Zooming in on animal and human welfare

Conservation ecologist, David O’Connor, tells Jane Haynes how a rainy day in UCC’s Boole Library inspired his fascinating career working with communities and endangered species.

5 MIN READ
10 Dec 2019
David O'Connor, in the field (Photo: Ken Bohn)

David O’Connor’s life sounds like a cross between an Indiana Jones movie and a David Attenborough documentary. Then again, when you split your time between working with endangered giraffes and elephants in Kenya and other parts of Africa, and fighting to end the trade in bears in Southeast Asia, every day is an adventure.

A community-based conservation ecologist at the world-famous San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG), an organisation committed to saving species around the world, David’s job takes him all over the globe to work with a diverse range of communities and endangered animals. Is it exciting? You bet. Is it rewarding? Absolutely. Is it scary? Oh, yes.

Indeed, it is hard to believe that it was amidst the hushed aisles of UCC’s Boole Library, on one wet afternoon during his college days, that the sparks of David’s passion for conservation were ignited. David, a Waterford native who was fascinated by nature while growing up, was studying for his undergraduate degree in Zoology at the time.

“I remember very clearly, there was one rainy Saturday, and I decided to go into the library. I picked up this book from one of the shelves, and I started reading some of the scientific papers.

“I had never read raw scientific papers before – it was about squirrels and foraging. And the whole afternoon I was reading this book, and it was in that moment that I knew that was what I really wanted to do – because it absolutely fascinated me.”

Photography: Ian Lemaiyan

From student digs to San Diego Zoo Global is quite the leap, and David admits that he took the ‘long path’ to where he is today. Despite his passion for nature and his initial desire to be a wildlife photographer, for a time he felt the pressure to ‘be more practical’ and went on to study a postgraduate business degree at University College Dublin. The experience left him in no doubt as to where his future lay: “I decided I didn’t really care for business – I knew I wanted to go into conservation and wildlife.”

Born in the United States to Irish parents, David found himself in a fortunate position, holding citizenship where the major wildlife publications and wildlife funds were located. He moved to Washington DC and gave himself a year to make strides in the industry. It was a move that well and truly paid off.

“I worked office jobs just to pay the bills, and then eventually, after about a year, I got a job at National Geographic magazine. From there on, I’ve been working in conservation; it was my first big entry point,” explains David.

It was during his time as a researcher with the magazine, covering fascinating conservation stories, that he realised it was time to get out into the field.

“I really wanted to go back and do hands-on conservation rather than just reporting on it,” he recalls.

“So I did a master's in Conservation Biology at the University of Michigan and then, before I graduated, I got a job in the local land conservancy in San Diego, California. Jobs in our field are hard to come by, so I took it.”

“In places where the ecosystem is so evolved around the climate, the biggest threat is that you’ll get prolonged droughts with huge numbers of animals and livestock dying. This then increases tensions, people become more desperate, and there’s more conflict” – David O’Connor

He went from working as a conservation manager to contracting in San Diego Zoo Global, before eventually joining SDZG full-time. Today, David works in the zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, which is committed to conserving species and fighting extinction. He is front and centre in that fight, working with communities and endangered animals, primarily in East Africa.

“I work a lot in Northern Kenya. The biggest programme I run there is for the reticulated giraffe, which is a species of giraffe found nowhere else, really. And they are officially, as of last year, classified as endangered,” he says.

“We started a community-based project called the ‘Twiga Walinzi’ which, in Swahili, means ‘giraffe guards’. We’ve hired all local people, worked with them and trained them on how to do conservation research; they have had to do work with communities and educational programmes. The whole programme is actually implemented by the local people, which is as it should be.”

David also works with the Reteti Elephant Rescue Centre, the only community-owned and run elephant rescue centre in Africa.

“They take orphan elephants from the wild, whose parents have been killed. If there’s no way to get them back to their herd, they take them in and rear them and then re-release them back into the wild,” he explains.

"You have to work with people, because it’s ultimately those people, who live side-by-side with these animals, who might actually be the ones to determine their future,” says David.

He admits that, while it may not be obvious to an outsider, the work he is doing with the local communities is one of the most important aspects of a conservationist’s work.

“A lot of people think conservation is only about wildlife – it’s not, it’s actually about people. You have to work with people, because it’s ultimately those people, who live side-by-side with these animals, who might actually be the ones to determine their future,” says David.

Indeed, it was through engaging with locals during work on Twiga Walinzi, that led to the development of another programme, focused on conserving leopards.

“When we were going around working on the giraffe project in the various communities, they would tell us that what they really wanted help with, was the leopards,” he recalls.

“We did these big surveys, and it turned out that the leopard was the most hated animal in the area because they would take their livestock and dogs. So, we started a project there to try and increase the coexistence between people, leopards and livestock.”

“You think you would hear an elephant, but you don’t. Trying to run away from a fully charging elephant is pretty scary!” David O'Connor

The Indiana Jones reference isn’t an exaggeration; as passionate as David is about his work and tackling conservation hands-on in the field, he has experienced his fair share of close shaves.

“Any time an elephant charges you is pretty scary. They’ll do these mock charges, but sometimes they’ll really charge you and chase you. I’ve had that happen a couple of times, especially on foot. You think you would hear an elephant, but you don’t. Trying to run away from a fully charging elephant is pretty scary!” he admits.

“I’m most scared when I’m in the field with elephants and buffalos. There are moments when you surprise each other, where you realise just how small and vulnerable you are as a human, when you have this massive, multi-tonne animal chasing you!”

Beyond what we might see in the pages of National Geographic – which, incidentally, he still contributes to – David is exposed to the good, the bad and the ugly of the natural world; and what he has witnessed of climate change most certainly falls into the latter category.

“I kind of wish that it hadn’t been called ‘climate change’ initially, because that process is more like climate chaos,” begins David.

“The patterns of the weather are changing. In Northern Kenya, for instance, they had a very regular pattern and depended on this cycle of a wet season and a dry season. The whole ecosystem had evolved around that, and that is basically nearly gone now.

“In places where the ecosystem is very closely connected to the climate, the biggest threat is that you’ll get prolonged droughts with huge numbers of animals and livestock dying. This then increases tensions, people become more desperate, and there’s more conflict – and it all just builds from that. And you definitely are seeing that more and more.”

It’s now abundantly clear what David means when he says that it takes ‘a certain kind of personality’ to get involved in his line of work. As well as the travel and physical aspects of the job, immersing yourself in work upon which so many – animals and humans alike – are dependent must draw heavily on one’s emotions.

“Once you get involved and you know the people and the stakes, and you see the animals every day and see how they live, and you hear these sad stories where something goes wrong – yes, it can affect you, and it takes a while to get over it,” David admits.

Equally apparent, however, is his passion for his work; it’s clear there is no other job he would rather do. He’s modest when the topic of ‘achievements’ is raised, but his pride in what he and his team have accomplished for conservation in just a few years is undeniable.

“If you had told me back in my UCC days that I’d end up doing something like Twiga Walinzi, I would have said there’s no way I’d ever be able to.”

 

Follow this link for information on courses and research at UCC's School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences.

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