© 2020 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Health, Science, Environment

St. Louis Zoo highlights conservation efforts, wildlife-saving research

The Saint Louis Zoo's curator of birds Michael Macek works to conserve Humboldt penguins in Punta San Juan, Peru.
Courtesy of Saint Louis Zoo
The Saint Louis Zoo's curator of birds Michael Macek works to conserve Humboldt penguins in Punta San Juan, Peru.

The St. Louis Zoo is spotlighting its efforts to save threatened wildlife Saturday with educational activities and a children's scavenger hunt during its 10th annual Endangered Species Day.

Zoo CEO Jeffrey Bonner called the institution a leader in animal conservation, but he acknowledges that many people don't know about its vital role in saving wildlife.

"What we want to do in our conservation efforts is link what happens in the zoo to the fate and future of the wild things in wild places, and there's certain things that only zoos can do to benefit conservation," he said.

American burying beetle
courtesy Saint Louis Zoo

For example, you could hardly put GPS on a beetle or tag an elephant with a transmitting collar out in the wild. But in a zoo, researchers can employ different tools and techniques to study these animals in a closed environment. The results of those studies can then be used to help animals out in the field, much like the work of the St. Louis Zoo's Institute for Conservation Medicine does.

"Virtually everything we know about wildlife medicine and disease was discovered in zoos," Bonner said. "You can't study it in wild populations and universities don't usually have exotic animals to work with."

Mother and baby sifaka lemurs.
courtesy Saint Louis Zoo

According to Bonner, the St. Louis Zoo also has helped reintroduce endangered species into the wild across the world and in Missouri through its 12 WildCare Institute conservation centers, from lemurs to the hellbender salamander.

Bonner said the zoo was also the first institution ever to reintroduce an endangered species in Missouri. The American burying beetle had all but disappeared, when zoo researchers were able to find a remnant population in Rhode Island, breed them in Missouri and reintroduce them to the wild.

"These are great little guys in terms of being a bell-weather species," he said. "It tells us if there’s a problem in our environment and what that problem might be. That might be our next step: now we got them in the wild, we can establish them, we know they’re breeding. Now let’s figure out what caused their demise to begin with and what that tell us about our environment."

There are many other species displayed at the zoo that are endangered, and Bonner said an event like Saturday's helps teach people about what they can do to help wild animals - and even sign a "conservation pledge."