Author Archives: Christopher Lile


The shouts and giggles of small children echo through the valley as we walk past clusters of tiny houses roofed with Ravinala leaves. Sometimes we don’t see the body that the voice belongs to. Other times, the children are peering out behind a bamboo fence. If they are very brave, and this only happens when they are in a group, they will greet us while they are walking past us on the street. Regardless of location, the greeting is always the same: “SaluVasaha!” Salu is a French hello, and Vasaha means foreigner. Hello foreigner! My response is always the same as well; “Salama Zanika Gashy!” Salama is Malagasy for hello, Zanika is child or children, and Gashy is short for Malagasy, a common slang that Malagasy people call themselves. The children never fail to light up or shriek with laughter at the tall white foreigner speaking their language. And the adults nearby will often repeat my words and laugh themselves. We greet adults in passing with a more respectful greeting of “Akoryaby”; good day to you all.

                These are the interactions that can be expected each time we walk through the villages surrounding the field station that now feels like home. There are 9 villages in the Kianjavato commune, the largest being Kianjavato, where we travel every morning to buy snacks for the field and sometimes on Sundays for the market. And if we are working in Sangasanga and finish early, we will make the trek from Kianajvato back through the villages to the field station. Ambalahosy and Ambodibinary lie between the field station and Kianjavato. They look almost identical, the only difference being a small school in Ambodibinary. The villages stretch only for 100 meters or so before the clusters of homes give way to rice paddies that once again engulf the land on either side of the road.

Kianjavato is only slightly bigger, but is home to several tiny shops and a few more roadside vendors that serve up various types of mofo (bread) and fruit. On Sunday market days, however, the streets are packed with people, some walking from several villages away, to peruse the piles of clothes, the produce, and the electronics that are laid out on either side of the road, on blankets or in small bamboo stands. Roosters, chickens, and the occasional duck peck and waddle their way through the crowds, while loose dogs take shelter in the shade between houses or vendors. We see familiar faces as we walk through the crowds: reforestation workers, a lemur monitoring guide, our driver, one of the cook assistants. And we purchase bananas, slices of jackfruit, and bags of mofo, for less than 3,000 ariary ($1). On the way back to the field station, we never fail to stop at one of the road side vendors in Ambodibinary or Amalahosy for peanut brittle, usually buying them out with our insatiable appetite for the sweet, nutty flavor and the ability to buy 30 pieces for 3,000 ariary.

And seemingly regardless of the day, or time of day, encountering small herds of zebu, directed by small boys and their sticks, is almost unavoidable. They commandeer the sidelines of the roads, leaving rather large and slimy gifts behind. But neither the zebu nor the roosters and chickens occasionally strutting across the road, and no, not even the pedestrians walking from village to village have the right-a-way to the occasional taxi-brousse or truck flying through the curvy mountainous roads. Horns blaring, vehicles quickly clear the roads in front of them. It’s nice when you’re the one in the car, though not quite as nice when you’re the pedestrian.

Regardless of the constant need to watch for zebu poop or listen for taxi-brousses at every curve, I never tire of walking through the quaint villages of Kianjavato while returning the calls of “Salu Vasaha”. The walk not only provides opportunity to practice my Malagasy and load up on delicious snacks, but also gives a brief glimpse into the simple, but happy, lives of those in the communities that I feel lucky to be a part of, even for a short period of time.

Person not Chicken

When our focal lemurs are lounging up in the forest canopy, we relax as well, and use the time to bombard our guides with multitudes of questions about the culture, history, education, wildlife, politics, and language of Madagascar. In turn, we share stories about our lives in other countries and provide new English words. One of the most entertaining moments in the field has been swapping Malagasy and English tongue twisters. Our guides, knowing much more English than we know Malagasy, memorized our tongue twisters before we could even begin to pronounce the Malagasy tongue twisters correctly.

But in my opinion, English tongue twisters pale in comparison to

“Rambon-doumba ndRalambo Lava, Ralambo lava Rambon-doumba”
(The shirt tail of Ralambo is long; Ralambo has a long shirt tail)


“Voropotsy folo fotsifotsy volotsofina”
(Ten egrets with white ear hair).

Our guides have also taught us a number of Malagasy phrases and expressions that, although commonly used, make other Malagasy people laugh when we say them for the sheer amusement of hearing foreigners use their colloquialisms. One of these phrases is “Olombelo Tsy Akoko” which translates to “person not chicken”. This phrase is used when someone needs to go to the bathroom, because chickens do not urinate. Everyone chuckles when one of the volunteers, or guides, says this phrase before disappearing in the woods. Another Malagasy expression is Piso (pronounced Pee-shew), which is used as a Malagasy word for “bless you” after a person sneezes. But Piso also means cat in some dialects, and in others, is only used when a baby sneezes.

Madagascar has 18 dialects, which results in occasional confusion and miscommunication even among Malagasy people from various regions. But for foreigners, this can make cross-cultural communication nearly impossible when traveling across the country. Luckily, most important words and phrases are fairly universal, even if pronunciation varies across dialects. However, after learning that the word for yes in the capitol differs from the word yes in Kianjavato, just an 11 hour drive southeast, I came to realize that English-Malagasy dictionaries can only go so far in this country.

World Lemur Day

Since the beginning of October, I have spent most every day tracking lemurs through the forest. But this past Friday, World Lemur Day I didn’t see a single lemur. Why? Because to celebrate this special day, all MBP employees and volunteers joined forces to plant over 15,000 tree seedlings in one day, bringing the week’s total 20,200 seedlings! That’s a lot of future trees! Typically, around 3,000 seedlings are planted on planting days, which occur 2 times a week. Planting over double the weekly amount in one day required all hands-on deck. Each volunteer in our current cohort, all the lemur monitoring guides, all the reforestation workers, and many people in the local villages all came out to spend the morning planting seedlings. We split up into five groups, starting in one of the local villages and parading to one of five nurseries.

The reforestation efforts here are critical to the long-term survival of the lemurs residing within Sangasanga, Vatovavy, and the other small forest fragments in the Kianjavato area. The lemur monitoring projects, although producing invaluable data, are not what will ensure the future of these species. As Dr. Ed Louis (the executive director of MBP) stated, “if all we did was monitoring, we would be monitoring these species to extinction.” The eventual goal of the reforestation efforts occurring here is to connect Sangasanga and Vatovavy, along with a few others forest fragments, with forest corridors to allow population movement and increased genetic diversity between these areas. Sangasanga used to be connected to Ranomafana National Park, about a two-hour drive away, but due to tavy (slash and burn agriculture), the forest has been isolated since the 60s. Vatovavy has been isolated for an even longer period, but is only about a 20-minute drive from Sangasanga.

However, these efforts will be for naught unless the communities in Kianjavato support these projects and experience a change in perceptions regarding tavy and the importance of the non-human primates living in their forests. To inspire a love of lemurs and promote conservation education in the communities, MBP and their partner (Conservation Fusion) held a World Lemur Day event for the schools in the Kianjavato area. While waiting for the schools to arrive, we set up a speaker connected to a solar panel, and spent two hours dancing with the children in the host village. My dancing skills need improvement even by American standards, so trying to keep up with Malagasy children was next to impossible. And when I tried to take a picture with a few Malagasy children, I was rushed by at least 15 kids, all wanting to be in the picture and see their faces on the tiny camera screen. Once the schools arrived, two children from each school competed to win prizes such as soccer balls and frisbees for their school by answering various questions about lemurs and the rainforest. Each child went away with a lemur stuffed animal, several prizes for their school, and a deeper appreciation for lemurs and the land where they live.

Cheers to two exceptional days of celebrating World Lemur Day!

First Two Weeks in Kianjavato

I had barely been in Kianjavato for 24 hours, before I found myself at an El Idiote concert, attempting to converse with the MBP field guides and reforestation workers to which I had just been introduced. A week prior, I could only use my imagination to envision how it would feel to be completely immersed in a culture that few Americans are lucky enough to experience. But there I was, listening to live Malagasy tropical music, in a village surrounded by partially forested mountains spotted with distinctive Traveler’s Palms.

Fast forward two weeks, and I’ve now experienced living in a tent for two weeks, showering with a bucket, and eating rice for every meal. The rustic life at KAFS (Kianjavato Ahmason Field Station) requires a willingness to forfeit air conditioning and running water for lemurs and reforestation, but these are sacrifices that all volunteers here are happy to make. When walking from the field station to the tent sites, the surrounding mountains give glimpses into the deforestation that has occurred, the reforestation efforts that are currently underway, and the remaining forests.

The black and white ruffed lemur monitoring team that I am working with collects data in two forest fragments within the Kianjavato region; Sangasanga and Vatovavy. Seven lemurs are collared in each area, allowing the guides to easily locate these focal animals. Black and white ruffed lemurs form subgroups with high rates of fission fusion, meaning the number of individuals in their group fluctuates based on numerous factors such as food availability and the presence or absence of infants. We follow the focal lemurs for two hours at a time, writing down everything from the tree species the focal lemur is residing in, to various social interactions between lemurs in the focal animal’s group. It is surreal to spend the day gazing up at these primates, watching them groom each other or carefully climb to the tops of Traveler’s Palms for a sip of nectar. For the most part, black and white ruffed lemurs stay at least 10 meters above us in the trees. But occasionally they come a bit closer, sometimes hanging from their feet about 4 meters above us as if to study us. Although it’s a little difficult to photograph animals inhabiting the forest canopy, I am confident that the memories of lemurs leaping from tree to tree will be etched in my mind forever.

Who is this Strange Blonde Man?

I arrived in Antananarivo, Madagascar a week ago, jetlagged after more than a full day of travel, but attempting to stay coherent as I navigated my way through customs and baggage claim. A bright orange vest and a sign with my name on it told me I had found the MBP driver amongst a crowd waiting outside the airport doors. Signs for National Geographic and World Wildlife Fund caught my eye as well. After introducing himself as Jean Pierre, he led me back into the airport to exchange money and purchase a SIM card, and back out again to find a black Volkswagen bug with the MBP logo on the side. The drive into Antananarivo gave me my first glimpses of the country, though at 1 in the morning, there were more stray dogs than people wandering the town. Though Jean Pierre was very kind, attempts at conversation were short, as I don’t know any French and only know basic phrases and words in Malagasy. After we arrived at the hotel, Jean Pierre helped me check in, and I bid him farewell. Although roosters were already crowing at 3am when I had finally settled in, a large mattress about a foot and a half off the floor welcomed me into a deep sleep.

The next couple of days were spent sleeping, learning new Malagasy words, getting to know the other three volunteers, and eating delicious food prepared in the hotel’s restaurant. Rice dominated most of the vegetarian meals, but vegetables added savory flavors. The most expensive meal I had cost 7,000 Ariary, the equivalent of about $2.25. Watching the town’s activity from my balcony or the roof helped keep us entertained. The third and last full day in Antananarivo began with a morning shopping trip to purchase cheap phones for a couple of the volunteers and electrical adapters for all of us. Traffic in the city was unlike anything I had experienced, with constant honking and weaving around the foot traffic, bicycles, and mopeds on either side of the road.

When we returned, a palace on the top of a nearby hill tempted us to go explore for the rest of the afternoon. We were met with an incredibly steep path winding up the hillside, with Malagasy people on the sidelines talking in small groups, tending the tiny shops along the path, or watching the kids playing on the path. At first, it looked like the small children sliding down the stony path were seated on small skateboards. But as they were propelled toward us, we saw that they were riding on thin wooden boards. Some of the tiniest in the group tumbled off their boards after a few feet, while some of the older kids had mastered the technique needed to whizz down long stretches of the path, yelling “beep beep” at us as they flew past. As we traveled up the curvy hillside, eyes followed us the entire time. If we nodded and said hello (Salama), the adults and teenagers would smile and repeat the greeting. The youngest children just stared, wide eyed. A few of the older kids and adults delighted in having short conversations with us in Malagasy. Sometimes, people would greet us in French, at which I looked baffled and would respond with a Malagasy greeting, equally baffling whoever had greeted me. As we greeted and occasionally had short conversations with people while walking up the path, I wondered how often they encounter people like me. I am tall, white, blonde haired, blue eyed, and I speak more Malagasy than French. I can imagine this is a strange concept for many people in Madagascar.

At the palace, we were directed toward a guide that spoke excellent English and, after finding out we were here for lemur research, interspersed our tour with lemur facts that none of us were familiar with. The stories of the kings and queens who had ruled on the hilltop seemed almost make-believe. The most interesting story was of the first king and his twelve wives. They inhabited the first “palace”, which looked like a colonial hut. When guests had come to the palace, he hid in the rafters, listening to the conversations they had with his wives. If he decided they were not welcome, he would drop a stone on the head of one of his wives and they would dismiss the guests and tell them never to return. If the wife did not feel the drop of a stone, she would invite the guests to explore the palace complex and the king would climb down and be seated in the palace when they returned. Another fascinating story was the construction of the largest palace on the complex, pictured on the right. It was originally built from wood, but during the rule of one of the last queens, stone was used to build around it to symbolize the country’s conversion to Christianity. Because concrete was not available during this time, the stones were held together by a mixture of egg whites crushed sea shells, and other crushed stones. Luckily, eggs were plentiful, because only recently has the Malagasy culture accepted eggs as part of their diet.

The following morning, we were awake at 5am to eat breakfast and prepare for the 12-hour journey to Kianjavato, the field station where we will be spending the next 10 weeks. We pile into a large van, and quickly leave the city behind. About an hour and a half into the drive, American music like Shakira, Nicki Minaj, and DJ Khalid fade into static, prompting the driver to  insert a Malagasy tape that plays on a loop for the rest of the day. Mountainous roads with constant switch backs induce motion sickness in most of us, at least once during the drive. But there is constantly activity on the roads or hillsides, and my neck quickly becomes sore from looking from right to left, trying to absorb as much as I can. Near villages, the streets were overtaken by carts filled with hay or bricks pulled by zebu, bicyclists, woman balancing baskets on their heads, and men or boys pushing small wooden carts filled with supplies uphill or riding them downhill like wooden go carts. Vehicles weaved past, honking to alert travelers of their upcoming presence. The villages built along the road turn from brick, to clay, to wood as we distanced ourselves from the capitol. But, reds and browns were the predominate hues of the surrounding mountains until the last few hours of the journey, when the landscape finally turned green. We passed through Ranomafana National Park and numerous tiny villages before finally arriving in Kianjavato, where we were greeted with the current volunteers and a meal consisting, of course, of rice and vegetables.

Why Madagascar?

Manao ahoana (good afternoon)! In 36 hours, I will be in Madagascar, an island on the southeastern coast of Africa. I have been in a whirlwind of preparations; packing 90 pounds of luggage (mostly cliff bars) for my three months there, learning as much Malagasy (the language of Madagascar) as I can fit in my brain, and mentally preparing for living in a tent for three months.

What is so special about Madagascar?

Madagascar is a country with extraordinary biodiversity, prompting many scientists to refer to it as the eighth continent. Madagascar supports an extremely high level of endemic plant and animal life, meaning that most of the flora and fauna of this island, approximately 90%, is not found anywhere else in the world. The “flagship” endemic mammal species of Madagascar is the lemur. Lemurs are some of the most primitive species alive today and evolved on the island with very few predators or competitors. Once humans began arriving on Madagascar, lemur species were hunted for meat, and many lemur species, some as big as apes, began going extinct. Today, 90% of lemur species are on the endangered species list, with 20% listed as critically endangered. They are hunted for the bush meat trade and the exotic pet trade, and are quickly losing their habitats in the wild. It is estimated that Madagascar has lost 80-90% of their forests and rainforests to slash and burn agriculture and human development since humans arrived on the island. This has put all of Madagascar’s biodiversity in danger, not just lemurs. The people of Madagascar can hardly be blamed, as they are doing anything they can to survive and provide for their families. The average citizen of Madagascar earns less than $1 US per day, with over 70% of the population living beneath the world poverty line.

Why am I going?

I am traveling to Madagascar as a volunteer field research assistant for a lemur population monitoring project. I will be working in Kianjavato, in a forest fragment containing an array of critically endangered species. The Omaha Zoo and Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership (MBP) have paired up in their efforts to protect this forest fragment and the species within. Cohorts of volunteers come from around the world every three months to monitor the Black and White Ruffed Lemurs and Greater Bamboo Lemurs that reside in the forest. These two species are critically endangered, making it crucial to monitor their populations to ensure these species continue to survive. The data collected from following family groups throughout the day is also used for research aimed at discovering how habitat fragmentation effects lemur populations and how conservationists can most effectively support these species. Kianjavato is also home to eight nurseries, tended to by locals and volunteers, which have resulted in 1 million trees planted in the last five years. Reforestation efforts are a necessity for connecting forest fragments, allowing population movement and increased genetic diversity. Although following lemur populations and reforesting barren landscapes is critical, engaging and educating the people of Madagascar is perhaps the most important aspect of the conservation efforts in Kianjavato. The Omaha Zoo and MBP have developed a Conservation Credit Rewards program, allowing locals to earn points by helping with reforestation events. These points can be collected and used to purchase sustainable, green items such as rocket stoves, solar kits, sewing machines, bicycles, and other necessities. Helping communities become more sustainable, while instilling the value of conservation is incredibly important for the long-term success of any conservation efforts in poverty stricken countries. It is especially important for communities across the country to learn about the importance of biodiversity, because as ecotourism grows in popularity, the economy in Madagascar will see the benefits. It is in the best interest for both types of primates, humans and lemurs, on Madagascar that the remaining populations of lemurs do not disappear.

If you would like to support the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership and the work that we are doing in Kianjavato, click here to donate and choose Madagascar Biodiversity Project in the designation drop down. Misaotra (thank you)!


Best Hikes in the Appalachian Mountains

I have been incredibly fortunate to grow up in the Appalachian Mountains, home to the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Living here and hiking through the mountains has instilled in me an overwhelming love for nature and conservation. Climbing to mountaintops and perching on rocky overlooks are moments in life that make a person feel so small, but so alive. I would like to share some of my favorite hikes in the Appalachian Mountains, because there is no better way to promote a love for the earth and a passion for conservation than with real life experiences.

Difficult Hikes

Mount Cammerer

This is no hike for the faint of heart or mind. It is a 10-mile hike round trip, with such a steep incline the first two miles that multiple water breaks are recommended. Unless you are a fast hiker or live within a 100 mile radius, it may be difficult to do this hike as a day trip. If you want to turn it into an overnight backpacking trip, there are several shelters nearby once you connect with the Appalachian Trail a few miles up.
Do not let the difficultness of this hike deter you from making this trek. There are a few spectacular views of the mountains along the hike, but for the most part, you can’t see how far up you’ve hiked until you reach the fire tower. In my opinion, this makes it all the more breathtaking when you reach the top, because you can see just how far you’ve come. There are several great picnic spots on rocks overlooking the mountains, along with an old fire tower that provides great shade on a hot day. In my opinion, a partly cloudy day is the best time to conquer this hike. You will be above the clouds when you reach the top, making for some incredible pictures.

Charlies Bunion

This hike is fairly strenuous and is approximately 8 miles round trip. It offers a shady trail, full of wildflowers in the spring and early summer. Views of the Appalachian Mountains reward hikers throughout much of the trail. When arriving at Charlies Bunion, the rock outcroppings make for excellent photographs and picnic areas, but be sure to watch your footing as steep drop offs surround most of the outcropping. If an extra mile doesn’t seem like much, take the mile side trail to the Jump Off on your way back or on your way to Charlies Bunion. This rock outcropping is less traveled and might make for a better place to stop for a picnic or to read a book.

Moderate Hikes

Linville Falls

Linville Falls trail is one of the most popular waterfall hikes in North Carolina and is 2 miles round trip. This unique hike begins at a higher elevation and quickly drops in elevation as you wind down into the Linville Gorge. The steep trail offers several overlooks to see the gorgeous waterfall at different heights. Once at the bottom of the trail, you can make your way to the base of the waterfall to soak your feet in the cool water. It is a perfect spot to bring a good book and a snack. You can even bring your dog on the hike.

Waterrock Knob 

Waterrock Knob is a short, 1.2 mile hike, but steep inclines and big steps can make it difficult to some extent. This is an easy day hike that begins with a scenic drive up the Blue Ridge Parkway. The parking lot itself has incredible views and picnic tables and many people choose to simply hang out there. Those who choose to make the hike are rewarded with fewer people and an incredible view overlooking the Blue Ridge Parkway’s curvy road up to the parkway and the sprawling Blue Ridge Mountains.

Easy Hikes

Triple Falls/Bridal Veil Falls

DuPont State Recreational Forest is now famous for being used in several Hunger Games scenes. If you want to hang out by the same river and waterfalls as Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, then these are the hikes for you.

The hike to Triple Falls is a 1 mile loop if you start from the Hooker Falls parking area or a 2.2 mile loop with the addition of seeing High Falls if you begin from the High Falls parking area. Most of the hike is gravel, making it an easy day trip for humans and dogs of all ages. Just don’t allow your dogs in the water, as there are strong currents.

The hike to Bridal Veil Falls is about 3.7 miles round trip and the trail can be accessed from the Triple Falls loop trail or by using the Fawn Lake Access Area. Due to the extra miles, this destination is much less crowded than Triple Falls, but the gravel path is mostly flat and is an easy hike. Many choose to climb up to the top of the falls for an incredible view and refreshing pools.    

Devil’s Courthouse and Black Balsam Knob

These two short hikes can be done individually, or in the same day. They are both found on the Blue Ridge Parkway, only a few miles apart.

The parking lot for Devil’s Courthouse is on the way to Black Balsam and the 1 mile hike is incredibly steep, but paved for much of the way. At the top of Devil’s Courthouse, you can see just how far you’ve climbed by looking down on the parking lot. You also get an incredible view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Black Balsam Knob is a hike that can be however long or however short you want it to be. It can be a 1 1/2 mile round trip if you simply want to reach the summit, or you can keep hiking along the Art Loeb trail until you feel like turning around. It is a little steep initially, and the footing is a little difficult if you hike farther than 3 miles out. But it can be an easy day hike and perfect place to picnic, read a book, or bring a dog.


Reflections from Wolf Park

My summer at Wolf Park came to a close a couple weeks ago, and I am already missing the two legged and four legged residents of the park. The internship was a whirlwind of once in a lifetime experiences, ranging from seeing dental surgery performed on a fox, to forming relationships with wolf pups as they grew into adolescents.  Everything was much more hands on than I expected from an internship with apex predators. Interns were tasked with most aspects of husbandry, such as butchering road kill, feeding and medicating animals, training wolves and coyotes through the fence, and free training foxes.

The big news of the spring for Wolf Park was the arrival of five wolf pups, the first pups the park had raised in five years. Because wolves are naturally neophobic (scared of new things), the socialization process of the pups is an intensive 3,000+ hour project. The pups need to learn at an early age that wheelchairs, golf carts, crowds, and loud children will not harm them, and are a part of a typical day at Wolf Park. Because the wolves are used for research and educational purposes, and will never be placed in the wild, it is important for them to experience as little stress as possible around crowds, vehicles, and strange noises. They would naturally be afraid of these things if not for the training and desensitization protocols that are in place. Interns assisted in the socialization process by scheduled “puppy help” shifts throughout the summer, as well as assisting with their training and desensitization as the summer progressed. We watched the puppies grow from about 10 pounds at the beginning of the summer, to 50-60 pounds by August.

Because of the immense amount of time spent near or with the animals, it was easy to develop close relationships with many of the animals within the span of a few months, making it very hard to leave. Fiona, a black phase 5-year-old female, is a good example of this. I didn’t meet her face to face until about halfway through my internship because she didn’t always like making new friends. However, the moment she met me, she licked all over my face (mostly in my mouth) and began to scent roll and crawl on me. And each time she interacted with me after that, she did the same thing. In my last visit with her before I left, she had barely greeted me before she flopped on the ground and presented her belly for scratches, something that most adults won’t do unless they are very comfortable with a person.  Khewa is another example of the relationships I formed at the park.  She was one of the puppies, and was less than 10 pounds when I first met her. After a couple of interactions with her at the beginning of the summer, she began using me as a comfort person when she was frightened. And any time I entered the enclosure, she would make her way to me as quickly as she could and flop on her back for scratches. The close bonds I formed with Fiona and Khewa made my internship incredibly special.  And between these relationships and the vast amount of knowledge imparted to me from staff and volunteers, I left Wolf Park with a lifechanging new perspective on canine conservation.

The Red Wolf’s Greatest Threat? It’s Not Poison

Recently, the US Fish and Wildlife Service notified the public that a red wolf was poisoned in January. This is a tragic blow, but unfortunately, not the greatest threat to red wolves.

Red wolves, a species that should be considered an American icon, are facing extinction in the wild for a second time. This wolf is the only species that resides purely within the boundaries of the United States.  Like gray wolves, red wolves faced mass extermination in the 19th century due to human development and misconceptions.  In 1980, red wolves were declared extinct in the wild, with only a small population left in captivity to prevent complete extinction. In an effort to restore this species to a portion of its historic range, a small population of red wolves was released within North Carolina’s Alligator Wildlife Refuge in 1987.  The experimental population increased in size and range for about thirty years, with this recovery effort critically acclaimed for being a model of success for reintroducing an endangered species to the wild.

However, over the last few years, the population size has dropped more than 50%, leaving less than 45 red wolves in the wild. The population is suffering under the very department tasked with recovering this animal. In 2013, The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) began facing pressure from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, a few landowners opposed to red wolves, and regional representatives of the Fish and Wildlife Service based out of Atlanta, Georgia.  This led the agency to strip control of the recovery program from the scientists who led the successful effort. The FWS also reassigned the lead scientist and abandoned adaptive management practices such as coyote sterilization and pup fostering. Along with all this, they neglected to firmly enforce poaching regulations to the extent that red wolves could be shot or removed from property without persecution.

Not only have adaptive management strategies been abandoned and the team of recovery scientists been disbanded, the Fish and Wildlife Service has also proposed shrinking the current range of the red wolves by almost 90 percent and removing all but one pack of red wolves from the wild.  They are claiming that captive populations need the genetic diversity and the only way to save the species is to bring back the wild wolves into captivity.  The Fish and Wildlife Service referenced scientific work when making this argument, but the scientists who published this research came forward and publicly denounced the proposal, saying it was based on “alarming misinterpretations” and would “no doubt result in extinction of red wolves in the wild.”  The red wolf has already lost more than 99% of its historical range, more than lions, tigers, and snow leopards.

If Fish and Wildlife follows through with its proposal, we can be sure to lose the last remaining wild red wolves, once and for all. Stand for red wolves by submitting comments to a public comment period for the Fish and Wildlife Service until July 24th and by signing a Defenders of Wildlife petition.  Learn more by watching this video.


First Month at Wolf Park

The first month of my internship at Wolf Park has already flown by.  Living on site and being surrounded by adult wolves and wolf puppies every day is a refreshing break from the real world.  Each staff member, intern, and volunteer come from distinctly diverse backgrounds and lifestyles, but we are all united by our love for wolves, conservation, and research.  Between phone problems, poor service, and slow wifi, I have been a little cut off from the rest of the world, but it is small price to pay for living around wolves.

Wolf Park is a nonprofit education, research, and conservation facility that raises and trains socialized wolves.  Captive wolves need to be socialized to give them the best life they can possibly have.  Being trained and acclimated to strange and unfamiliar body handling allows them to receive any medical treatment that is necessary.  In the wild, a toothache or an infected cut could mean a death sentence, but if socialized, a captive wolf can receive the necessary treatments.  Having socialized animals also allows researchers to study the behavior and social interactions of wolves.  Because wild wolves have such a long flight distance (how close a human can get to a wild animal before it flees), humans rarely get the opportunity to study wolf behavior.  Typically, wild wolves are studied through the use of radio telemetry, high power binoculars, fecal samples, and tracks.  At Wolf Park, an ethogram, a catalog of behavior, has been compiled over the last 45 years for wolves.  This assists facilities with captive wolves by providing a better understanding of wolf behavior so they can better care for their wolves.  It also benefits researchers studying wild wolves who may not get close enough to observe their behavior.

Socialization simply means that the flight distance of a wild animal is reduced to zero.  That doesn’t necessarily mean an animal likes people or is friendly.  Most of the Wolf Park wolves, however, love people.  The animal care staff goes in several times a week to brush coats, apply fly repellent on ears, and do training and enrichment activities with the wolves.  Interns occasionally have the opportunity to join the staff on these visits, which has made every aspect of the internship worth it.  The park also has 5 wolf pups that have been getting 24/7 care and have been progressing on a highly developed training regimen.  Leash walking, learning basic behaviors, and crate training are all becoming second nature for the pups so that when they are older, they can easily be moved to different enclosures as well as receive medical attention if needed.  Starting training and exposing the pups to new stimuli while they are young also helps them adapt to and handle new stimuli later in life and results in lower likelihood of behavior problems arising when they are older.  Interns have had the opportunity to help with socializing and training the puppies, which is arguably the best part of our internship.  Being swarmed by excited wolf pups is an experience like no other.