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 jobs, and the blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!
Interns had the amazing opportunity to meet with David O’Connor, a wildlife biologist and research coordinator at the Institute of Conservation Research. Mr. O’Connor focuses on community-based ecology and conservation. This means that he helps establish wildlife refuges and projects with local communities. By educating those who share a region with endangered species, Mr. O’Connor hopes that it will inspire them to help in conservation efforts. This contributes to the fight against extinction because the people who have the most interactions with a species often are the biggest asset in saving the species.
One of the main issues associated with endangered species conservation is the lack of information on the behaviors or attitudes of locals who share the same habitat as the animals. By surveying the indigenous people who directly affect the organisms being studied, Mr. O’Connor can get a better understanding of the public’s perception of the animal and the environmental conflicts afflicting the area. Populations in Laos and Kenya have been surveyed through randomized response technique and the results have been used as part of conservation efforts. Conservation ecologists can gage how important an animal is to a community, and gain insight on the best ways to not only save a struggling species, but to help create jobs or infrastructure for locals by asking for their aid in projects.
The common theme throughout Mr. O’Connor’s projects has been studying the human dimension of conservation. This means that he and others in his field focus on the relationship between an endangered species and the humans in their habitat. If local communities are left in the dark about efforts to preserve endangered species, they may see it as a threat to their lifestyle unless they are properly educated. For instance, if researchers were to come into an area that has stayed relatively the same for generations and proposed a huge change, the results could be disastrous. Through community driven ecology and education, locals are directly involved in the project in hopes that it will be self-sufficient, without the assistance of a parent organization staying on-site to oversee it.
Mr. O’Connor has specifically worked in the preservation of the sun bear, Asiatic black bear and the giraffe. Bear oil is a substance found in the bile ducts of bears found particularly in Southeast Asia. Poachers will kill bears in forests and take their gallbladder specifically extracting the bile, leaving their corpse to decay in the forest. Cubs will be taken and often sold in the pet trade, or to bear bile farms, where they are locked in cages and have their liver exposed so that their bile can harvested. This barbaric practice dates back centuries— to East Asian countries whose traditional doctors hail bear oil as a magical cure— all used to treat indigestion, or to reduce inflammation. Although there are many herbal and synthetic alternatives to using bear bile, traditional doctors insist on using the real thing. Mr. O’Connor recently travelled to Laos where he surveyed locals about their involvement in the bear oil trade. He and his team found that 10-20% of Laotians use bear oil, and 20% believe that is it effective. They also found that 75% knew that the bear bile trade is harmful for bears. With these numbers in mind, Mr. O’Connor and his team can set up projects to help the local community help the sun bears.
Recently, conservation has shifted from top-down westernization efforts to community-based projects. Although this may take longer, establishing trust and support from a local community may make all the difference in gauging a project’s success. Furthermore, San Diego Zoo Global believes education is a crucial part of conservation, and through the exchange of knowledge between locals and animal experts, we can make enormous strides in preserving the natural world for generations to come.
Emily, Real World
Week Three, Winter 2015