Hellbender released in the MO Ozarks. Photo: MDC
The Saint Louis Zoo, Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) are celebrating a historic milestone in hellbender conservation in Missouri. As of August 2022, the total Saint Louis Zoo-raised endangered Ozark and eastern hellbenders released into the wild since 2008 now numbers over 10,000 individuals.
“This is the largest number of animals the Saint Louis Zoo has ever raised in human care and released to the wild and is one of the largest amphibian reintroduction programs in the world,” said Justin Elden, Curator of Herpetology, Saint Louis Zoo, and Director of the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute Ron and Karen Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation. “To date, this is the most successful hellbender release program in the country and it would not be possible without collaborative efforts between the Zoo, MDC and other partners over the last 15 years.”
“When we began the hellbender conservation program over 20 years ago the idea of returning this many hellbenders into native rivers was a dream goal and almost impossible to imagine at the time,” said Jeff Briggler, Ph.D., MDC State Herpetologist. “It has been a lot of hard work and dedication from many people and partner conservation organizations, and while we recognize the significance of this milestone, the work is far from over. We will continue to help protect this species from extinction.”
The 10,000th hellbender, which was one of 235 hellbenders released into a Missouri Ozark river on August 10, 2022, by MDC and Zoo team members, was a nearly 4-year-old Ozark hellbender. This hellbender was returned to the same river where it was collected as an egg in 2018 by MDC to be hatched and raised at the Zoo.
MDC and Zoo staff release Ozark hellbender. Photo: MDC
“This particular river means a lot to those of us involved in the conservation of this species, as it’s the same river where the first release occurred in 2008,” said Briggler. River locations are not identified for animal safety reasons.
By the end of summer 2022, 811 Ozark and eastern hellbenders raised from eggs at the Zoo will have been released into their native Missouri Ozark rivers by MDC this year, in cooperation with the Zoo and other federal partners.
Since 2008, 10,206 Saint Louis Zoo-raised endangered hellbenders (9,034 Ozark hellbenders and 1,172 eastern hellbenders), including first- and second-generation Zoo-bred animals, have been reintroduced to the wild in Missouri.
“Our Zoo animal care professionals are dedicated to caring for this endangered salamander and doing everything we can to help preserve this species,” said Elden.