On Assignment: Canadian Wildlife Magazine: Welcome to the Jungle

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Welcome to the Jungle

Canadian Wildlife doesn’t normally focus on species that you won’t find here. This time, we’re making an exception. The reason? In southern Ontario, the people who work at African Lion Safari are showing that conservation is a global affair.

By Patricia Pearson

One recent spring morning, I watched five Asian elephants trumpet gleefully and race around through birch and poplar trees beside a shallow lake, in a forest — in southern Ontario — with nothing between them and me but my reporter’s note-book and my enthralled yet alarmed heart. The air was still fresh with the scent of rain, and the elephants were as giddy as school children at recess scurrying to and fro in a merry band, tossing mud and pulling saplings taut like bow strings before letting them go with a shivery thwang. Call it spring fever, and the absence of chains or a moat. Scary for me, good for them.

Three men in matching long-sleeved chocolate-brown T-shirts stood at intervals along the shore of the lake, watching their charges affectionately and carefully. If one of the elephants strayed too far into the woods (or toward the nearby county road), the keepers gently called to them. “George, come here. George.” After a few such solicitations, an enormous gray head would pop out of the pale green foliage with a dandelion brightening the tip of its trunk.

It was without a doubt one of the most charmingly unexpected things I’ve seen in these woods at the foot of the Niagara Escarpment, about an hour’s drive west of Toronto. Equally unexpected was the vibrancy of the elephants’ energy, and the power of their trumpeting. I have seen plenty of pachyderms in zoos before, from Moscow to Tucson, Arizona, invariably shuffling about in a dusty exhibit space, muted and quiet, as if they were nature’s most sedate beasts. The bouncy heard here in African Lion Safari’s 750-acre reserve — whose excited trumpets sounded variously like a lionish growl, a rusty squeak and the percussive melodics of a Wynton Marsalis solo — put that stereotype of natural stoicism to rest. The clearing was a riot of vibration and sound.

Indeed, it may be precisely the freedom that head elephant keeper Charlie Gray allows his herd of 16 Asian elephants at this privately owned zoo that has led to one of the most successful captive breeding programs in the world. There have been 13 healthy births since 1991, a robust record when Asian elephants in the wild only give birth, on average, every five years. African Lion Safari has had similar successes with a number of other species. And as the race to foster, protect and maintain healthy populations of endangered animals across the globe heats up, surprisingly nimble players like this small zoo are leading the way.

Estimates of how many Asian elephants remain extant in their natural terrain — primarily in Burma, Thailand and India — range from 41,000 to 52,000, less than one-tenth the number of African elephants still thriving. It’s a dire number, with much to be learned and researched about them, as they are quite different than their larger-eared African relations, and harder to study due to denser forest habitats.

The captive population available to teach us about their language, intelligence and social relations is tiny, with fewer than 300 living in North American zoos or sanctuaries. Yet, it has proven exceedingly difficult to boost those numbers through breeding. Females are slow to conceive, and if they do, infant mortality in captivity runs at about 40 per cent, according to research done by Georgia Mason, a zoologist at the University of Guelph. While no one is certain what the obstacles to fecundity and healthy infancy are, it is believed that captivity-related stress and obesity play a significant role.

At African Lion Safari, the potential for mothers and calves to be overweight is offset by the sheer amount of romping that the elephants engage in everyday. A typical day’s agenda includes a two-kilometre walk to the area where I first encountered them and strolls back to the main public viewing area for 20-minute swims. They also participate in demonstrations for the public — hauling logs or fetching tiny coins from the ground with their nimble trunks — and then hang out at yet another part of the reserve, called Elephant Lookout.

“We’ve found that they walk between six and 30 kilometres a day,” says Charlie Gray, a soft-spoken, sandy-haired American who has been fostering this herd for 28 years. Gray saw his first elephant when he was four years old, at the zoo in San Diego, an event that pretty much set his life’s course from then on. His observant, intuitive approach to elephant keeping may well be another key factor to the herd’s well-being. “Those elephants are very stimulated emotionally and physically,” says Heidi Riddle, who does elephant-management training at her wildlife and elephant sanctuary in Greenbrier, Arkansas. “African Lion Safari has a very dedicated staff that really knows the elephants.”

Stress in elephants can be caused by a number of factors, some of which aren’t clearly understood, but zoos increasingly acknowledge the animals’ need to have a rich social environment. Facilities that can only afford to house one or two in constrained exhibit spaces have been shipping their remaining charges to sanctuaries.

Meanwhile, a smaller number of zoos are investing in a larger number of elephants. “Sometimes we don’t give them enough social partners to choose from,” says Riddle. “They’re very intelligent, and they do have individual personalities. Having an extended group of different elephants right at the outset” gives the safari park the opportunity to set up healthy breeding conditions.

“It’s sort of like running a dating service,” Gray jokes. “Some are too shy; some just don’t hit it off.” They like choice, and more than that, they need to learn how to be families. When Gray’s little sub-group of five plunges into their 12-foot-deep lake for a noontime swim, you can see how profound their attachments and interactions are.

Natasha, who was born here in 1994, rolls and bobs in the cool water with her six-year-old daughter Opal and her two-year-old son Jake. Six-year-old Emily tags along, and the four of them are in continuous, flank-to-flank contact, weaving together and patting one another’s backs with wet trunks. Meanwhile, George, born here in 1999, swims slightly apart like a typical, independence-seeking teen. They are all learning from one another — how to parent, how to be a sibling, how to befriend. African Lion Safari’s settled community of mothers and offspring includes the first third-generation Asian to be born in captivity in Canada, and the first to be successfully bred via artificial insemination. Natasha is pregnant again, this time from a bull named Johnson who was also born at the park.

African Lion Safari “has very good breeding success and infant survivorship,” confirms Georgia Mason of the University of Guelph. “Whatever they are doing, they need to bottle it and pass it around.”

When you mention to people that African Lion Safari is internationally respected for its captive breeding programs — not only of elephants but also of cheetahs, birds of prey and Rothschild giraffes — they invariably express surprise. Ontarians, in particular, have long thought of the facility as a roadside attraction along the highway between Toronto and Buffalo. It’s a place to take the kids for the day, to drive past some lions and zebras before heading over to the petting zoo area and then dining at plastic tables on slices of pizza from a regional chain restaurant.

Yet, it is in the nature of how zoos and parks are evolving now that public entertainment goes hand in hand with increasingly sophisticated and concerted efforts to preserve our dwindling biodiversity.

African Lion Safari has been using its ticket sales income to perfect a certain approach to “keeping” animals that enables them to thrive. “These are the zoos of the future,” says Serge Lussier, African Lion Safari’s superintendent of game farm operations. “We need to stop the loss, and the way we keep our animals may be the key to successful breeding.”

African Lion Safari was founded in 1969 by a remarkable man — a retired Canadian military officer named Colonel Gordon “Don” Dailley. Throughout his career, Dailley pursued a range of passions, from leading the British hockey team to victory at the 1936 Berlin Olympics to directing the New Brunswick Symphony while acting as base commander for the Canadian Armed Forces at Gagetown. He was a president of the United Nations Association, a director of the international relief agency Oxfam and a member of the Canadian Folk Art Council.

Somewhere along the way, Dailley developed an ardour for the conservation of nature. Drawing on his army pension and a bank loan, he bought four lots of rocky farmland in 1969, totalling 620 acres, with the idea of letting animals roam free while visitors sat caged in their cars. This was a novel concept in Canada, all the more so since the Toronto Zoo had yet to open its gates and demonstrate habitat sensitivity. If an Ontario child wanted to learn about lions or other exotic species, Dailley’s safari park was not only a beguiling destination, but virtually the only one for hundreds of miles. “A guiding principle of Col. Dailley’s was proximity,” says Karen O’Grady, director of marketing for African Lion Safari. “You come to African Lion Safari and you touch, feel, smell and experience the animals.”

Once that proximity proved dangerous. In the mid 1990s, a couple sued the park after being attacked by a Bengal tiger. But Dailley’s vision has been borne out as a winning formula. Every year from May to October, up to 500,000 visitors drive through seven separate game reserves where the animals roam freely. A pride of 12 lions inhabits one reserve, next to another for cheetahs, which also live in an “off-show” breeding compound nestled quietly in a grove of woods. Nearby are a raucous populace of baboons, which clamber all over visiting cars, and then another reserve featuring a mixed exhibit of hooved animals, including wildebeast, zebra, rhino and Rothschild giraffe — a sub-species of giraffe that hit the endangered list in 2010.

“It’s not only having a large area for them,” says Serge Lussier, “you need to create that mixed exhibit. The competition with one another stimulates their desire to reproduce. If they see other species increasing, they’ll do it too. That has been my experience: animal proximity creates the urge to survive.”

The day before I visited in the spring, a watusi cow (native to Africa) had given birth to a calf, which lay tucked beside a boulder as I drove past in Lussier’s jeep en route to the cheetah compound. “Look! She’s so cute,” he said with evident delight, as the calf peered about sleepily. The morning was quiet, since the park had only just opened for the season. Several adult watusi lounged about in a pile on the new grass, perhaps enjoying the relative calm: in the coming month, 20,000 school children would be visiting. (“Institutions like us make a statement,” Lussier had told me quite fervently. “What we need to do is education, to make sure the young people are aware. That’s part of our duty.”

If Dailley was originally interested in conservation through education, he later extended his attention to conservation through captive breeding. The elephant program was the first to get underway, in 1984, but more recently his facility (now owned by his son, James Dailley) has been focused on cheetahs, white rhinos and Rothschild giraffes, transferring some of the fertility monitoring and animal-management techniques they perfected with the elephants to these other endangered species.

This is why Lussier had driven me to the off-limits cheetah breeding compound, to offer some sense of how he and his team have managed to produce 40 cubs in 10 years, which is a rarity in the zoo world. And an urgent mission. With only about 10,000 cheetahs remaining in the wild, the task of rescuing the world’s fastest land mammal from extinction before the century is out is, frankly, Herculean. The species is slow to reproduce even in their natural habitat, due to fickle mothering and small litter sizes. They have been well-nigh impossible to breed in captivity.

“The secret to successful breeding,” says Lussier, a broad-chested French Canadian in a khaki safari outfit, “is to find a pair that will mate for life.” By that he means that once a female accepts a male, she will do so again and again. Getting her to accept a suitor is the tricky part, so that the breeding compound acts almost like the TV show, The Bachelor. Lussier points out how five females are just now reclining in the leafy shade of five enclosures. Outside of their pens is an enclosed wire hallway or chute, through which male candidates prowl, calling hopeful attention to themselves by making stutter barks.

“If the female is interested,” explains Lussier, “she will go to the fence and roll on the ground.” When this happens, the staff hastens to open her gate. In this fashion, a gorgeous male named Rafiqui whelped a litter on a female named Emma, whom the staff proceeded to hand-raise. “Right now, we’re looking for another male to take Rafiqui’s place with his daughters,” says Lussier. Given how extremely they are threatened by extinction, it isn’t enough for North America’s current cheetah-breeding facilities in North America to help foster cubs. They must also somehow find a way to preserve genetic diversity in the lineages. If, in 50 years, you have 50,000 inbred cheetahs, let us say, then you haven’t succeeded at the game.

This same challenge is at the forefront of what Charlie Gray and his fellow elephant breeders are dealing with. When I first met him, he had just returned from a two-week trip to South Africa, where he and some colleagues from the Leibniz Institute of Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin had been out on the veldt collecting African elephant semen. (Not exactly a skill you learn in summer camp.) They got the samples to Johannesburg and had them frozen in liquid nitrogen. Now they’re waiting for the red tape to clear so they can ship the semen to Europe and North America and attempt artificial inseminations.

“With frozen, you’re not dependent on collecting the semen exactly when you need it,” says Gray, as has been the tricky case before. Gray tried artificial insemination six times with three different females at African Lion Safari before little Jake was born. You have to rely on the quality of the semen, the timing and the placement — which, in turn, depends on developing enough rapport with your female elephants that they don’t mind your sliding a 2.5-metre endoscope into their vagina while they stand about grazing on grass. “There are not a lot of people who can technically do it,” allows Gray.

But in either case, frozen or fresh, the aim is to expand the genetic pool. The last five elephants born at African Lion Safari, including Jake, have all been sired by Rex, a prodigious bull at the Oklahoma City Zoo that used to live at African Lion Safari. (The main sire of captive African elephants has beena fellow named Jackson, at the Pittsburgh Zoo.) If semen can be frozen and imported from Asia and Africa, the trend toward inbreeding can be halted. “The aim is to keep 90 per cent of the genetic diversity for the next 100 years,” Gray says.

This isn’t just a challenge for North American and European zoos, though. It is also a major issue in the wild, where pressures on habitat and range cut animals off from one another, creating what Gray calls “genetic bottlenecks.” Ultimately, what he would like to be able to do is take the research into assisted reproductive technology they are doing at African Lion Safari and transfer it to the wild populations. “There is very little ‘wild’ left,” Gray adds, in the sense of wilderness not deliberately hemmed in or monitored by human beings. “So, a lot of what we’re learning here can have all kinds of application for wild herd management.”

Staff at African Lion Safari run workshops on ultrasound and other techniques for zookeepers internationally. But the next step would be to employ technologies such as artificial insemination or contraception in the wild. Grey gives the example of wild areas where populations of elephants a have grown beyond the ability of the habitat to support them. “You can’t cull them anymore — that’s not politically acceptable — but you can’t let them starve through competition for resources. So, what do you do? Is there a way to refine techniques of contraception for these animals?”

Before leaving African Lion Safari, I had a slice of pizza and went to watch the Birds of Prey show. The crowd delighted in seeing free-flying mariboo storks, owls, bald eagles and kestrels, and learning about their beauty and their prowess. But can their applause save some of these species? Behind the scenes, Gareth Morgan, manager of birds, is attempting the near-impossible feat of keeping a small bird of prey called the loggerhead shrike from winking out of existence like a star in the night sky. There are only 18 to 23 nesting pairs left in Canada, Morgan tells me, and “we don’t know why they’re so critically endangered.”

He has taken in five pairs, and has observed them preparing their nests in a quiet forested area of African Lion Safari. He is waiting with bated breath to see eggs. Will he succeed? He doesn’t know. But all the longtime staff at African Lion Safari seem to passionately agree on the mission: it’s their duty to try.

Originally Published In

Canadian Wildlife in Fall 2012

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