A View from the Field
By Jim Haigwood, Senior Animal Keeper
For the past 25 years, animal keepers across the U.S. have donated their time to hold Bowling for Rhinos (BFR) fundraisers, which have generated more than $5 million for rhino conservation. Los Angeles keepers have participated in this event for six years now, and in that time we have raised $217,000—more than twice the amount of the next closest chapter over the same period. As a result of this success, I was lucky enough to be awarded an honorary trip to Kenya to visit our primary beneficiary, the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.
Having visited a number of critically endangered species around the world, it never ceases to amaze me how human settlements press right up against these animals’ habitats. Lewa understands this and has been pursuing cutting-edge work on the community conservation front.
Lewa realized that in order for the animals to be safe, the people who live with them need to value their presence. In order to accomplish this, Lewa has set up hospitals, schools, nutrition programs for children, wells that provide clean drinking water, and more. These tangible benefits motivate neighbors to work with Lewa to come up with solutions instead of retaliating when human-wildlife conflicts occur. The communities also provide invaluable intelligence about potential poaching events. Lewa’s success on these fronts has become a model for other conservancies in the region.
Due to the excellent security staff at Lewa and community cooperation, there have been no rhino poaching incidents this year, and the park has reached its carrying capacity for rhinos. Fortunately, Lewa has an outstanding relationship with a neighboring conservancy and they will be taking down the fence that divides them. This will further increase their rhino carrying capacity.
While elephant poaching is an epidemic in Africa, there have been no incidents at Lewa this year. Likely as a result of this safety, elephants are migrating to Lewa in record numbers, and elephant “exclusion zones” have been necessary.
The level of hands-on-management required at Lewa to manage the wildlife that remains left a significant impression on me. At times I could see parallels with the way we manage animals here at the Zoo. At Lewa, when some of the critically endangered species, such as Grevy’s zebra, are injured, veterinary staff intervene. They are also currently hand-rearing three black rhinos who were orphaned due to a multitude of issues, including the loss of a mother to a poacher’s bullet.
While there are many depressing conservation stories, I actually left Africa much more optimistic than when I arrived. What we have to keep in mind is that relying on governments, conservation organizations, and wealthy individuals is not enough to stave off the biodiversity crisis. It is incumbent upon all of us to be part of the solution. Almost every decision we make in life impacts the environment. Are the products you buy made with sustainable palm oil? Do you eat sushi with re-usable chopsticks? What is your carbon footprint? And of course, will you spend a Saturday evening in May Bowling for Rhinos with the animal keepers of the Los Angeles Zoo? I hope to see you there.