A conservationist dedicated to saving African elephants one healthy birth at a time was chosen to receive the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium’s first-ever Legacy Conservation Award.
Zoo officials will honor Thomas Hildebrandt, head of the reproduction management department at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, Germany, in a local ceremony on Thursday.
“One of the things we wanted to do was focus on someone, or a group of people, who is out there in the international community, doing a fabulous job for conservation,” Zoo President and CEO Barbara Baker said.
She estimated the world loses 96 elephants a day in Africa due to poaching. Though secure in some areas, the species could become extinct in threatened areas within 50 years, according to the WWF.
Hildebrandt and his team have developed an artificial insemination technique that takes sperm from elephants in the wild and helps infuse new genetics into the African elephant population in North America. So far, that work has resulted in the successful insemination of more than 40 elephants in the past three years.
This is critical, Hildebrandt said, because of the precariousness of elephant population.
“The southern African population are still in good shape,” he said, “but, for example, in Chad or in Ethiopia, we have a lot of poaching activity and these populations are nearly gone, so it’s really important to show the importance of captive breeding programs to these countries.”
Hildebrandt has worked with the Pittsburgh Zoo and its Somerset County-based research arm, the International Conservation Center, for more than a decade on conservation and breeding of African elephants. His work in reproductive biology and pathology in elephants, rhinoceros and other animals is recognized worldwide, Baker said.
The award is meant not only to recognize the work of conservationists, Baker said, but also to raise public awareness.
“Zoos are very important from a recreational standpoint,” she said, “but they’re more and more important as animals get more and more endangered in the wild and as the wild disappears, for what we can do for conservation and wildlife, so we wanted to focus peoples’ attention on that.”
Combined, the Pittsburgh Zoo and ICC have the largest collection of African elephants in North America – six in Highland Park and five at the ICC. They are not just for show, Baker said. All the elephants are part of a world-wide effort to conserve the species.
The award, which comes with a $25,000 check, will be given out every two years. Baker will also be honored at the awards ceremony; she is celebrating 25 years as President and CEO of the Zoo.