text by Teresa Esquivel   photos courtesy of Desert Botanical Garden &  Phoenix Zoo

In the circle of life, it doesn’t take much to set things spinning off course, so the conservation of habitats and the plants and animals that live within them is important. And we, as humans, have the capacity to be stewards  for such action. Phoenix Zoo and Desert Botanical Garden are among the organizations spearheading conservation efforts locally. Here we take a closer look at their programs.

Phoenix Zoo

Arizona Center For Nature Conservation

Above: Reba, an Asian elephant, represents an endangered species.
“The ecosystem is so intertwined that removing a single species can wreak havoc on the entire ecosystem,” says Bert Castro, president and CEO of Phoenix Zoo/Arizona Center for Nature Conservation. “Zoos have always been looked at as fun, wholesome places to bring your family. And we’re really good at that; it’s a lot of fun and you get to see many wonderful species. But the core of who we are, and the evolution of where we’ve come from, is a true conservation organization. That’s why when you become a member of the Zoo, you’re a member of the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation.”
Above, left: Jiwa, a Bornean orangutan, with his mother Bess, was born at Phoenix Zoo. Above, right: An Andean bear with her offspring.
The Zoo’s role in conservation started in 1963 when it was approached to participate in a breeding program for the Arabian oryx, an antelope species whose native habitat in the Arabian Peninsula closely resembles that of the arid Arizona desert. Nine were captured and brought to the Phoenix Zoo. “It’s a success story,” says Stuart Wells, director of Conservation and Science. “They’ve been on the International Union for Conservation of Nature list as endangered – prior to that they were extinct – and they were just upgraded in 2011 to vulnerable, which is great; that’s better than threatened, even. So there’s about 1,000 left in the wild, and about 6,000 held in managed care around the world. That’s from zero. The Phoenix Zoo was actually able to save that species. So what I like to say is we have a legacy of conservation.”
Above: Bert Castro, president and CEO of the Phoenix Zoo, with a resident giraffe.
“Sometimes you don’t know the value of a species until it’s gone and you think, we should have saved that,” says Wells. “That’s probably the most important part about being attentive to how we affect and impact our environment, because a species may seem insignificant, but its absence could cause the whole breakdown of the ecology.”

Desert Botanical Garden

Above: One of the many picturesque succulents at Desert Botanical Garden.

The Desert Botanical Garden also has a long history of conservation. “We were green before green was cool,” says Ken Schutz, executive director. “We were founded as a conservation garden devoted to Sonoran Desert plants. That’s very different from most gardens, which were founded as collections of exotic plants from around the world, not plants you can find in your backyard. And today, 75 years later, we’re still true to that mission.”

Some of the earliest conservation efforts revolved around rescuing plants, including organ pipe cactus that were going to be destroyed to make room for mining in an area near Ajo, Arizona. They were hauled back to Phoenix and planted in the Garden where they still stand today, and in even greater number. Currently, the Garden acts as custodian for 52 different kinds of rare desert plants, which are cultivated in a greenhouse on the property.

Above: One of the many picturesque scenes at Desert Botanical Garden.

“We have a seed bank where we house our seed collections of rare, threatened and endangered plants. There are over 4,000 collections,”says Kimberlie McCue, Ph.D., program director, Conservation of Threatened Species and Habitats and Assistant Director of Research, Conservation and Collections. “These are like the insurance policy. These plants are rare out in the wild, and the more rare something is, the more susceptible it is to a catastrophe wiping it out. By having the seeds here, if a population or even a portion of a population suffers a catastrophe, whether it’s a fire or land gets sold for development, we still have the genetic material from that place, and we can grow it out and we can maintain it.”

“I like to say: If you like living, thank a plant,” says McCue. “We are wholly dependent on plants. We use them for medicine, clothing, food, oxygen, shelter, building materials and we even use them to court our mates. And if one plant goes extinct there absolutely can be a domino effect.”