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Zoo experts gather in Pittsburgh to discuss state of rhinos, elephants

| Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, 11:22 p.m.

With the number of elephants and rhinos dwindling in the wild, about 200 zoo experts from around the world are gathering here to discuss poaching, conflicts with humans and illnesses to reduce threats to the animals.

“We all want to make sure the elephants and rhinos are still around,” said Barbara Baker, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.

The conference, which began Tuesday and ends Saturday, brings together researchers, scientists and keepers who may not know what is happening to the animals outside their facilities.

“There is good news and bad news,” said Terri Roth, vice president for Asian programs for the International Rhino Foundation. “The good news is the number of rhinos has been increasing, but a lot of these are African white rhinos.”

In contrast, she said, the number of Sumatran rhinos has declined from about 400 in 1996 to about 100. The Javan rhino's decline has not been as pronounced, but still fewer are left, only about 45.

Roth blamed the decline in Indonesia on poaching, loss of habitat and construction of roads.

The Pittsburgh Zoo has three black rhinos and seven African elephants in Highland Park and five elephants at its International Conservation Center in Somerset County.

Willie Theison stood in the elephant enclosure on Wednesday in Highland Park as Tasha sneaked from behind and nuzzled him. He patted Tasha in return.

Theison said most zoos require keepers to have contact with elephants through a protective barrier. The Pittsburgh Zoo allows keepers to share space with the elephants.

“What Willie's doing is perfectly safe,” said Daryl Hoffman, curator of large animals at the Houston Zoo, which uses a barrier. “You wouldn't do that with male elephants of the same age or with keepers that don't have training to do it.”

Lauren Horner, spokeswoman for the Gorongosa Restoration Project in Mozambique, attended the conference to tout the National Geographic film, “War Elephants.” She said a civil war in Mozambique between 1972 and 1997 killed 1 million people and decimated the population of animals at the country's national park.

The film highlights the partnership between an American nonprofit group and the government of Mozambique to restore the park.

“We hope that everyone at the symposium enjoys the film and that they're inspired to visit Gorongosa, either as a tourist or research scientists,” she wrote in an email.

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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