Promoting Conservation with Your Bear Hands

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Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s Website!

Traveling to foreign countries while learning about native cultures, values, and perspectives sounds like a vacation for most people. But for Mr. David O’Connor, however, these kinds of things are what he does for a living. On Wednesday, the interns had the amazing opportunity to meet Mr. O’Connor and learn more about his involvement in the conservation efforts at the Institute for Conservation Research. He is the Community-based Conservation Ecologist for the Conservation Partnership Development at the Institute. Yeah, I know, it’s a mouthful! We discussed Mr. O’Connor’s recent projects and how his work is advancing the efforts toward saving the animals he works with.“How does your job relate to animal conservation?” is a question that most people may have trouble answering. I believe this is because of the fact that a majority of us cannot see the direct impact we have on animals. In Mr. O’Connor’s case, the simpler question would be, “How does your job NOT relate to conservation?” He studies different aspects of conservation on a daily basis while trying to understand how humans can be influenced to be more conscious of their impact.

Mr. O’Connor has been at the forefront of conservation efforts in various countries, but I am going to focus on his work in Southeast Asia. While working in countries like Laos and Cambodia, he has concentrated his time on bears, specifically the sun bear and the Asiatic black bear. Mr. O’Connor mainly works with native people, conducting studies and trying to figure out how to reduce the demand for these bears. He stated that the biggest threats to wildlife include habitat loss, pollution, climate change, and wildlife trade. During his time in Asia, Mr. O’Connor began a study on the socio-ecological factors of wildlife trade. In Southeast Asia, bears are most commonly captured and killed for bile, a liquid stored in their gallbladders and often used for traditional medicine. Mr. O’Connor conducted his study with the goal of investigating the drivers of why people are motivated to kill bears as well as the perceived consequences of killing bears.

He and his team first started by distributing 1400 questionnaires to both native Cambodians and Laotians as well as western tourists. Their results indicated that the natives reacted more sympathetically when told that their use of bear products like bear bile will cause a decline in wild bears. He also recorded a significant difference in knowledge and attitudes toward bear conservation depending on where the natives lived. Mr. O’Connor’s objective is to use results like these to contour the message that goes to the native people in order to reduce wild bear trade. He believes that an effective advertising campaign can be the difference between a thriving species and an extinct species.

As the interns listened to Mr. O’Connor’s presentation, we learned a lot more about his conservation work in the field. I found out the importance of working with and educating the people that directly impact wildlife conservation. I also realized that conservation efforts do not always have to involve working solely with animals. Mr. O’Connor stated that he loves studying where people and wildlife overlap. He finds joy in being able to give people a way to solve their situational problems. As Mr. O’Connor reiterated throughout his presentation to the interns, “the key to conservation is people”.

Bami, Conservation Team
Week Five, Fall Session 2015