Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Gorilla Warfare

By Stephen Luntz

Rachel Lowry has initiated campaigns that have helped gorilla conservation and reduced the use of palm oil in food.

By the time you read this Rachel Lowry may have already led one of the biggest advances in wildlife conservation in Australia’s history. Yet it all started by dressing up as Priscilla the Cairns Birdwing Butterfly.

Lowry is the Director of Wildlife Conservation and Science at Zoos Victoria. Before this she was the Community Conservation Manager, in which role she drove two hugely successful campaigns. “They’re Calling On You” alerted zoo visitors to the threats posed to gorillas by the mining of coltan, which is used in electronics. The campaign encouraged people to donate old mobile phones to the zoo so that the metals could be recycled. The proceeds from 40,000 donated phones employ eco-guards to protect endangered gorillas.

The destruction of rainforests to create space for palm plantations is possibly the largest threat to the survival of orang-utans in the wild, along with countless species with lower profiles. Much of the palm and coconut oil ends up in processed foods.

“At Zoos Victoria we have 1.7 million visitors a year,” Lowry says. “Very few organisations have that opportunity to talk to so many people who are passionate about wildlife.”

Lowry seized the opportunity to run the “Don’t Palm Us Off” campaign, alerting visitors to the fact that their own diet often contains oil grown on land that not long ago housed orang-utans.

Consumer pressure has caused some major companies, including Cadbury, to remove palm oil from their ingredients, while others now source their oil only from sustainable locations. The 160,000 petitions Lowry initiated led to a bill passing the Senate requiring palm oil to be identified on food labels rather then hiding behind the generic “vegetable oil”.

But other primates will benefit if the legislation passes the House. Palm oil’s saturated fats make it a cardiovascular risk, and some people have intolerances. “When we take on a campaign we look at the economic, social and health implications as well,” Lowry says. “We had meetings beforehand with health groups. However, we’re careful to talk from our expertise, and leave it to others to discuss the health and social justice benefits of taking action.”

Lowry also organised for plastics discarded at the zoo to be recycled into bins that have been placed at popular fishing spots around Port Phillip Bay. Anglers have been encouraged to place used tackle that would previously have been discarded in the bins. “We’re examining the contents to see how much has been collected, and the results are encouraging.” The bins weather well, and Lowry says that “people are more motivated to recycle if they know where things will be going. We’ve achieved recycling rates that are pretty much unbeatable.”

Lowry says that she “always wanted to work with wildlife. I was always out chasing every species in the backyard. When I talked about doing animal husbandry or conservation, my teachers stressed I’d need good marks in science and fortunately I found I liked it.”

After a BSc from Melbourne with majors in zoology and Australian wildlife conservation, Lowry realised: “It would have no impact on conservation if I couldn’t work with people. I was intimidated because I knew a lot about animals but not people.” She took a degree in education at Deakin University.

Lowry decided that she wanted to work at the zoo and should take any job there to get inside. She thought a casual education position at the butterfly house sounded like fun. During the job interview Lowry learnt that she’d have to dress as a butterfly and dance for kids. She tried to hide her growing horror. However, while the enormous wings and headdress were a burden she loved the work, becoming so excited that the wardens asked her to switch the microphone off when explaining the butterfly’s lifecycle to children.

Lowry became Learning Experience Manager at Werribee Zoo, designing formal education components. “It’s a lot more exciting to learn about endangered species when you’re interacting with them than in the classroom,” she says. She also took part in an exchange program with an organisation in Zimbabwe fighting the bushmeat trade.

Barely 30, Lowry is already chair of the Centre for Sustainable Leadership and president-elect of the International Zoo Education Association (IZEA). She says: “We’ve tried getting people in positions of power to care about the environment and it hasn’t worked, so we’ll get people who care into positions of power”. She has now joined the board.

After her election as Australia’s representative to IZEA, Lowry was chosen by the current and immediate past presidents as the most suitable future leader to help zoos around the world learn from the successes of programs such as her own.