Thirty-One Noahs, One Ark and a Global Connection through Conservation
Jessica Steiner, is a 2005 Durrell Endangered Species Management (DESMAN) course graduate. Fifteen years later she is Conservation Programs Director for Wildlife Preservation Canada (WPC), and valuable member of Durrell's army. Read on to hear how her time on the course influenced her conservation career...
Opportunity of a Lifetime
When I arrived in Jersey to complete the DESMAN course in 2005, I felt like a conservation newbie. Having just recently completed my Masters in Wildlife Health and Population Management, and with a couple of contracts working with conservation breeding programs at my local Toronto Zoo under my belt, I was at the start of my career – full of hope and passion, eager to learn, and feeling slightly out of my league amongst the more seasoned conservation professionals on the course. That lasted perhaps a day. There is nothing like travelling far from home and being thrown into a dorm-style arrangement with like-minded individuals to build immediate connections and friendships.
How did I get here? I had the honour of being Canada’s New Noah that year. This prestigious program is awarded by Wildlife Preservation Canada (WPC) – a sister organization to Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, founded by Gerald Durrell in 1985. To keep his legacy alive, as well as the longstanding ties between the organizations, one young Canadian is selected from dozens of applicants to complete the DESMAN course in Jersey, followed by 6 months immersed in recovery work for some of the world’s rarest species in Mauritius. The opportunity of a lifetime, the program is meant to equip New Noah’s with the skills and confidence they need to make a difference in species conservation, and bring that capacity back home to Canada. Quite the honour. Quite the responsibility. I was on cloud 9! I had grown up reading Gerald Durrell, and couldn’t believe I was now standing here amongst the pages of his books.
"Being able to effectively and respectfully listen to diverse perspectives...is an essential skill in conservation that I rely on to this day".
The DESMAN course was full of conservation professionals from around the globe. While I learned much theory and practical applications from my time in Jersey, this was greatly enriched by my time with the other course participants. Learning from them and gaining a real world view of the challenges and opportunities in species conservation remains a highlight of my career. Being able to effectively and respectfully listen to diverse perspectives from people with various backgrounds is an essential skill in conservation that I rely on to this day.
Photo above: Jessica with her friends and course graduates of DESMAN . Photo Below: Valuable research completed by Jessica as part of the Loggerhead Shrike Recovery Programme
Conservation in Canada
Upon my return to Canada I have been fortunate enough to continue to work for WPC. Their mandate and mission to be Canada’s last defence for endangered species has always been the conservation space I’ve wanted to be in. Melding skills I’d gained in field work and captive population management, I quickly moved into a lead biologist role coordinating a large multi-faceted, multi-partner recovery program for Eastern loggerhead shrike - a unique raptorial songbird that is disappearing from Canadian grasslands with less than 25 pairs left in the country. These species on the brink deserve a chance. Ex-situ tools which involve activities outside of a species’ natural habitat, such as conservation breeding, headstarting, translocations and reintroductions are among the techniques available to recover species. WPC specializes in developing and applying these tools when appropriate, when populations have dwindled to such small numbers that habitat protection or restoration alone is not enough. While fulfilling this niche, we always work collaboratively and in partnership with many other organizations to ensure a holistic approach to our efforts.
Leading the Way
I am now the Conservation Programs Director for the organization, overseeing and supporting our lead biologists who are implementing critical programs for endangered species across the country. I recently co-founded a new program in partnership with African Lion Safari called the Canadian Species Initiative which seeks to greatly expand this holistic and integrated approach to conservation to meet the needs of Canadian species at risk. This approach – termed the One Plan Approach by the IUCN’s Conservation Planning Specialist Group (CPSG) – has been gaining traction globally, with a recognized need here in Canada. The great need for this type of approach is something I learned while in Jersey, where in-situ and ex-situ management needs are tightly intertwined, making the Jersey Zoo a leader and trail-blazer in this regard. The Canadian Species Initiative now serves as the CPSG Canada Regional Resource Centre, and coincidently I am now working alongside colleagues who were once involved in my DESMAN training!
Photo Left: Training in small mammal monitoring during the DESMAN course.
I feel like I am realizing the dream I had when I decided to apply for the Canada’s New Noah program, that I am a contributing and valuable member of Durrell’s army. I was the 16th New Noah then, and we recently announced our 31st! I have looked forward to participating in the annual selection process, and living vicariously as they each depart for new adventures in Jersey and Mauritius, knowing that they will invariably make important contributions to the preservation of species on this planet. These days, we need all the help we can get!
Jessica participated in Durrell Conservation Academy's DESMAN graduate certificate which is designed to equip conservation professionals with a complete range of skills to maximise their effectiveness at managing or participating in conservation projects. You will learn the latest theory and practice of endangered species recovery, and gain a wide variety of skills in facilitation, management and leadership. Click here https://bit.ly/2SSAJJU for more information about the course and other conservation study opportunities.If you would like to hear more about the work of WPC’s Conservation Programs Director Jessica Steiner, listen to her recent audio blog here on the Wildlife Preservation Canada website as she discusses her career path, the importance of WPC's work, and the types of skills younger conservation leader should be trying to develop to make a bigger conservation impact.
Photo above: the Eastern Logger Head Shrike is Critically Endangered, fast disappearing from the grasslands of Canada (wildlifepreservation.ca)
A note on Canada's Noahs
Wildlife Preservation Canada (WPC) is a Canadian sister organization to Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, founded in 1985 with a goal of continuing Gerald Durrell’s lifelong work of saving endangered species through hands-on conservation techniques. For over 30 years, WPC has continued to realize Durrell’s dream through nation-wide species at risk recovery strategies, and educational opportunities for young Canadian scientists.
Since 1990, Wildlife Preservation Canada (WPC) has sent one biology graduate to participate in classroom and fields studies at Durrell Conservation Academy facilities in both Jersey and Mauritius. While on the program, the Noahs learn a holistic suite of skills, including an understanding of the biology and ecology of small populations, recovery techniques, leading conservation projects, education and stakeholder management, and a research project in species recovery. Every Noah returns not only full of inspiration and hope to carry out conservation in Canada, but also equipped with the necessary knowledge to design and implement effective conservation projects.
Meet Arista Ketaren - Conservation in Sumatra
This former DESMAN student is working hard to save the endangered orangutans of Sumatra
I have worked with orangutans at the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme's (SOCP) Quarantine Centre in Northern Sumatra since 2009. Originally I was one of the orangutan keeping staff (Orangutan Technician). In 2015 I was lucky enough to spend a few weeks working as a volunteer with the animal keepers (mostly on primates and carnivores) at Auckland Zoo in New Zealand. In 2017, I was promoted to my current position as manager of the Centre, responsible for managing all the staff and daily operations.
The Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) has been working since 2001 on all aspects of orangutan conservation in Sumatra. A major focus of the SOCP’s work is the rescue, quarantine, rehabilitation and eventual reintroduction of illegal pet orangutans. Since opening, the SOCP’s Orangutan Quarantine and Rehabilitation Centre has received over 410 orangutans and more than 300 of these have been reintroduced back to the wild, helping to create entirely new, viable wild populations of their species.
Our work is not easy, by a long way, and is often very emotional, but the rewards of the progress and the positive achievements constantly inspire the staff at SOCP to persist in their hard work. The centre averages around 50 orangutans at any one time. Most are confiscated illegal pets in need of medical care and rehabilitation in preparation for eventual reintroduction to the wild. Since I began working with the SOCP I have probably worked with more than 200 individual orangutans, most of which have already been released. Sadly, some of the orangutans that find themselves at the centre arrive in devastatingly poor health and condition, and are often traumatised too, and a few of them, even with time and the care that the SOCP provides, are unable to live free in the wild ever again.
At present, there are seven individuals that cannot be released back to their natural habitat, due to physical, or even phsychological disabilities. Even sadder is that their problems were all caused by humans, as is illustrated by the stories of Hope and Leuser, below.
Hope is an adult female orangutan. She was shot 74 times with an air rifle at the edge of the forest. Some of the pellets are lodged in her eyes, causing permanent blindness. She also and lost her baby during the same incident, a result of human cruelty. Highly traumatised, Hope spent several months recovering from her physical injuries, which included some open lacerations and a broken collar bone, but will take much longer for her to recover from the mental trauma of her experience. She remains afraid when she hears human voices and seems to get upset by the sound of any infant orangutans crying nearby.
Leuser was shot near the edge of a protected forest by farmers out shooting pests near their crops. We found 62 air rifle pellets scattered around his body and like Hope he is blind as some of them hit him in the eyes. We removed some of the pellets but he still has 48 inside him as removing them all would be too invasive and unnecessarily risky.
Photo left above : Orangutan Leuser. Photo right : Hope and an X-ray showing air rifle pellets in her head and chest (Source: SOCP)
Sadly, some other orangutans have arrived over the years with similar experiences, but did not survive their ordeal. This is one of the aspects of our work that continually motivates us all to do everything in our power to prevent events like these, violent and very one-sided orangutan human conflicts, from happening in the future.
Rehabilitating and reintroducing orangutans represents just one of many challenges the SOCP faces to protect orangutans in Sumatra. Both species (Pongo abelii and Pongo tapanuliensis) are in decline and are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species due to continued habitat loss and human persecution. Not only are these enigmatic and intelligent Great Apes an incredibly beautiful sight to see in the wild, they also play a vital role in seed dispersal and in maintaining the health of the forest habitat - an ecosystem which is important for people and a wealth of wildlife, including Sumatran tigers, elephants and rhinos.
The Orangutan Haven
Over the years we have accumulated a number of orangutans that cannot be released to the wild. Given that these individuals could live to 40 or even 50 years old or more, we do not want them spending the rest of their days in the large metal cages they are now in at the Quarantine and Rehabilitation Centre. With this in mind, we came up with the idea to try and build some large naturalistic islands, where they could live out their days in a much larger, and naturalistic environment. If we can, we would also like them to somehow be able to play a role in the future of their species, despite not being able to be free in the wild anymore.
Education and raising awareness is an essential part of the SOCP’s long-term approach to conservation, to help address the core of the problem. If we could somehow get visitors to see these orangutans too, we felt this would be a highly innovative and unique mechanism to achieve our goals and get the conservation and sustainable development message across to a large and extremely diverse audience.
The answer? An Orangutan Haven - a new innovation by SOCP to build public awareness to protect and maintain the balance of the ecosystem, building a whole new facility that will integrate education and better quality enclosures for the rehabilitated orangutans.
The SOCP secured 48 hectares of land in 2014 and has created 9 islands for orangutans in a large green valley at the centre of the site.
The idea of islands in the Orangutan Haven was inspired by Dr Ian Singleton, Director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program (SOCP) and former Animal Keeper at Jersey Zoo, headquarters of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.
Ian (himself a Durrell graduate), was a key member of the original design team for the ‘Orangutan Island Habitat’ at Jersey Zoo which has been an enormous success, not only for the zoo’s resident orangutans, but as an exciting, immersive attraction to visitors. Following this achievement, Ian and the SOCP hope that the Orangutan Haven in Sumatra will become a major asset for species and habitat conservation, and conservation education and awareness building in northern Sumatra.
Photo Left: Aerial view of the islands valley at the Orangutan Haven, showing all 9 of the newly created Orangutan Islands (Source: SOCP)
In addition to caring for the orangutans, facilities are also being established at the Orangutan Haven for other endangered animals in Sumatra, including some of Sumatra’s critically endangered song bird species – threatened mostly by the illegal wildlife trade, and Fruit Bats (Pteropusvampyrus) whose numbers are declining rapidly due to capture for the traditional medicine market.
Hands on work with these and other species over the coming years, and the knowledge which Arista gained at Jersey Zoo working alongside keepers and learning from specialist staff, will help to preserve populations of many key species and to deliver educational talks that explain that population declines in the wild will continue if human attitudes and actions do not change.
My DESMAN training is invaluable to the SOCP as we gradually develop our Orangutan Haven, with its vast education potential and its plans to establish focussed captive breeding programmes for critically endangered songbird species.
SOCP hopes that through this work it will protect the ecosystem and biodiversity in Indonesia - a fragile home for a truly rich diversity of people and wildlife.
Arista participated in the Durrell Conservation Academy DESMAN course in 2020. This course is designed to equip conservation professionals with a complete range of skills to maximise their effectiveness at managing or participating in conservation projects. You will learn the latest theory and practice of endangered species recovery, and gain a wide variety of skills in facilitation, management and leadership. Click here https://bit.ly/2SSAJJU for more information about the course and other conservation study opportunities.
Find out more about how this DESMAN Alumni and the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme work here: https://www.sumatranorangutan.org/our-work/creating-new-wild-populations/orangutanhaven/
Dr Ian Singleton, MBE, supports a range of vital conservation projects including a unique initiative twinned with Jersey. The mission of "The Size of Jersey" is to restore a rainforest the size of Jersey, specifically 4 illegal palm oil concessions that have been illegally planted within the boundary of the Leuser Ecosystem in Northern Sumatra. By restoring what has been taken away from this vital habitat, their work will also assist Jersey in achieving its 2030 carbon neutrality goal. Read here for more information.
Conservation Challenges on the Dodoland during the COVID-19 Pandemic
By Erwin Amavassee (DESMAN graduate 2019)
What a year it’s been!! 2020 was gearing up to be the ‘year of nature’, but several global biodiversity and climate conferences were put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first time on a global scale, modern human activities were reduced to its lowest and the word “anthropause” was coined by authors in an article published in Natural Ecology and Evolution to define this phenomenon. Many countries have been under lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19. Dodoland (Mauritius) was no exception, starting from March 2020. The lockdown prevented most conservationists in Mauritius, like myself, from entering the field or offices. We were instead cooped up at home for 3 months.
As the Project Coordinator of Friends of the Environment (FoE), I manage and coordinate a small but high impact ecological forest restoration project. I normally spend 3 to 4 days a week in the field doing monitoring surveys, organising community-based volunteering activities and supervising restoration activities among other related fieldwork. The pandemic negatively affected our organisational activities. From November to April, 60 % of our restoration activities are mainly focused on the re-introduction of site-specific plant species on site through tree-planting programmes with volunteers. Sadly, even before any COVID-19 cases were officially confirmed in Mauritius, 45% of our volunteering activities were cancelled when the fear and panic began to spread. At that time, a study by the University of Southampton claimed that Mauritius is the 3rd country most at risk in the African region and this caused more fear. As a result, we failed to achieve our planting objectives on the fifth year of the project.
Photo showing Erwin carrying out tree performance surveys
Photo showing volunteering activities with corporate groups just before lockdown began
At first, it was a challenge to come to terms with not being able to fully perform my role in the project, knowing that our post-planting maintenance activities were completely hindered and no regular site inspection or patrol could be carried out. We had another big fear to worry about. During mid-May, we regularly face fire outbreaks of moderate intensities and a single fire outbreak can easily reverse 5 years of intense restoration work. Fortunately, essential security services were operating and I was occasionally receiving updates with photographs from a watchman guarding Fort Adelaïde – a 19th century national heritage landmark situated next to the project restoration site.
Photo showing yearly wildlife's caused by anthropogenic pressures and invasive fire-prone grass
Applying adaptive management through the visual aids greatly helped in initiating procedures to allow two staff members to carry out firebreak maintenance on field with a special Work Access Permit obtained from the Police forces. Within 4 days after maintenance, a fire outbreak ravaged 5 hectares of the hill. Fortunately, our restoration site was spared as the timely maintenance of firebreaks stopped the progression of fire successfully. Upon resuming work in late May with a Work Access Permit, I found out that three water reservoirs at the project site were vandalised and about 12 % of saplings had died in our nursery. A proper contingency plan was set-up to address the situation appropriately, as a lack of water supply can result in high mortality of planted saplings during the dry season.
For me, the lockdown was an opportunity to focus on other tasks while “working from home” was gaining ground throughout various sectors. The use of social media skyrocketed during the lockdown and I had the opportunity to reach out to the public on how to contribute to a new normal after lockdown through an outreach programme developed by a digital platform “2 minutes for tomorrow”. In this short video, I was able to raise awareness on the loss of biodiversity and emergence of zoonotic infectious diseases, the need to support local conservation organisations, the urgency to halt illegal dumping in ecologically sensitive areas such as caves and to engage in sustainable agricultural practices. The video in Mauritian Creole (with subtitles in French) is available from: https://www.facebook.com/2minutesmu/videos/286866575838830/
The lockdown period was also a good time to bond with family and check up on loved ones, colleagues, friends and community. Keeping in touch with friends all around the world, including my supportive DESMAN 2019 classmates, gave strength in knowing that we were all passing through this difficult period together. While I was safely confined at home, Dhanu Munasinghe, Project Manager in Singapore, was put on enforcement duties to make sure that people are following the advisories in parks and nature reserves to prevent spread of the COVID-19.
Over the years, non-governmental organisations have made significant contributions to humanity. However, the COVID-19 has triggered a funding crisis that many of us were anticipating and where it is expected to limit donors’ funding capacity and availability in future. As a relatively small organisation, it was urgent to re-think our funding model and diversify our income sources by accessing different types of funding schemes. Our project success depends on ensuring financial sustainability especially for long-term restoration activities and the ability to keep our dedicated staff members employed. With this in mind, I made several funding applications and hope to build new alliances in the upcoming months. Besides this, I’ll need to develop a proper volunteer management system to double-up planting activities for the next rainy season.
Amidst this crisis, COVID-19 offers an opportunity to re-think our relationship with our planet. It is more important than ever that we keep working toward a sustainable future. The world’s response to COVID-19 demonstrated the incredible capacity of humanity to come together in the face of unprecedented and insurmountable challenges to adapt and take action at the scale necessary. This is what we need to conserve biodiversity and tackle climate change – even at an individual level.
Thankfully, with no new local cases, Mauritius was considered COVID-19-free since June 2020. Reducing the risk of community transmission lies in our hands. Keep safe. Wearing a mask is caring!