Working on the Wild Side

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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 jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

 Have you ever dreamed of having a crazy awesome job? What would be the first thing that comes to your mind? Swimming with whale sharks? Staring contests with giraffes? Driving a motor bike across the towns of Southeast Asia? What about all three combined? This week we met David O’Connor, Community-Based Conservation Ecologist working with the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, who has one of the coolest jobs I’ve ever heard of!

Mr. O’Connor’s interest in wildlife and conservation started when he was a young man living in the countryside of Ireland. Seeing firsthand how loss of habitat due to agriculture affected the native wildlife, Mr. O’Connor developed an interest in conserving wildlife. From a very young age, he made efforts to help the local wildlife. He shared how he would run ahead of the hounds during fox hunts with a fox scent just to steer hunters from the foxes trail! By the time he was ready for college, Mr. O’Connor knew he wanted to study zoology and did so for his undergraduate degree. He then received a master’s degree in Business at the University of Dublin before venturing to the University of Michigan to receive his master’s in Conservation Ecology. Out of college, Mr. O’Connor worked for National Geographic Magazine designing animal natural history articles, and still continues working for the magazine part-time. It wasn’t until a job opened up at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research (ICR) in the conservation education department that Mr. O’Connor began truly leaving his mark on worldwide conservation efforts. Currently working for the Conservation Partnership Development program of ICR, Mr. O’Connor has two main projects that he focuses on.

The first project is on the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia. Mr. O’Connor explained to us that, “Conservation begins with the people” and he and his team focus on communicating with the local people in Laos about ways to combat the wildlife trade. Wildlife trade in countries like Laos has become a large problem because of the high demand of exotic animal parts for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Product demands for rhino horn, bear paw rice wine, bear bile, tiger parts, rhino horns, elephant tusks, and clouded leopard bones have endangered many wildlife species. Mr. O’Connor has been focusing on the sun bear trade, trying to survey and hire local people to raise awareness about the endangerment of these animals. One of the products of highest demand, bear bile, has caused killings and harvestings of local bear organs in order to meet the increasing medicinal demands. Through surveying the local people, Mr. O’Connor has been finding that people have positive feelings towards the Laos wildlife, have an awareness of the cruel treatment of the animals, and that country people are more concerned about the species decline than those in urban settings. The research collected can assist efforts in raising awareness about the illegal wildlife trade.

The second part of Mr. O’Connor’s job is something he has loved doing for years, researching and studying reticulated giraffes in Kenya. Giraffes, rapidly moving up to the top of the critically endangered list, are threatened greatly by poaching and habitat loss. About 80% of the reticulated giraffe’s wild population has declined in just 15 years. Mr. O’Connor specializes in studying the behaviors of these giraffes as well as working with the local people to discourage poaching and killing for bush meat. Many of the native people are pastoralists, or nomadic herders that maintain their livestock with the wild animals. By herding during the day and sleeping in new places at night, these people have been coexisting with the wildlife around them. This, Mr. O’Connor described to us, could be key in the future of conservation, because the pastoralist lands often contain high concentrations of endangered species. Mr. O’Connor believes that the local people of Africa have the power to make a large impact in conservation. For these reasons, his team places emphasis on becoming familiar with the communities and culture of the people. Giraffes are often used for target practice by poachers, snagged in wire traps hung from trees, and killed as an easy form of bush meat. Mr. O’Connor and his team have been hiring locals to assist in field research, map livestock movements, set up cameras, and have created education programs for conservation. The team’s efforts have brought much wildlife back to community lands and even some giraffe celebration ceremonies to the local tribes, steadily making a difference in conservation.

Whether he is combatting the wildlife trade in the forests of Southeast Asia, or spending hours in a jeep observing his favorite species of giraffe, Mr. O’Connor dedicates his life to conservation every day. I don’t know about you, but I’d sure love to do what he does some day!

Shannon, Careers Team
Week 5, Fall 2015