Thursday, May 6, 2010

Devra Kleiman was a great conservation hero

Devra Kleiman, one of the most inspiring conservation heroes EVER, passed away a couple day of ago. Dr. Kleinman was a pioneer in captive animal behavioral research and in conservation biology, and it is largely due to her legacy that a strong relationship exists between the two. She really is the reason that golden lion tamarins are not extinct; they are the only primate species I know of that has improved their conservation status (from critically endangered to endangered). GLT's are not out of the woods yet (or, more accurately, back into the rainforest); they are still endangered. BUT, due to Dr. Kleinman and her colleagues, they are still there, both in captivity and in the wild. And thanks to their efforts, there is now a very effective net of conservation awareness and efforts focused on conserving them.

When Dr. Kleiman first began her work with the National Zoo in the 1970s, golden lion tamarins were not successfully breeding. Unfortunately, no one realized that they did not live in multi-male/multi-female groups in the wild. Dr. Kleinman and her colleagues' research led to the conclusion that they should be housed in pairs, and once that change was put into effect, GLTs became calmer, bonded, and began producing offspring.

From there, Dr. Kleiman and her colleagues performed a series of conservation miracles. They persuaded zoos to work together, in order to forge breeding exchanges to maintain genetic diversity. They then persuaded zoos to hand over ownership to the Brazilian government, and then take select breeding groups down to Brazil, put them through "How to live in the wild" bootcamp, and reintroduce the captive-born families into the wild. These attempts were not without setbacks; in the early years of the program, many captive-borns struggled in the wild, and did not survive for very long. But Kleiman's team kept trying to improve their efforts, and began performing "soft releases" in which the released animals were monitored and supported/protected when necessary. Thanks to these changes, things improved. Captive-borns still struggled with living the wild, but with support, they were able to live long enough to raise offspring, and the wild-born offspring were far more successful than their zoo-born parents. As a result, the population started increasing. Furthermore, a successful local and international conservation awareness campaign ensured that further steps were taken to protect existing forests, plant corridors, and raise local awareness. The golden lion tamarin is one of conservation's big success stories, and its legacy has influenced captive animal husbandry and welfare, reintroduction programs, and field conservation programs.

In short, this woman was a hero, and is a huge inspiration for me. If I achieve half of what she achieved in her lifetime, I will consider my life a huge success. She didn't do it alone; she had a team of colleagues that all actively made the GLT reintroduction and other projects a success. However, she was essentially the person that started the entire process, and kept going and persuading others to collaborate, cooperate, and contribute to making it happen. I hope the fields of primatology, zoo behavioral research, and conservation biology always remember her legacy.

For more information, see:

Kleinman's Washington Post Obituary

NPR's Remembering Devra Kleiman

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