Where the wild things are

Dr Paul Reillo and Karen McGovern of the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation chat to about the importance of preserving biodiversity

Toothbrush marmoset

In 2013, the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation (RSCF) shared a video of a pygmy marmoset, Ninita, that went viral across the world. However, there is much more to the foundation than merely cute videos.

You [McGovern] work as a curator, specialising in psittacine husbandry and care, web design, and graphic arts. It sounds fantastically diverse. How would you describe a typical day’s work?
McGovern: My day begins around 6:00am. I start working on morning diets for the animals that live on my side of the farm. We have just over 30 acres of land, divided into two properties. I live with several groups of pygmy marmosets and red-browed Amazon parrots. My first duty of the day is to prepare Ninita’s diet. She lives in an enclosure just off my back porch. Once Ninita is fed, I begin the morning routine of feeding and caring for over 200 parrots, African antelope and small primates. It’s a lot of chopping of fruit and dishing out seed. We feed the aviary and primates using a golf cart to distribute feed. Our bongo antelope herd is fed via an ATV, and we deliver fresh hay and alfalfa pellets to feeding stations set among interconnecting paddocks that house our herds. We have 26 bongo at the moment. All of the diet prep and morning feeding routine is finished by about 11:00am, then we prep for the next day and work on enclosure and property maintenance as needed. I then address admin. At 4:00pm we spend time with our orphaned bongo antelope, Delilah. Her mom [sic] died while giving birth to her, so we hand-reared her. At 5:00pm Ninita gets an evening snack and I call it a day!

You [Reillo] are a field-oriented population biologist, ecological geneticist and environmental engineer, as well as being the founder and president of the foundation. What is your working day like?
Reillo: One of the perks of running a wildlife conservation organisation is that even typical days entail a variety of activities. When I’m at the Conservatory my day starts around 5:30am, checking on all of our hooved, furry and feathered residents. In addition to helping maintain the animals in our care, I perform many of the vetinary procedures – from minor treatments to immunisations – and am involved in animal husbandry at all levels. Usually there is a mountain of correspondence to attend to, along with all of the administrative tasks associated with overseeing projects here and internationally. Graduate students, programme partners and research associates also keep me busy. The physical side of the Conservatory engages my engineering background as staff and I build and maintain life-support systems for bongo antelope, aviaries, water purification systems, incubators and everything in between. When I’m in the field I could be scrambling up mountains to conduct bird surveys, or working alongside other researchers monitoring wildlife populations. During our parrot-breeding season, my workday usually runs until three in the morning since we are hand-feeding parrot chicks every hour around the clock.

The RSCF became all the more popular through the recent video of Ninita, the pygmy marmoset, enjoying a toothbrush massage. Are there any other animals in the foundation that have strange quirks?
McGovern: As a rule, we do not handle any of the animals in our care and try to give them as ‘wild’ a life as we can. On rare occasions an animal may be orphaned or chosen for hand-rearing. We do not have many critters that can tolerate human interaction, other than to feed them and maintain their enclosures. That being said, at the moment we have Ninita, the now-famous pygmy marmoset, and Delilah, our orphaned baby bongo, who both enjoy interacting with us. Ninita is a special needs animal, and we give her as much attention as she demands on a daily basis. Luckily, she is bonding well with the male marmoset she lives with and has recently begun allowing him to groom her—a very significant breakthrough. Delilah’s story is very special to us as well. Mountain bongo antelope are critically endangered in the wild. Not only did her mother die giving birth to her, when we found her she had a broken front left leg. It was sheer luck that we discovered her within moments of being born. The odds were against her surviving, yet she did. From the moment we found her she simply refused to give up and had a driving desire to live; despite everything she has thrived and become a beautiful, healthy bongo.

Ninita is an orphan who was born deaf and was abandoned by her parents. What efforts go into raising a baby marmoset by hand?
Reillo: Ninita is indeed a special animal. She’s the seventh pygmy marmoset I have hand-reared (over 25 years) and the only deaf marmoset we’ve encountered. Her remarkable success, despite her handicap, is largely due to protocol I developed here in the early 1990s, and the ability to integrate her with naturally socialised pygmies from RSCF’s large, managed population. Early in our pygmy research I discovered that toothbrushes mimic the sensation of parental grooming, which is a fundamental component of parent-offspring bonding, and an essential form of marmoset communication. The toothbrush video of Ninita illuminates this bond with the care-giver, which enabled us to pipette-feed her, teach her all of a pygmy marmoset’s basic skills such as climbing, running, jumping, experimenting with different foods and ultimately to wean her into living independently.

McGovern: Raising any animal by hand is never easy, and pygmies are especially difficult due to their tiny size. When born, a pygmy marmoset is about half the size of your thumb! They require round the clock care when born, and have to be kept in a specially designed incubator to maintain proper body temperature. They require constant contact. We use a stuffed animal surrogate with a heating pad inside. Baby marmosets ride on their parents from the moment of birth to weaning, so we carry the babies on our person, whenever possible. We use a tiny pipette to feed them a special formula every few hours. It’s very tricky—you try burping a baby the size of a marshmallow!

Is there a particular animal (or species) that you have formed an especially close connection with, or can otherwise relate to in some way?
Reillo: Honestly, I am equally passionate about all of the creatures in our care, as we are their stewards for life. For so many critically endangered taxa the current mass-extinction crisis is a last gasp. Objective science aside, their status exposes a sad reality for nature and people everywhere. When working with the last of a species it is simply impossible not to personalise their fate.

How important is captive breeding in wildlife conservation programmes?
Reillo: Captive breeding can be an effective tool for conservation, but only when carefully and directly integrated into wild-population recovery. Scientifically developed techniques and methods, along with genetically and demographically managed captive populations, can offer options for in situ repatriation and reintroduction. To the extent that some critically endangered species are perilously close to extinction in the wild, captive breeding may offer a temporary hedge against extinction. It’s essential to remember that conserving species while they persist in the wild is infinitely easier, cheaper and more successful than re-establishing vanished populations with captive-bred animals. Most animals bred in captivity will die there, with their lives never extending any tangible benefit to their wild counterparts. Effective conservation-based captive breeding must connect captive and wild populations in a demonstrable manner such that captive breeding produces positive, measurable outcomes in the wild.

McGovern: Trade, both legal and illegal, has an enormous impact upon wildlife conservation. Cute animals are often exploited through commercial breeding programs that reduce wildlife to commodities. Trade has had a devastating and long-lasting impact on wild populations, particularly for vulnerable, small creatures like pygmy marmosets. These highly social, gregarious and intelligent creatures typically suffer as pets, even when their owners are well-intentioned. The sad reality is that these fascinating, wild creatures often live short, miserable lives in cages. So often, people are enamoured with the notion of having a cute animal rather than considering the animal’s wellbeing and the profound implications of their purchase.

You have a number of programmes outside of the US. What sort of impact do these have?
Reillo: RSCF focuses upon conservation programmes for flagship species of all kinds – from parrots to crocodiles to large mammals – because these leverage protection for vital ecosystems and global biodiversity hotspots. The impacts can be measured in terms of critical-species population recovery, increased professional capacity in programme partners (primarily governmental agencies, wildlife/forestry divisions), expanded protected areas (national parks, forest reserves), effective and expanded governmental policy and legislation (e.g. hunting laws, species of special concern, wildlife law enforcement) and continuous educational outreach and awareness.

On a personal note, what drove you both to create the foundation?
Reillo: An epiphany occurred while I was conducting post-doctoral field research on insects in Malaysia at the height of the 1980s deforestation. As an undergraduate I had studied field ecology and environmental engineering, and later pursued population genetics research for my Ph.D. A career in conservation was always the goal, but the spark to leave academia and start hands-on conservation came from the deeply personal and profound impact of witnessing biodiversity loss on such a grand scale.

McGovern: I’ve always been interested in natural history and resource management, and in wildlife. I began my career working with endangered psittacines then moved on to work for a few small zoos. I found I wanted more, to be a more active part of wildlife recovery programmes, not just caring for animals on display for the public. After a friend introduced me to RSCF I assisted in a Caribbean field project developed by them. That was 17 years ago. I’ve never looked back.

One comment

  1. Many thanks to Karen McGovern and Dr. Paul Reillo for speaking to me! You can help support the RSCF on their website: