Born to be wild?

Photo by Jessie Cohen. Courtesy of the National Zoo, Smithsonian Institution.

Learning to be wild

Free Willy

The lost language of cranes

Golden lion tamarins

hopping things

Quicktime video of the little critters.( 1 MB ).
Courtesy of the National Zoo.

golden lion tamarinSchool for tamarins
While conservationists bemoan the loss of Brazil's Amazon rain forest, that country's Atlantic coastal forest is actually in far worse shape. Five hundred years after European settlement, the few remaining scraps of forest house one of the most endangered animals on earth, the golden lion tamarin.

This 1.5 pound primate has golden fur, a lion-like face, and an impressive mane. But with nearly all of its native forests converted to city or pasture, the wild population has shrunken to about 500. In the 1960s, as this tamarin grew scarce, Brazilian primatologist Adelmar Coimbra-Filho set out to prevent their extinction. In the ensuing years, an international collaboration has worked to restore habitat, educate locals about the tamarin's rarity, and raise golden lion tamarins in captivity for release into the wild.

The goal is to raise the wild population to 2,000 -- the estimated minimum needed to minimize the hazards of inbreeding, disease and chance extinction. While the species could increase on its own, introducing captive animals will boost the animals' genetic diversity, helping prevent disease and inbreeding.

I'm lost. Are you?
After 14 years of introductions, the managers of the restoration project have observed that captive-born animals have trouble with feeding, getting around, and staying oriented. (They also have trouble with people, who have captured some of the released animals as pets.)

One tactic intended to teach the animals to survive has been to allowing the tamarins to live "free" in zoos with simulated rain forest. Although it sounds logical, the practice has not improved survival, says Benjamin Beck, coordinator of the golden lion tamarin project at the National Zoological Park in Washington.

how do you work this?
Photo by James M. Dietz, University of Maryland.
Courtesy of the National Zoo, Smithsonian Institution.

Instead, Beck says introducing families as units may improve survival, because the animals normally live in families with one adult male and one adult female, their offspring and sometimes a related adult. "Since they are territorial and defend their territory against family units, we assume that family integrity is useful to defend a territory," says Beck.

The program has found education before release less important than support afterwards. "We tried pre-release training, and it's not effective," says Beck. "The best thing is to give intensive support after release, and allow them to slowly learn by themselves... We have 10 people who provide food, rescue if they get lost, and shelter" for up to 18 months after release.

Although this expensive after-care process flies in the face of conventional wisdom -- that it's best to leave released animals to their own devices -- Beck says allowing the animals to learn gradually is "the best way to overcome the challenge" of survivalist education.

Want more education on educating animals for survival? Check out our bibliography.

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