Many Santa Barbara area residents and visitors think of the Santa Barbara Zoo as a great place to see adorable animals or engage in some wonderful educational activities. While the zoo does have some excellent learning programs for kids and an impressive display of animals, the institution’s professionals also engage in extremely important conservation efforts. In fact, the Santa Barbara Zoo recently played an instrumental role in the conservation of three animals native to California.
The Channel Island Fox
Found on six of the eight California Channel Islands, the Channel Island fox was very close to extinction about a decade ago. Conservation specialists began tracking the species in the 1990s after receiving reports of fewer sightings than normal. By 1998, the population on the island of San Miguel had dropped from several hundred to about a few dozen. On the nearby Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands, the population had fallen to about 15 foxes on each. While fox populations grow and shrink naturally, this alarming number prompted a study on what was causing such high mortality rates. Researchers found that unprecedented rates of predation from golden eagles, a species not native to the islands, had cause the rapid drop.
Conservation efforts involved two initiatives: reducing the predator population and bringing in more foxes. To mitigate predation, the National Park Service moved the golden eagles from the islands to the mainland. A total of 44 golden eagles were trapped and relocated to northeastern California. Today, the population of golden eagles on the islands remains low enough that the fox populations have largely recovered.
The Santa Barbara Zoo partnered with the National Park Service to breed foxes on the mainland. This effort helped replenish the alarmingly low populations and also provided an opportunity for researchers to learn more about the Channel Island fox. On the islands, Zoo officials continue to release and track foxes raised in captivity. They also remain on call around the clock to respond to veterinary emergencies involving the released foxes.
The California Condor
One of the largest flying birds in the world, the California condor can grow to weigh more than 20 pounds. The species previously inhabited a much larger part of North America, but human intervention, such as environmental pollutants, the use of poison bait, and the contamination of food sources, has put the bird at risk. Human activity has also attracted large numbers of ravens, a predator of the condor, to the bird’s natural habitats.
Professionals at the Santa Barbara Zoo have played an important role in the recovery of this species. In partnership with the United States Fish and Wildlife department and other organizations, the zoo monitors condor nests throughout California to provide emergency aid should any chicks need assistance. Zoo officials also provide veterinary support, including giving newborn chicks vaccinations. In addition, zoo staff and other volunteers regularly engage in restoration projects to remove trash from condor habitats to prevent parents from accidentally feeding harmful items to newborns.
The Red-Legged Frog
Considered a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, the red-legged frog is another animal that has received support from the Santa Barbara Zoo staff. This frog has been affected by increased urbanization and expansion of agriculture, which has caused dramatic degradation of its natural habitat. The introduction of new predators, as well as the use of pesticides and the general decline of water quality, have also contributed to reductions in the red-legged frog population. The recovery plan for the frog includes four major goals: reestablishing diminished populations, creating new habitats, reducing threats to the current population, and monitoring the species and any potential agents of harm.
The Santa Barbara Zoo participates in Frogwatch USA, a long-term monitoring program that supports the conservation of amphibians across the United States and increases awareness of the fact that nearly one-third of all amphibian species worldwide are threatened or endangered. Zoo staff has helped the red-legged frog survive by locating masses of red-legged frog eggs and placing protective enclosures around them. The zoo has also partnered with the United States Forest Service to monitor threatened and endangered species, including the red-legged frog, in the Los Padres National Forest.
Individuals can learn more about conservation efforts at the Santa Barbara Zoo by contacting its director of Conservation and Research.