A Texas-based operation is helping critically-endangered and extinct-in-the-wild species thrive again.
By Michael Catarineau
The Ouadi Rimé-Ouadi Achim Faunal Reserve sits on a swath of the southern Sahara in Chad.
The reserve is home to many ungulate species, including a little more than 200 head of scimitar-horned oryx. These oryx are special.
The scimitar-horned oryx was extinct in the wild for nearly 30 years. Each year since 2016, a small number of oryx have been released through the Scimitar-Horned Oryx Reintroduction Programme — a collaboration between the Government of Chad and the Environment Agency–Abu Dhabi implemented by the Sahara Conservation Fund.
“It’s an international effort,” Gavin Livingston, Source Population Alliance program manager, said.
An alliance in agriculture
Source Population Alliance (SPA) is a group of private landowners, conservation centers and zoos that use their resources to build sustainable populations of wildlife, and is based in Glen Rose, Texas, at the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center — one of the largest breeding facilities in the U.S. for ungulate and hoofstock species.
“Fossil Rim was one of the founders of the Source Population Alliance,” Livingston said. “The idea was incubated here and they are very dedicated to this program.”
Livingston, an Oklahoma State University graduate, has been around zoos and agriculture all his life.
“My family has a private animal breeding facility where we raise animals and supply a handful of zoos,” he said. “So I’ve grown up around that.”
Livingston received his Bachelor of Science in agribusiness in 2014, and two years later, his Master of Science in international ag. He’s been with SPA since 2017.
“I didn’t intend, necessarily, to go back into the zoo world,” Livingston said. “It sorta happened by a few chance encounters.”
The source for SPA
In July 2018, Livingston traveled to Chad to work the release of additional oryx at the faunal reserve.
“The animals that have been released are thriving; they’re doing extremely well,” he said. “There has only been one case of an animal being poached, and the Chadian government took that very seriously. They sent that poacher to jail for, I believe, 10 years.”
With SPA’s involvement and network, some oryx in the Chadian herd traveled from as far as Virginia, Ohio and even Texas.
The scimitar-horned oryx release project is completely funded by the Government of the United Arab Emirates, and is just one of SPA’s endeavors.
“When the program was launched in 2014, we identified four species that we thought had the greatest conservation value and also that we were positioned well to help with,” Livingston said. “That was the scimitar-horned oryx, the addax, the addra gazelle and the sable antelope.”
The scimitar-horned oryx, the addax and the addra gazelle were all critically endangered or extinct in the wild.
“They are all north African desert species,” he said. “And they all happen to do extremely well in Texas.”
While SPA has program participants all across the U.S., most of them are in or near the Texas Hill Country.
“Historically, the reason that Texas has been such a big home for exotic hoofstock species is several reasons,” Livingston said. “The regulatory climate is right for it … the terrain and the ground — especially in the Texas Hill Country — is really a lot like southern Africa … and also the weather.”
In 2017, when Livingston joined the program, SPA re-evaluated themselves and looked to see what could be done to expand their brand and their conservation efforts.
“What can we do now that this model is working,” Livingston said. “That’s when we decided to grow it to several different types of ungulates, not just antelope.”
SPA then brought in two very rare and unusual endangered Asian wild cattle species — the anoa and the banteng.
“We chose those two specifically because they are almost non-existent in zoo populations and almost non-existent on ranches,” Livingston said. “However, there are a couple large populations of them on two private ranches in Florida. There was interest in moving them out to other facilities if we had interest.”
Now, SPA has several ranches working to build a banteng population.
The re-evaluation also brought the opportunity for a re-branding and development of a whole new web presence. Livingston said the previous website did not reflect where SPA is as a group.
“I was aware of Ranch House, obviously, from the livestock side of things, and I was always very excited about the products they put out,” he said. “I started working with the team at Ranch House in January, and we did a total redesign and relaunched website for Source Population Alliance.”
A hoof in the door
Becoming involved with SPA — be it a breeder or a participant — is a well-regulated process.
“We look at the population in the wild, we look at what their conservation status is, and then what the status is of them in the United States and is there anything special that species needs to be helped with,” Livingston said.
An executive committee of nine voting members oversee the vetting and approval process of the folks that get involved with SPA.
“In order to join the Source Population Alliance, the facility requires unanimous approval by our nine voting members,” he said. “(They) represent zoos, conservation breeding centers like Fossil Rim, and ranches.”
SPA does not have to travel far to find willing participants either. Livingston said one of their newest members read an article in the paper about the scimitar project and reached out about using his land for conservation efforts.
“The way that we find most of our program participants is generally through word of mouth,” he said. “The program started out with about 12 or 15 different folks that were really brought in with the idea of representing zoos, big breeding centers like Fossil Rim and then regular high-fenced ranches like in Texas.”
Livingston has started actively recruiting participants at conferences and meetings.
Participants that have an agricultural background won’t face too much of a learning curve.
“It’s really not all that different than any other agricultural operation,” Livingston said. “You’re still raising animals and doing animal husbandry. It’s really not as big of a stretch as it kinda seems at first to a lot of people — especially with African hoofstock.”
A day in the life
In addition to networking with landowners, zoos and conservation centers, Livingston also has a fair share of office work.
“It’s one of those things,” he said with a chuckle. “Since it’s a small organization, I wear about 75 different hats.”
Livingston said about 30 percent of his time is spent traveling and operating as a field representative for SPA.
“I travel to meetings all around the country with the zoo organizations and some of the ranching organizations and represent Source Population Alliance,” he said. “The other part of my job is sort of the back-end, paperwork, management side of things where I oversee different scientific research projects that are going on … serving as the liaison between our different partners that we work with and our actual program participants.”
Livingston said his experience being the public representative for SPA and its partners has been very humbling. Managing SPA allows him to have a bigger impact than just working at a single facility.
“It’s very filling,” he said. “It’s incredible to be able to get to be involved with something that’s larger than any one facility that I was involved with before.”