South African zoo director

South Africa National Zoo Director of Research Antoinette Kotze says that while African national parks hold much of the Earth's biodiversity, many South Africans lack a personal connection with the natural environment and stresses a duty among conservationists to spread that connection. Kotze is in Missoula to offer two public presentations later this week.

KURT WILSON, Missoulian

Living next to the wonders of South Africa’s Kruger National Park doesn’t make Yellowstone National Park any less amazing.

“We hiked Rescue Creek and saw four wolves, and heard others howling,” Antoinette Kotze said. “It’s like seeing a leopard in Kruger. In my whole life, I’ve only seen one a few times in the wild.”

That’s not just a tourist talking. As research and scientific services manager at the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa, Kotze has been involved in everything from genetic testing for wild antelope hybridization to identifying the traditional medical uses of endangered pangolins.

She’s in Missoula this week as the University of Montana’s P.L. Wright Conservation Biology keynote speaker. Her additional mission is to encourage greater worldwide understanding of ecological needs.

While Kruger National Park ranks as the third-richest spot on earth for biological diversity, Kotze said many South Africans lack a personal connection with their natural environment. In her talks with students, she stresses the duty to spread that interest.

“There’s a bigger responsibility than just getting your Ph.D. or master’s degree and thinking — that’s it,” Kotze said. “The next generation needs to connect these tools and understandings to bring this together for people.”

International experience can stir that interest. Kotze said she was fascinated by the differences between Montana’s use of public land to preserve rare species like grizzly bears, compared to South Africa’s use of private game preserves to raise and protect endangered rhinos.

“I can own a rhino, if I have the proper permits,” Kotze said. Such private involvement, often supported with a hunting opportunity, has helped many species maintain viable populations. On the other hand, the South African practice of using wildlife-proof fencing interferes with animals’ instinctual migration patterns. And such fencing in the United States would violate laws protecting wildlife as a public asset.

Rapid advances in DNA analysis have given conservation biologists powerful tools to help those animals. Kotze said the sheer number of answers an animal’s DNA can provide, from diet specialization to inbreeding to individual identification, can leave a scientist bewildered about what to ask next.

“That’s been moving very fast,” said Fred Allendorf, retired University of Montana conservation biologist and host of Kotze’s visit. “We have some of the world’s top experts in conservation genetics here in Missoula.”

And now that wildlife managers can apply forensic science to poaching cases, they have to educate prosecutors and judges on the capabilities of their detection methods. They can test blood stains on a suspect’s clothing for traces of many protected animals, or to ensure that a trophy lion actually comes from the population available for hunting.

Finding places for wildlife to thrive remains a problem, even for South Africa’s immense preserves. Although Kruger National Park is almost five times as large as the million-acre Glacier National Park, Kotze said it can be too small.

“We’ve been so successful in breeding wild dogs, but we can’t release them,” she said. “They need such huge home ranges. Cheetahs — same thing.”

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