What are ungulates?

We are asked this question regularly as Zoo visitors try to sound out the unfamiliar word they see on our nametags.

Very simply, ungulates (pronounced uhng-gyou-lits) are hoofed mammals. Cows, horses, pigs and deer are the most recognized ungulates. Antelope, giraffes, zebras, camels, mountain goats, rhinos and hippos are also in this category.

Humans have had a long association with ungulates. We domesticate them, herd them, ride them, farm them, hunt them, milk them, eat them and wear their skins.

The Earth’s 257 modern ungulate species are found in every region of the world except Antarctica. Ungulates shape our world’s habitats through grazing and browsing, serve as seed-spreaders and till the ground with their hooves to keep grasslands and prairies healthy.

Your Zoo’s Ungulates

You may not know that the Saint Louis Zoo cares for some of the world’s most endangered wild ungulates. They live in the Red Rocks area on the peaceful eastern edge of the Zoo. Built in 1935 as part of the Civil Works Administration program under the New Deal, the historical Antelope House and its open-air habitats were designed to faithfully mirror Missouri’s beloved Elephant Rocks — the geological formations found in Iron County.

During a strolling safari through Red Rocks, you can watch lesser kudu play, Somali wild ass kick, reticulated giraffe browse, takin climb, babirusa wallow and Speke’s gazelle pronk — and that is just a subset of the 100-plus ungulates that live here.

While the Zoo’s ungulates are safe and well cared for, their wild counterparts live more perilous lives. Eighty-three percent of the 18 ungulate species that call Red Rocks “home” are critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable in the wild.

Baby Boom in Red Rocks

If you love baby animals, you should visit Red Rocks. Thus far in 2016, we’ve celebrated 19 births, including lowland nyala, Speke’s gazelle, addra gazelle, Grevy’s zebra and takin. All births were recommended by the Zoo’s accrediting organization, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Species Survival Plans® (SSP).

Collaborative SSP® partnerships coordinate breeding efforts and animal transfers among AZA zoos to maximize available space, while also striving to optimize genetic diversity. Several ungulate SSPs® are led by Zoo staff members, including the Addax SSP® and the Grevy’s Zebra SSP®.

Saint Louis Zoo visitors are lucky to be able to see some of the world’s rarest ungulates. The Zoo takes the preservation of two species, in particular, very seriously — addax and Grevy’s zebra — and plays a leading role to conserve these species not only within our Zoo but also across the globe in Africa through its WildCare Institute.

Working in Northern Africa

The addax is critically endangered. If this antelope becomes more endangered, it will become extinct in the wild.

This desert-adapted ungulate once ranged across the Sahara Desert in northern Africa. Today, reports from the wild are bleak.

During a population census conducted in May, conservationists found only three addax. Political instability and oil exploration have caused a devastating population crash and ultimately may cause the addax to be the next Saharan species to go extinct.

The Zoo’s WildCare Institute Saharan Wildlife Recovery Center has worked for years to link zoo expertise and resources with meaningful conservation action. One of the Center’s major accomplishments was to found the Sahara Conservation Fund (SCF), the only conservation organization devoted to saving wildlife in the Sahelo-Saharan region of Africa.

Through SCF, the Zoo has advocated for the addax and has achieved many conservation successes to benefit this ungulate species. In 2008, one addax born at the Saint Louis Zoo, along with 12 other zoo-born addax, were reintroduced in Tunisia to replenish populations there.

In 2012, SCF helped the Niger government establish a vast desert reserve to protect its last population of wild addax. That reserve, the Termit & Tin Toumma National Nature Reserve, at 38,610 square miles, is the largest in Africa.

Will the Zoo and its SCF partners in Africa save the last remaining wild addax from extinction? There is still hope and so we will keep trying. The good news is that 2,000 addax are cared for in zoos and in private facilities around the world, so there is a healthy population available for reintroduction in the future, if needed.

Saving Grevy’s Zebra

The Grevy’s zebra is the largest wild equid and is endangered. In the past four decades, this zebra’s population, once as high as 15,000, has dropped by an alarming 80 percent.

Hunting for its skin caused a precipitous decline in the 1980s. Thankfully, hunting of this endangered species is now prohibited.

Today, the Grevy’s zebra is threatened by habitat degradation and competition for grass and water with pastoralists’ domesticated ungulates, including cattle and goats.

The Zoo’s WildCare Institute Center for Conservation in the Horn of Africa links dedicated conservationists at zoos with those in the field and fosters partnerships to provide long-term support to wildlife programs for several unique species, such as the Grevy’s zebra, mountain nyala, hirola and African elephant.

Since 2004, the Zoo has supported field initiatives that have included building the capacity of communities that surround the habitat of these animals.

In 2007, one of the authors of this article, Martha Fischer, co-founded the Grevy’s Zebra Trust (GZT), the world’s only conservation organization committed solely to conserving this species. In partnership with communities, GZT monitors and protects Grevy’s zebra across its range in Kenya.

The Zoo has also been involved in and financially supported every major census of the Grevy’s zebra population since 1999. In January 2016, the Zoo sent three staff members, including the other author of this article, Tim Thier, to Kenya to participate in the first Great Grevy’s Rally.

During the rally, 118 census teams, including the Saint Louis Zoo team, took 50,000 photographs, and with this data, scientists learned that the Grevy’s zebra population is no longer declining. This is a huge accomplishment for the Zoo and its partners in Kenya.

Though replenishment of the wild Grevy’s zebra population has not yet been necessary, an assurance population of over 500 zebras is cared for in international zoos in case reintroduction is ever undertaken to support the wild population in the future.

Would you like to help the Zoo save ungulates? There are a number of organizations, including your Zoo, the Sahara Conservation Fund, and the Grevy’s Zebra Trust, that are protecting ungulates, establishing safe areas for them to live, and restoring their degraded grasslands.

For now, your Zoo’s ungulates are serving as advocates for their wild cousins, hoping that visitors will appreciate their beauty and uniqueness and help the Zoo as it raises awareness and strives to galvanize widespread public and government support so that these endangered ungulates will be around for future generations.