Uncategorized

About Author: David OConnor

Posts by David OConnor

2

From Conflict to Coexistence: Part 2

There are only about 3,000 of the endangered Grevy’s zebra left in the world, so it was great to see a foal at West Gate Conservancy!

There are only about 3,000 of the endangered Grevy’s zebra left in the world, so it was great to see a foal at West Gate Conservancy!

Read Conflict to Coexistence: Part 1

Christy and I spent a month traveling across Kenya at the end of 2014. We journeyed from the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro at the Tanzania border in the very south, up to northern Kenya and the Mathews Range. Our purpose was to meet with researchers and conservationists in the field who are leading the fight against extinction, battling not only poaching, but also working alongside communities to address localized conflicts and habitat fragmentation. We were inspired by their passion and innovation, and returned to San Diego to start planning several collaborative projects focusing on elephants, lions, rhinos, Grevy’s zebra, cheetah, leopard, giraffes, and other species.

We take a collaborative approach to conservation, which cannot ultimately be successful unless communities support, participate in, and benefit from it. As such, we were lucky to meet with some of the most inspiring communities, groups, and researchers that are working together in creative ways to bring success for people and wildlife. It is alongside these groups that San Diego Zoo Global will stand and partner with as we save species.

We cannot do any of this work without your continue support—thank you so much, because together we can end extinction! Become a Hero for Wildlife and join us in this important work.

Here are some of the groups we met, and are excited to be exploring conservation research partnerships with:

African Conservation Centre partners with communities on conservation initiatives, and is coordinating the Borderlands Conservation Initiative. Saving the richest wildlife populations on earth by working with communities and landowners along the Kenya-Tanzania border between the National Parks to establish viable, interconnected elephant and lion populations by strengthening community conservation capacity, generating jobs and income, and end poaching.

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy:  A 55,000-acre conservancy in northern Kenya. Initially focused on protecting rhino from poaching, it has grown as a leader in wildlife conservation, and spreads the benefits of wildlife conservation through community development programs to 40,000 people regionally.

Namunyak Wildlife Conservation Trust:  Encompassing the unique and bio-diverse Mathews Range, this million-acre Samburu community conservancy is the jewel of northern Kenya. Previously home to an estimated 3,000 black rhino and numerous other species, today wildlife are returning, including elephants, reticulated giraffe, leopards, cheetah. Sarara Camp, a glorious community-owned eco-lodge that gives guests a unique intimate experience, while generating wildlife income for the community It also partners with Samburu leaders on a number of innovative conservation projects.

West Gate Community Conservancy:  Recognizing this Samburu community’s vision for conservation and co-existence, San Diego Zoo Global has supported the 100,000-acre West Gate Conservancy since its inception. Ten years later it is a leader in community-based conservation, battling land degradation, collectively managing grazing, and runs innovative community programs benefitting local people and the growing population of wildlife. West Gate is also home to two extremely effective community-based conservation organizations: Ewaso Lions and Grevy’s Zebra Trust who use innovative, multi-dimensional approaches to conserve lions and endangered Grevy’s zebras and secure wildlife corridors in West Gate and beyond.

The Safari Collection:  Through its four world-class lodges, and in full partnership with the communities, the Safari Collection is a leader and innovator in sustainable ecotourism. At each location, the lodges provide income and employment locally and work collaboratively with community members to enact conservation and capacity-building programs. These include direct conservation research on cheetahs and rhino and community initiatives such as health clinics, education and sport programs. We met with the Owner and Community and Conservation Manager in the elegant Giraffe Manor, to plan potential exciting future conservation efforts.

Save the Elephants is the pioneer group for elephant research and conservation in East Africa. Save the Elephants continues cutting-edge elephant conservation research through its collaring program, and community conservation by reducing conflict and poaching. They are also tackling ivory poaching head-on across Africa and curbing demand in China and Asia.

The Giraffe Conservation Foundation:  Giraffes are the forgotten giants of Africa. They have declined by 40% since 1999, from 140,000 to less than 80,000 today. All nine types of giraffe are in decline, but some are in real trouble. The reticulated giraffe has declined by 80% over the past fifteen years from 28,000 to less than 4,700 today. Most of reticulated giraffe’s range is outside of protected areas, in addition to habitat loss, they are being relentlessly poached for meat, decoration and in response to a recent myth that giraffe bone marrow and brains cure HIV/AIDS. In close partnership with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, we are working to rapidly develop community-based conservation initiatives to stem this decline, before giraffes vanish.

David OConnor is a research coordinator for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Understanding Wildlife Trade in Asia.

2

From Conflict to Coexistence: Part 1

A mother elephant and her calf surprised the author in Kenya.

A mother elephant and her calf surprised the author in Kenya.

“Don’t worry”, came the calm tones of my passenger (and Institute colleague) Dr. Christine Browne-Nunez, as my foot pressed hard on the clutch. I had slammed the Land Cruiser into reverse, ready for a rapid retreat back through the weave of Acacia shrubs. However, not without unease, I returned to neutral and shut off the engine.

Staring at us, having emerged from the bush onto the track in front of us, was a mature female African savanna elephant Loxodonta africana and her young calf. Despite being the most massive terrestrial mammals on the planet, elephants are surprisingly invisible in dense vegetation, and momma elephants can be very protective when surprised…

Christine and I have both worked on conservation research in East Africa over the years, but our reactions to encountering elephants in the wild were miles apart. Me: “How quickly can I backup?” Christine: “Let’s be among them, and wait for them to pass.”

The elephants passed peacefully, purposefully going about the business of consuming their daily requirement of 220 pounds (100 kilograms) or more of vegetation. In that moment, we realized that our differing reactions to encountering elephants underscored a much larger conservation dynamic in the region. The very dynamic that had led us to be in the car on that track in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya.

Christine Brown-Nunez, PhD a human dimensions of conservation specialist talking about wildlife interactions with a maasai warrior just outside Amboseli National Park.

Christine Brown-Nunez, Ph.D., talks about wildlife interactions with a Maasai warrior just outside Amboseli National Park.

Christine’s prior research focused on the human aspects of elephant conservation around Amboseli National Park. When inside Amboseli’s boundaries, the elephants are well protected [thanks to the elephant researchers, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), and others]. As a result they are less stressed, and do not feel as threatened in the presence of humans as do elephants in other parts of Kenya. The elephants there accept researchers, who can approach a herd and be among them. This has allowed researchers to gather the most intimate behavioral and social portraits of elephants anywhere—vital knowledge that has informed conservation.

Thanks to the equally pioneering and long-term work of Save the Elephants, when inside Samburu National Reserve, elephants now have a growing sense of security. They know that while within Samburu they are safer from human threats.

Watchful eyes of members of an elephant family group in Amboseli National Park. We know a lot about these elephants thanks to the research of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants.

Watchful eyes of members of an elephant family group in Amboseli National Park. We know a lot about these elephants thanks to the research of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants.

In contrast, my previous experiences in East Africa are among elephants outside of formally protected areas. Where elephants face daily threats such as poaching, harassment, lack of access to resources, spears and bullets—a very negative environment. For instance, while working not far from Samburu, over in Laikipia, when I encountered elephants at such close range either in my vehicle or on foot, they’d immediately charge and I’d have to make a very rapid escape. Those elephants were stressed, feeling threatened, and so they would react in kind. What is interesting, however, is that these aren’t different animals we’re talking about. When the same, calm elephants in Samburu move into less-safe environments, they become aggressive in response to close human presence.

It’s not just elephants that act differently when they know they’re in riskier areas, overlapping with humans. I’ve experienced similar reactions in giraffes. In well-protected areas, they are less concerned about close proximity to humans and livestock, whereas outside those areas, it is hard to get within 110 to 218 yards (100-200 meters) of them, creating quite a challenge for giraffe researchers like me.

One of about 60 endangered black rhino in Lewa Conservancy. Lewa’s work has dramatically reduced poaching in the area, giving these rhino a fighting chance.

One of about 60 endangered black rhino in Lewa Conservancy. Lewa’s work has dramatically reduced poaching in the area, giving these rhino a fighting chance.

This is not to vilify the people who live among elephants and other large wildlife. Living with these giants is challenging. Elephants raid crops and can destroy a family’s livelihood (often their only income for the season) in a few hours. They also damage wells and can injure and kill people and livestock. So like the elephants, people need to defend themselves, their families, and livelihoods.

However, the more concerning threats are caused by the poachers who are responsible for the shocking decline in populations of elephants, rhino, giraffes, and other wildlife for trinkets and traditional medicine. They often mow down elephants and rhinos from a distance with automatic weapons or set neck snares for giraffe. It is these external drivers that cause the most conflict. They are also the reason for plummeting wildlife populations outside protected areas, and explain why wildlife are stressed and aggressive.

Two maasai warriors get some refreshment by the new water pump near their boma just outside Ambsolei National Park, surrounded by a wall to protect against elephant damage.

Two Maasai warriors get some refreshment by the new water pump near their boma just outside Ambsolei National Park, surrounded by a wall to protect against elephant damage.

East African pastoralists, or livestock herders, historically coexisted with wildlife. In fact over the millennia, both wildlife and human systems evolved in synch. Today, pastoralism remains a primary form of livelihood in East Africa. This complementary land use is key to successful wildlife conservation. Pastoralism leaves a porous landscape where herbivores and carnivores can live, access resources, and can travel between parks in search of resources, territory, or mates. Without such spaces and corridors, populations in protected pockets will atrophy and vanish, as isolated parks are too small for large, wide-ranging species.

The downside is that it is also in these vital areas where wildlife encounter their greatest threats, not only from poaching, but also from localized conflicts and ever-increasing habitat fragmentation.

It is in these complex settings that innovative conservation efforts are needed. As conservationists we need to understand not only what is happening with wildlife, but with the people living alongside and interacting with wildlife. This is the reason for our visit to Kenya, to move from conflict to coexistence between wildlife, people and livestock.

To be continued… Check back tomorrow to get to know the groups David and Christy met with, and what the future holds for collaborative conservation.

David OConnor is a research coordinator for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Understanding Wildlife Trade in Asia.

4

Understanding Wildlife Trade In Asia

A sign outside a store in Luang Prabang, Laos, advertises ivory for sale.

Typing this from a café in Laos, I am thinking about and facing one of the greatest threats to biodiversity: the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife parts. I’m looking at a sign in a shop across the road, advertising elephant ivory for sale. Recently, I walked through the local night markets, with wildlife parts such as muntjac horns, turtle shells, pangolin scales, bear teeth, leopard cat teeth, and wild pig tusks, among others, for sale. Earlier I passed a restaurant that had two macaques in tiny cages. Last week, I passed a house in an upscale neighborhood of Phnom Penh where a brave wild bear cub (its mother killed by a snare in the forest) escaped its tiny cage, scaled the wall, and landed in the pool of the boutique hotel next door. Thankfully, the cub was rescued and is now being rehabilitated in the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre.

Recently, I walked through the local night markets, with wildlife parts such as muntjac horn, turtle shells, pangolin scales, bear teeth, leopard cat teeth, wild pig tusks among others for sale. Earlier I passed a restaurant that had two macaques in tiny cages. Last week, I passed a house in an upscale neighborhood of Phnom Penh, where a brave wild bear cub (its mother killed by a snare in the forest) escaped its tiny cage, scaled the wall, and landed in the pool of the boutique hotel next door (see photo). Thankfully the cub was rescued and is now safe and being rehabilitated in the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre.

A three-week-old Asiatic black bear cub is one of a pair of cubs rescued from the wildlife trade and now being cared for at the Phnom Tamao Bear Rescue Centre in Cambodia. It is destined for a wonderful life in the forest.

Of all the species we work with at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, by far the most complex and dynamic are humans! Numbering over 7 billion, with countless cultures, motivations, and world views, humans are an extremely complex, yet central element in conservation initiatives. Successful conservation requires a multipronged approach, tackling the biochemical, ecological, and behavioral aspects of wildlife and the cultural and economic countenance of humans.Our Conservation Education Division focuses on the socio-ecological aspects of conservation across three main themes: conservation education, conservation social science, and community-based conservation. As a community-based conservation ecologist, I focus on the intersection of wildlife and humans, using both ecological and sociological research methods to inform our projects, which is why I am in Southeast Asia.

Three of the 20 Souphanouvong University students who, after participating in our training workshop, partnered with us to conduct wildlife surveys in Laos. They are conducting surveys at the Tat Kuang Si Reserve in Laos.

With its dense, tropical forests, rich biodiversity, and large human populations, Asia is a center of wildlife trade. Despite many countries having made capturing, poaching, killing, and exporting of wildlife illegal, poaching and consumption of wildlife still abounds. The history of wildlife use in Asia is a long and ingrained one, where for over 3,000 years wildlife has been used for food, traditional medicine, entertainment, and decoration. It’s embedded in many cultures here.

Couple that history to the rapidly developing economies and expanding middle class here, and it has meant a continued (and growing) demand for wildlife products, many of which are regarded as status symbols. Tackling such normative aspects of culture to try to curb this tide of wildlife use, and to eliminate demand, is a big challenge!

The Free the Bears team designs and refines the survey instrument for Cambodia.

Since the beginning of September, I’ve been in the field collaborating with our partners at Free the Bears. They are dedicated to conserving Southeast Asian bears, specifically the Asiatic black bear Ursus thibetanus and the sun bear Helarctos malayanus. These species are poached from the forest and killed for their gall bladders. The cubs are captured and placed in bile-harvesting farms where, confined in small cages, bile is periodically withdrawn from their gall bladder using a large needle over the next 10 years or so. Both species are also killed for their paws, which are used in bear paw soup and bear paw rice wine, and for their claws and teeth, which are used for decoration. Lastly, cubs of the killed parents are taken for the pet trade.

A recently rescued sun bear is in quarantine before being released to the forest enclosures in the Phnom Tamao Bear Rescue Centre in Cambodia

Free the Bears staff patrol for and remove snares from the forest and actively rescue bears from confinement. We are supporting this work by developing and conducting human dimension surveys about wildlife in Cambodia and Laos. Our collaborative project employs a novel approach to understand people’s knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs toward wildlife and to learn about their usage of bears for parts and pets. Understanding how people think about and view wildlife is vital for developing conservation interventions, especially when tackling wildlife consumption. It will also form the foundation of future communication and education efforts about wildlife. People’s attitudes often drive their behaviors; by better understanding attitudes, we can more effectively affect behaviors.

A sun bear does what it does best: living a free life in its native habitat.

In Cambodia, we are conducting face-to-face interviews with people about their knowledge and attitudes toward wildlife. We are using a randomized response technique (RRT) to ask about wildlife usage. Why? When you ask people about illegal activities (such as drug-use, DUI, etc.), they may not answer truthfully, so data may be biased or unreliable. RRT uses a randomizing device (such as dice or coin flip) that allows the respondent to answer truthfully while maintaining anonymity. Even the interviewer does not know their response! For Cambodia, we are basing our RRT around a local dice game called khla-kluk.

Students at Souphanouvong University in Laos are excited to help out conservation after our workshop.

In Laos, we’re using a different approach. We’re asking people to complete a self-administered questionnaire, which we have translated into several languages (see images). We partnered with the Women’s Union and Souphanouvong University students, whom we trained to conduct surveys. With this wonderful team of 30 citizen scientists, we have collected over 700 surveys. By the end, we will have over 1,000. This is a fantastic response and the first of this scale in Laos.

We are grateful to the governments of Cambodia and Laos for their bold action around making wildlife trade illegal and for allowing us to conduct these surveys. We are also grateful to our many local partners, who are doing the hard work of administering the surveys in the coming months. It is hoped that we can adapt this survey for use across Southeast Asia and India in a comprehensive assessment of wildlife usage.

David gives a lecture (via a translator) about conservation in Laos.

It is through efforts like this, and the incredible work of the Institute, San Diego Zoo Global, Free the Bears, and others that I can stay hopeful, even as I look at wildlife products for sale. Why? Because we’ve not given up, and we are working in smart, complementary, and sustainable ways to tackle these threats so that humans and wildlife can co-exist.

Thanks to you for your continued support, which makes this work possible.

David OConnor is a research coordinator for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, World Giraffe Day.

5

World Giraffe Day

Rothchild's or Uganda giraffes would often just stare at me for hours during my research.

Reticulated, or Somali, giraffes would often just stare at me for hours during my research.

Let’s give giraffes the spotlight they deserve! Saturday, June 21, 2014, will be the first-ever World Giraffe Day. Finally, the importance of giraffe conservation is recognized! We agree with the organizers: the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere is the most appropriate day to celebrate the tallest animal! Plans are to have an Open House that day at the San Diego Zoo’s giraffe barn for all Zoo guests from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Keepers will be on hand to answer questions and show you giraffe biofacts.

While I may be biased, giraffes are the best animals there are. Giraffes are up there with elephants, rhinos, whales, and lions in iconic status in the minds of the public. However, compared to those species, we know relatively little about giraffes. They are the forgotten megafauna.

Here are just some of the things we don’t know for certain:

How many types of giraffes are there: 6, 7, 8, or 9 subspecies? Consensus is growing that there are 9.

How do we quantify a giraffe herd?
Giraffes seem to have fission-fusion assemblages, with individuals wandering in and out of groups seemingly willy-nilly, without anyone in charge. By the way, a group of giraffes is called a tower—brilliant!

How do they communicate?
They’re basically silent, although some researchers think giraffes may be communicating ultrasonically, and we just can’t hear it.

Giraffes are also good climbers.

Giraffes are also good climbers.

The greatest mystery of them all: Why the long neck?
This hasn’t been fully answered!

How many are there?
This is perhaps the most important question from a conservation perspective. We don’t know for certain, but the current estimate is that there are perhaps 80,000 left in the wild. That seems like a lot; however, that summation glosses over an ominous truth: giraffes are facing dark days and need our attention, research, and help.

Let’s dissect that 80,000 figure and break it down by giraffe subspecies. Please see Table 1 (below), and you can see it is a mixed story.

Giraffe Population Table

Some giraffes, such as the Masai, seem to have relatively healthy populations, while other giraffes are struggling. Especially startling are the West African, Rothschild’s, and Thornicroft’s subspecies population numbers. And Nubian giraffes, unfortunately, may already be extinct in the wild; we’re not sure. This massive rapid decline has occurred just over the past 20 years or so and with very little notice. Giraffes are slipping away in silence.

There are several reasons, we think, for these declines. We need more data, but the main causes contributing to the extinction of giraffes are habitat loss, poaching for food and mythical medical cures, and trophy hunting, to a lesser extent. Since giraffes are little studied, there are likely additional factors that we need to uncover.

But let’s take what we know. Habitat loss is the number one cause of species declines and extinctions worldwide. It is no different with giraffes. As human populations increase, and traditional livelihood and land uses change to being less conducive to wildlife, less room is available for giraffes to live and find food and water. Layered atop this are the climate-chaos induced changes in rainfall patterns. Unpredictable rainfall cycles result in less food resources for giraffes (and other herbivores), leading to a decline in population.

A male Masai giraffe strolls past flamingos in Tanzania.

A male Masai giraffe strolls past flamingos in Tanzania.

The next large driver toward extinction is also a recent development: poaching. Many poverty-stricken regions of sub-Saharan Africa have a hard time finding sources of animal protein. Growing human populations and a decline in traditionally harvested wildlife species have led people to seek new sources of protein. As such, giraffes are being poached in increasing numbers for their meat. Despite their size, giraffes can be easy to kill if you know what you’re doing. All poachers need is a bit of steel wire. A correctly placed leg- or neck-snare can capture a giraffe that is then killed or may be left to die slowly. Unfortunately, such poaching is having an increasingly devastating effect on giraffe numbers.

A third, and perhaps the most infuriating, driver of giraffe decline is poaching giraffes for mythical medical cures. Somehow, a myth began that, if eaten, giraffe bone marrow and brains will protect against HIV-AIDS infection. This is absolutely not true. But this myth has taken hold and created a black market, such that poachers can get U.S. $140 or more for giraffe marrow. This is heartbreaking on multiple levels. Giraffe are being pointlessly slaughtered to obtain a “medicine” that does not work. Add to this the human tragedy—all those who have taken this “cure” and falsely believe they are safe from infection. Thus, they engage in risky behaviors, become infected themselves, and likely further spread the AIDS pandemic.

My research has focused on giraffes in East Africa, specifically human-livestock-giraffe interactions. I studied how reticulated giraffes forage in the wild (what plants they eat and how high up) and how they co-exist with a newly introduced large livestock species, the dromedary camel. I noticed fewer and fewer reticulated giraffes in areas where camels are grazed. Reticulated giraffes have undergone a horrific decline: 80 percent over the past 15 years alone. Since the turn of the century, they have gone from about 28,000 strong to just 5,000 today. At that rate, they will be extinct by 2019. We have to act.

I dubbed this group of males the Tall Boy Gang.

I dubbed this group the Tall Boy Gang.

The underlying theme here is people-wildlife interactions. Successful conservation requires multidisciplinary and multi-pronged approaches that involve local people. If people do not buy into the conservation effort, then ultimately it is unlikely to succeed. So, in addition to better understanding the giraffe, we need to work in partnership with those communities living alongside giraffes to understand their cultural heritage, needs, desires, and goals. We need to offer poachers alternative, robust, and growing livelihoods and sources of income. We need to offer quality education to local communities. We need to offer sustainable sources of protein, and we need to collaboratively develop land and wildlife management plans. The holy grail? Make a living giraffe worth more to local communities than a dead one. By doing that, the rest takes care of itself.

That is what our team of community-based conservation educators with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research does. So, in short, let’s stick our necks out and stand tall for giraffes! In partnerships with local communities, we’ll roll our sleeves up and get about researching and working to raise awareness and appreciation for the conservation of the majestic giraffe.

You can help us bring giraffes back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe. Let’s do this! Happy World Giraffe Day!

Check out a short film from reticulated giraffe conservation fieldwork in Kenya:

David A. O’Connor, M.Sc., is a consultant with the Conservation Education Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, California BioBlitzin’.