Conservationists will have an easier time climbing the rugged mountains in order to reach the California condor nests they've been monitoring, thanks to a donation made to the Santa Barbara Zoo on Tuesday from a group of car dealers.
Six Gold Coast Toyota dealers came together to donate three vehicles to the zoo that will allow its programs to access tough terrain during fieldwork.
Three 2014 Toyota 4-Runner 4x4 Trail Editions wrapped with photos of California condors, Channel Island foxes and local amphibians were handed over to the zoo Tuesday, a gift that is worth more than $100,000.
Zoo officials said the donation will allow more of its staff and volunteers to access the rugged backcountry during their conservation efforts.
Dr. Estelle Sandhaus, director of conservation and research for the Santa Barbara Zoo, is one of the scientists who regularly travels into that terrain to monitor seven of the condor nests in the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge near Fillmore and other backcountry areas in Ventura and Kern counties.
The zoo partners with the U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife for the nest-guarding program for the condors, which seeks to make sure young birds survive into adulthood so they can breed successfully.
The primary cause of mortality among condors is lead poisoning, as the birds eat carrion that may be contaminated by lead shot from hunters.
The nests are located at an altitude of about 4,000 feet and are accessible only by gravel road, said Steve Kirkland, who is the California condor field coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and works with Sandhaus in the nest-guarding program.
The zoo has been using two of its vehicles in the field, but the main one has been borrowed from the horticulture department and is "not quite up to task," Sandhaus said. "Four-wheel drive is necessary," she said, adding that the new vehicles will be a big help in furthering their work.
Between the zoo and Fish & Wildlife, staff are out in the field monitoring the nests five days a week, Kirkland said.
The partnership between the agencies has seen significant success in increasing the survival of young condors, with survival rate increasing almost 10 times since the program began.
Mike Caldwell, president of Gold Coast Toyota Dealers Association and general manager of Toyota of Santa Barbara, was present Tuesday to hand off the keys to Block, and said the association was excited to support conservation in the community.
Rich Block, CEO of the Santa Barbara Zoo, said the cars will allow an "enormous boost forward" for the zoo's conservation efforts.
"We've had a real need to get people out in the field," he said, adding that he's looking forward to showing Caldwell photos of the now-gleaming vehicles with some mud on them from the scientists' field work in the future.