Saving Tigers: A Conversation with Dr. Tara Harris, Vice President for Conservation at the Minnesota

The Minnesota Zoo has long been known in the zoo field for its immense conservation work with tigers. In fact, it is where the Tiger Species Survival Plan (SSP) was started. Today, the SSP is run by Dr. Tarra Harris, the Minnesota Zoo’s Vice President for Conservation. She started the Tiger SSP’s Tiger Conservation Campaign to raise awareness for the plight of the felines and funding for on-the-ground projects to save them. Additionally, Harris has increased the zoo’s involvement in the conservation of native Minnesota species. This is her story.

@ Minnesota Zoo

From a young age, Harris knew she wanted to work in conservation. “If I went back to the sixteen year old me, she would say this is exactly what she always wanted to be doing with her life,” she remarked. “In college, I did a behavioral research program on gorillas at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and then became an intern on their golden lion tamarin project.” For her Ph.D. and postdoctoral research projects, she did wildlife endocrine research at Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute. “Those experiences showed me the power zoos have to help the next generation of wildlife biologists,” Harris said. “For my own research, I spent four years in Uganda studying colobus monkeys. That particular research wasn’t helping the conservation issues I saw everywhere. When I saw the job posting for a conservation biologist at the Minnesota Zoo, it sounded like a great opportunity.”

@ Minnesota Zoo

Tara Harris learned a lot from the late Dr. Ron Tilson, the Minnesota Zoo’s longtime Director of Conservation. “Ron Tilson had done a lot of tiger fieldwork and coordinated the SSP (Species Survival Plan) for a long time,” she elaborated. “He basically taught me how to run the SSP and the politics of tiger conservation work. He helped me take over a lot of what he did. I got to go with Ron to China a couple of times and got a firsthand glimpse at a lot of the work on tigers he was doing. We worked on the South China tiger reintroduction possibilities and worked with the government on figuring out a reintroduction on such a grand scale. It was interesting to see the whole planning process and what goes into the planning of reintroducing a tiger is not a simple process by any means. It takes a lot of research and work coordinating across provinces. Though the reintroduction didn’t go forward, it was an eye-opening experience seeing the planning process." When Tilson retired in 2011, Harris became the zoo’s Vice President of Conservation.

@ Minnesota Zoo

Tara Harris’s experiences on the South China Tiger Project influenced her mindset at the new position “There were two big goals I wanted to work on from the beginning,” stated Harris. “The South China Tiger Project hit home that it’s not enough to have tigers in breeding programs in North America. If there’s not enough habitat remaining, it’s only going to save the species in zoos. I really wanted to get a much bigger concentrated effort to support wild tiger conservation on top of everything we’re already doing for the breeding program. I wanted us to have a community wide movement to say this is important and we’ll work to make sure the habitat and poaching issues are ameliorated in the wild. That was where the Tiger Conservation Campaign came from.”

@ Scott Richardson

“The second thing important to me was doing more Minnesota-based wildlife conservation,” Harris continued. “At the time, our only Minnesota project was on trumpeter swans and it was winding down. We’re a state agency and it’s important we serve the species of Minnesota. That’s another big emphasis we’ve been working on.”

@ Minnesota Zoo

To start a larger focus on Minnesota wildlife, the zoo initially invested strongly in two local projects. “One project we started was on Minnesota’s endangered prairie butterflies while the other was on moose conservation research,” Harris elaborated. “For prairie butterflies, we have some species here in Minnesota which have disappeared really rapidly from our prairies. We wanted to see what the Minnesota Zoo could do to help recover those species and find out why they’re disappearing. We’re working on the Dakota skipper, an orange prairie butterfly which disappeared from all but one site in Minnesota. We’re building a breeding program at the zoo and working on reintroducing them to the prairies of Minnesota. Our very first reintroduction was at the Nature Conservancy’s Hole in the Mountain Prairie Reserve this summer and we brought 200 prairie skippers back to the wild. We’re going to work with our partners to monitor them and hopefully scale it up. We’re also doing research out in the field to find out what threats prairie species face.”

@ Minnesota Zoo

The Minnesota Zoo has also done extensive research on moose. “The population of moose in Minnesota has declined nearly 60% since 2006,” Tara Harris remarked. “We’re working with our partners to figure out why that is. The leading hypotheses are health related issues with ticks and parasites, predation by wolves, climate change and heat stress or a combination of all those factors. We’ve had several scientists working on research at the field and at the zoo. Currently we’re finishing up that research and publishing our results.”

@ Minnesota Zoo

@ Minnesota Zoo

Recently, Minnesota Zoo staff also began a conservation program on freshwater mussels. “They’re one of the most endangered groups of animals in the U.S. but most people don’t know they exist,” she claimed. “We’ve been using our lakes here at the zoo to try to grow mussles to the point they can be safely reintroduced. That’s been a great collaboration with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. We just got a large grant to work on that."

@ Minnesota Zoo

As coordinator of the Tiger SSP, Tara Harris has worked to secure a viable reserve population for tigers in zoos. “Tigers are one of the most popular animals on the planet,” she elaborated. “People see them as truly awe-inspiring animals but they’re incredibly endangered. We have an important opportunity with zoos to get people eye to eye with tigers, get them to care and inspire them to take action. Tigers were one of the first SSPs and it started here in the early 1980s. In 2015, we received the prestigious Edward H. Bean Award from AZA for our long-term work to care for tigers. I manage a cooperative effort over 100 zoos to serve as a viable backup for tigers in the wild.” Over 40 tigers have been born at the Minnesota Zoo.

@ Minnesota Zoo

As SSP coordinator, Harris is responsible for ensuring the tiger populations in North America have the desired genetics. “One thing we decided to do was, in order to increase the population sizes of Amur and Malayan tigers, phase out generic tigers that were hybrid or white tigers since they can’t be traced back to wild founders,” she explained. “That increased space for high conservation value tigers. We also did a project looking at what factors influence breeding success of tigers in human care. One important thing we figured out is, if a female tiger has not been reproductive by 8 or 9, the likelihood of her being successful in the future declines rapidly. That’s really informed how we decide to make breeding recommendations.”

@ Minnesota Zoo

The Minnesota Zoo has also been a leader in tiger conservation work in the field. “Ron Tillson led the decade-long project on Sumatran tigers in Indonesia and on Indochinese tigers in China,” Harris explained. “He did important foundational research on tiger hormones.” Tara Harris wanted to take the zoo’s tiger conservation efforts in the wild to the next level. “A priority for me is to get zoos to galvanize for wild tiger conservation,” she stated. “The Tiger Conservation Campaign is really part of the tiger SSP. We’ve seen over 60 zoos and private donors donate $900,000 to help wild tigers. We put all those funds directly into on the ground projects.”

@ Minnesota Zoo

The Tiger Conservation Campaign celebrates Global Tiger Day to raise awareness for the plight of the species. “We use activities at the zoo leading up to it and try to highlight the story of tigers through social media and communications with our guests,” Tara Harris remarked. “We did a big Facebook live event on Global Tiger Day that reached five million people. That was a great partnership the AZA made with Animal Planet and the Tiger Conservation Campaign. A great and unique opportunity for zoos to tell their story and talk about how they’re supporting tigers in the wild.”

@ Minnesota Zoo

While the zoo does not have rhinos, it does have a field biologists working to save critically endangered black rhinos in Namibia. “We’ve been able to work with local communities in Namibia to engage them in monitoring and protecting the rhinos on communal lands outside of national parks,” Harris commented. “That’s been a successful strategy with the Rhino Trust.” Since the zoo does not have rhinos on display, it uses other strategies to tell the story of the project. “We commissioned a large set of sculptures at Minnesota Zoo of a female rhino and her calf next to a kiosk and interpretive graphics about our work,” Harris added. “We also participate in World Rhino Day and have kids and their families write thank you notes to the rhino rangers we support.”

@ Minnesota Zoo

Another species the Minnesota Zoo is working to save is Przewalzki’s wild horse, the only purely wild horse species in the world. “We work with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Mongolia on wild horses,” Tara Harris stated. “That’s a great story for us as sadly the Asian wild horse went extinct in the wild but a breeding program was developed for the species. In 1990, the Minnesota Zoo sent a stallion to the European breeding program. Through reintroductions back to Mongolia, our stallion has about 80 living descendants in the wild in Mongolia. That’s a very special place for us and we’re working with the park staff to secure a future for that reintroduced species. We’ve been out there working to understand the horse’s movements and needs.”

@ Minnesota Zoo

Recently, the Minnesota Zoo finished a new conservation plan. “It aims to get conservation not just in our conservation department but moved and breathed through the entire Minnesota Zoo,” Harris elaborated. “We’re trying out interdepartmental teams for our signature projects. We’re getting keepers, educators and even painters and horticulturalists together to help these species and find new solutions to how we can help these animals at the Minnesota Zoo, in the field and in the broader community. We’re just kickstarting this initiative and hope it will grow and utilize all our staff to advance the conservation of these species. We also have a conservation grant program that’s been in place since 2002. That program allows staff throughout the zoo to propose projects for funding and participate in a project. For many years we’ve been sending zookeepers, educators and so forth out in the field [through that.] that’s a really great way to have our staff who are not conservation biologists participate in those projects so we can bring it back to the zoo.”

@ Portico

“People are becoming more and more disconnected from wildlife,” Tara Harris reflected. “I believe zoos can play a really important learn in getting people to learn, care and act for wildlife. [Accredited zoos] get more attendance than all big four sports combined. That’s a unique opportunity to grow the next generation of concerned citizens who will stand up for wildlife. In 2016, the AZA community spent more than $250 million on field conservation. That could be a billion dollars in five years. We’re seeing our community is one of the biggest conservation movements in North America and has the potential to be even bigger. Our projects are doing really important work to save species on the ground and recover species literally on the edge of extinction.”

@ Minnesota Zoo

“Obviously I’m very passionate about wild tigers,” Tara Harris concluded. “I’m proud of how much we’ve been able to do as a community for wild tiger conservation in the last few years. We’ve raised almost a million dollars through the Tiger Conservation Campaign and grown the support of the AZA community for wild tiger conservation. That’s a really positive model for many other species. Also, when I got to go out and personally reintroduce some of the first Dakota skipper butterflies to the Minnesota prairie was a real highlight. It’s taken so much work, effort, planning and partnership and it’s been an incredible process working with people who care about these species right here in our state. Watching them fly away was a really memorable experience and a testament to our staff.”

@ Minnesota Zoo

#MinnesotaZoo

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I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

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