Conservation: true generational wealth
One of the most beautiful things in the world is compound interest. The ability to invest in something and have that investment grow while you also continue to invest in that thing can lead to remarkable returns on investment.
Most of the time we think about compound interest when it relates to money in retirement accounts or investments, but we can take that concept of utilizing compound interest and apply it to our conservation efforts, and there is no better place to start than in our own backyard.
Here at Zoo Atlanta, we believe that conservation efforts we invest in today can pay dividends in the future. This applies to our conservation partnerships with organizations such as Conservation South Luangwa or the Golden Lion Tamarin Association, but it also applies to what we do in our own region.
We have species here that need our help, and by investing in those species we can see them thrive in years to come.
Eastern indigo snakes
In the longleaf pine forests of Alabama, there are burrows peppered throughout the pines and scrub oaks and sandy soil; these are gopher tortoise holes. These holes can be a few feet wide and several feet deep. While all sorts of other animals take refuge in these from time to time, none of them are as spectacular as the lord of the forest, the eastern indigo snake.
Eastern indigo snakes are the longest snake species in the United States. They are active hunters and can be found eating a wide variety of prey, including the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. They maintain the balance of the ecosystem by predating on small rodents and venomous snakes. Their numbers began dwindling in the early 20th century and by the 1950s, they were all but extirpated from the sandy soil of Alabama. The destruction of their native habitat, as well as human interference with native populations through the pet trade or through killing individuals of this species, created a hole in the ecosystem bigger than a gopher tortoise burrow. However, in the early 2000s, Zoo Atlanta in conjunction with the Orianne Society, Auburn University, Central Florida Zoo and others, began partnering to reintroduce this king to his kingdom. At Central Florida Zoo, eastern indigo snakes are bred for reintroduction into the wild. After they reach a certain size, they will be brought to Zoo Atlanta to continue growing. Once a year, Zoo Atlanta and our partners gather in the Conecuh National Forest in Alabama to reintroduce eastern indigo snakes to this area.
During this time, we also find eastern indigos and scan them for identification tags that will let us know how long the snake has been in the wild, and we can gauge how well the snake is doing on its own. In 2020 something incredible happened. During our re-release and population study, a snake was scanned without a tag! This was fantastic news to the Zoo and all of our partners because we knew this snake was born in the wild!
Our program was beginning to succeed. As our reintroduction programs continue to add more snakes to the environment, and those that have been reintroduced continue to mate and lay eggs, it is exciting to think about the growth this population may see in the coming years!
In the Golden Isles of Georgia, a terrapin crunches on a snail. This snail is called a marsh snail. It’s an important species, but if this snail’s population grows too high, it can eat too much of the marsh grasses, causing the marsh to turn into a massive mud flat without vegetation. The diamondback terrapin keeps the balance in the ecosystem. Over time, diamondback terrapin populations have been destroyed due to habitat loss and vehicles running them over. These populations are needed to keep the marsh snails in check.
The coast of Georgia faces unique conservation challenges based on coastal development that has heavily impacted the native species of the area, including diamondback terrapins. Access to beaches used for recreation can only be accessed by roads that cut through the marsh. These roads present a large obstacle for hatchlings, and sometimes they wind up being hit by cars. The Georgia Sea Turtle Center at Jekyll Island patrols these roads and works to mitigate the threats facing this species. They also look for nests with eggs.
Zoo Atlanta supports the Georgia Sea Turtle Center’s Jekyll Island Causeway Conservation Project by rearing young terrapins that the Georgia Sea Turtle Center will ultimately release into the wild. This doesn’t just assist the species, but it also saves the marsh grass, which saves the marsh, which can save countless lives since the marsh and barrier islands can weaken powerful hurricanes as they make their way inland.
The work done to save these species is not enough if not done with partners working to preserve and restore the ecosystem where these animals belong. The people of Jekyll Island have truly embraced this idea. When local people invest in saving their local ecosystem, then possibilities for return on investment are endless.
While organizations like Zoo Atlanta can provide assistance in conservation efforts by looking to the model of the local residents on Jekyll Island, we can see that only through local communities coming together to save their natural spaces can we see the best conservation results possible. Putting in the time and efforts to preserve these spaces is an opportunity to invest in our future. Saving species from extinction, allowing ecosystems to thrive, and having natural spaces for us to enjoy is worth the investment. And having these animals and their habitats around for future generations is priceless.
Zach Stich, Public Programs Coordinator
Elise Robinson-Phillips, Exhibit Interpreter III