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Special report: Conservation, Behind the Cages

Posted at 10:00 PM, May 01, 2016

You've seen the penguins, the dessert dome, the elephants at the zoo, but did you know that there's dozens of people working behind the scenes everyday at the zoo to help animals all over the world?

It's a Tuesday morning, a team of veterinarians conduct a check up and take samples from Pasha, a male snow leopard.

"Research is going on all the time here," Dr. Julie Napier, senior veterinarian with Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo said.

KMTV got an exclusive look at that research, inside labs where dozens of researchers, technicians, and zoologists have spent twenty years and millions of dollars on conservation efforts.

Napier says the staff focuses on five areas of conservation. In April 1996, at a cost of $2.4 million, the zoo opened a three-story research building and attached veterinary medical facility contained 16,448 square feet. The facility consists of housing, an animal nursery, a surgery suite, several research laboratories, a student dormitory and offices. In the next decade, a six million expansion increased the facility to 175% of its original size, doubled the research area and provided additional medical facilities.

In the space, zoo staff provides training for students and colleagues from around the world. They also focus on five molecular genetics, reproductive physiology, nutrition, plant micro propagation and conservation medicine.

With Pasha, the samples are part of the work of reproductive sciences. Dr. Jason Herrick, PhD researcher looks over the samples, analyzing and recording sperm counts.

"The species survival plan recommends about 40-45 breeding pairs. {Right now}, only about 30 percent of them are actually producing cubs. So we want to try to find out what's going wrong."

The sample gathering are among the techniques researchers at the zoo have developed over the years. Others, such as artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization for many species has lead to the zoo having a bank of more than 20,000 samples of frozen reproductive cells from over 50 species. This program helped produce the first test tube gaur and gorilla, and the first artificially inseminated and test tube tigers.  Currently, the program is working in conjunction with the University of Nebraska Medical Center to develop recombinant tiger hormones to increase the efficiency of these procedures in endangered felid species.  The program also produced the first artificially inseminated snake species, and continues leading assisted reproduction efforts in captive gorillas by utilizing sperm sex-sorting techniques in order to skew the sex ratio to produce more female offspring.  Currently, researchers efforts are focused on snow leopards. They also include projects to develop assisted reproductive techniques in amphibian species.  All of these projects include an endocrine (hormone) component, to diagnose pregnancy or assess the results of novel treatment protocols by measuring reproductive hormone metabolites in urine or feces.

The work isn't just being done in Omaha. The zoo's reproductive sciences department has a long-term program in South Africa. There, researchers are applying reproductive technology to a variety of indigenous species that include elephants, lions, buffalo and a variety of antelope species. The team has developed a dramatic new technology that removes disease-causing organisms from reproductive material which has been issued patents in the US, Australia and New Zealand, and is patent-pending in Canada and Europe. 

"It's about learning how we can manage these animals better," Dr. Edward Louis, Director of Conservation Genetics said.

Louis has been working in Madagascar since 1998. Since his first trip to the island nation 15 years ago, Dr. Louis and his team have visited more than 160 sites and studied more than 5,000 lemurs. The focus of the program has been to develop baseline molecular genetic and distribution data on Malagasy flora and fauna with an emphasis on lemur species.  Since the onset of Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium's involvement in Madagascar, this conservation research effort has produced more than 100 scientific publications, including manuscripts describing 21 new species of lemur and elevating eight other lemurs to species level.

"We've been working in Madagascar for quite a while because we don't want it to turn into a country or disaster that can't support itself."

it's all a complex puzzle, a connected web of busy workers taking small steps and strides towards a healthier planet.

"When we deal with a captive species, the things we learn here help in the wild, their counterparts in the wild. Anything we do in the wild can help their counterparts in captivity," Napier said.