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​​Mission Madagascar: Notes from the Jungle (3)

Written by Dr. Patricia C. Wright/2014 Indianapolis Prize Winner

As part of the PIVOT Board events we had three local bands come to Centre VALBIO to perform. The bamboo dancers won the competition. Michael Herrnstein, the youngest Board member joined the dancers. [more...]

PIVOT Board member joins band.jpgYes, our Environmental Arts Program includes acting and theater! Zara Aina is a group of Broadway actors who visited Madagascar over a year ago teaching performing arts to Malagasy children. Last year Bryce Pinkham (Starring now in the Tony Winning Broadway Musical "A gentleman's guide to Love and Murder), Lucas Rooney and Annie came to Centre ValBio to teach our local children to act out nature stories. Although Bryce couldn't come having to go to the Tonys,  Lucas and Annie arrived on their motorcycles the day of the PIVOT Board meeting. The Mayor loaned his car to bring up children from Ranomafana and 150 children somehow emerged from a pick up truck like clowns in a Volkswagon. Let the performance begin!! Part of the fun was the children invading the PIVOT Board meeting. Its all filmed and must be on the web by now. Great fun for all. And a good way to bring awareness of the specialness of Madagascar's wildlife to the local communities.Anne Norton Weaving Baskets.JPG Our environmental arts program is growing and we brought PIVOT our basket weavers from Sahavondronona Village to teach basketweaving to the Board. This program of incorporating basket weaving lessons into tourist schedules is another way CVB is helping the household budgets of local village women.​


Mission Madagascar: Notes from the Jungle (2)

Written by Dr. Patricia C. Wright/2014 Indianapolis Prize Winner

The villages around Ranomafana are some of the poorest in the world, and part of our conservation program is to help the people around the park to have better health. [more...] In order to step this up we have encouraged the founding of PIVOT, a new NGO with their first goal to bring infrastructure of health care delivery to international standards around the Ranomafana National Park. PIVOT headquarters in Ranomafana.jpgPIVOT became operational in Ranomafana six months ago.. I am on the PIVOT BOARD and we had a Board Meeting in Ranomafana. PIVOT works closely with the Ministry of Health, and so far has begun upgrading and rebuilding the Ranomafana Health clinic as well as purchasing two ambulances, the first ever in the region, to be able to get sick people to the district or province hospital. They have been saving lives already. The District Hospital and six other basic health clinics will be upgraded this year. And 40 essential medicines provided to all these clinics. The Board was impressed with the first six months of progress towards the goals of Health for Conservation. PIVOT and Centre ValBio work closely together​ [close]

​​​​​Mission Madagascar: Notes from the Jungle

Written by Dr. Patricia C. Wright/2014 Indianapolis Prize Winner

Three of us from Centre ValBio traveled half an hour west to a picturesque Betsileo village on Route 45 with two story adobe houses and several blacksmith forges. [more...] This sunny Wednesday morning we had arrived for a meeting with the President to discuss the possibility of Ambatovaky being a tourist destination. The President wasn’t there and we made an appointment with his wife to convene the meeting on Friday morning. We heard the hammers and were guided to the forges.

The barefoot blacksmiths were heating pieces of wrought iron until the metal glowed red and became soft enough to be shaped with handmade hammer, anvil and chisel. The glowing forge of charcoal was fanned by home made bellows, twin upright logs alternatively pushed by hand. Three muscular men hammered and shaped the metal after it was glowing hot. In fifteen minutes we had a shovel handle.  It was a dynamic experience and as a tourist, I bought the narrow shovel that I had seen made.

Two days later we returned to Ambatovaky for a meeting with the President and the Executive Committee to discuss the “Artisanal Path for Tourists”. Susan Findel’s dream was to have the circuit start at Ambatovaky with observation of the blacksmiths. The President said “ other countries have engines and machines, why would they want to buy our iron made by hand?” And I explained, that yes other countries had machines and had forgotten how to do metal work by hand and they would be fascinated to see the work accomplished here. We discussed training in the English and French language, a museum, a Shoppe for selling their wares, and training to do metal sculpture. They asked for our collaboration and they showed us the land where the museum and shop could go. I bought two “coup-coups” two sickles and two more shovel handles to put on the wall of my USA house as works of art. [close]

African Painted Wild Dog Population Declines

Wildlife population decreases in the Sahara desert concern scientific organizations across the globe. A recent study led by New York's Wildlife Conservation Society and the Zoological Society of London calls the species decline in the Sahara desert a "catastrophic collapse of its wildlife populations."  [more ...]

The study says the African painted wild dog (Lycaon pictus) is extinct from the desert along with many other species like lion, an antelope known as bubal hartebeest and scimitar horned oryx while cheetahs and gazelles are nearly gone. The African painted wild dog is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) red list of endangered species. It is estimated that there are only 6,600 adult African painted dogs left in the world with the population declining due to habitat loss, disease and conflict with humans.

The Indianapolis Zoo's African painted dog is an ambassador for her counterparts in the wild. Tano helps people understand and learn about the dangers her species face across the world. Tano is a bit shy, but very motivated by food. Indianapolis Zoo keeper Holly Balok works with Tano on enrichment and diet. Whole prey is beneficial mentally and physically, so Tano will eat a whole rabbit — ingesting pelt and bones which is good fiber. She also gets enriched meat and femur bones and is motivated to track and find her food independently. Holly will hide the food and Tano tracks it down. Other enrichment focuses on scent with herbs, spices and extracts used to interest Tano.  Reserve blood is frozen from meat and turned into the much loved African wild dog treat — a bloodsicle! Sounds gross, but Tano likes it.

African painted dogs can run 40 miles per hour and hunt twice a day. In the pack, every dog gets its share with food being brought back for injured or older pack members. They don't have much trouble catching food since they can outrun most prey. Each year, only one female in the pack gives birth (six to 16 pups) and all the other dogs in the pack raise the pups. African painted dogs need a lot of space — 3,861 square miles. Indiana is 36,420 square miles and would barely be enough room for 10 wild dog packs.

So what can be done to shore up the future for this species? The IUCN has several recommendations including reducing conflict with humans, cost effectively surveying the dogs across large geographic areas, establishing sustainable techniques for disease control and studying landscape connectivity — where animal movement is blocked. The IUCN says many action plans are in place in Africa but there's a need to increase public awareness and understanding of the dogs.  You can read more about these strategies at You can also learn more about the conservation efforts for these animals by going to Painted Dog Conservation — which is an organization founded by 2006 Indianapolis Prize nominee Greg Rasmussen.   [close]

96 Students for 96 Elephants

If 96 elephants die each day from poachers seeking to make money off their ivory tusks, what can 96 kids do about it? Plenty!  [more ...]

Especially when they have a teacher who wanted to dig a little deeper into understanding a campaign called 96 Elephants. The campaign was created by the Wildlife Conservation Society in efforts to educate people on the fact that 96 elephants are killed each day in Africa. When Lawrence Township teacher Sonya Schkabla learned about the statistic through the education department at the Indianapolis Zoo, she knew right away it would be a great teaching tool for her fourth- through sixth-grade students. 

How many kids does it take to help visualize the problem? 96! The students posed for this picture (top) to illustrate what 96 of anything looks like — now imagine if it was a picture of 96 elephants! 

Schkabla's mission fell smack dab in the middle of a historic event that drew world-wide attention to the slaughtering of elephants for their tusks. In November, the United States pulverized nearly six tons of elephant ivory including tusks, carvings and curios.

Schkabla's students are also trying to do their part for elephant conservation. They have written brochures about animal conservation, created posters to educate other students and staff, and signed the 96 Elephants petition. Schkabla says, "I love that they are feeling empowered and heard!"

Elephant conservationists know the key to saving elephants is to make sure a spotlight shines on the elephant poaching problem. According to the International Union for Conservation Nature (IUCN), at the start of the prior century, there were 10 million elephants walking the earth. The IUCN says that number has dwindled to 400,000 with fears elephants could be extinct within 50 years at the rate they are being killed. 

December 2-4, an emergency summit took place in Gaborone, Botswana,  to take action on the increased poaching of the African elephant. The IUCN and the Government of Botswana have put together a list of urgent changes needed to address the elephant issue. Delegates approved 14 strong measures to combat the elephant killing  reports some of the measures include, pushing for laws to strengthen wildlife crime sentences, getting communities involved in elephant conservation and classifying the issue as a serious crime.   

A world away from Botswana at Brook Park Elementary, a new generation of conservationists realize, they can make a difference. One student said, "I helped President Obama make the decision to give money to save the elephants because I signed the petition on 96 Elephants!"

Thanks to one teacher who saw a need and took action to try to save our most majestic creature on earth.  [close]

Cheetah Conservation

The world's fastest land mammal is in a race against extinction. International Cheetah Day – a day to raise awareness about this sleek and unique cat.  According to the Cheetah Conservation Fund, there are an estimated 10,000 cheetahs left in the world.  [more ...]

About a third of the remaining cheetahs live in Namibia. The cheetah, with its long legs, can reach speeds of approximately 70 miles per hour in just three seconds. It needs that kind of speed because it's not an aggressive animal and has small teeth and weak jaws making it vulnerable to larger predators.

If you've visited the Indianapolis Zoo's, Cheetah: The Race for Survival exhibit, you may have already helped cheetahs in the wild.  Our "Race-a-Cheetah"  feature allows guests to pay fifty-cents and run against LED lights that simulate the speed of a cheetah to see the lightning velocity of the fast cat.  The exhibit features the voice of Tony Stewart, Indiana native, animal fan and three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion. Indianapolis Zoo guests can also enjoy watching Kago, Kuzo, Jira and Chiku interact in their exhibit.  
So far, all the money collected at the Indianapolis Zoo's "Race-a-Cheetah" attraction has gone directly to the Cheetah Conservation fund. Since our exhibit opened in 2010, zoo guests have contributed more than $52,000 to help save wild cheetahs in Africa. The "Race-a-Cheetah" area is one of the exhibits that most exemplifies the Indianapolis Zoo's animal conservation mission

While cheetahs are a protected animal in Namibia, farmers are allowed to trap and shoot a cheetah if the animal is suspected of threatening livestock.  The Cheetah Conservation Fund uses much of its money to work with farmers on protecting livestock by using Kangal dogs.  This breed of dog is used for protecting flocks of sheep and goats.  The dogs intimidate predators like cheetahs which means famers won't have to kill to protect their property and livelihoods. The Indianapolis Zoo has two Kangal dogs—a brother and sister named Solo and Ayla.  
So the next time you are at the Indianapolis Zoo, head over to the Cheetah exhibit and take the challenge.  You just might be saving a Cheetah in the wild.  [close]

Zoos Join Forces to Stop Illegal Palm Oil manufacturing​

Orangutans at the Indianapolis Zoo will move into their new world-class home in weeks.  [more ...]

The International Orangutan Center is stretching 150-feet into the Indianapolis skyline where soon, our group of orangutans will swing, climb and hang from The Myrta Pulliam Hutan Trail upwards of 70 feet above the zoo. Orangutans in the wild face a crisis — there's a huge threat to these great apes living in Borneo and Sumatra. The threat is over palm oil which is used in 50 percent of manufactured food and other products we commonly buy at the grocery. Palm oil when produced legally and sustainably is fine to use. Illegal palm oil plantations are destroying the forests where orangutans and other animals live. These illegal farms are planted after forests are destroyed and flattened. The orangutan land is targeted because it offers a rich, moist growing area for palm oil trees. These illegal farms are destroying the ecosystem — taking away even one part of the delicate balance endangers the survival of not only orangutans, but other wildlife and vegetation.

In their population's current state of decline, orangutans in the wild are on pace to go extinct in approximately 10 years if humans don't intercede and stop the deforestation. "The current generation of wild orangutans could well be the last unless we can find workable solutions for the Indonesian economy, its government and the orangutans," said Rob Shumaker, Ph.D., the Indianapolis Zoo's vice president of conservation and life sciences and one of the world's foremost authorities on orangutan cognition.

Important partnerships have been formed to tackle deforestation and illegal palm oil production. The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was created in 2004 to educate and encourage sustainable growth of Palm Oil. The Indianapolis Zoo, in partnership with the San Diego Zoo and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo have recently joined the RSPO to take an active role in strategic planning and understanding their criteria for certifying palm oil plantations for legal practices. These zoos are the first in the United States to join RSPO.  The zoos' memberships in the RSPO add to a growing movement among zoos to become an active voice in the palm oil crisis. Last month, a resolution was unanimously passed at the 68th annual conference of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) in support of the RSPO and encourages all zoos to promote certified sustainable palm oil.

"The vision of the RSPO — to drive the sustainable palm oil agenda forward to protect our environment, wildlife and communities — is a transformative journey that involves the cooperation of an extensive group of players," said the RSPO's secretary-general, Darrel Webber. "We welcome the San Diego, Cheyenne Mountain and Indianapolis zoos, whose combined annual visitors exceed 7.5 million, to the RSPO and look forward to working closely with them in helping to educate the broader community about the need to support the sustainable production of palm oil," Webber added.

Back in Indianapolis, as ambassadors for their counterparts in the wild, our congress (the name for a group of orangutans) will help to educate Zoo visitors on the threats wild orangutans face. Azy, Charly, Katy, Knobi, Lucy, Nicky and Rocky are soon to be loved and visited by hundreds of thousands of people. The International Orangutan Center opens to the public on May 24, 2014. [close]

We're Bonkers About the Benefits of Bats

Creepy blood-sucking creatures that terrorize their victims from overhead — it's a wildly fictional storyline from countless Hollywood horror films that depict bats as dirty flying demons.   [more ...]

Myths about bats have created needless fears about these critters, and many of those fears are perpetuated around this time of year, as people often use plush bat decorations to get a scare out of their guests at Halloween.

But in reality, bats are nothing to be feared. In fact, these furry friends are vital to ecosystems around the world, and chances are that you can thank bats for many of your favorite foods, beverages and even medicines! That's why we're bonkers for bats!

Bats get a bad rep from the countless vampire stories that have been circulating for centuries. But of the more than 1,200 bat species, there are only three species of vampire bats and almost all of them live in Latin and South America. And even those don't hunt humans. Instead, they prefer to prefer small animals.

The majority of bat species, including those found in Indiana, prefer a feast of fruits, nectar, pollen or insects. Bats are the bug zappers of the mammal world and help protect farmers' crops from harmful pests. A single bat can eat several thousand insects in one night!

Despite their poor eyesight, bats can accomplish their prolific pest control using a technique called echolocation. Using this bio-sonar, bats emit sound waves through beeps and clicks that bounce off of objects and back to them. This helps them find the things they want, like insects, and avoid the rest.

Fruit bats also play a big role in agriculture. They spread seeds through their droppings and carry pollen in their fur that helps to pollinate other plants. From cotton to cacao (chocolate), peaches to papayas, and even tequila — bats help bring us more than 450 commercial products and 80 medicines! They're also helping to keep rainforests lush and beautiful, by spreading seeds that provide for about 95 percent of forest re-growth.

Contrary to the myth about bats being dirty or carrying diseases, they are extremely clean creatures, and spend a lot of time grooming their fur.  

Bats make up about one-fifth of all mammal species in the world, and they range in size from the tiny bumblebee bat which is the world's smallest mammal to giant flying foxes with a 6-foot wing span!

Many of these bat populations are in decline because of habitat loss and threats from humans. But you can help these incredible creatures by building a bat house in your backyard.

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources has identified 13 bats species that are native to Indiana. The most common species are the big brown bat, red bat, little brown bat and eastern pipesterelle. Some of Indiana's bats choose to live in forests, where they roost in large trees, others live in cave colonies, and still others make their homes in buildings, whether abandoned warehouse in an urban setting or old barns in rural areas.

The Indianapolis Zoo is also home to two species of bats, the African straw-colored fruit bat and the island flying fox. Because all bat species are nocturnal, Zoo guests can often find our bats asleep inside their exhibit in Forests. But because the Zoo is open late during ZooBoo and Christmas at the Zoo, it's the perfect time of year to see how active and amazing these animals really are!  [close]​

Who Decides Who Wins the Indianapolis Prize?

The Indianapolis Zoo has 39 Nominees for the 2014 Indianapolis Prize. It received a great deal of attention (here's the story that ran in the Indianapolis Star, for example: 2014 Nominees — Star ). The Nominees span the globe and represent a broad range of species including chimpanzees, snow leopards, sea turtles, giant pandas, bats, swans and many more.  [more ...]

As you know, these men and women are real heroes: they're people who have had memorable adventures and brilliant victories that have quite literally changed the world.

But how do we determine who wins the $250,000 cash award and the prestigious Lilly Medal?

Actually, "we" don't.

Right from the start, we decided that an internationally-regarded award needed an internationally-regarded group of decision-makers. Every two years, we recruit some of the most well-known and distinguished conservationists in the world. They comprise two groups, the Nominating Committee and the Jury. The Nominating Committee reviews all accepted nominations and selects six Finalists. The Jury reviews those six Finalists and chooses the Winner. It is not an easy task, and it requires not only some very specialized knowledge, but also a great deal of wisdom and a considerable amount of hard work as they research and review each candidate. 

We are honored to share with you the names of the individuals who are serving on the Nominating Committee and Jury for the 2014 Indianapolis Prize:


  • Dr. Onnie Byers,  Chair, IUCN Species Survival Commission Conservation Breeding Specialist Group;

  • Dr. Malcolm Hunter, Distinguished Professor, University of Maine; Author, Fundamentals of Conservation Biology;

  • Dr. Jorg Junhold, President, World Association of Zoos & Aquariums;

  • Peter Knights, Executive Director, WildAid;

  • Cyril Kormos, J.D., Vice President for Policy, The WILD Foundation;

  • Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, Biodiversity Chair, Heinz Center for Science, Economics, and Environment;

  • Nancy V. Elder, Community Leader (Indianapolis Zoo Board Representative);

  • Nancy B. Hunt, Community Leader (Community Representative);

  • Robert Shumaker, Ph.D., Vice President of Conservation and Life Sciences, Indianapolis Zoo (Staff Representative).


  • Dr. Corey Bradshaw, Director, Ecological Modeling, The Environment Institute, University of Adelaide;

  • Steve Burns, Chair, AZA Field Conservation Committee;

  • Dr. Stephen Hubbell, Distinguished Professor, UCLA; Sr. Scientist, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute;

  • Dr. Norman Myers, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Science, Duke University; Visiting Fellow, Green College, Oxford University;

  • Dr. Christoph Schwitzer, Head of Research, Bristol Conservation and Science Foundation;

  • David Yarnold, President & CEO, National Audubon Society;

  • Myrta J. Pulliam, Director of Special Projects, Indianapolis Star (Indianapolis Zoo Board Representative);

  • Tom Linebarger, Chairman and CEO, Cummins Inc. (Community Representative);

  • Paul B. Grayson, Deputy Director and Senior Vice President of Science and Conservation, Indianapolis Zoo.

It is hard to believe, but we are just months away from awarding the 2014 Indianapolis Prize! I'll keep you informed of the major milestones, and you can also read about the Prize on its websitethis blog and follow the Indianapolis Prize onFacebookTwitter and YouTube. In the meantime, please mark your calendars for the Indianapolis Prize Gala on Sept. 27, 2014, at the JW Marriott!  [close]

Inspiring Citizen Science

Citizen science, that's what Dr. Rodney Jackson, the founder and director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy, was in Indianapolis to promote. It was his first visit since attending the 2012 Indianapolis Prize Gala presented by Cummins Inc., where he was one of the finalists for the world's leading award for animal conservation[more ...]

As the foremost expert on snow leopards, much of Jackson's ability to study these elusive and mysterious cats has been due to his innovative work with camera trap photography. And that's exactly what brought him to Indianapolis on this visit.

Of course there are no snow leopards to be found in the wooded hills outside Indiana's capital city. Instead, this trip is all about teaching people how to use the same technology to learn more about the wildlife living around them.

Pausing briefly from his regular schedule of field work, conservation outreach and occasional time at his home in California, Jackson recently visited Bradford Woods, near Martinsville, to present a workshop on the practical applications of camera trap photography. With 30-plus years of experience, the small group who attended couldn't have found a better teacher than Jackson.

"When I do these workshops, it's really to raise awareness for the local wildlife," he said.

In the 1980s, Jackson helped to pioneer camera trap techniques and was among the first to capture images of the stunning snow leopard.

"We were trying to do a census for snow leopards and using trail cameras. This was before they were commercially available, so we made one," Jackson recalled.

He showed the group one of the first cameras he built using a standard point-and-shoot camera, a small pelican case, and basic wiring and circuitry that's now readily available online. This model, pictured at right, has been in use for decades in harsh climates high in the mountains of Central Asia, but remarkably, it still works! But for less than $200, Jackson said, anyone can purchase a camera that's practical, reliable and a heck of a lot of fun!

Intermixed with amazing camera-trap images of snow leopards in their native habitat are stealthy images of Jackson's house cat as it wanders out for an evening adventure. Similarly, Jackson has helped set up homeowners with cameras that capture photographic proof of the animals that raid their garbage bins at night.

"More and more this is going to happen," said Jackson, noting the continual overlap of human and animal territory. "I think you need to use cameras to see and determine when you have problem animals and what you can do."

For instance, eliminating raccoons requires a much different approach than eliminating bobcats or even bears. First, Jackson said, you have to see what animal you're dealing with before you know how to handle the problem.

What he's found is that as people capture images of these animals, they become more curious about them. And many of the people he's taught set up cameras simply to enjoy the intriguing wildlife photography they generate.

Just as he's empowering people to connect with wildlife during these workshop, so too has he empowered the small communities that speckle the landscapes of Nepal, Tibet, Mongolia and other remote Asian countries.

Several years ago, Jackson began a program that partners students in these small towns with livestock herders in the area. Many herders have lost livestock to snow leopards and they're intimately aware of the patters of these big cats.

"We team up the kids and the herders because the kids know the technology and the herders know where the cats are," he said.

"The people see snow leopards as pests, but we want them to see them as an asset. When we get these photographs, you can look and see that this is a beautiful animal. And it's making a difference!"

Because snow leopard ranges are measured across thousands of miles of rugged, remote terrain, it's difficult to say how many are left in the wild. But, Jackson said, while a single sighting in a year used to be commonplace, now he and his team are seeing evidence of multiple cats in the same areas in much shorter times spans.

For Jackson, that's enough to know these methods are working. So he'll continue teaching these workshops so that more people will become inspired to meet the nature around them.

"Citizen science — I think that's going to emerge as a very important conservation tool."   [close]

Going High-tech to Track Polar Bears

Tracking polar bears' movements and behavioral patterns in the wild is key to understanding the effects of ​climate change on these amazing creatures. Yet observing polar bears as they move across the Arctic is virtually impossible for scientists.  [more ...]

But thanks to some high-tech gadgetry, researchers at Polar Bears International and elsewhere will soon have access to information critical to their efforts to save these beautiful beasts.

Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey have developed a special collar that can be used to track polar bears and record data about their specific movements. The collars are fitted with an accelerometer that detects even subtle motions and directional changes. It's the same device in most smart phones that recognizes and adjusts to the user's movements. And it could change the game for polar bear researchers.

For years, scientists like Dr. Steven Amstrup, chief scientist for Polar Bears International and recipient of the 2012 Indianapolis Prize, have used radio collars to gather information about polar bears. Through the groundbreaking studies of Amstrup and his team, polar bears are now recognized as a threatened species because of global warming.

With this latest device, which is a project of the USGS' Changing Arctic Ecosystems research, scientists will have the ability to capture information about a bear's specific daily activities — from sleeping to swimming to running to eating.

USGS scientists are currently working with the Oregon Zoo to perfect the device. There, Tasul, the zoo's polar bear, wears the collar while keepers record her movements. That allows scientists to compare the data recorded by the collar to the motions of the bear and calibrate the device. Watch this amazing video to see the device in action.  [close]​