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Tue August 12, 2014

Tanganyika Wildlife Park—Increasing Populations Of Endangered Species Through Successful Breeding

Tanganyika Wildlife Park in Goddard, Kansas has one of the largest collection of animals in the state. The park is best known for its interactive exhibits, but Tanganyika is also a world-class breeding facility. KMUW’s Abigail Wilson has more…

      

When you see an exotic or endangered animal with Jungle Jack Hanna on David Letterman, there’s a pretty good chance that it was born and raised right outside of Wichita.

Jungle Jack Hanna and David Letterman hold a pair of clouded leopard cubs from Tanganyika Wildlife Park.
Jungle Jack Hanna and David Letterman hold a pair of clouded leopard cubs from Tanganyika Wildlife Park.
Credit Late Show with David Letterman

Jack Hanna has brought honey badgers, snow leopards and other exotic creatures from Tanganyika Wildlife Park along with him as guests on shows including The Late Show with David Letterman, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and Good Morning America.

Matt Fouts is the assistant director of Tanganyika Wildlife Park.

"They wanted to have these unique animals that they could take on Letterman and that kind of stuff," Fouts explains. "I mean it’s the kind of show you don’t just like take the bearded dragon. You need a little bit of wow. And Jack really loves snow leopards and some of the different animals so, we were one of the only places in the country breeding them so they found us and we’ve been working with them for over 10 years now. He’s an amazing person and so we really like doing stuff with him."

Fouts wears an Australian style cowboy hat. He checks his blue watch every few minutes to make sure he will be on time for the morning rhino feeding. His parents, Jim and Sherri, founded the park. Today, there's about 100 people at the park. There's a group of preschoolers on a field trip and a few bus loads of people from a retirement home.

Lemurs sit on the lap of a visitor at Tanganyika.
Lemurs sit on the lap of a visitor at Tanganyika.
Credit Abigail Wilson

Visitors at Tanganyika Wildlife Park can pet snow leopards led around on leashes by trainers. Lemurs will sit on their laps in exchange for a small, red craisin. Kangaroos lounge in the shade, allowing those who approach them correctly to pet their thick pillowy fur.

But the animals at the park, especially babies born each year, have a purpose besides entertaining visitors. For the past 30 years, the park has been home to a breeding program that has significantly impacted the numbers of many endangered species. And Tanganyika, the park's name, fits perfectly with its mission. In the African tribal language Bantu, Tanganyika means “origin of life.”

In the animal nursery near the entrance to the park, two sand-colored clouded leopard cubs wrestle on the other side of an eye-level Plexiglas window. They’re a tangled mess of dark brown spots, pink noses and sky blue eyes. Its hard to believe they’re thought to be the closest living relative to the saber tooth tiger.

“We've been the most successful zoo in the United States for breeding clouded leopards over the last ten years," Fouts says. "And just our facility alone our privately-owned or family-owned zoo here in Kansas has increased their worldwide captive population by over 15 percent.”

Fouts says there are only a handful of zoos in the country that have been successful breeding clouded leopards; he calls them the “crown jewel” from a breeding standpoint. Tanganyika been luckier than most.

"Last year we had 26 rare and endangered cats born at the park. That’s more than any other facility that I know of in the entire world," Fouts explains.

clouded leopard
A clouded leopard cub rests after playing with it's siblings.
Credit Abigail Wilson

  Fouts says successfully breeding clouded leopards is the result of following a few basic rules. And setting the right mood for the cats when the time comes.

"We have a special area for them that so that they don’t stress, because they can stress easily if they're next to another big cat or that kind of thing. The public doesn’t go around them--only a handful of keepers," he explains.

"... but I like to joke with people, I tell them that a lot of people think that you know its like Barry White, but actually Marvin Gaye is the real secret. We crank that out in the speakers at night and… not true…,” Fouts laughs.

Travis, a southern black rhinocerous at Tanganyika. Staff at the zoo hope Travis will breed with their female rhino who is named Kit.
Travis, a southern black rhinocerous at Tanganyika. Staff at the zoo hope Travis will breed with their female rhino who is named Kit.
Credit Abigail Wilson

Across the park, past a pond and waterfall, is a pair southern black rhinos named Travis and Kit. The black rhinoceros is distinguished by it’s two horns and prehensile upper lip. The pair was recently introduced and seemed hit it off. When Travis isn’t courting Kit or painting, he contentedly chews grass in the shade. Yes, painting—using a brush and a canvas. His paintings are sold in the gift shop.

If all goes well between Travis and Kit, a black rhino calf will be born to add to the species decreasing world population.

“I just got an e-mail from the international rhino foundation yesterday that I think 500 rhinos have already been poached this year or something. It’s insane. It's out of control," Fouts says.

According to Fouts, the American Zoological Association or AZA is one of the organizations working to protect rhinos, but they can’t protect all of them, and had to choose between southern black rhinos and eastern black rhinos.

“They only had enough room in their AZA zoos to save one they picked the eastern black rhino... (how do even make that decision?) ...right. It’s a tough thing," he says looking at the rhino in front of us. "Well then international rhino foundation is like, 'wait guys you can't just like give up on a whole subspecies of rhino, right?'"

Because Tanganyika is privately owned by a family and is non-subsidized there is a limit on the number animals they can afford to bring to the park.

“We have to be selective on which species we can take in. We obviously can't save them all, but we can have an impact on some," he says.

Diablo the honey badger as a baby. He was hand-raised at Tanganyika Wildlife Park.
Diablo the honey badger as a baby. He was hand-raised at Tanganyika Wildlife Park.
Credit Courtesy of Tanganyika Wildlife Park

Another animal Fouts is hoping continue to breed, is a well-known pop culture icon that clawed it’s way to fame thanks to a YouTube video that now has more than 60 million hits.

Fouts walks toward an enclosure, whistling and calling the name "Diablo" the way most people would call their golden retrievers. A stout, and squished-looking animal rushes in our direction.

"He answers to his name?" I ask.

"I don't know if he does or not or if he just comes out here when he hears someone but I like to think that he recognizes me," Fouts laughs.

It’s pretty clear that Tanganyika’s honey badger does recognize him though. He uses his thick black claws to climb the fence so Fouts can scratch his belly. Later on, when I tried to call his name and get his attention, he didn’t care. But he did record his own ringtone.

honey badger
Matt Fouts greets Diablo the honey badger with a scratch on the belly.
Credit Abigail Wilson

  "A lot of people are like, 'oh ya, we have badgers up in Wisconsin,' but these are like the NFL version of badgers," Fouts says. "He's 40 or 50 pounds, he's not real big, I mean maybe two feet, but he's solid muscle."

There are only two facilities in the United States to ever successfully hand-raise honey badgers. Tanganyika is the second.

Eventually, some of the animals born at Tanganyika will be relocated to other zoos around the country or moved to facilities operated by other private breeders working to increase populations of endangered species.

"Eventually, the next big project we'd love to—it's going to take some financial assistance—but we want to build a brand new children's zoo, have a big education building right here where this goat building is, have a bigger nursery, a stage show, and have a bigger ambassador room so we could have more ambassadors," Fouts explains. "Also, a photo booth so we can do photos with different animals and just do a lot of really fun and cool things."

Of course the nursery thing...," Fouts continues, "...with as many cats as I mentioned earlier, that nursery was built to have a few litters a year, it's not built to handle 26 cats. We make it work obviously, but it would be so much nicer to have a bigger nursery so that they could have more room to spread out when they're younger."

At the end of each day, Fouts hopes for a successful romance between the clouded leopards, the black rhinos, and the honey badgers. And with 32 species of animals to breed, something is bound to happen.