The San Diego Zoo’s Global Partnerships program connects animal care, conservation research and education experts with regional, national, and international agencies, zoos, benefactors, and conservation NGOs in collaborative efforts to end extinction.
Born and raised in Ireland but now a long-time resident of San Diego, community based conservation ecologist David O’Connor spearheads the program’s partnerships in Kenya, including projects at the Loisaba and Lewa wildlife conservancies to research and figure out better ways to ensure the survival of giraffes, leopards and six other species.
O’Connor recently sat for a chat with Emerging Destinations. Here’s part one of that interview:
ED: What’s a community based conservation ecologist?
DO: With that moniker, we are trying to capture a new approach to conservation that has evolved over the last 10 years. When it comes to conservation, people think that’s all about wildlife and animals. In fact, conservation is all about people. You can do ecological research on a species and research it to its extinction. What you need to do is engage people who are either leading the threats against that animal or co-existing in the same space as that animal so you can find sustainable solutions that work not just for wildlife but also for people and their culture. That’s what a community based conservation ecologist does.
Where does this kind of work take place?
I usually work only outside formally protected reserves or parks where there is active co-existence between animals and people — such as pastoralists in Kenya or parts of Central Asia, as well we Southeast Asia. We work with local partner NGOs, local government officials and local communities. And our approach is that we hire local people to do the research, conservation programs, community outreach. We help support those people with training and supplies, equipment, analyzing the data, producing reports, things like that, so it’s not a bunch of people from the West coming and doing research. It’s people there who are doing work on the species in their own country with an aim to build capacity over time.
So is community based conservation the main thrust of Global Partnerships?
We’re one of the smaller, specialist groups within the institute and our approach is very much collaborative — all of our projects involve partners. It’s not just a San Diego Zoo project and we’re not implementing it all by ourselves. We’re doing it with partners around the world and we try to partner on all aspects of conservation, from fundraising through to implementing programs on the ground and data analysis.
Do the partners find you or do you find them?
It can be a bit of both. Global is really three entities — the San Diego Zoo, the Safari Park and Institute of Conservation Research. Together we can offer a unique set of skills when it comes to conservation and 100 years of knowledge of animal care and veterinary [medicine], which is increasingly needed. The wild is becoming increasingly fenced in and that means we have to start managing the population. So a lot of our partnership work in Kenya and elsewhere involves people from the zoo education team from veterinary. Wherever those skill sets are needed, we partner and can bring them together
In the case of northern Kenya, do your conservation partnerships involve a specific species or a specific territory?
In northern Kenya, it’s both. We have a number of focal species there, but we have decided to take a regional approach rather than species approach. Identify a region and then prioritize species within that area. Our chief partners are the Northern Rangelands Trust (which includes Lewa and Loisaba) and Kenya Wildlife Service. But we are not just focused on the species. We also provide support for community operations and the anti-poaching teams, education, clinics. Trying to create the best conservation-based use for that land.
And getting even more specific, what exactly are you doing at Loisaba?
We started there in 2015 and I was kindly invited to visit by The Nature Conservancy and Tom Silvester (Chief Executive Officer of Loisaba Conservancy ). We talked about opportunities where we could collaborate and we saw there was a big gap in knowledge when it came to reticulated giraffe. And we said absolutely, let’s start a research base there. Over time — talking to surrounding communities — we also found that there was a real wish by the communities to learn more about leopards.
In our human dimensions research, we found that leopards were probably the number one disliked animal [by local people]. Primarily due to livestock and domestic dog predation. Whether by leopard or not, the leopard would often get blamed. So in addition to giraffe, it became a leopard project as well.
How does the program work on the ground at Loisaba?
We’ve hired three full-time people — two for giraffe and one for leopard — from the local community surrounding Loisaba. Our two research programs are basically trying to understand how many giraffe and leopard are there, where they move, how they interact with livestock and — when it comes to leopards — when they go in and out of the bomas in surrounding areas around Loisaba.
We have also started supporting the community surrounding Loisaba with education programs — providing desks, schoolbooks and things like that.
Loisaba has just created a new conservation center that talks about all the various conservation efforts, including the work of Space for Giants and the lion research there. Guests at Loisaba can visit, and it’s also for the local community and school children to come and visit. Our marketing team went over and did all the exhibit designs, all the signs, and the storytelling that’s used for education. I believe that what Loisaba hopes to do is eventually have a vehicle to take local students out on safari as a conservation center activity. It’s growing overtime.
Next month: Our interview with David O’Connor continues with a discussion about the Global Program’s work at Lewa Conservancy and what the projects have learned thus far about giraffe and leopard.Tags: Conservation Ecologist, Elewana, Giraffes, Leopards, San Diego Zoo, Wildlife Conservation