St. Louis Zoo effort to save Armenian viper goes international - and online | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis Zoo effort to save Armenian viper goes international - and online

Oct 26, 2015

The country of Armenia may be getting its first conservation center for reptiles and amphibians thanks to a crowd-funding campaign launched by the Saint Louis Zoo.

The goal of the online fundraising is to raise $40,000, so the zoo's WildCare Institute Center for Conservation in Western Asia can buy a building to help breed and ultimately save endangered species like the Armenian viper.

Center director and zoo herpetologist Jeff Ettling has been working in Armenia for more than a decade, particularly studying the viper. In that time, he said he learned a lot about how important conservation efforts are to the country that's one of 24 unique biodiversity hotspots in the world.

"It has a high level of endemism; quite a few species of reptiles and amphibians occur there and nowhere else in the world," he said. Endemism means a species lives only in one defined geographic area.

Ettling said the country's minister of nature protection, Dr. Aram Aghasyan, and other researchers also recently completed a new analysis of the state of the country's animals. Of Armenia's 58 unique species of amphibians and reptiles, 30 are considered endangered.

"Really what we need to do is develop some sort of captive breeding facility, where we could pull in the 11 most critically endangered amphibians and reptiles, so we could breed them...and then put the offspring back in the wild to augment the populations, similar to what we’ve been doing here in Missouri with the Ozark hellbenders," he said.

Ettling said the targeted crowd-funding campaign, which will run until December 1, is the first of its kind for the zoo, and he said the goal is to be green and sustainable by buying and retrofitting an existing building outside of Yerevan, the nation's capital city.

“It’s all about putting money back into the country where we’ve spent a lot of time studying the reptiles and amphibians and we know the needs there," Ettling said. "All the money goes to get the facility started. Our ultimate goal is zero extinction for any of those species there.”

While he's learned a lot from his Armenian colleagues, he has also been able to share some technology and conservation science with them. That's why he said it's important that the new conservation center also have a space for visiting researchers so scientists have a place to exchange information.

"We want to make it a really useful facility, not only for captive propagation, but also for scientific investigations that might be going on with collaborations with outside researchers and our colleagues in Armenia," he said.

Ettling said the zoo and its partners hope the breeding center project will start next June.