The Baraka group of mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Courtesy | Gorilla Doctors

POWELL — The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and The Wilds have announced a significant milestone in the organization’s transformative journey from being two of the nation’s premier zoological facilities to becoming a much more impactful wildlife conservation institution.

The Columbus Zoo is launching a series of five groundbreaking conservation initiatives that bring together experts from around the world to implement conservation solutions and embody a substantial, long-term commitment to safeguarding wildlife locally and globally, with a multi-million-dollar investment at their core.

North American Center for Bison Conservation at The Wilds

The Columbus Zoo’s conservation and research center and safari park, The Wilds, is forging a path toward bison conservation excellence through the creation of the North American Center for Bison Conservation.

This initiative will bring together the expertise of The Wilds staff, the Wildlife Restoration Foundation, federal and state natural resource agencies, and tribal entities to manage large-scale bison herds.

The American bison is a keystone species, and its abundance helps restore the diversity and health of plant and animal species in prairie habitat, which once covered over 142 million acres across the United States. Today, less than 5 percent of these prairies are estimated to remain, making the American prairies some of the most endangered ecosystems on earth.

The bison is the United States’ National Mammal, holding cultural and historical significance for all Americans. Many parks and ranches conserve bison. Bison are immensely meaningful to tribes, many who are restoring indigenous bison populations lost with westward expansion and reclaiming their way of life.

Together with the scientific investigation and prairie restoration efforts that The Wilds is known for, this program is poised to become a leading model for conserving wild bison traits, behaviors, and ecosystem benefits through herd management and partnerships, including with tribal bison programs to protect the species while preserving North America’s cultural heritage.

State-of-the-Art Gorilla Doctors Center in the Democratic Republic of Congo

The Columbus Zoo is collaborating with conservation partners at Gorilla Doctors to construct a state-of-the-art field office, laboratory, and clinic for their dedicated team of veterinarians in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

This new center will empower Gorilla Doctors to provide swift and effective care for endangered gorillas and other wildlife, while also raising awareness about their crucial work.

Gorilla Doctors is an international team of wildlife veterinarians in Rwanda, Uganda, and DRC, who provide life-saving veterinary care to endangered mountain and critically endangered Grauer’s gorillas in the wild. In fact, Gorilla Doctors is the only organization in the world providing life-saving veterinary care to eastern gorillas.

By establishing a permanent facility for Gorilla Doctors in DRC at the entrance to Virunga National Park—the oldest park in Africa and the only park that is home to both mountain and Grauer’s gorillas—this project will enable Gorilla Doctors to achieve its mission more easily and successfully in DRC.

Gorilla Doctors’ operations in DRC are currently based out of leased facilities in Goma, the capital city of North Kivu Province, which is many miles from Virunga National Park. The new facility will allow Gorilla Doctors staff to work even more closely with park managers, expedite treatment for gorillas and other wildlife, provide employment opportunities to local community members, and boost public awareness of the Gorilla Doctors program and its longstanding partnership with Columbus Zoo.

Since 1991, the Columbus Zoo’s Partners In Conservation (PIC) program has contributed significantly to the recovery of gorillas by providing support for veterinarians in all three range countries. The Columbus Zoo has also provided zoological medicine training opportunities for Gorilla Doctors staff at the Columbus Zoo and The Wilds. Dr. Jan Ramer, Senior Vice-President of Animal Care and Conservation at the Columbus Zoo and The Wilds, currently serves on the Board of Directors of Gorilla Doctors. Dr. Ramer’s relationship with Gorilla Doctors began more than 10 years ago when she served as Gorilla Doctors’ regional manager in Rwanda, working in the forest alongside their field veterinarians.

The new center and expansion of the Zoo’s already deep commitment to the region will further benefit gorilla health and conservation by providing a medical and diagnostic facility within a short distance from Virunga National Park, one of the last major refuges of mountain gorillas. Approximately one-third of the world’s remaining 1,063 mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) live in Virunga National Park, and the establishment of the center will allow for rapid diagnostics and field treatment for gorillas as well as other wildlife found in the park.

Center for Species Survival for Asian Elephants in Assam, India

In India, the Columbus Zoo is teaming up with two other global conservation powerhouses to establish and launch the first Center for Species Survival for Asian Elephant (CSS: Asian Elephant) to assist international collaboration for Asian elephant conservation. This groundbreaking move, working with partners at the Wildlife Trust India and The IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC), will establish the world’s first CSS conservation hub exclusively dedicated to a single species and uniquely located within the species’ natural range.

CSS: Asian Elephant will be based in the species’ native range in India, home for 60% of the global Asian elephant population. Asian elephants, an endangered species of cultural and ecological significance, face numerous threats throughout their range across 13 countries, from Bangladesh to Vietnam. To counter these challenges, CSS: Asian Elephant partners are building off their global connections and collaborating with representatives from each of these countries to strategically create a hub for research, conservation planning, public awareness, and capacity-building within the species’ native range.

This groundbreaking initiative aligns with the goals of the IUCN SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group (AsESG) and is a significant step towards fulfilling the agreed-upon Range State commitments of the 2022 Kathmandu Declaration for Asian Elephant Conservation and the IUCN SSC Asian Elephant Action Plan. The Columbus Zoo will provide full funding for the CSS for the first five years, ensuring the successful launch of the center. The Zoo has also committed to long-term sustainability, offering staff experience, and engaging in decision-making and activities critical to the center’s success.

The population of Asian elephants in their native ranges has declined over the last century from over 100,000 animals to around 50,000 today. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, researchers estimate that the species’ habitat has dwindled to just 15 percent of its historic range. CSS: Asian Elephant is set to become a beacon of hope for the conservation of this iconic species and a model for collaborative species survival initiatives worldwide. This partnership highlights the shared commitment of these organizations to safeguard the future of Asian elephants and their habitats.

Conservation Efforts for Black and White Ruffed Lemurs in Madagascar

In Madagascar, the Columbus Zoo is ramping up its conservation efforts for critically endangered black and white ruffed lemurs in the Ranomafana National Park.

The Ranomafana Ruffed Lemur Project (RRLP) is the world’s longest-running ruffed lemur study, established in 2005 by Dr. Andrea Baden, Hunter College Primate Molecular Ecology Lab / CUNY Graduate Center. The Columbus Zoo’s Vice President of Animal Health Dr. Randy Junge joined the project in 2017.

Ranomafana National Park has the highest density of ruffed lemurs in Madagascar. Like many lemur species, ruffed lemurs are critically endangered, and their unpredictable reproductive nature poses a challenge. The factors triggering reproduction have not been discovered. Research collected by Dr. Baden indicates that reproduction is linked to factors like habitat modification, nutrition, and climate change. Identifying these keys to reproduction will allow the scientists at RRLP to develop conservation strategies to save ruffed lemurs from extinction.

The Columbus Zoo’s funding will help the RRLP continue the research over lemur generations and provide science-based lemur management recommendations to Malagasy authorities, create developmental opportunities for U.S. and Malagasy veterinary students, and expand the capabilities of the first wildlife health laboratory in Madagascar.

Ohio Center for Wildlife Conservation at Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Here at home, thanks to the tremendous support of partners at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), the Columbus Zoo’s My House facility will transform into the new Ohio Center for Wildlife Conservation (OCWC).

In the new conservation center, visitors can learn about the Columbus Zoo’s local conservation initiatives, gaining insight into the impactful projects dedicated to saving species such as hellbenders, Eastern plains garter snakes, freshwater mussels, and American burying beetles.

Guests will have the opportunity to see firsthand the zoo and The Wilds’ staff in action, as they raise and nurture some of Ohio’s most endangered species for potential reintroduction into the wild. The OCWC’s adaptable design ensures that it will evolve to accommodate more species in the years to come, further solidifying its role as a dynamic force in wildlife conservation.

“We believe in the power of collaborative conservation, and today, we proudly present a series of initiatives that redefine our role in biodiversity preservation. From the local projects like the North American Center for Bison Conservation to projects around the world like the Madagascar Ranomafana Ruffed Lemur Project, each of these five projects represents a crucial step toward a sustainable future for our planet’s diverse ecosystems. Along with our partners, we are creating a brighter future for wildlife around the world,” said President and CEO Tom Schmid of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and The Wilds.

In addition to these major projects, the Columbus Zoo will continue to help fund other impactful projects such as the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia and Somaliland, Lola Ya Bonobo in the DRC, and People and Carnivores in Bozeman, Montana. Funding for these other projects totaled more than $841,000 in 2023.

All of these conservation projects are funded thanks to our generous partners and donors, and our guests who visit the zoo and The Wilds every day.

For more information about these conservation initiatives and the Columbus Zoo and The Wilds ongoing commitment to wildlife conservation, please visit our website and follow the zoo’s social media accounts on Facebook, Instagram, X, and TikTok.

Submitted by the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.