Dr. Nili Avni-Magen sits at a computer as if in a regular office but you can tell there’s something else going on here. On the wall is a picture of herself and others intubating a huge brown bear before a medical procedure.
And sure enough, in the middle of the interview, a massive bird of prey is brought in to her office to be examined for an infected wing. Just another day for the chief veterinarian at Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo at the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens.
Famous for the successful IVF procedure that produced Gabi, the baby elephant, in late 2005, in conjunction with a team from the Reproduction Management Institute for Zoo Biology and Wildlife Research (IZW) of Berlin, Germany; the Jerusalem Zoo is considered a world leader and teacher in fields ranging from reproductive intervention and birth control to saving endangered species.
The son of Tamar and Emmett, a bull elephant from Whipsnade Wild Animal Park in the United Kingdom, baby Gabi was named after Dr. Gabi Eshkar, the Zoo’s previous chief vet, who was killed in a car accident in 2004.
After many years of research and at the request of several organizations that the zoo take part in this trial, Eshkar had launched the artificial insemination project, which ultimately took two years and four tries before it produced the pregnancy that resulted in Gabi. Along the way were dozens of ultrasounds (the elephant’s reproductive system is apparently one and a half meters long!), ovulation kits, and the challenges of elephant couplehood in different time zones (namely, the sperm only lasts 18 hours.)
General curator Shmulik Yedvab explains that keeping male elephants in a zoo is expensive and spatially challenging, because they need a separate building and yard from the females, and (at the risk of stating the obvious) a lot of space, as they tend towards aggressiveness. The IVF, then, was a huge coup – producing a young male for the zoo without having to import and house a bull.
The discussion now, however, is on the flip side of reproductive intervention – birth control. Avni-Magen explains that the Jerusalem Zoo was the first to use a dart gun in order to implant a slow-release hormone birth control device into the thigh of a giraffe; the female giraffe is the daughter of the zoo’s bull giraffe, and inbreeding is ill-advised.
The zoo’s chimpanzee and mandrill populations are also being controlled, since the animals are reproducing too quickly for the space they occupy, and relocating parts of these families to other zoos is unwise, says Avni-Magen. The pill currently used by the zoo’s veterinary staff is soon to be replaced by a slow-release Norplant-like device containing a birth control drug called Deslorelin, which would save the veterinary staff lots of time in administering the meds.
Even more at the cutting edge than this is a recent cooperative study with Hadassah Medical Center’s pharmacology department to develop a slow-release antifungal medication. It’s win-win: in addition to assisting in the clinical trials and saving veterinary manpower, according to Avni-Magen, the zoo’s aim is to “bother the animals the least amount possible.”
The consistency of nail polish, the drug in the trial cleared up a stubborn, balding rash in monkeys, and both the zoo and the hospital hope the success with that population indicates possibility for humans, and perhaps, eventually, for the development of other slow-release drugs across the pharmacological spectrum – for both animals and humans.
The Jerusalem Zoo is also a Middle Eastern leader in a different, broader type of population control: saving endangered species from extinction and eventually reintroducing the animals back to nature. Yedvab cites several examples of the zoo’s intervention in this area, explaining that the motivation for saving these animals is manifold.
Besides saving the species in question, an achievement in itself, once an endangered animal becomes part of natural habitat, he explains, the reintegrated animal serves as a “flagship species” in the area. This means that the whole vicinity is treated by humans with more care, in order to preserve the fragile new life there. Seeing that their natural surroundings are untouched, other animals return to the area, not to mention the plant life that is allowed to flourish in the absence of human intrusion.
The Persian Fallow Deer was thought to be extinct in the early part of the 20th century, but was found again in Iran about 50 years ago. Israel has been breeding the animals since the 1970s, at the Hai Bar Animal Reserve on the Carmel, and at the Jerusalem Zoo.
The Northern animals, after intensive breeding, are eventually released to Nahal Kziv in the Galilee. The zoo’s deer, after a ‘practice’ period in a simulated ‘real’ environment (such as train and automobile crossings), are reintegrated into nature at Nahal Sorek near Ein Karem, at the end of winter and in early spring, when food is abundant. Populations of protected deer are maintained at the reserve and in the zoo.
The released animals were initially tracked by radio collars to monitor their progress; but GPS systems are now being introduced as the information this technology provides is more accurate and extensive, and can be relayed in real time. Yedvab says that the zoo’s goal is to reach a herd of 50 at Nahal Sorek without human intervention – that number now stands at about 20. (The total world population of the Persian Fallow Deer is about 400, half of which live in Israel.)
Other animals being saved by the zoo include the Sand Cat, a small, nocturnal feline desert dweller native to the Arava. Nearly extinct due to agriculture, the cats are being raised in an off-exhibit area by the zoo, in conjunction with the Israel Zoological Association and the National Parks Authority, with the express goal of reintroducing them back to nature. The Hai Bar Reserve in Yotvata is doing the same. A small desert turtle native to the Negev is also a beneficiary of the endangered species reintroduction program at the Jerusalem Zoo.
An active member of the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA) and the European Endangered Species Program (EEP), Israel cooperates with other zoos across Europe and Asia in managing and tracking the populations of endangered (and non-endangered) animals over continents and years. Project coordinators at different world zoos manage global populations of specific animals, making sure that there is no over- or under-breeding within a specific family (spread over different zoos), for example, or tracking migration patterns of birds.
Yedvab coordinates the European/Asian population of the White-tailed Sea Eagle, the fourth largest eagle in the world, reintroduced in Scotland about 40 years ago after having been extinct in the UK since the early 20th century. The birds reside mostly in Scandinavia, Greenland, and in Northern Europe and Asia, and winter in Southern Asia and the Middle East.
“If we are going to harm nature,” says Yedvab, referring to construction, industry, and the like, “we need to save it, too – for its own sake. If we play God, let’s take that to its [positive] logical conclusion.”