Keeping track of Como Zoo’s five orangutans is just the start of Como Zoo primate keeper Megan Elder’s to-do list everyday. As the keeper of the International Orangutan Studbook, and vice chair of the Orangutan Species Survival Plan, Elder also keeps very close tabs on the medical and genetic histories of an additional 1060 orangutans living in 227 institutions in 48 countries.
“In simple terms, I’m sort of the genealogist and a match-maker for the species,” says Elder, who has been traveling annually to Southeast Asia since 2010 to collect orangutan data and make connections in the field that can improve the odds of survival for this endangered species.
“As studbook keeper, I research and maintain a global database of orangutans, tracing each individual’s lineage all the way to the wild so we have a full picture of their genetics. It’s from this data that we’re able to make responsible breeding decisions to insure that we’re protecting and preserving as much genetic diversity in our captive populations as we can.”
“The orangutans I work with at Como Zoo are the inspiration for everything I do,” says Elder, who began working closely with the panel of experts on the Orangutan Species Survival Plan after successfully managing Markisa’s complicated c-section birth for baby Jaya in 2007. “Markisa is the only living offspring of wild born parents, and she doesn’t have many relatives out there,” Elder explains. “That’s one of the reasons she’s considered genetically valuable, and we really want to preserve and promote her line.”
Did You Know?
- Contributions to Como Friends have helped to support Megan Elder’s critical conservation work, tracking and preserving the genetic health of more than 3,000 orangutans.
- Wild orangutans have lost more than 80 percent of their natural habitat in the last 20 years.
- At the current rate of loss, many experts predict orangutans may be extinct in the wild within the next 25 years.
Supported by a series of grants secured through Como Friends, Elder and a team of orangutan keepers traveled to Borneo to begin a successful “exchange program” that connects primate keepers to conservation efforts in the field. “The goal was to set up a program where zookeepers could travel to Borneo, volunteer at these orangutan rehabilitation centers, offer expertise, and bring that experience back home to share with our visitors,” says Elder. With regular trips to orangutan rescue sites, Elder has also built important relationships with orangutan advocates around the globe, presenting her work at orangutan conferences, and adding more than 600 individual orangutans to her growing database since receiving the prestigious appointment in 2008. In total, there are now over 3100 orangutans recorded within her database.
As the natural habitat of orangutans is encroached by the spread of palm oil plantations and other developments, more apes are turning up in rehabilitation centers like International Animal Rescue’s center in Ketapang, West Kalimantan. “As zookeepers, we focus on the orangutans that can’t be released, because of exposure to disease, or medical or behavioral problems,” Elder explains. “Our zookeeper teams help construct engaging orangutan enclosures, develop enrichment programs for the apes, and teach their caregivers how to use positive reinforcement conditioning to help improve their daily care.”
Elder credits her growing international profile to Como Zoo’s supportive management and Como Friends’ help securing private support for conservation efforts. “I still pinch myself that I’ve had all of these opportunities. Animal curator John Dee has been a huge supporter and if you go to him with a crazy idea, like taking on a massive, high profile studbook, he’ll say, ‘Go for it.’”