A zoo in Rhode Island has welcomed the birth of a critically endangered red wolf pup.
There are only an estimated 23 red wolves left in the wild, Amy Roberts, director of animal programs at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island, told CNN.
This makes the birth of even one pup “critical” to the survival of the species.
The unnamed pup was born on May 5 to proud parents Brave and Diego, said Roberts. It’s the first successful birth for Brave, 6 years old, and Diego, 7 years old, and the first red wolf pup born at the zoo since 2005.
Roberts told CNN that while red wolves normally have litters of 4 to 6 pups at a time, smaller litters are more common for first-time mothers, like Brave.
According to Roberts, all red wolves in the United States are owned by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and managed cooperatively with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits zoos, including the Roger Williams Park Zoo. There are around 240 red wolves in American zoos and sanctuaries, all of which participate in the red wolf “Species Survival Plan” (SSP), which started in 1984.
The SSP acts as a kind of matchmaker for endangered species, taking into consideration “genetics and demographics” to determine which red wolf couples will produce the most genetically diverse offspring. Roberts explained that this matchmaking is especially crucial for species like the red wolf that have extremely small populations.
“Even just one puppy is critical because now Brave and Diego’s genes are represented in that puppy,” said Roberts. “If they don’t have more litters, this little pup is even more critical. Especially when you’re talking about a small population, you want to make sure you capture everybody’s genes.”
The zoo’s staff monitors the newborn baby and mom through an infrared camera in their den — but they haven’t yet been able to determine the pup’s sex.
“About five days ago, the baby started toddling out of the man-made den. It will walk 5 feet around the entrance of the den and then go back in,” said Roberts.
Although visitors can catch a glimpse of Diego in the zoo’s wolf enclosure, the mom and pup will likely stay close to their den for a few more weeks, according to the zoo.
Red wolves once roamed throughout the southeastern United States but were declared extinct in the wild in 1980, said Roberts. The remaining 14 red wolves were brought into captivity. Collaboration between zoos and conservationists led to the creation of a stable zoo population, and in 1987 the United States Fish and Wildlife Service began reintroducing red wolves into the wild.
The wolves face major threats due to humans, said Roberts, “whether that’s purposeful or accidental.” Many wolves are hit by cars or shot. They also suffer from habitat loss and habitat fragmentation.
There will likely “never be a large population back to its historic range, which was much bigger than the current range,” said Roberts. “But the goal would be to have a population that is self-sustaining, living in the wild, in the southeastern US.”
Currently, there are only 12 known red wolves in the wild, which are tagged with orange collars to help people distinguish them from coyotes, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, out of a total estimated population of around 20 to 23 individuals.
Despite efforts to restore the wild population, there were no known red wolf pups born in the wild in 2019, 2020 or 2021, says the Fish and Wildlife Service.
This makes captive births like the one at the Roger Williams Park Zoo all the more important, said Roberts.
“Our zoo in particular plays a really big role in conservation of native species,” she said.