 36-hectare farm in Jundiai, 60 kilometers away from the capital city of São Paulo. When possible, the team sets the animals free in the same places as they came from. On a single day in early February, the NGO’s team set free two boa constrictors, one carijó hawk and 15 birds that had appeared in the town of Cabreúva after heavy rains flooded the patch of forest they lived in.

Sometimes the Mata Ciliar team sets the animals free as soon as they find them, as was the case with a jaguar that had been rescued – with the help of firefighters – from a tree. The jaguar had climbed up the tree to a height of 30 meters from the ground, in the town of Itirapina, not far from the city of São Carlos. The big cats are charismatic, to the point that they attract admirers and sponsorship from companies that help pay for such things as the collars. However, what should one do with a skunk, or, more precisely, with the eight skunks that were brought in by local inhabitants? “We also take care of them, and reduce contact with people to a minimum and then we set them free in the forest,” says Cristina. She adds that there are still some gaps in the rules that establish where and when the animals should be set free.

DNA bank
Not all animals are returned to where they came from. One of the reasons for this is that forests are shrinking. William Douglas de Carvalho, a Mata Ciliar researcher, has noticed that gated property developments are “strangling the Serra do Japi mountain range,” as he puts it. “The animals get lost and are unable to go back to where they lived.” In this mountain range’s forests, Carvalho located 32 native mammal species, as well as non-indigenous species, such as the European hare, the nutria, and a growing number of pet dogs. Another reason is that many of the rescued animals would be easy prey or probably unable to survive if they went back to the forests. This is why the Mata Ciliar NGO keeps some 200 animals, including a hawk with an amputated wing, brown howlers injured by dogs, and parrots raised by people, as well as felines born in captivity.

Approximately 20 thousand samples of DNA, blood, and other materials are stored in freezers and liquid nitrogen containers. These samples have been useful for research on the biology, reproduction, and behavior of wild animals. In 2007, three ocelots were born there by means of embryo transfers, a rarely used technique on felines in Brazil and adopted as a result of collaboration agreements with teams from the Cincinnati Zoo in the United States. In 2009, Cristina concluded her doctorate at USP on the physiology and pregnancy of ocelots, which, like other Brazilian cats, are on the endangered species list.

The Project
Establishment of an applied microbiology laboratory in the São Paulo Zoo: identification of microorganisms that produce enzymes and their inhibitors (nº 2009/52030-5); Type Regular Research Awards; Coordinator Luiz Juliano Neto – Unifesp; Investment R$ 1,046,124.23 (FAPESP)

Scientific article
Azevedo, C. et al. Role of Brazilian Zoos in Ex Situ Bird Conservation: from 1981 to 2005Zoo Biology. 29, 1-17. Nov. 2010