Last updated July 23, 2018 at 10:01 am
With the recent release of the IMAX documentary, Pandas 3D, we talked to conservation biologist Dr Jake Owens who features in the film.
Dr Jake Owens is a panda expert. He’s a Postdoctoral Fellow for the Global Cause Foundation and a researcher at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda breeding in Sichuan Province, China.
Jake also works with nature reserves and governmental agencies in China by providing strategic management recommendations to improve environmental protection efforts within giant panda nature reserves.
Since 2014, Jake has worked as part of an international team of scientists to develop a program to release giant pandas into the wild. As a broadly trained expert in field research and animal behaviour, his research and conservation efforts have taken him to every continent except Antarctica to study and protect countless species.
For some, working all around the world with countless species sounds like a dream job. Jake describes that his “life has been a whirlwind so far”.
He got his start working on research and conservation of turtles and shorebirds.
For two years after college and before his PhD, he worked with one of his university professors, Dr Dan Hernandez, at a small non-profit organisation in southern New Jersey.
“During that time I got my first international experience, which was in Australia. I spent several months driving all over assisting on research and conservation programs under the tutelage of Clive Minton, Rosalind Jessop, Chris Hassell, and others.
“I worked with a diversity of species in Victoria, including fairy penguins, white-faced storm petrels, and Australasian gannets. After driving from Melbourne to Broome, I worked with dozens of bird species on the North-West Australia Wader and Tern Expedition,” recounts Jake.
His travel continued during his PhD in Environmental Science at Drexel University, which involved studying the ecology and behaviour of the Bioko Island drill money in Equatorial Guinea, Africa.
During his travels around the world he has also worked with bats – Jake notes that fruit bats are some of his favourite animals – as well as snakes, lizards, sea turtles, black bears, great bustards, and many other animals.
He strongly recommends people take opportunities as they pop up to build experience.
Working with pandas
With international experience now under his belt, the opportunity to work with giant pandas arose as Jake was finishing his PhD on the endangered Bioko Island drill monkey.
At the time, the Global Cause Foundation, a non-profit organisation in the USA, was helping to identify and fund international researchers who could collaborate with the Chengdu Panda Base on the development of a new captive release program for giant pandas.
Dr. James Spotila, Senior Science Advisor at the Chengdu Panda Base and lead scientist at the Global Cause Foundation, contacted Jake to see if he was interested in the position.
Dr. Spotila knew that Jake had extensive experience working internationally with rare and elusive species, running conservation programs, and conducting field research. Years of living in tents in extremely remote and rugged conditions, and have a broad background of training paid off for Jake.
“There are also some interesting similarities between giant pandas and the monkeys I studied during my PhD. But even then, it was a steep learning curve. I spent thousands of hours observing pandas, read every scientific paper and book I can get my hands on, and listened to anyone who would share their knowledge with me,” said Jake.
For Jake, working in China at the Chengdu Panda Base is one of the highlights of his life.
“I really can’t adequately express how much of an honour it has been to work with pandas, to get to know some of them, and to contribute to their conservation.”
Conserving the future of conservation
“The nature of conservation work is that you’re never really done, and you always feel like you’re not doing enough. It’s pretty difficult in that way, but it definitely drives me,” said Jake.
“I take the most pride in the influence I have had on the students I’ve mentored over the years. I benefitted from the training and mentorship of countless experts from around the globe. I wouldn’t be where I am today, or have the capabilities I do, if it wasn’t for those scientists dedicating their time and energy to my development.”
“Our team we have developed for the giant panda release program, which is comprised of young Chinese scientists, is incredible. I am very proud of these individuals and my contributions to their growth.”
Many of his former students now work all over the globe on a diversity of species and conservation projects.
Jake is extremely grateful for his own opportunities and has plenty of advice for young conservation biologists: say yes, listen, and work hard.
But he points out it’s easy to say yes when it’s convenient and fun. To really set yourself apart from everyone else, he says, volunteer for the things no one else wanted to do.
“I didn’t care if it meant helping prepare food, cleaning all the equipment each day, waking up at 3 am to load gear into vehicles, or digging a latrine.”
“People notice that kind of work ethic, and it leads to more opportunities and lasting relationships.”
So where to start? Jake always suggests starting locally.
“Volunteer for your local environmental NGO, conservation organisation, or zoological garden. You can make strong connections with experienced biologists and learn a lot about conservation while working close to home.
“Finally, take in all the information you can get from those who are more experienced. Watch what they do, ask them questions, and strive to continually improve yourself.”
And that’s how you could end up being a world traveller, working towards saving species on our precious planet.
PANDAS 3D will be shown exclusively at IMAX Melbourne from 7 June.
Tickets are on sale now at imaxmelbourne.com.au with new sessions released weekly.