“Rarest of the Rare”


Please read my post on the State of the Wild (WCS 2010). The white-headed langur like the Indo-Chinese tiger and other tiger subspecies has been driven to near extinction in-part because of wildlife trafficking. Traditional Chinese Medicine continues to promote the practice of zootherapy.  Zootherapeutic agents include parts and derivatives of whole carcasses, tissues and byproducts of wildlife. There are approximately 100 white-headed langurs left in the wild. One subspecies occurs in Cat Ba Island, Vietnam and the other in Guangxi, China.  This partially albinistic langur was considered a subspecies of Francois’ langurs as recently as 1995.  One day I may share my experience with captive Francois’ langurs. If I had to pick a favorite Old World monkey, I might just pick Francois’ langurs.

Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus


Jungle Yellow Fever

I’m scheduled to give a talk to an audience at the Beardsley Zoo in Connecticut next month on topics relevant to ecological health and conservation medicine. These emerging field disciplines are popular right now, just as veterinary epidemiology has become a hot topic among interdisciplinary collection-based research programs.  They are not just popular. These health science disciplines are vital areas for researching the implications of the human-wildlife interface in regions of the world where wildlife coexists closely with human populations.

While perusing wildlife health resources I realized that I missed some recent epizootics or at least notable reports of disease outbreaks in wildlife.  The Wildlife Conservation Society just released some news regarding the cause of a 2007-2008 die-off  among two of the 9 extant species of howler monkeys.  Altogether 59 monkeys in northeastern Argentina succumbed to this arbovirus (arthropod-borne virus) some of which were a subspecies of brown howler monkeys (Alouatta guariba).  Although found in relatively high densities even in fragmented habitat, hunting and disease have impacted otherwise sustainable populations of these large leaf-eating monkeys.

Muller, Frankfurt Zoo

Jungle Yellow Fever refers to the sylvatic or wild life cycle which persists with in New World monkey populations in forest habitat.  The acute viral hemmorhagic disease which has it’s origins in Africa is also now endemic in Latin America. Infected Old World primates are typically asymptomatic, but the virus takes it’s toll on the more susceptible Central and South American primates which have not co-evolved with the disease.  Aedes spp. mosquitoes serve as vectors of this viral pathogen and if they feed on unvaccinated populations of humans, the disease is easily transmitted and may persist in “urban” transmission cycles.

Yellow fever refers to the jaundice that affects some human patients. The disease, if not treated, can be lethal.  As people continue to encroach upon wild lands and deforestation rates increase in tropical regions, the potential for the sylvatic disease transmission cycle to evolve into an intermediate and/or urban transmission cycle becomes increasingly likely.  As people and monkeys increasingly attempt to co-exist, threats to human health from Yellow Fever will persist without the intervention of immunization  and mosquito control programs.   Yellow fever exemplifies a human health risk that can be assessed and addressed though surveillance programs targeted at wild primates.  In this case brown howler monkey populations which are already threatened by human activities serve as indicators of disease outbreaks in areas inhabited by humans.

Some zoos in Latin America, including facilities in Belize warn people not to purchase monkey as pets, mentioning several reasons, one of which is concern over diseases like Yellow Fever.  Yellow fever like all arboviruses is considered a zoonotic disease because the transmission cycle involves   insect vectors and people. However,  no direct transmission occurs between primates and people.

According to ISIS  the only pair of  brown howler monkeys (Alouatta guariba guaribaNorthern Brown Howler) in captivity (on record) are housed at the  Fundacao Zoo-Botan. de Belo Horizonto. I believe the animal photographed above is a red howler monkey.

A Tusker Trampled My House

In exploring some issues relevant to the illegal trade in ivory I encountered report after report of tragic confrontations among villagers and elephants on the Indian Subcontinent– reports that rarely get much, if any coverage in the Western world, but are commonplace in local newspapers.

I admit that as little or as much as I know about  basic elephant behavior and biology, my exposure to elephants is quite limited to what I have learned in zoos. With that said, my acumen for husbandry, training and broader in situ conservation issues is based primarily on what I know of Africa’s savanna and forest elephants.  My knowledge of Asian elephants is second- hand and based on anecdotal information from handlers who worked with elephants for years in circuses and from colleagues who have worked with both Asian and African elephants in both protected and “free contact” situations……..  In fact, the most recent time I pondered the notion of working with elephants in captivity or in the  wild was when Harry Peachey, Elephant Manager, Curator, Board member (IEF), and world -renowned elephant expert lightheartedly proposed that we work on a joint project in Borneo. Harry surmised that Borneo was an ideal destination for our “project” because the  sun bears would cover my interests and pygmy elephants are of great interest to him.   It’s not that elephants would be a disappointment to work with, not in the least, but like chimps, I consider elephants to be far smarter than myself and I’m not sure who would be training who.  Anyway, the Borneo pygmy elephant is a subspecies of Asian elephant known for it’s size and passive demeanor and is under heavy extinction pressure.    But I digress, again…..

While the black market ivory trade flourishes and poached animals are tragically killed at alarming rates in Africa, the human-wild Asian elephant interface in India highlights the increasing difficulty to live with elephants who navigate the forest corridors that lead them through intact habitat, circumventing the need to travel through more densely populated human inhabited areas.  However, agricultural development outside preserves continue to place pressure on buffer zones. Roads and railway tracks fragment the habitat of the corridors crucial to elephant movements.

You can’t blame the elephant and you can’t blame local villagers. These people are just trying to make a living. But it’s just another reminder of how easy it is for people who have never encountered a herd of 50 or more agitated tuskers, as Asian bulls are often referred to, and cows trample your home and chase and sometimes injure or kill your family members.  This is not to say that in many situations the animals weren’t provoked, but this is not uncommon if you live closely to wild elephants.   I think that the media coverage of tame, domesticated elephants in Southeast Asia create an image of Asian elephants that we may prefer to believe.

Elephant issues in Africa and Asia are far more complicated than what I describe so briefly in this post, but it’s a poignant reminder that there are two sides to every story.  Although the black market promotes poaching for ivory even within protected preserves and often by the very game wardens and wildlife officials who are paid to protect theses animals, there are also people trying to make an honest living in elephant country.  Clearly the use of land by animal and man often creates tragic consequences for both elephants and people.

To learn more about what zoos are doing for captive elephant welfare and conservation visit the National Elephant Center. You can also read the recent Association of Zoos & Aquarium’s (AZA) Press Release on elephant conservation and this European Association of  Zoo & Aquarium’s (EAZA) Newsletter on Elephants. This latter issue dedicated to elephants is quite informative.

Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus