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June 2011 
Inside this issue ...
Who says sharks can't fly?
PAAZAB Conservation Award
DNA crackdown on poaching
Holiday courses!
Continued survival of species
NZG penguins
Poo important to science
Visit to Hungary
NZG evolves into national research facility
ZooEduLab wows learners
Careers in conservation
2011 Biodiversity Youth Symposium
Conservation Grapevine

The NZG evolves into a fully-fledged national research facility

 
In March 2009, the NZG launched its Centre for Conservation Science, a knowledge and training hub that focuses on conservation biology and wildlife biodiversity research.
 
By training undergraduate and postgraduate students, the Centre for Conservation Science contributes to a growing body of conservationists, veterinary scientists, zoologists and wildlife managers for Africa.
 
The NZG is instrumental in investigating the causes, prevalence, distribution and evolutionary consequences of wildlife diseases of captive and wild animals in Africa.
 
Planning is under way to expand the current veterinary hospital and establish it as a centre of excellence in Conservation Medicine and Research.
 
The NZG's Research and Scientific Services Department is involved in investigations into the pathology of free-ranging Bottlenose and Humpback dolphins in collaboration with the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity. Dolphins are important sentinels indicating habitat degradation as well as pathogen and/or chemical pollution.
Prof Antoinette Kotze and Dr Clifford Nxomani, NZG

The National Zoological Gardens of South Africa (NZG) is the only zoo on the continent with a statutory mandate to undertake scientific research.

The NZG was declared a national research facility and transferred to the management of the National Research Foundation (NRF) on 1 April 2004, largely based on its potential to play a pivotal role in the advancement of science in society. As an independent government agency, the NRF promotes and supports research in all knowledge fields.

South Africa's national research facilities serve as research platforms accessible to the entire research community, including universities and other components of the science system, both locally and internationally. As a national research facility the NZG is in a unique position to generate new knowledge, core technologies and data pools/ collections on a par with international standards. This offers unique opportunities for the advancement of science and for an interface between science and the public.

Transformation

At the time of the declaration in 2004, the NZG had neither a distinguished history of research nor the primary infrastructural platform to fulfil its new mandate. This meant that the organisation had to undergo fundamental transformation to position itself to fulfil the new mandate and the expectations that came with it.

A comprehensive strategic planning process to review the activities of the NZG and position the organisation within South Africa's National System of Innovation began in 2005. This process culminated in the development and adoption of a new Strategic Plan in 2006, which focused largely on the transformation of the NZG into a national research facility.

During this time strategic shifts within the NRF were embodied in a new strategy document and the NZG revised its Strategic Plan accordingly. The result was Agenda 2015, a plan aimed at appropriate positioning of the facility within its new context focusing on delivery of the revised mandate.

Agenda 2015 highlights five strategic drivers, the first of which is 'to grow the NZG as a centre of excellence for conservation and biodiversity research on the one hand, and conservation medicine on the other, working at the in situ/ex situ interface'. While advancing science in and for society, the NZG also aims to be 'a place of learning and a source of inspiration to action for science and biodiversity'.

The NZG's mission statement 'inspired conservation of wildlife through knowledge, understanding and connection' embodies the organisation's commitment to developing knowledge through research that can underpin conservation practice and management of biodiversity.

Centre for Conservation Science

In March 2009, the NZG launched its Centre for Conservation Science, a knowledge and training hub that focuses on conservation biology and wildlife biodiversity research.

The Centre has dedicated laboratories for wildlife pathology, veterinary parasitology and molecular genetics, as well as a sequencing laboratory and a veterinary hospital. Staff include a veterinary pathologist, a veterinary parasitologist, a molecular geneticist, an ecologist, an animal nutritionist and three clinical veterinarians.

The Centre focuses on wildlife epidemiology, behavioural ecology, molecular genetics, wildlife nutrition and reproductive biology within the ex situ/in situ interface. As the Centre is well placed within the conservation community to develop new and improved technologies through research, it also offers research-orientated services and expertise to other zoological gardens, academic institutions, conservation agencies and organisations.

Centre for Conservation Medicine and Research

Planning is under way to establish a Centre for Conservation Medicine and Research, and to expand the current veterinary hospital and establish it as a centre of research excellence in this emerging science. This new development within an emerging knowledge field will position the NZG as the leader not only on the African continent, but globally as well.

Wildlife disease epidemiology focuses on targeted research and diagnostics to investigate the causes, prevalence, distribution and evolutionary consequences of wildlife diseases of captive and wild animals in Africa. The NZG has an extensive wildlife disease database. Research aims to understand the complex links between animals, their environment and diseases.

Current projects include investigating the pathology of free-ranging and captive Cheetahs in southern Africa. The first pathology record of free-ranging Leopards in the Kruger National Park is an important project undertaken in collaboration with South African National Parks (SANParks).

Avian influenza surveillance of live, dead, captive and free-ranging birds is done in collaboration with the University of Cape Town as part of a globally significant international programme. An ex situ/in situ disease surveillance molecular database for chytridimycosis in amphibians -- the only one in Africa -- is a first step towards developing and applying key molecular diagnostic tests.

Partnerships

Cooperation with other research groups is essential. These include the University of the Free State and the University of Venda in South Africa and, internationally, the National Research Centre for Protozoan Diseases (Japan), the Oklahoma State University in the United States, the University of Vienna and the Zoological Society of London.

In addition, the NZG is instrumental in the development of a wildlife diagnostic course with partners at the Veterinary Faculty, University of Pretoria, SANParks and veterinarians representing different organisations in Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Research databases and projects

The NZG has built up a unique resource to conduct and promote molecular genetic research in Africa. National genetic databases are being maintained and expanded for species such as Blue and Black wildebeest, Black and White rhinoceros, Cheetahs, Southern ground hornbills, Oxpeckers, Pangolins, Sable antelope, Tsessebe and African elephant.

Research projects range from the development and implementation of genetic techniques using genetic markers to sequencing of genomes and DNA profiling as an aid for genetic management of threatened populations and wildlife forensic-science investigations. A profitable specialist unit has been established where molecular genetic services are rendered on behalf of the African continent.

Gender determination in threatened birds, reptiles and mammals forms part of a community conservation project, whereby a free service is provided to all zoos in South Africa. The NZG is also working towards the validation of cross-species and species-specific genetic markers in various forensic investigations.

Scientific information on the dietary and nutritional requirements of every animal maintained by the NZG is an ongoing challenge in the nutritional management of the animal collection. The current focus is on specialisation of diets, energy budgets and feeding ecology, while the building of scientific capacity to become a leader in applied wildlife nutrition is a long-term aim.

Furthermore, a project aimed at identifying indicators, both behavioural and physiological, that signal the lack of one or more essential habitat features has been launched with the Mammal Research Institute of the University of Pretoria and the University of the Witwatersrand.

Another theme within this focus area is the management of fragmented populations in the urban environment. The project is based on the presumption that, without management, the population fragments will become extinct one by one as a result of stochastic processes and genetic deterioration. Behaviour and movements of individuals are monitored using radio frequency identification tags combined with accelerometers.

The NZG now runs a Wildlife Biomaterials Bank which is unique in that it encompasses components of multiple biobanks, such as cell cultures, a sperm bank, tissue bank, pathology bank and environmental tissue bank. This represents an ideal platform for the development of a knowledge hub for the banking of biomaterials as well as reproductive physiology research.

The biobank forms part of several international and national partnerships and links to the International Society for Biological and Environmental Depositories, Frozen Ark and the Barcode of Life initiatives.

Public interface and engagement

A public interface and engagement research focus area includes conservation psychology, learning in an informal environment, exhibit design and visitor studies. The nature and dynamics of the interface between the NZG and the public, the impact of the NZG's science advancement activities and the extent to which the NZG meets the expectations and requirements of its visitors and audiences are examined. This programme is a collaborative effort between the marketing, guest relation services, animal collection, research and education functions of the NZG.

Research projects currently under way include the comparative evaluation of educational programmes at the NZG, Uganda Wildlife Education Centre and Zoo Negara in Malaysia, two masters studies at the University of Pretoria on experience management, and a survey of consumer perceptions and attitudes in a South African organisation.

Building vital capacity in conservation science

A further aim is to create a critical mass of African scientists, veterinarians and technicians skilled in wildlife conservation science. The Centre for Conservation Science provides a platform for scientists, veterinarians and students to conduct research, access facilities and share expertise in biodiversity conservation and animal health.

By training undergraduate and postgraduate students, the Centre contributes to a growing and diverse body of conservationists, veterinary scientists, zoologists and wildlife managers for Africa.