In 2019, after spending more than five years working on giant panda conservation in China, biologist Jake Owens headed to the Los Angeles Zoo to serve as its first director of conservation. Since then, he’s been strategizing how the local institution will move forward in promoting conservation and environmental justice on both a local and global scale. “We looked at what our history has been and what the needs are now for biodiversity conservation,” says Owens when we recently met at the Los Angeles Zoo. On July 22, the Zoo will reveal its new six-pronged conservation strategic plan.
The plan covers California conservation, conservation translocation, evidence-based conservation, human-wildlife coexistence, illegal wildlife trade, and social and environmental justice. “The end goal is that, five years from now, we want to have made significant progress in all of these six areas,” says Owens.
Conservation has been a part of the Zoo’s work for decades. In fact, the zoo has been one of the key organizations involved with saving the California condor. Since 2007, it’s been engaged in reviving the population of Southern California’s southern mountain yellow-legged frog in collaboration with entities like California Fish and Wildlife and U.S. Forest Service. L.A. Zoo has bred and released thousands of tadpoles and frogs, work that is crucial to preserving the region’s biodiversity.
The story of the southern mountain yellow-legged frog is a really good example of why the Zoo’s conservation efforts and partnerships are important.
“Especially right now, with all the fires that are going on, it’s not an exaggeration to say that that species would likely be extinct,” says Owens of the creature. “It’s the only high elevation frog. It’s the only frog that naturally lives in these areas. You get rid of that and there’s no frog there. There’s no amphibian that’s eating all the mosquitos and all these other insects. It’s really key to that environment and it exists now because of this really strong partnership and all this work that we’re doing here to breed them.”
Some of the areas in which the tadpoles and frogs had been released were impacted by last year’s fires. When partner organizations checked on the those that had been released into the wild, they also found evidence of population growth.
Equally important for the zoo is building upon its existing global conservation partnerships. They already partner with organizations like GRACE (Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education) in Democratic Republic of Congo and have assisted in efforts like the recovery of the peninsular pronghorn, also known as berrendos, in Mexico.
Particularly at a time where we’re faced with worldwide challenges, like climate change and biodiversity loss, international partnerships are crucial.
“There’s no getting over the fact that we’re so globalized now and what happens in India is going to impact what happens here and what happens here is going to impact what happens in China,” says Owens. “We really can’t have solutions that only work for one place or another.”
“One of our strategic objectives is to use our voice for advocacy because there are issues that do impact the whole world,” says Owens. One example is illegal wildlife trade, plenty of which comes through Los Angeles. The zoo has already been working on issues related to this as a member of Southern California Wildlife Confiscations Network. “There’s a lot of illegal pet trade that occurs here,” says Owens. “What’s occurring here is impacting the conservation of species in Bali and Southeast Asia.”
The issues that L.A. Zoo is positioning itself to tackle quite often intersect. An example: California conservation and human-wildlife coexistence come together when addressing local pesticide use. “This really is a conflict because people don’t want rats, obviously, so they use certain pesticides,” says Owens. The problem with rat poison, he points out, is that it moves up the food chain, ultimately harming mountain lions and bobcats. “That’s a major issue here, in Southern California and Los Angeles in particular, and there are a lot of groups that are working on it.”
Ultimately, many issues intersect with social and environmental justice and, Owens notes, something that people have argued is frequently left out of conservation efforts. Locally, that can mean efforts like L.A. Zoo’s new paid internship program, which helps introduce local community college students to career possibilities in conservation. It also means increasing access to nature for Angelenos through continued partnerships with local organizations.
“That access to nature and those relationships with nature are an absolute first step,” says Owens. “If you don’t feel like you belong in nature, you don’t understand that there is nature all around you and you don’t have some routes to get connections with it, then you’re never going to take the steps that you need to take to reduce your carbon footprint or use less plastic or whatever those actionable things are.”
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