Genuine Change for Wildlife: A Conversation with Amy Gotliffe, Director of Conservation at the Oakla

As zoos move further into the 21st Century, they are putting a growing focus on connecting the experience they provide for guests with insitu conservation work. Zoos today not only educate guests about the plight of endangered wildlife but fund and participate in insitu conservation projects around the globe. Few zoos are as much at the cutting edge of zoo conservation as the Oakland Zoo. Long known for its commitment to animal welfare, the Zoo is expanding its conservation efforts even further in connection with the opening of California Traill in 2018. Amy Gotliffe is the Oakland Zoo’s Director of conservation and this is her story.

@ Amy Gotliffe

Gotliffe started at the Oakland Zoo fifteen years ago as the Assistant Director of Conservation and Education. “That was during a time when the departments were managed together,” she explained. “It really fit my background at the time since I had a lot of experience running camps and teen groups where I communicated ecological concepts. I didn’t have a lot of experience in wildlife conservation or really understand zoos as being conservation institutions. I came to the interview out of curiosity and learned zoos really wanted to influence a better place for wildlife. I was really impressed at how zoos had an aim to help animals in the wild through partnerships. In all the education programs I did I really tried to incorporate a strong connection to conservation. The zoo slowly, but surely, began to build and evolve our conservation programs on-site and in the field and after awhile it became clear that we needed more space, most staff and more capacity.” At that time, the zoo decided to make conservation its own department and Amy became the director.

@ Oakland Zoo

Wildlife conservation is at the heart of the Oakland Zoo’s mission. “We have made our conservation department a centerpiece where we inspire all the departments to get involved in conservation using their own expertise and resources,” Gotliffe elaborated. “Out main goal is to do the work it takes to authentically and genuinely help animals out in their habitats. Our approach is we look at the animals we have at the Zoo and find projects we can partner that are doing work on the ground to help that species. We choose partners that take a holistic approach and consider both people and wildlife in their work. African elephants, chimpanzees, sun bears and eventually mountain lions, wolves and California condors are all examples of this. We figure out what we can do to give them the boost they need.”

@ Oakland Zoo

Additionally, the Oakland Zoo finds ways to talk about conservation messages with visitors. “We tell interesting stories about conservation to the public,” Gotliffe stated. “What we as a zoo can do that is different than any other conservation organization is share sotires with thousands of visitors, influence their behavior and inspire actions that help animals. For instance, when they see our macaws, they can learn about our partner ARCAS in Guatemala, who rescues, rehabilitates and releases confiscated macaws. We use this project to tell the story of how you should do research before you get a pet and adopt a rescue to ensure you do not engage in the illegal wildlife trade. Same thing with inspiring the use of shade grown coffee and sustainable palm oil choices. We create a culture that knows how to make simple, everyday choices that support the well-wildlife. Action for Wildlife is our motto!”

@ Oakland Zoo

One species the Oakland Zoo focuses conservation efforts on is chimpanzees. Not only are almost all of the Zoo’s chimpanzees enjoying a comfortable and happy forever home after previous situations (the entertainment industry, research facilities, etc.) but it supports two important insitu conservation projects to help them. “One of the projects we support is the Budongo Snare Removal Project in Uganda and we’re the only supporter of it,” Amy Gotliffe explained. “It deals with poachers leaving snares to catch prey, or bush met. Often chimps accidentally get caught in these snares and can get fatally injured. The project employs six eco-guards who go out in teams of two and walk the forest in a grid formation, pulling out snares they find with their keen eye. Some of these men were previously poachers, and when I ask they all say they are so proud to have this job that supports their family and protects the animals in their shared forest habitat.”

@ Oakland Zoo

“The project also works with a couple of educates who work to forge positive relationships with the community, even those who are illegally poaching,” Gotliffe continued. “They find out about community attitudes and concerns and discover why poachers are making that choice. The educators present at schools and community gatherings to talk about chimpanzees, creating interest, connect and tools that help foster a peaceful co-existence. Lastly, the project offers an alternative livelihood for ex-poachers who vow now to snare: goats! Goats are then used for food and funds, and the project offers the needed vet care. The Budongo Snare Removal Project has been very successful. We just visited the project in Uganda with a group of eco-travelers and were deeply inspired.”

@ Oakland Zoo

“Another project for chimpanzees we support is the Kibale Community Fuel Wood Project,” Gotliffe added. “That takes the approach of dealing with deforestation and creating positive community connections. They try to reach everyone to grow native trees to be used for fuel wood, create fuel efficient stoves and create kinds of fuels out of dung and mud to use for burning. They also have a series of ways to connect with the community through five science centers. At the centers, they have all kinds of biofacts, books and activities for them to use. They also have weekly movie nights that move from village to village where they show fun nature films. They have festivals as well where they do a combination of poems, arts and dances all focusing on connections with nature. This project lets them have a great time taking care of nature in positive ways.”

@ Oakland Zoo

The Kibale Community Fuel Wood Project not only focuses on chimpanzees but also people. “We understand when you get give the right livelihood for community members they don’t have to go into the forest and take things unsustainably,” Gotliffe explained. “We support a women’s group of artists in Kibale who make these amazing beads out of rolled up magazine paper. We buy that jewelry and sell it in a Ugandan market at the zoo. There we teach visitors about these women and how important it is for them as purchasers to think about what they buy. All these purchases go back to helping the chimpanzees. This is an example of how we help support both people and animals.”

@ Oakland Zoo

The Oakland Zoo features a large valley habitat for sun bears, the smallest species of bears in the world. The Zoo supports them in the wild by supporting the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Center. “We started this project because our sun bear keepers really understood the challenges they had and wanted to give money to an up and coming researcher who directs the center,” Gotliffe said. “He found that people kept giving him sun bears as they learned he researched them. He realized he really need to start a sanctuary and hopefully release them into the wild someday. We really believe in him so we support him. We’ve taken eco-trips there and one of our vet techs has helped move sun bears to the center. We’ve helped the center with educational signage and showed them how to do training. We’ve created information about how to use palm oil sustainably.”

@ Oakland Zoo

@ Oakland Zoo

The Oakland Zoo is well-respected in the zoo field for its excellent African elephant program. It was one of the first zoos to use protect contact management for its elephants and provide them several acres of space to roam. The Oakland Zoo’s elephant care staff focus on giving its four African elephants choices and an enrichment to let them thrive. “Since we have African elephants, we have a huge responsibility to work against the ivory crisis,’ Amy Gotliffe said. ”We support the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, one of the longest standing research projects in the world. They’ve studied them enough to really understand matriarchal societies and this information has been used in many policy situations. “

@ Oakland Zoo

“We do community and education support to help elephants as well,” Gotliffe elaborated. “We try to educate the public on their own behaviors even though we don’t know many people buying ivory. We’re also really involved in 96 Elephants, which was created by the Wildlife Conservation Society to approach the ivory crisis. It works to end the loophole in the U.S. about antique ivory being exempted from the ivory ban. This let people to sell ivory even if it wasn’t antique. We began a campaign in California to influence other groups to get on board to change this law. Our staff and participants went too Sacramento for a long time and we were able to change the laws in California.”

The Oakland Zoo’s elephants are important ambassadors to their counterparts in the wild. “We start by taking care of our own elephants and have huge amounts of respect for them,” Gotliffe stated. “We’ve taught lots and lots of other zoos about how to work with elephants in a humane way. We’ve also been very involved with laws for elephant treatment in human care and had a big role in ending elephants in circuses in California.”

@ Oakland Zoo

Next year, the Oakland Zoo will open California Trail, which will double the size of the Zoo. This complex will feature native and historic California species such as grizzly bears, jaguars, black bears, bison, jaguars, mountain lions, gray wolves and California condors. It also connects with the Oakland Zoo’s strengthened focus on protecting California species. “We’re definitely ramping up our conservation efforts on California areas as we get set to open California Trail,” Gotliffe remarked. “We’ve already been really dedicated to local animals but we’re bumping up our efforts even more.”

@ Oakland Zoo

One species the Oakland Zoo will focus on is the California condor, an animal saved from extinction by the Ventana Wildlife Society and San Diego and Los Angeles Zoos. “With the opening of California Trail, we plan on educating the community about these giant, fascinating birds and the critical work of our partners, the Ventana Wildlife Society,” Gotliffe commented. “We’re part of the California Condor Recovery Program. We are one of a few zoos who can receiver condors who have been poisoned by lead in carrion. Through this program, we test the blood of our condors and do a catchup on all the condors in the region. We’re really proud of that and are working to be more preventative and change laws. We also educate the public about microtrash and bullets, which harm condors.”

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“We’re also working with an alliance of people who advocate for the wellbeing of wild mountain lions,” Gotliffe continued. “We’re teaming up with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Mountain Lion Foundation and the Bay Area Puma Project to work together in case a mountain lion comes too close to humans. If there’s a situation where the mountain lion is too close, we come with our alliance to safely get the mountain lion back into the wild without a fatal outcome. That group was formulated over the past few years and we want to help build up that program.”

@ Oakland Zoo

For wolves, the Oakland Zoo is collaborating with the California Wolf Center. “They ar working to prepare California for wolves to be reintroduced,” Gotliffe explained. “One of the ways they do that is by working with ranchers to create positive associations with wolves. They’re inspiring ranchers to be stewards of the habitat and the wolves and look out for them. They’ve created the Ranger Riders to make sure people are aware of where predators are and alert people. Ranchers who do the right thing get certified as being predator friendly as are their products. We’re going to showcase these products in the California Trail Landing Café, showing that purchasing choices matter to wildlife and that these ranchers are allies to wolf conservation.”

@ Oakland Zoo

As California Trail has been designed, experts of its flagship animals have worked as consultants on habitat design. “Conservationists helped design our gray wolf habitat, which parallels wolves coming back to California in recent years,” Gotliffe explained. “We’ve had mountain lion experts come in and make sure the mountain lion habitat is just right.” Most of the animals in California Trail will be rescues who cannot be rehabilitated back into the wild. “We’re ready to take animals if there’s an emergency,” Gotliffe said. “We want to be helpful with our acquisitions.”

@ Oakland Zoo

The Zoo recently welcomed a family of black bears who had become too close to humans. “These black bears were becoming a nuisance, entering the homes of local people and would potentially be euthanized if a captive alternative was not found,” Amy Gotliffe remarked. “They couldn’t be re-released into the wild as they had become too used to humans. Now we have beautiful bears living in a safe space at our zoos.” The message of coexistence will be prevalent throughout California Trail. “We’re going to teach everyone who comes to California Trail about how to coexist with black bears, coyotes, grizzly bears, mountain lions, wolves, coyotes, bobcats and all the rest of these California species,” Gotliffe stated.

@ Oakland Zoo

California Trail will not just be an incredible visitor experience but highly educational. “We’re going to provide very well thought out educational and action based messages,” Gotliffe commented. “We’ve been working with ECOS to design the interpretive elements of California Trail, and those elements were a collaboration of various zoo departments, partners and experts. We’re committed to inspiring our visitors to respect these animals and want to take action. There will be a visitor center which will team them more about what science tells us about these habitats and animals and how we can take action to help them. We’re going to have timely campaigns to help these animals here in California. We’re helping people understand what a beautiful state we live in and the biodiversity we have.”

@ Oakland Zoo

Even outside of California Trail, the Oakland Zoo is a forever home for many animals from subpar circumstances. “Many of our animals are rescues whether tigers, chimpanzees, parrots or tortoises,” Gotliffe stated. “We work with other agencies and organizations to take in animals that find themselves in situations. We house many confiscated animals who were pets or lived in shut down zoos or circuses. We do what we can and provide them a forever home. we have a lot of older animals as we ensure our animals have the best life possible.”

@ Oakland Zoo

One of the most progressive zoos in the nation, the Oakland Zoo is determined to be a leader in the zoo world into the future. “I think zoos have a very vital and exciting role to play in conservation in modern times,” Amy Gotliffe reflected. “This is a turning point for wildlife in this world so our actions as individuals matter a great deal. Zoos will continue to be places where people can connect with animals and that will always be important, seeing how beautiful tigers are, parrots living into their eighties and lions in prides. However, now zoos are also centers for conservation action. They’re a ground zero place for people to learn about conservation and find out their role in it. They find out what they can do to help tigers and what they shouldn’t do if they love orangutans and sun bears. It’s not just shockingly disturbing stories but giving people actions they can take to help animals. Zoos are waking up on their role in that process. Each zoo should do the best they can do and they’re stepping up.”

@ Oakland Zoo

Amy Gotliffe sees partnerships with conservation groups as vital to the future of the zoos and the Oakland Zoo in particular. She takes great passion in her work in zoo conservation. “The hardest part of my job is learning every day about more and more conservation and welfare challenges animals face around the world,” she siad. “We know there’s problems with human beings over the world and it’s sad to realize we can’t do everything for every single animal. We try to stay motivated and helpful despite these stories. The good part is when we use all our resources, partnerships and knowledge, and witness genuine change for wildlife, that is incredibly rewarding.”

@ Oakland Zoo

“We get to share a world with beautiful, incredible wildlife,” Gotliffe concluded. “They are what make this planet the wildlife fantastic place it is. It is an honor to work at a place that makes ensuring their future such a huge priority.”

@ Amy Gotliffe

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