How the Saint Louis Zoo and Missouri Botanical Garden Make a Difference to the World

The Zoo and Garden perform extensive fieldwork and research, which not only has a global impact, but many local benefits too: from building local infrastructure to attracting a "creative class" that builds intellectual capital in the region.

From 40-years of conservation efforts in one of the world’s oldest forests, to preventing diseases becoming global pandemics, The Saint Louis Zoo and Missouri Botanical Garden perform extensive fieldwork and research that is relevant to the entire world. And that global relevance attracts a “creative class” to St. Louis and builds collective intelligence, at a local level, which increases the long term prosperity of the region.

This article is fourth in a series of four. If you missed the first, start here:

Saint Louis Zoo

Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) Testing in Kenya

MERS (MERS-CoV) is caused by a coronavirus, like the more familiar COVID-19. However, it has a much higher case fatality rate, usually about 33 percent. It was first diagnosed in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and in the United States in 2015. It is primarily spread to people from infected camels, though human-to-human transmission is also possible.

Enter climate change… Due to increasing aridity, the pasturelands of Kenya are becoming less conducive to raising cattle. As a result, pastoralists there have been substituting the raising of dromedary camels for meat and milk. The dromedary population of Kenya’s Laikipia county increased by about 15 percent between 2001 and 2012. As of 2012, it stood at about 5000 animals. This increasing dependence on camels is also reflected elsewhere in Kenya; the camel population of the entire country was reported as a little over 3 million animals. During about the same time, cattle populations decreased by slightly more than 25 percent.

An international team, led by the Institute of Conservation Medicine’s Dr. Sharon Deem, conducted serological testing on Kenya’s dromedary camels to determine if these animal husbandry changes had created a MERS reservoir. On the basis of serological testing of 335 dromedary camels, the presence of MERS-CoV antibodies were found on average 46.9 percent of the time, with herd averages ranging from 14.3 percent to 82.9 percent. No human cases were reported.

Learn more about Saint Louis Zoo’s research groups here:

Sustainable Palm Oil

A major challenge for Asian primates is that of palm oil plantations. Based on recent discussions:

  • Palm oil is only raised in tropical forests; most commercial operations are located in Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
  • It is widely used in cosmetics, industrial products and intermediates, and as a healthy alternative to trans fats
  • Transformation of tropical forests to palm oil plantations often reduces habitat viability for faunal assemblages, including orangutans and other primates.
  • Palm oil is grown on 4.5 million hectares across 21 countries and four continents.
  • Large companies often control commercial plantations and sometimes manage them in ways that are not in the interests of indigenous and local people.
  • The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a consortium of NGOs, retailers, and growers that seeks to grow palm oil in such a way as to benefit both indigenous people and floral/faunal assemblages.
  • The entire supply chain is targeted for scrutiny, to ensure supply-chain wide sustainability.
  • RSPO also certifies the sustainability palm oil plantations.
  • Examples of sustainability initiatives include ensuring a livable wage for employees, the use of goats for weed control, the use of predators to reduce pesticide usage, and incorporation of legume-rich cover crops to affix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil and improve its health.

The Saint Louis Zoo’s Wildcare Institute participates in RSPO activities and advocates for sustainability practices among producers, wholesalers, retailers, and consumers. Moreover, the Zoo has scrutinized various products either used at the Zoo or offered for sale in its gift shops, ensuring that palm oil content meets RSPO sustainability standards.

Missouri Botanical Garden

Ankafobe Forest Fire and Rebuild

Ankafobe Forest is a tropical wilderness on the Island of Madagascar. It is important due to its biodiversity, including species that have since disappeared elsewhere and is considered one of the last remaining fragments of the original forest, a “living fossil” of pre-human-settlement Madagascar.

It includes three species of plants that exist nowhere else in the world as well as endangered animals, such as two threatened lemur species and a critically-endangered frog. Ankafobe has been supported by the Garden since 2007, and is one of the Garden’s eleven community-based conservation sites in Madagascar. The Garden has been engaged in and leading conservation efforts on this island for more than 40 years.

In 2014, an extensive wildfire destroyed roughly 60 percent of the forest.

Since then, the staff at the Missouri Botanical Garden’s, in concert with local people, have been restoring Ankafobe. These efforts include using the fire-generated ash as “get started” fertilizer, controlling invasive and exotic species, adding fifty-thousand young trees that are now being cultivated in local nurseries (which include rare trees and lemur food plants), and exploring ways in which Ankafobe could be hardened against future fires, such as the controlled burning or cutting of adjacent grasslands.

Learn more about Missouri Botanical Garden’s research groups here:

Why This Matters to the World and St. Louis

This work matters. Threats to biodiversity are threats to the world’s ability to respond to future crises.

Complexity theory tells us that variation – having lots of genetic possibilities and overlapping niches – is a means by which to build resilience against future shocks. In addition, conservation efforts are much more likely to be successful in the long term if they partner with local people.

Having “skin in the game” is a powerful way to align the interests of affected local communities with the survival and animals, plants, and ecosystems. Finally, it is obvious that identifying pathogen reservoirs from which deadly diseases could emerge is to help defang future epidemics and pandemics. It is better to stop plagues in sparsely populated, rural and wild areas rather than to wait for them to make their presence known in densely-packed, urban conurbations.

The Zoo and Garden, their research arms and their work also matter for the economic well being of the St. Louis metro area. Richard Florida’s Creative Class argument is well known and is relevant here. Briefly, it is in cities’ best interest to attract people who are well-educated, well-connected, and likely to become enterprise founders, or to work for the same. Great civic institutions, such as zoos and botanical gardens, are certainly creative-class attractors, along with great museums, orchestras, live theatre, etc.

But, there is more. In a prior article in this publication, we repeated Cesar Hidalgo’s argument that building economic complexity is one of the best known ways by which to increase an area’s long-term prosperity.

The discussions and learning engendered by having these focused, science-and-research oriented organizations in St. Louis will certainly increase the area’s pool of knowledge in areas relevant to their work. Masters theses and Ph.D. dissertations, post-doctoral work, college coursework, etc. will be influenced by the need to build new scientists with the skillsets requisite to carry on this endeavor.

Put differently, the area’s collective intelligence will be increased. Building on the work of Mulgan, collective intelligence nurturing requires certain infrastructure, including:

  • Common rules and standards.
  • Physical objects that embody intelligence (such as zoos, plant databases, etc.).
  • Institutions that can concentrate the resources needed for the hard work of thought.
  • Looser networks and societies of the mind.

Moreover, collective intelligence often manifests itself in assemblies, or collections of people from various disciplines, both specialists and generalists, often in conjunction with and using computers and algorithms, to address the challenges of a particular problem set, such dealing with zoonotic diseases.

We see that the work spoken of in this article meets these aspects of collective intelligence. It is focused on specific problem sets, engages a variety of disciplines, develops its own rules, standards, and languages, is supported by societies of the mind (such as those addressed in the foregoing paragraphs, which concentrate the intellectual and other resources needed for the hard work of thought).

Is there, then, a connection between these aspects of collective intelligence and economic complexity? While such a connection remains a fertile ground for further inquiry, it has intuitive appeal.

Increased collective intelligence provides a richer repertoire of information from which to build economic complexity. In addition, and perhaps of even greater importance, building collective intelligence requires that highly skilled and dedicated people and their organizations learn to better work with each other, learn from each other, and more closely integrate their efforts.

In the economic complexity parlance, this equates to building the critical knowhow that imparts to information its value. Hence, the argument is that building this collective intelligence, even if not directly focused on commercial efforts, will ultimately build economic complexity and benefit commercial enterprises in the St. Louis area.

From Global Impact to Growing Our Local Economy

We have seen that the Saint Louis Zoo and Missouri Botanical Garden, in addition being great places which make the St. Louis area more attractive, also perform great work that matters. Both have subordinate organizations, such as the Institute for Conservation Medicine and the Center for Biodiversity Informatics which, while not as well known to the general public, marshal resources by which to achieve this work that so matters to the world.

Moreover, the presence of these organizations and that this work is centered in St. Louis contributes to the metro area’s long-term prosperity. Great civic institutions are more likely to attract the “creative class” types who, with their highly developed skills and connections, will initiate future startups or work for them.

Additionally, this work likely increases the St. Louis area’s name recognition in the research and philanthropic communities, making it more likely to be selected for future scientific and giving efforts. Finally, these civic institutions and their work will increase the area’s collective intelligence, which will likely lead to corresponding economic complexity increases and hence, greater long-term regional prosperity.