Word for the Birds: Reid Park Zoo Collaborates on International Flamingo Conservation

As scientists warn that some South American flamingos could be threatened with extinction, the Reid Park Zoo is taking steps to help the aquatic birds.

Along with fostering 26 flamingos in its own lagoon, the zoo recently partnered with the Zoo Conservation Outreach Group and Association of Zoos & Aquariums to lead the Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) program for South American flamingos.

SAFE flamingo efforts are focused on the three species living in the Andean highlands: the Andean flamingo, Chilean flamingo and James's flamingo. Reid Park Zoo submitted a three-year plan in 2020 involving steps for uniting research and education to ensure the bird's survival.

According to Jennifer Stoddard, Reid Park Zoo's education supervisor, the first part of the plan involves GPS tracking of individual flamingos with the help of the Chilean National Zoo. The goal of this is to create a better understanding of wetland use, migration patterns and breeding cycles. The Chilean National Zoo has been responsible for placing small GPS devices on flamingos and monitoring their movements.

"We need to know how individual flamingos use habitat and which habitats are important to support flamingo populations," said Felicity Arengo, the Americas coordinator of the International Union for Conservation of Nature flamingo specialist group. "Knowing how much they move around and what sites they use is essential to designing conservation strategies based on scientific evidence."

According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, all South American flamingo species are either considered vulnerable or near threatened. A growing demand for lithium and anthropogenic climate change are combining to damage the habitat of these aquatic birds.

Lithium, used in rechargeable batteries for electric cars, computers and cell phones, is abundant in South American flamingo habitats, especially in high Andean wetlands. Arengo explained that lithium mining destroys the habitat that flamingos depend on.

Additionally, climate models have predicted that Andean snow caps and glacial ice, which recharge wetlands occupied by flamingos, will continue to retreat. According to a 2019 study in The Cryosphere, almost a third of Peruvian glacial area was lost just between 2000 and 2016. Arengo said that the loss of water could result in less food for flamingos, since it will affect species across the board. Stoddard said identifying the specific Andean water sources that flamingos depend on will allow targeted conservation efforts.

Another area of the three-year-plan involves bringing zoo and aquarium educators together to construct educational tool kits, focused on improving public understanding of flamingo conservation issues. According to Stoddard, the tool kits will be dispersed among zoos and aquariums so that they can use them to promote flamingo conservation within their local communities.

"Some of the educational things that we'll be talking about are lithium mining and climate change and how everyday people can do something about that to help flamingos," Stoddard said.

Other than the SAFE program, Reid Park Zoo is also participating in a Chilean flamingo Species Survival Plan through AZA. According to Stoddard, many Species Survival Plans aim to protect genetic diversity among zoos and aquariums. This involves determining population characteristics, whether an animal should be moved to another zoo for breeding and the extent to which individuals are related within zoo populations. SSP programs also oversee animal reintroductions into the wild.

Although no flamingo species in the Andes are currently considered to be endangered, Stoddard believes that it is important to be proactive rather than reactive in the face of growing conservation challenges.

"Now is the time to take action to save the species rather than when we're knocking on the door of extinction," Stoddard said.

Reid Park Zoo's recent conservation efforts go beyond flamingos. Within the zoo, staff are working on initiatives around bee protection and sustainable water use, construction and recycling. On a global level, the zoo has offered financial and educational support to conservation efforts like the creation of elephant corridors in Tanzania and the protection of anteaters from being hit on Brazilian highways.

"Our mission is conservation," Stoddard said. "It is essentially to connect people to protect wildlife and wild places... it is at the core of everything we're doing at the zoo."

For more information, visit reidparkzoo.org/conservation/zoo-conservation/

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