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Talking dragons, mountain chickens and more

In conversation with zoologist Luke Harding The simple fact is that the majority of species are actually disappearing today because of the massive increase in habitat destruction and pollution that we as a species are inflicting on the planet. In my view, we all have a responsibility to help endangered species as much as we possibly can, by supporting if not actively participating in breeding and behavioural studies.   Many of the zoos around the world are now actively assisting endangered species by reaching out, helping to safeguard areas of land and thereby serving to protect the animals that live there, helping to promote their survival, and ensuring that people can enjoy seeing them in the future as well. Action to try and restore damaged and polluted habitats is also being undertaken, supported by explanations to local people about what has gone wrong.   Campaigns of this type can be so valuable. Not only do the zookeepers involved build up a knowledge base of the wild behavior of species through the seasons, but they are also able to get a much clearer understanding of the habitat where the creatures in their care originated, and the problems that they face in the battle for survival.   One such keeper is Luke Harding. I first met Luke at Marwell Zoo and then kept in touch when he moved on to Colchester Zoo. Luke is a reptile and amphibian expert with vast knowledge and experience. His passion for both fieldwork and breeding species has made him very well known among the zoo community and reptile keepers alike. I was delighted to be able to meet up again with Luke recently, as he was about to head off to work on the mountain chicken frog project, and talk with him about his work.   Q Luke, you are now working on the mountain chicken frog project out in Dominica, which must be a very exciting thing to do. We will come back to that, but I must ask when did you first became interested in reptile keeping, and when did this initial interest grow into wanting to work in the zoo field? A I have always had a strong interest in wildlife and nature and was lucky enough to grow up in a family environment that really embraced my passion for this and encouraged me to explore and to question the world around me. I started keeping reptiles at a young age and realised in high school that my passion was to work with animals and in particular, reptiles and amphibians. I have always been intrigued by the natural world and this fascination is what led me to pursue a career as a professional herpetologist. There is nothing better in the world than getting paid to do a job you love, and coming in every day to work with your favorite species, as well as knowing that your passion, enthusiasm and effort can in some way contribute to making a difference to some of the rarest species on the planet. Q Although you had a very varied collection at home in the past, if you had to narrow down your obsession into keeping just one species, what would it be, and why? A is very difficult to answer – like most reptile keepers, my wish list of species to own and work with is vast! However, if I had to pick only one species, I would probably choose the western Gaboon viper (Bitis rhinoceros). I have been fortunate to own and work with this species on numerous occasions during my career, and I am still fascinated by the power, speed, behaviour and cryptic camouflage of this impressive snake, plus the fact that there is still so much to learn about their behaviour and husbandry. Q I met up with you early this year at Colchester zoo, to advise on lighting systems for the zoo’s occupants, and specifically to help in readiness for the expected hatching of the Komodo dragon. It was a great honour to be involved with this significant event and to see the youngster’s progress since then. You have been able to spend time on Komodo itself and to help with the dragons in the wild there. What three things did you pick up from their wild behaviour that you were able to incorporate into your management of this species here in the UK? A Having the opportunity to work with the field team in Komodo and to help monitor the population of wild Komodo dragons was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and will be a highlight of my career, no matter what else happens. One of the best things about having the opportunity to work with animals in their natural habitat is just how much this can teach you about the species in its own ecosystem. One aspect that was particularly interesting was the variety and the diversity of the terrain in which these gigantic monitor lizards could be found. Although we cannot replicate the exact microhabitats in captivity, we can provide greater diversity within the habitats that we design. This in turn will help to create environments with effective enrichment that in turn promote more natural behaviour. Linked to the diversity of habitat were the high fitness levels that I observed in the case of wild Komodo dragons. The harsh terrain that they cover in search of prey undoubtedly contributes to their natural athleticism, and raises challenges for us as keepers, as we seek to stimulate the activity levels of the Komodo dragons in our care and keep them fi t. The wild adult dragons were lean and showed great strength and agility, irrespective of their size and weight, making them very formidable predators. Another interesting observation related to the growth rates of wild Komodo dragons. These were much steadier, because of the variety and seasonality of prey sizes and availability. Fear of predation by larger individuals forces young Komodo dragons into seeking smaller prey for longer periods, and means they do not have access to larger quarry. Yet availability of food is not a factor for Komodo dragons reared in a zoo environment for example, and this observation has now prompted us to consider the size and type of prey that we offer, and how we monitor and measure growth rates more effectively in future. Q You are closely involved also working with the mountain chicken frog. Can you please tell us what this project is, and what are its long-term aims? A The Dominican Mountain Chicken Project represents a collaboration between European institutions and the government of the Commonwealth of Dominica to save this critically endangered frog, known locally as the mountain chicken (Leptodactylus fallax), from extinction. The project is aimed at assuring the future long term survival of the species in the wild. The intention is to achieve this through a combination of captive breeding, and by monitoring the remaining wild populations of mountain chickens in combination with other amphibians, so stock can ultimately be reintroduced back into the wild. The project work also involves setting up and seeking to breed live foods that can be used to feed the local mountain chickens. This is all being done by using native species of invertebrates that are collected and then bred at the facility, so as to provide the frogs with their natural diet. We are involved in the day-to-day care of the frogs at the breeding facility, and at various field monitoring stations, so as to determine the status of deadly chytrid disease in all of the mountain chicken habitats. Part of this work involves the regular collection of frog skin swab samples taken both in the field and from captive animals. Q Is the future really that bleak for this species and is there anything that we can do from home to make a difference? A While it is not possible for everyone to be directly involved in project work, people can help by supporting zoos and the conservation work they carry out. You can discover more at websites such as the mountain chicken Facebook page or these facilities provide a wealth of information and list ways in which individuals can make a difference to ensuring the survival of some of our most endangered amphibian species. The future of this species is definitely very uncertain and there is no quick fix; both on-going monitoring and project work will be needed to help secure the mountain chickens’ future. Q What are the main dangers facing this species and are there any other species in the locality that are suffering in the same way? A In 2002, Dominica experienced the first rapid decline of the mountain chicken populations due to arrival on the Island of the deadly fungal disease known as chytridiomycosis, or chytrid for short. This disease wiped out an estimated 80% of the population within just 18 months. Other threats to the population include habitat destruction and degradation, mainly due to population growth, plus poor land management and hunting. Although hunting is now illegal, it does still happen, with these large amphibians being sought after as a traditional food, as reflected in their name. Apart from not being affected by chytrid fungus, the Lesser Antillean iguana (Iguana delicatissima) also has to contend with all of the other problems facing the mountain chicken, such as habitat loss, road kill and hunting, so it too is becoming increasingly threatened. Q You must have come across some incredible animals and birds on your travels. Has this increased your interest in wild photography? A Definitely – photography is a passion of mine and it is a hobby that is complimented by my career. I think that the importance of photography and keeping records cannot be stressed enough. Maintaining records is essential and photography is an excellent method of recording species, their environments and behaviour. It is a great pastime and the best souvenir to take away when visiting any habitat, as it doesn’t take anything from that environment. Q Let’s hope that the mountain chicken can indeed be saved for future generations, and I am sure that you will be involved in the project going forward, but if you could work with any species anywhere in the world, which would you choose? A I have already been fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with some of the most amazing species on the planet, and with some of the most informed and dedicated experts in areas ranging from the Caribbean to India, mainland Africa and Madagascar. I really can’t narrow my choice down to one species, but actually, I would love the opportunity to focus more on native and European species! I think at times we overlook what is on our doorstep – Europe has some incredible species of reptile and amphibian, along with some very talented people doing great work to help conserve these species. Q I believe that zoos play a critical part in saving endangered animals around the world, but I do not think that very many people realize just how much work regularly goes on behind the scenes as part of this work. What can we do, as animal keepers, to raise awareness of this effort and how can we support zoos going forward? A I think the key thing is that people continue to support their local zoos and encourage others to do the same. There are many projects involving zoos helping to conserve species across the world, and a massive amount of research work that supports these conservation efforts is going on too. People can find out what is happening within zoos by becoming involved through membership, sponsorship and volunteering schemes, and by visiting the zoo or its website. This will tell you more about the work that is being undertaken, and how you can help. © John Courteney-Smith Taken from “Practical Reptile Keeping” magazine

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