During the ZACC 2018 conference, I had the opportunity to chat with several “conservation superheroes” to learn more about their view on the value of data to wildlife conservation. Each story will feature our video interview with the hero and more about their work and the species they are focused on. First up is Murthy Kantimahanti, Co-Founder of Save the Snakes and a Conservation Biologist with the Eastern Ghats Wildlife Society.
Fear of the few
While only 20 percent of the more than 3,000 species of snakes worldwide are venomous, these slithering reptiles often get a bad rap.
Take the cult movie thriller, “Snakes on a Plane,” which stars these notorious creatures (in addition to Samuel L. Jackson). The movie promo tapped into people’s primal fear of snakes, emphasizing the snakes as “the deadliest creatures on earth” that can “attack without warning.”
Snakes in decline
Unfortunately, this fear has led to a widespread misunderstanding of the danger snakes present and, often, indiscriminate killing of snakes even if they pose no real threat. Combined with other threats such as habitat loss and invasive species, this is leading to a decline in snake populations.
It’s because of this widespread misunderstanding of the danger snakes present and the critical ecological role they play that Murthy Kantimahanti says data is vital to their conservation.
Save the Snakes
Murthy is co-founder and India program director for Save the Snakes and a conservation biologist with the Eastern Ghats Wildlife Society. He works closely with communities throughout the Eastern Ghats, especially outside the protected areas where human-wildlife conflict occurs, monitoring wildlife and providing education and intervention strategies.
Data plays a key role in our work in educating communities on the important ecological role that snakes have. Our conservation efforts are more effective when we can tell people that the nonvenomous rat snake kills 400 rodents annually that destroy large vegetable crops in India and spread diseases.”
–Murthy Kantimahanti, Co-Founder, Save the Snakes
Interview with Murthy Kantimahanti
Listen to Murthy talk about his work and the importance of data in conservation
Saving king cobras
According to Murthy, there are more than 300 species of snakes in India. One of the Eastern Ghats region’s most infamous residents is the king cobra (ophiophagus hannah), known as the world’s longest venomous snake. King cobras are the only snakes known to construct nests. Female kings will build nests of bamboo leaves and deposit as many as 65 eggs within.
Currently, Save The Snakes and the Eastern Ghats Wildlife Society are working together to protect the threatened king cobra population in the Eastern Ghats. Listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species, the IUCN reports that this species has experienced “local population declines of over 80 percent over 10 years in parts of its range,” which spans South and Southeast Asia.
The project, which is sponsored by the Brevard Zoo and ZACC, focuses heavily on community outreach and education to help reduce negative human interactions with snakes that threaten their survival.
“I grew up watching these animals around me,” said Murthy. “That motivated me to work toward conservation.”
Snake conservation by zoos
Five years ago, the IUCN reported that an estimated 19% of reptiles were “threatened with extinction, with 12% classified as Critically Endangered, 41% Endangered and 47% Vulnerable.” Like many other species, loss of habitat and human exploitation are having a profound effect on their survival.
Collecting data on captive snakes can be challenging as this king cobra video from Australian Reptile Park shows. However, it’s a challenge that Species360 members don’t shy away from. Collecting and sharing data on the wildlife in their care is what they do every day.
In fact, Species360 members care for more than 20,000 snakes of nearly 900 species, according to ZIMS. King cobras are one of those species – currently 44 Species360 members in Asia, Australia, Europe and North America collectively hold over 100 king cobras. There were even two births in the past year.
By the numbers – why it matters
Data like this is critical for conservation planning. Successful conservation depends on having a large enough population to sustain genetic diversity over the long-term, as well as determining the best actions possible for continuing animal health and survival. However, when populations are small, it can be challenging to preserve genetic diversity and achieve statistical significance within the analysis.
Since most zoos, aquariums and other wildlife organizations only have room for a small number of any one species, knowledge sharing and collaboration is increasingly important for successful conservation programs like these:
- King cobra conservation breeding by Bronx Zoo/Wildlife Conservation Society
- Ringed snake reintroduction by Duisburg Zoo
- Ocellate mountain viper conservation breeding by St Louis Zoo
- Hatching of four rare Louisiana pine snakes by Tulsa Zoo last year
Where’s the data? ZIMS has it
Today, more than 20,000 animal care professionals in 1,100+ zoos, aquariums and other wildlife member organizations around the world use Species360 ZIMS to help them achieve best practice animal management and conservation goals. Created by the members to advance global collaboration and information sharing, Species360 ZIMS was named a top conservation tech innovation for big data insights by Mongabay.
Zoos, aquariums and their regional associations are using ZIMS data to create species survival plans to manage breeding programs that maintain healthy, self-sustaining populations. Species360 ZIMS is underpinning many efforts in:
- Preserving the “gene bank” of wildlife
- Breeding and reintroducing animals to the wild
- Managing critically endangered wild populations
Murthy feels that ZIMS could help his conservation work in the future:
ZIMS is an excellent way to gain vital insights on breeding and other behaviors in a species. If we apply that knowledge as we study wild populations, it will help us devise better long-term conservation management plans.”
–Murthy Kantimahanti, Co-Founder, Save the Snakes
For this Data4Wildlife superhero, data and conservation today go hand in hand.
He says, “I’m keen on protecting wildlife in my backyard and data is critical in our work. It helps is not only identify the conservation challenges but evaluate the scope of the problem and address it.”
Originally published on the Species360 blog on June 28, 2016
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