Survival of the Species

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal used to specialize in animal research. Now, its mission has been expanded to include not just studying endangered animals, but also saving them and their habitats from extinction.

It is a crisp, sunny, early spring day in Front Royal, and I am being driven along the rolling roads of a 3,200-acre government facility known as the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, or SCBI. Located on an expansive, well-manicured campus, on the edge of the Shenandoah Mountains in Warren County, SCBI is a premier training and conservation science center. It employs 45 scientists and animal experts—ecologists, bird specialists, veterinarians, biologists, reproductive physiologists and educators—most dedicated to saving endangered animal species, according to SCBI director Steve Monfort.

And it doesn’t take long to find an example. After passing through several enclosures and numerous outbuildings on the sprawling property, we spot a large maned wolf inside a gated area on a hill. The endangered maned wolf, once a thriving species in South America, has been part of a 30-year-old cooperative breeding program aimed at saving it from extinction. There are two at SCBI, Rambo and Ibera. Ibera sits up to scrutinize us; she’s got big ears and a thick brown coat that bristles in the chilly wind. As we continue our tour, other animals come into view, including several red-crowned and white-naped cranes and Prezwalski horses. A wild horse that originally lived in Western Europe and Asia, the “P-horse,” as it is known at the facility, has been part of SCBI’s Species Survival Plan for years. We then enter Cheetah Hill. To our left, a tall, jaunty female cheetah lopes toward us. In the next enclosure, another adult female cheetah named Zazi lies in a spot of warm sunlight with her two cubs, one of which she adopted last December after giving birth to her own female cub. In a headline-making effort in late 2010, SCBI biologists managed to unite, or “cross-foster,” a two-week-old male cub with Zazi’s newborn, and ever since Zazi has been raising the two as her own. Thanks to a web cam, spectators at the National Zoo in Washington are able to view the scene.

In total, there are about 30 animals at the Front Royal facility. All are being studied, according to SCBI officials, largely for behavioral and reproductive purposes, or because they are endangered. Zazi and her cheetah cubs are an example of the complex challenges scientists take on at SCBI. They were born to two separate females, the first to 5-year-old Amani on Dec. 6, and the second to 9-year-old Zazi 10 days later. Cheetahs that give birth to only one cub, called a singleton, cannot produce enough milk to keep the cub alive, and typically, females in the wild will let a single cub die, after which they will, in theory, produce a larger litter. So scientists at SCBI resorted to an alternative technique—hand-raising Amani’s cub for 13 days before placing it with Zazi, thereby creating a litter of two that would likely stimulate milk production from Zazi. Today, both cubs are nursing from Zazi and doing well.

At SCBI, the rather complex study of hormones, behavior and habitat enables scientists to better understand the health and reproductive system of endangered animals. Later this year, a cluster of turret-roofed huts at SCBI will be converted into a conservation facility for red pandas and clouded leopards—both endangered. SCBI took on clouded leopards because zoos were having trouble pairing and mating the animals. It didn’t help that males often killed their mates. Experts say clouded leopards suffer from a fair amount of stress related to both breeding and habitat. “They are the most challenging cat there is,” says JoGayle Howard, a scientist and head of the clouded leopard conservation and research program. Even when SCBI was able to create some pairs that successfully reproduced 71 cubs over a 12-year period, about half were killed by the mother. But ongoing efforts, including hand-raising the cubs and pairing mates at a young age, have improved cub survival. In recent years, experts have determined that the clouded leopard wants a habitat with height, so the interior of the new facility will be high, and the outdoor area will have tall climbing towers.

Janine Brown, SCBI’s chief of endocrinology, likens the center’s breeding programs—particularly assisted reproduction involving artificial insemination techniques—to working in a “black box” because they don’t always know what’s going on inside an animal. However, Brown says that by analyzing hormone patterns, scientists can learn what factors cause stress, for example, and why it throws off a particular animal’s breeding habits. Brown and the team at SCBI have conducted extensive studies on elephant ovarian cycles, or the absence of them, known as reproductive acyclicity. After discovering what Brown calls a “unique hormone pattern,” the team was able to impregnate an elephant named Shanthi, who 10 years ago gave birth to a baby named Kandula—one of the first elephant calves in the world to be created with artificial insemination. Both Shanthi and Kandula now live at the National Zoo.  

For most of its 36-year history, this center was known as the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center (CRC). Then, in January of 2010, its name was changed to reflect a new and expanded mission. (The Smithsonian Institution manages 19 museums, one being the National Zoo, and nine research centers, among them SCBI.) Before, says Monfort, “CRC was basically a department of the zoo. With SCBI, we are a partner with the zoo. The name change signifies that there is finally another space for conservation within the Smithsonian family of science.” In the old days, Monfort explains, the Smithsonian’s overarching mission focused on research—“studying and understanding.” But in the Smithsonian’s new strategic plan for the organization as a whole, the goal has become to both understand and sustain a biodiverse planet. Says Ruth Stolk, head of strategic development at SCBI, “This is the first time that the Smithsonian explicitly has stated that actually conserving species is a priority.”

While species and habitat preservation is at the heart of SCBI work, the center’s activities are broad and include conservation science training, ecological studies and animal endocrinology, all of which are raising the institution’s profile. Stolk puts SCBI’s annual budget for running its science centers at about $11.8 million, almost half of which comes from competitive grants and donations from private donors and Friends of the National Zoo. The facility is closed to the public, save for its Autumn Conservation Festival, which will be held again in October 2012. (Construction on the campus cancelled the 2011 open house.)

Well before its name change, SCBI had established an outstanding reputation for its undergraduate, graduate and professional conservation training programs, both at the Front Royal Campus and “in country,” meaning in the more than 20 international locations where SCBI has a presence. For 30 years, the training programs have served students along with university, zoological and field management professionals from more than 85 countries, with an eye on serving people and institutions from developing countries.

As one of the world’s best-known centers for conservation biology, SCBI takes its educational role very seriously. Kate Christen, SCBI’s graduate and professional training manager, explains that conservation biology involves an integrative approach to the protection and management of biodiversity. It is a discipline that employs principles and experiences from basic biological fields such as genetics and ecology; from natural resource management fields such as fisheries and wildlife; and from social sciences such as anthropology, sociology, philosophy and economics and even the humanities. “It’s tricky,” says Christen, as conservation biologists must function as both scientists and managers. The range of SCBI’s courses include spatial ecology, conservation conflict resolution, effective conservation leadership, non-invasive genetic techniques in wildlife conservation and statistics for ecology and conservation biology, all taught as intensive one or two-week courses for either professional training or graduate credit. “It’s both scientific techniques and practices and then also human dimensions, so we have a suite of training courses,” says Christen.

Monfort says that over the last 13 months, SCBI has been forging a wide range of new partnerships on both the global and local stage. “We are branching out to different audiences,” he says—among them, the World Bank, the National Science Foundation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Virginia’s George Mason University, the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Shenandoah National Park Trust. Stolk is quick to mention the Global Tiger Initiative (GTI)—a high-profile program in which SCBI and World Bank have partnered to lead an alliance dedicated to stabilizing and restoring wild tiger populations—as an example of how SCBI is expanding its global training presence. She says that SCBI has always had ties to Asian conservationists who  “grew up” in Smithsonian certification and training programs and have become heads of wildlife departments in Nepal, India and Sri Lanka, the countries in which the world’s remaining tiger populations live.   

“The Global Tiger Initiative has become the cornerstone of our new training presence in the world,” says Stolk. “It’s really exciting to bring together some of the old ‘graduates’ of Smithsonian conservation training programs, and then all kinds of new people that are the new generation. So we’re actually tapping our own network out in the world. This is our old training presence in the world, but with steroids.”

Closer to home, SCBI has found an eager collaborator in Fairfax-based George Mason University. About two years ago, SCBI and the university’s College of Science established the Smithsonian-Mason Global Conservation Studies Program, a sort of “semester abroad” in which Mason undergrads spend a semester immersed in SCBI’s active research community, earning 16 credits through a course load of five classes. The program has hosted about 20 students a semester and is wrapping up the fifth and last of its “pilot” semesters, before shifting into the growth phase. With financial assistance from George Mason, SCBI is building facilities in Front Royal that will house and train up to 120 students, the projected size of the program over the next several years. The partnership with George Mason is “big” for the Smithsonian and SCBI, says Jennifer Buff, SCBI’s academic program manager, not just because it brings an accrediting capacity to the institution, but because Mason is “willing to take risks” and has a progressive approach to conservation science.

SCBI’s Virginia-based partnerships are not just in the academic arena. The center’s scientific talent is also helping to protect and enhance Virginia’s native habitats. New partnerships with the Piedmont Environmental Council and Shenandoah National Park Trust aim to get local landowners involved in efforts to promote conservation and biodiversity. One program, called Virginia Working Landscapes, encourages the landowners to devote some of their acreage to the growth of native grasses and to species studies by monitoring native wildlife.

It’s just one more facet of SCBI’s broad, expanding and vital role, explains Monfort. “We want to be recognized as the convener, the connector and the scientific source for conserving habitats and species.” A reproductive physiologist, endocrinologist and veterinarian by training, Monfort says he himself has evolved into a conservation biologist. “I am proud to have that label,” he says, “because there is a diversity of projects and programs [that use] sound science to understand the basic biology of animals.” At SCBI, he concludes, the goals are fundamental. “We want to solve problems. We want to save species. We’re cause driven. We have a passion for animals and for species, and for saving habitats with the science knowledge that we have.” •

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