National Geographic Society Awards Two Dallas Zoo Staffers Grants for Their Projects on Penguins and Amphibians

courtesy Dallas Zoo
Dusky gopher frog

Two Dallas Zoo staffers won big for conservation after receiving a grant of roughly $70,000 from the National Geographic Society.

Supervisor of Birds Kevin Graham and Curator of Ectotherms Ruston Hartdegen will join the ranks of renowned conservationists like Jane Goodall and Jacques Cousteau, all while working on personal field projects. They are also the first staffers from the Dallas Zoo to receive funding from the National Geographic Society.

Graham was awarded a $50,000 grant in support of his project, Using Artificial Nests to Improve Breeding Success of Endangered African Penguins. Additionally, Hartdegen was awarded $18,955 in support of his project, Expanding an Amphibian Rescue Center at the Dallas Zoo.

“It is definitely something that took my breath away when I got the news,” Graham says. “It was a very long and detailed application process. The requirements that they have, the expectations that they have, the people that have been funded and backed by them … To have my name alongside those people is an honor that I can’t even begin to put words to. But it is definitely something I hope to live up to.”

Last February, Graham collaborated with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums scientists, the Dyer Island Conservation Trust and the Pan-African Association of Zoos and Aquaria. Together, they helped install 200 artificial nests in two South African penguin colonies to help cure the 98 percent population decline mainly due to improper nests that failed to protect their eggs. And after many extensive prototypes, two designs were given the stamp of approval by the indicator species.

“Penguins tell us about the health of the environment. And penguins are declining because of the lack of health in the environment, marine pollution, overuse of resources and climate change.” – Kevin Graham

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“Penguins tell us about the health of the environment,” he says. “And penguins are declining because of the lack of health in the environment, marine pollution, overuse of resources and climate change. Their numbers are declining for all of those reasons.”

However, it’s still easy for some to only pay attention to big, charismatic animals. But when indicator species are in decline or causing issues, one can almost directly correlate that to long-term effects on people, their quality of life, health care, etc. So, while one may not care about the well-being of a smaller, less interesting animal, there’s long-term ramifications for what’s going on in the environment.

With that, one-third of all amphibians worldwide are also threatened, and conservation action is critical. So, Hartdegen along with the Dallas Zoo are taking the next step to develop assurance populations of three threatened species.

The zoo previously led efforts to protect the dusky gopher frog, releasing new froglets into their native habitat of Mississippi in October. Hence why the grant is mainly going toward the expansion of the Amphibian Rescue Center and its two new breed-and-release programs for the Houston toad and the Puerto Rican crested toad.

“We do really well at telling other folks what they need to do and pointing out other conservation issues in other areas and we often kind of neglect to look in our own backyards,” Hartdegen says. “There’s a lot of conservation issues here at home that we should probably be paying more attention to and focusing on. If we’re not going to look in our own backyards … Who’s going to do that for us?”

And this was no brief undertaking, he explains. The advisory group meetings began in 2014, where various zoo colleagues, supervisors and curators for different economic groups for animals discussed the Species Survival Program and its mission for involvement and new resources for these species.

“I thought it was an opportunity, I thought the zoo was well-placed and my staff has the expertise,” Hartdegen says. “And we happened to have the space available, so we dedicated a fairly large space to be able to house a pretty good-size group of animals. And that’s really what started it.”

And although Hartdegen has dedicated years of effort toward this project, he feels the pressure now more than ever.

“I was a little overwhelmed, surprised, excited … It’s our first set of grants and with National Geographic being on such a national platform … Yeah maybe there’s a little pressure, but I don’t think we’ll have any problems rising to the challenge,” Hartdegen says. “I think it’s good for the zoo. We deserve the attention — we’ve been doing a lot of things over the years — and I think it’s a good culmination of our efforts, and hopefully we'll be continuing to do this and more things for conservation.”

During what is considered to be one of the Dallas Zoo’s greatest accomplishments, Executive Vice President of Animal Care and Conservation Harrison Edell said that receiving grants of this magnitude really highlight the advances the nationally acclaimed zoo continues to make in the field of wildlife conservation.

“These are lifesaving undertakings that Kevin and Ruston have worked at length on — they had to prove successful completion of similar projects with measurable results before being awarded the grants,” Edell says. “Now, we can make an even bigger impact for endangered African penguins and near-extinct frogs.”