Protectors of the Wild

Locals aiding in global animal conservation efforts

| photography by Alex LepeConservation is a state of harmony between men and land. – Aldo Leopold
Urban sprawl is a boon to cities and states and allows more of us to enjoy life. Growth, though, encroaches and poaches the natural habitat of wildlife. Co-existence is not impossible. The following are stories of those that work to make it possible.
Kit Moncrief recently returned from Africa. She works with the people to expand their rhino-conservation resources.

Fort Worth Zoo
The Fort Worth Zoo is an international leader in wildlife conservation, supporting more than 20 conservation projects in more than 30 countries around the world.

Zoo-affiliated foundations include: International Rhino Foundation, International Elephant Foundation, International Bongo Foundation, Seeligson Conservation Fund, and Turtle Survival Alliance. All but the Rhino Foundation were founded and are managed at the zoo.

Fort Worth leaders Ramona Bass and Kit Moncrief serve as co-chairs of the Fort Worth Zoo Board of Directors.

Bass learned responsible hands-on stewardship of the land from her family. Six generations of commitment to that land instilled in her a lifelong passion for conservation.

“I grew up in the brush country of South Texas, riding horses, working cattle and hunting,” Bass says. “Through it all, it became obvious that there was a constant effort to manage the land to its best advantage. Grazing, burning and hunting all had their place in trying to maintain these ecosystems.”

Bass has led the 105-year-old zoo through privatization to its current standing as one of the top zoos in the country. It is home to more than 500 animal species and the world-famous reptile collection, housed in the Museum of Living Art (MOLA).

Bass, along with her family, established the Arthur A. Seeligson, Jr. Conservation Fund in her father’s memory after he died in the spring of 2001. Seeligson was a true steward of the land. The fund grants annually to individuals or organizations whose work addresses native Texas species.

“With the fund, we wanted to bring awareness to and sponsor projects that partnered with private land owners on wildlife conservation,” Bass says. “It is unique and targeted funding to further develop those crucial relationships.”

Over the years, the Seeligson Fund has supported the habitat enhancement for northern bobwhite quail through progressive management techniques, the effects of introduced grasses on native Texas grassland birds and the development of a conservation strategy for nest protection of sea turtles, to name just a few.

“There is a huge disconnect from the realities and complexities of the land in an increasingly urban Texas,” Bass says. “Without the countryside, there is no clean water, no clean air, no food and no wildlife. Texas is 97 percent privately owned; private landowners are the stewards of these wild places. It is important to celebrate the positive and good science, proper management tools, and what we have learned from our mistakes. Texas Wild! at the Fort Worth Zoo is a must to understanding these complex issues.”

She and her husband, Lee Bass, established the Lee and Ramona Bass Foundation in 1993, which provides grants to conservation organizations. She has also been closely involved with the Peregrine Fund for Birds of Prey. Lee Bass serves as the Fund’s Chairman of the Board Emeritus.

Bass says the birth of two baby elephants last summer at the zoo began a love affair with Belle and Bowie that has pervaded her life. “Their joy, intelligence, sensitivity and huge personalities are mesmerizing,” she says.

Elephants are poached for the ivory trade, and one elephant is poached every 15 minutes around the globe.

“The conservation work that we do is critical to the survival of these magnificent animals that are in such peril in the wild,” Bass says. “These numbers mean that elephants could become extinct in the wild in the next 20 to 25 years.”

“As was quoted in the October 2013 edition of National Geographic, ‘Zoos are the last refuge against a rising tide of extinction.’ ”

The number of institutions with elephant breeding programs is dwindling at an alarming rate.

“Estimates are that within a few more years, there will be no more than seven breeding herds in North America,” Bass says. “The Fort Worth Zoo is committed to being at the forefront of this elephant breeding and conservation.”

“Humans affect animals so much, and we’ve invaded their territory,” Kit Moncrief says. “Once the animals are gone, we’re gone too.” 

Moncrief learned about wildlife conservation from her father, Harry Tennison, who originated 30 different conservation programs world-wide dealing with the importance of wildlife and education of non-hunters in the value of hunting and anti-poaching campaigns. He served as president of the Fort Worth Zoological Association.

Tennison became famous with “Operation Rhino,” one of the most successful programs in the conservation world, for which he earned the title “Father of the Black Rhino.”
In rhino conservation efforts, Tennison was ahead of his time. He saw the plight of the rhinoceros and worked with other conservationists—Lee Bass in particular—to bring the rhino to the United States. The offspring are now spread across the nation. Tennison died in March 2009.

“Helping people understand animals was a big priority for my father, and it’s mine too,” Moncrief says. “The greatest education I got as a child was going with him to Africa.”

Moncrief recalls riding one of the white rhinos that her father brought back. “I was about 8 years old, maybe 10. Daddy wasn’t looking, so I rode it,” she says laughing. “Rhinos are very gentle and very smart. What we’ve done in the last 100 years to these animals is just horrible.”

Rhinos are poached for their horns at the rate of four per day.

“Without intervention, they could be extinct in the wild in about 25 years, maybe sooner,” Moncrief says. 

Today there are five species and 11 subspecies of rhinos surviving on earth. Two species (Black and White) occur in Africa. Three species (Greater One-Horned, Javan and Sumatran) occur in Asia.

Javan is the rarest with 35-44 animals surviving only in Indonesia. The Sumatran is considered the most endangered because of its rapid rate of decline. Fewer than 100 survive in small and fragmented populations.

The Greater One-Horned rhino has 3,333 remaining, and it is one of the two greatest success stories in rhino conservation, the other one being the Southern White rhino, with 20,405 surviving in South Africa. There are 5,055 black rhinos surviving primarily in Africa.

Moncrief recently returned from Africa. She works with the people to expand their rhino-conservation resources.

Most countries are trying to protect the rhino, she says. “It’s very hard because the poachers are organized groups with the money behind them. The people over there are poor. It is always about money.”

The International Rhino Foundation, which Tennison and Lee Bass helped to found, works with local communities to ensure that those people living in closest proximity to rhinos, many of whom are also struggling as a result of poverty and environmental degradation, will serve as active partners in wildlife protection and will reap direct benefits from conservation efforts.

“My father always said, ‘Conservation is the use of natural resources wisely,’ ” Moncrief says. “Game is a natural resource. These countries need to understand that it’s important to save these animals because it has a positive economic impact. If it isn’t beneficial to the country, they won’t work with you. It’s the influence outside of Africa that’s encouraging the poaching. It’s the exact same market as the elephant ivory.”

Presently the Fort Worth Zoo has Greater One-Horned rhino and Black rhino, and had White rhino until recently. The zoo’s White rhino are now at Fossil Rim as the zoo is concentrating its efforts on the other two species, which are facing greater threats. The zoo has successfully bred all three species.

Dr. Patrick Condy, born and raised in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, is the Executive Director of Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Glen Rose. He serves on the board of directors of the International Rhino Foundation with Lee Bass.

Fossil Rim Wildlife Center
Dr. Patrick Condy, born and raised in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, is the Executive Director of Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Glen Rose. He serves on the board of directors of the International Rhino Foundation with Lee Bass.

Fossil Rim is a 1,700-acre wildlife conservation facility. It is a private non-profit that funds conservation programs with tourism. Every dollar goes to the care and future of the center’s animals.

Fossil Rim’s conservation focus is on management and breeding of critically endangered species, to support and sustain genetically viable populations as hedges against extinction, to increase public awareness, and for reintroduction programs.

The facility houses more than 1,000 animals, more than 50 species—16 of which are endangered or threatened, including the rhinos. They have participated in re-introduction programs for addax, scimitar horned oryx, Mexican and red wolves and their flagship conservation program, the Attwater’s prairie chickens, which come from the Gulf Coast area.  

“The human population all over the world is expanding so fast and building suburbs and highways, and all of that is going into space that prior to that was occupied by the natural world—plants, trees, animals, birds, and insects,” Condy says.

“The question that arises is ‘Can we afford to lose the natural world?’ ” Condy says there are basic considerations.

“There are two very special important products that come from nature, which we, and actually all life, be it plant or animal, are dependent on. The first is water. That’s coming from the natural world. The second, which we are more dependent on, is oxygen. That’s coming primarily from the photosynthetic process that plants on land and in the sea are producing. For those two reasons, if none others, I think we ought to be respecting the natural world a lot better.”

When it comes to extinction, a lot of people don’t realize that it’s permanent, Condy says

“We fuss about tornadoes and hurricanes and droughts. We don’t fuss about extinctions, which are potentially, in the long run, much more serious.

“There’s no coming back from extinction. It’s gone for good, forever, and for as long as the world continues. There’s such an integrated network between all things nature that we hardly even understand the basics of it. If something goes extinct, we don’t know what the implications of that will be for the health and well-being of the natural world and of the human population. It’s a risky business to let species go extinct. We don’t know what we’re bringing on future generations of people when that happens.”

When school groups come to Fossil Rim, Condy asks the boys to name all the models and makes of cars on the road. “They rattle those off like a machine gun fire,” he says. “Then I’ll ask the girls to give me all the names of the fashion houses. They rattle those off pretty fast. Then I ask the entire group to name the birds in their backyards. Nine out of ten times, there’s a deathly silence. They’ll say there’s a red one or a brown one or one with a long tail. They can’t give me the name of the red bird or the brown bird. I go through that little exercise just to illustrate to them that nature is going on all day, every day, 24 hours, seven days a week, right around you in your yard, and everybody is totally ignorant of it.”   
Fossil Rim partners with universities, such as Tarleton, and institutions, including the Fort Worth Zoo, to find and develop innovative, effective and sustainable solutions to the conservation problems related to captive and free-ranging animal management. They also investigate the effects of their animals on plant and habitat biodiversity, to ensure appropriate habitats for native bird and mammal species.

“Fossil Rim is a living classroom,” Condy says. 

Rebecca Ross founded Dogs for Conservation, which provides scent-detection dogs to assist with wildlife conservation, habitat management and rangeland science. Photography by Aki Yamaguchi

Dogs for Conservation 
Dogs for Conservation, founded in Brenham, Texas, by Rebecca Ross, trains and provides scent-detection dogs to assist with wildlife conservation, habitat management and rangeland science.

Ross conceived the idea in 2011, when she and her husband were in South Africa. She met people who were using dogs for wildlife conservation.

“I did a lot of research and decided that there was a demand,” Ross says.
Despite having a strong background in animal training in general, she did not have a strong background in detection dog training. She knew she needed to find people in that world to help her.

Ross turned to a canine detection group in College Station.
“Whether you’re training a dog for detecting a bomb or a drug, a cell phone in a prison, or cancer, the training is pretty much the same,” she says.

“We look for dogs that have high toy drive. That’s how we train them, with completely positive methods. Basically, we say, ‘This odor means you get your toy.’ ”

Ross has an ongoing project, finding the Houston Toad, which is Texas’ most endangered amphibian. Her detection dog is a North Texas rescued Border collie named Terra.

“In the biology and conservation world, the use of dogs is still pretty new,” Ross says. “A lot of people haven’t heard about it. When they do hear about it, you can just see their brains light up with all the possibilities.

Currently, Ross is doing work for a private ecological consulting firm.

“We’re feather training the dogs to find bird bodies at a solar facility. It’s a 4,000-acre plant. The federal government wants to know the impact on the birds—how many birds are dying and why, what species, and if it’s impacting an endangered species.”

Dogs for Conservation is working on an interesting project finding an invasive snail species on the Galapagos Islands. It’s called the Giant African Land Snail. “It came from Africa, and it has caused a lot of problems in Florida already,” Ross says. “It’s on the USDA’s No. 1 enemy list.”

This snail could adversely affect agriculture, natural ecosystems, human health or commerce. 

“They don’t want it to get anywhere else,” Ross says. “About a year ago, they started finding a few in the Galapagos Islands.

“So we got the funding for this really cool project, and we’re training the dogs in Texas and taking them to the Galapagos. Unfortunately, by law, once the dogs enter the country, they can’t leave. The snails have arrived, and training is beginning.”

Pictured here from left to right: Suzanne Tuttle, Marty Leonard, Murray James and Bill Meadows. (right photo) Community leader Marty Leonard serves as president of Friends of the Nature Center.

Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge
For 50 years, the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge has provided sanctuary for local wildlife and protected the integrity of Fort Worth’s landscape, for which they earned national recognition.

Founded in 1964 on 381 acres of city-owned land at the north end of Lake Worth, and known as the Greer Island Nature Center & Wildlife Refuge, the Nature Center today comprises 3,621 acres, making it one of the largest municipally owned nature centers in the nation.

Often referred to as “Fort Worth’s best kept secret,” the area is a beautiful hidden wilderness—forests, prairies and wetlands reminiscent of how the region once looked in its natural state. Visitors enjoy more than 20 miles of hiking trails, and the Nature Center offers a variety of conservation education programs.

Acting as environmental stewards for thousands of acres for the past half-century has been challenging, says the Nature Center’s manager, Suzanne Tuttle.

Some of the challenges have come from invasive plants and animals.
“Most of the invasive species we have were introduced in a couple of ways,” Tuttle says. “One is intentionally, because of some agricultural program or recommendation; for example, Johnson grass in a lot of our fields that were agriculture fields in the past. Johnson grass is a major weed for us, and actually, it is good forage if you’re ranching cattle. It’s quite a curse on those of us trying to restore a native grassland habitat because it’s so aggressive,” she says.

Another invasive species is Chinese Privet, a type of evergreen shrub. “It profusely produces blue berries that birds like to eat, so birds scatter it around and bring it places where it wasn’t intentionally planted.”

Feral hog invasions created a problem, Tuttle says, but their management program has been successful in eliminating them.

The suppression of fire has resulted in a lot of woody plant encroachment into formerly open grassland areas of the Nature Center.

“In order to address this and restore fire as an ecological force, we’ve partnered with the Fort Worth Fire Department by serving as a training ground for firefighting at the urban-wildland interface,” Tuttle says.

The Friends of the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge was established in 1974 by 40 people who shared the common goal of preserving and protecting the natural and cultural resources of the Nature Center. Today the organization is the Nature Center’s largest nonprofit financial supporter.

Community leader Marty Leonard serves as president of Friends of the Nature Center.

Eight years ago, Leonard was asked to be on the Nature Center’s “master plan” committee to look at the results before it was finalized. “So that’s what really got me involved,” she says.

“I’m a nature lover in every way I can be, and I call myself a conservationist. I’m not an environmentalist, and I think there is a difference. We want to preserve the Nature Center and keep it like it should be, but at the same time, it is so unknown by so many people in the city and not being used enough. It’s just too neat a place for people not to know about it. We don’t want to make a Disneyland out of it or anything, but we can enhance it greatly with forward-looking things. Eventually, down the line, we’d like to build an expanded and newer facility where the Hardwicke structure is now.”

Leonard says they have plans to replace the boardwalk and repair the levee. “We’ve raised some money for it, and the city included us in the last bond election. They liked it because it was a public-private thing,” she says.

Murray James got involved with the Nature Center 40 years ago. “I love it and have been involved with it at one level or another ever since. I’ve done everything from clean the potty, to chair the advisory committee, to sit on the endowment committee as chairman,” James says.

James says that the Nature Center has more school children visiting from nearby counties than from the Fort Worth Independent School District. “We do a very good job at educating young people, and some of those county schools take advantage of that,” she says. “The important thing is that it exists. It’s preservation and conservation of something that’s green and hasn’t been violated. Studies done for the master plan show that by 2050 the Nature Center will be the center of the Metroplex. It will be like Central Park is to New York City. Nobody ever had any idea it would be anything more than a way to protect the watershed when it first began.” 

Fort Worth businessman Bill Meadows was introduced to the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge when it was in its infancy.

Years later, Meadows became a director of The Friends of the Nature Center. “It’s interesting to think about the visionary leadership of Fort Worth 100 years ago by acquiring that additional land when they built Lake Worth, basically to secure the watershed and ensure the future water quality of that reservoir,” Meadows says.

“My early memory of it was when Greer Island was named the Nature Center and there were a handful of us kids that got to come along and clean up the beer cans and trash to create the trails.

“You recognize that one of the reasons the Nature Center is truly an imperative for our city and our region and state is the fact that the state demographer projects that within a few decades, we will be at 40 million people. This state will double in size, and to have and preserve critical and natural areas for future generations is an absolute imperative,” Meadows says.

About 20 years ago, there was acreage adjacent to the Nature Center that was in private hands and was about to be developed in a way that was not complementary to the Nature Center, Meadows says. “Several of us came together—Marty Leonard being one, Ed Bass, Murray James and others—and bought it and donated it to the Nature Center so it could continue to grow. Quietly and effectively, this group of Nature Center advocates continues to support it in so many ways.”

Laura Wood, executive director of the D.M. Wood Foundation in Fort Worth, is also executive director of the Friends of the Fort Worth Nature Center.

Laura Wood, executive director of the D.M. Wood Foundation in Fort Worth, is also executive director of the Friends of the Fort Worth Nature Center.

The foundation gives support, guidance and land use solutions to charitable organizations in Texas. A 501©3 nonprofit organization, the foundation receives grants to offer services that promote conservation of imperiled species habitat on working lands.

“Since our land in Texas is over 97 percent privately owned, the harmony between humans and the landscape and the wildlife we share it with is woven together,” Wood says. “It’s truly upon the landowner to honor that harmony and manage their land in a way that is sustainable for wildlife and all the natural resources that we humans need as well.”

Through a partnership with Texas Parks and Wildlife, the foundation launched a multi-platform campaign to increase awareness of the issues surrounding the conservation of the lesser prairie chicken. Native to wild prairie, this unique grouse is rapidly declining in number and is a candidate to be added to the Endangered Species List, Wood says.

“Last March, when the list came out, the lesser prairie chicken was listed as threatened, not endangered, which is slightly better,” she says.

“The lesser prairie chicken and the Attwater’s prairie chicken are really our canaries in the coal mine to let us know the health of our grasslands.”

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, founded in 1991, is the nonprofit funding partner of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. 

In 2013-14, the foundation is focusing on multi-year conservation projects, wildlife research and safeguarding, community development and outreach programs, and expanding opportunities for outdoor recreation.

Fort Worth businessman Kelly Thompson serves as chairman for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation.

Fort Worth businessman Kelly Thompson serves as chairman.

In mid-August, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation and its partners announced an acquisition of the largest conservation land purchase in Texas history, with the purchase of the 17,351-acre Powderhorn Ranch on the Texas coast in Calhoun County.

The purchase price was $37.7 million, which is the largest amount ever raised for conservation in the state’s history and will become a state park in a wildlife management area, Thompson says.

“What’s unique about this is that it involved multiple agencies, multiple partners, that banded together to accomplish what we think will serve as a new model for future land acquisitions of this nature across the nation,” he says.

The most significant portion of the funding will be provided by National Fish and Wildlife’s Fund, called the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, which was created by dollars from the BP and Transocean fines associated with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The acquisition amount is coming from that fund through the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation.

“The Parks and Wildlife Foundation is raising $50 million for the project that will include those acquisition dollars, development dollars to develop the park and wildlife management area, as well as provide for an endowment for future management and maintenance,” Thompson says.

The Powderhorn acquisition is the centerpiece of the foundation’s current and extraordinary comprehensive capital campaign called “Keeping It Wild: The Campaign for Texas.

“The campaign was launched in March this year, and it will seek to raise $100 million for conservation projects of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department,” Thompson says.