When zoos really matter – how we protected the last porpoises

When zoos really matter – how we protected the last porpoises

posted in: Conservation | 0

I’m all for action and less for loose talk. I think I share this with a majority of the public, and that is a good reason for zoos to really step up the game when it comes to conservation efforts.

Saving a healthy gene pool of animal population in zoos and aquaria is vital for the existence of the zoo community, and in a longer perspective also important for species on the brink of extinction.

But zoos can’t just stand and wait until the tigers have vanished from the forests of Asia before taking action. We have to take action now to prevent it from happening. In my zoo we have put a lot of focus on inspiring young people to live sustainable and to have a respect for nature, that is a long term work. But we have also seen that we have to take direct action in cases where our knowledge, research and experience is needed to save an endangered species or population.

This is the story of SAMBAH. Kolmårdens largest success in conservation, ever.

SAMBAH (Static Acoustic Monitoring of the Baltic Sea Harbour porpoise) was first initiated in 2008. It is sprung from two main causes:

  • Nobody knew how many Harbour Porpoises their were left in the Baltic Sea. What we knew was that the number of sightings of porpoises had decreased drastically during the last years.
  • We didn’t know were they were, how they moved and what caused the decrease in sightings (and probably decrease in population)

If we could understand their movements, how large the population were and possibly see a pattern connected to some sort of human activity, we could have the chance to put the right protection measures in place before it’s to late.

^ Photo:Solvin Zankl. Harbour porpises

So how could it be done? Before SAMBAH, the estimations in population size were made through surveys from the air. There were two efforts made to count the whole population in the Baltic Sea, but only a few porpoises were found, which led the researches do a very rough estimation. There were also an information campaign getting boat owners to report every sighting of Harbour porpoises to the environment agencies. The big problem is that porpoises, unlike dolphins, don’t tend to spend time at the surface – the surveys were therefore doomed to fail.

Kolmården is situated in a beautiful setting, right by the Baltic Sea on the eastern coast of Sweden. We have the only dolphinarium in Scandinavia, home to a pod of bottlenose dolphins. Mats Amundin, Zoologist, Head of Research at Kolmården and Professor at Linköping University have done extensive research on dolphin communication here in Kolmården throughout the years. His knowledge and understanding about dolphin communication and his commitment to the wild whales of our seas were essential for the project. Kolmården and Mr. Amundin were coordinating this large project, SAMBAH, which came to life thanks to many helpful organisations around the Baltic Sea, as well as the European Union.

< Bottlenosed dolphin, Kolmården

Mr. Amundin and his colleagues put up a strategy, placing click detectors, totally 300 of them, in all EU countries surrounding the Baltic Sea. The detectors were made to record the sounds which whales produce in both communication and hunting situations. The Swedish crew, which was formed by researchers and staff of Kolmården, had to change batteries and memory cards of 99 detectors on Swedish water regularly. The click detectors were in the water, ready to record, constantly from 2011 to 2013. In May 2013 the next step of the project started. All detectors were taken out of the water and the recordings were investigated, a large puzzle to estimate the population. Because the project had so many detectors all around the Baltic Sea they could also see when the population moved, which led to the most groundbreaking conclusions.

Recently the results were presented. SAMBAH estimates the population of the Harbour porpoises to be as low as 450-500 individuals. They all meet on the Midsjö Banks outside of Sweden to mate and to give birth to their calfs. This is a shallow area in the middle of the Baltic Sea, seen as an important area for development of wind power and other human activities. Often this is what at project leads to. We do a lot of research, it takes time, costs a lot of money, and then we present a report. Not this time.

^ Darker blue, higher detection rate. 

Just a few weeks ago, the Government of Sweden decided to protect a 10 511 square kilometer large area (that’s huge!) on the Midsjö Banks, to protect the decreasing poulations of Harbour porpoise. This is a direct effect of the SAMBAH project, led by Kolmården Wildlife Park. Its was possible thanks to the knowledge of whale communication, gathered in Kolmården and other facilities in Europe.

> Now protected area outside Sweden’s coast, south of island of Gotland and east of Island Öland. 

But it’s not over yet! We, as a responsible zoological facility has to continue our efforts for the porpoise. Right now the government are yet to decide the regulations for this area. What will be allowed and what will be forbidden? Me and my colleagues of the Public relations team in Kolmården are now togheter with CCB (Coalation Clean Baltics) setting up a large, national information campaign to be sure that we get good, long term regulations for this area so that the harbour porpoise populations can increase again.

My hope is that zoos around the world will take an even larger responsability for conservation. Conservation that matters.

 

See you soon again,

Rickard Sjödén

Public relations

rickard.sjoden@kolmarden.com

www.kolmarden.com

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