Conservation Report

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Conservation Report


Conservation at a Glance 4 From the Desks of our Conservation Leaders 5 Conservation Highlights 6 Our Global Field Conservation Reach

8 Building Community Conservation Success Globally 10 Protecting Wildlife in Tanzania 11 African Painted Dog Conservation 12 Black Mambas Anti-Poaching Unit 14 Conservation through Co-Existence 16 Headstarting Desert Tortoise Hatchlings 18 Time to Talk Trash 19 Habitat Restoration Near the Orocopia Mountains 20 Bringing Back the Pronghorn 22 Saving the Critically Endangered Vaquita 23 Desert Pupfish Conservation 24 Going Green 24 Climate Resilient Community


25 Pollinator Pathways 26 Torres Martinez Youth Environmental Ambassador Program 2 0 2 3 CONSERVATION REPORT

Top: Photo by Julia Gunther; Middle: Photo by O. Rentsen





Local and Global Conservation Community Engagement and Social Impacts Addressing the root causes of why species are declining by working with local communities allows for a holistic approach to further human and wildlife co-existence. The Living Desert is transforming how conservation is being done through social science training for conservationists across the globe as well as with local businesses, community members, community leaders, and youth groups.

Restoring Habitats Within local desert ecosystems and beyond, endangered species and their habitats are being affected by climate change, human activity, and invasive species. The Living Desert works to ensure both immediate and longlasting habitat restoration successes by using a multi-faceted approach to provide native food plants and improved habitat for surrounding wildlife as well as greening spaces within urban areas.

At the Zoo The Living Desert’s conservation mission continues at the Zoo through both promoting and implementing sustainable practices. Some of our conservation projects can even be seen in action throughout the park, including: • Headstarting Desert Tortoise Hatchlings during their indoor rearing phase • Desert pupfish rearing at Sonoran Pond • On-site transformation of animal waste and food scraps into valuable compost

Photo by Adrienne Pitts

• Desert Plant Conservation Center where thousands of plants are grown annually to outplant and restore natural areas across Southern California



From the Desks of Our Conservation Leaders AS THE CENTRAL CORE of our mission, conservation is essential to everything we do at The Living Desert. We teach what conservation means to our guests. We practice conservation in how we operate the Park with sustainability and resource reduction always at the forefront. But most people are not aware of the extent of our field conservation efforts, which is the focus of this report.


The Living Desert is currently involved in more than 60 conservation projects in 12 different countries in desert habitats around the world. Of our recent field projects highlighted in this report, about half of these programs are international in countries like Mongolia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, where our Conservation Team’s knowledge and experience helps train the next generation of conservationists and supports critical animal habitat management and research. The remaining half of our conservation efforts are focused right here in Southern California where there are plenty of deserts in need of our help. With efforts ranging from habitat restoration, endangered species breeding, and community education, our mission is to preserve the unique desert biodiversity that is part of our natural heritage. Join us and become an Agent of Conservation!

Allen Monroe President/CEO

OUR TEAM of field conservationists here at The Living Desert works to heal degraded ecosystems and promote species conservation through both habitat restoration and community-based conservation. We help re-establish healthy environments for at-risk species by restoring natural water flows, reducing erosion, and enriching seed banks in deserts. These actions maintain and increase the number and diversity of native animals and plants. With our innovative and inspirational community-based social science programs we help reduce human-wildlife confl ict. By empowering human communities to be leaders and owners of conservation and encouraging local support, we improve the quality of conservation projects. To do so, we are a global leader in program impact evaluation and in building social science capacity among current and future conservation leaders. Through our focus on deserts across the southwest United States and Baja Mexico, Eastern and Southern Africa, Saharan Africa, and Central Asia, we are helping save species, repair ecosystems, and reduce human-wildlife confl icts with justice and effectiveness. I am incredibly proud of our Field Conservation Team, involving people across the entire Zoo, on all of our many successes which are briefly shared here. Thanks also to all of our supporters for helping to make this all possible! Yours in Saving Species,

Dr. James Danoff-Burg Vice President of Conservation


Conservation Highlights 2023 121 participants in six multi-day Building Community Conservation Success workshops in Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and Tanzania to benefit human-wildlife co-existence.



of compostable materials to date have been composted on-site and eliminated from the waste stream.

173 social science interviews with community members and rangers near Kruger National Park, South Africa, to aid in antipoaching and educational efforts to save the critically endangered black rhino.

69 juvenile

desert tortoises

reared at the Zoo to improve their chance of survival in the wild.

~9 acres of

tortoise habitat

restored with 140 rock structures to promote water retention and percolation for native plants and wildlife.

26,000+ pupfish

within three on-site ponds, encompassing more than 15,000 square feet of aquatic habitat.

Helping to protect over

247 native species within Ikh Nart Nature Reserve, by taking on a leadership role in a successful conservation program in Mongolia.

24 participants in the year-long Torres Martinez Youth Environmental Ambassador program to reconnect Tribal youth to nature.

Over Over

900 plants and 17,000 seedlings

grown for habitat restoration projects to benefit desert tortoises, pollinators, and local communities. Over 50,000 seeds have been collected to enhance the native species' seed bank.


120 mesquite trees outplanted at the

Coachella Valley Preserve to restore desert habitat surrounding a population of endangered desert pupfish.


Our Global Field Conservation Reach 60+ projects, 12 countries, 70+ global conservation partner organizations









C CHAD • Black Rhino African Parks • Scimitar-Horned Oryx Sahara Conservation


CV COACHELLA VALLEY • Casey’s June Beetle U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) • Desert Pupfish USFWS, CDFW, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) • Desert Tortoise USFWS, United States Geological Survey (USGS), CDFW, BLM, California Energy Commission, Joshua Tree National Park, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance (SDZWA) • Desert Willow BLM • Smoketree BLM • Sonoran Pronghorn USFWS, Arizona Department of Fish and Game, CDFW, BLM, Department of Defense • Western Pond Turtle USGS, CDFW, BLM


N NAMIBIA • Cheetah Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), University of Namibia (UNAM)

• Peninsular pronghorn Peninsular Pronghorn Recovery Project, BLM, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, San Diego Natural History Museum, Ministry of the Environment in Mexico • Vaquita Pesca ABC, Vaquita SAFE, Marine Mammal Care Center, Museo de la Ballena in La Paz

SA SOUTH AFRICA • Greater Kudu Transfrontier Africa (TA), Black Mambas Anti-Poaching Unit (BMAPU), Bush Babies Environmental Education Program (BBEEP) • White Rhino TA, BMAPU, BBEEP • Black Rhino TA, BMAPU, BBEEP • Cape Parrot Cape Parrot Project (CPP)

SW SOUTHWEST • Mexican Wolf USFWS, Endangered Wolf Center, California Wolf Center

B BOTSWANA • Cheetah Cheetah Conservation Botswana, Botswana Wildlife Training Institute


Financial Support

for Conservation Organizations In addition to field work partnerships with conservation organizations across the globe, The Living Desert also proudly supports their efforts financially.


International Union for Conservation of Nature (Globally, based in Switzerland)


Conservation Planning Specialist Group – IUCN (Globally, based in USA) Mongolian Conservation Initiative at Ikh Nart Nature Reserve (Mongolia) Applied Environmental Research Foundation (India) Transfrontier Africa (South Africa) Black Mambas Anti-Poaching Unit (South Africa) Bush Babies Environmental Education Program (South Africa) Z ZIMBABWE

Cape Parrot Project (South Africa)

• African Painted Dog Painted Dog Research Trust (PDRT), Painted Dog Conservation, National University of Science and Technology (NUST), Lupane State University (LSU) • White Rhino Imvelo Safari Lodges, NUST, LSU

Painted Dog Research Trust (Zimbabwe)


• Black Rhino Wild Nature Institute (WNI), College of African Wildlife Management, Mweka (CAWM) • Elephant WNI, CAWM • Giraffe WNI, CAWM K KENYA

• Black Rhino Ol Pejeta Conservancy • Cheetah Action for Cheetahs in Kenya, COOL Crafts • Grevy’s Zebra Grevy’s Zebra Trust

Painted Dog Conservation (Zimbabwe) Cheetah Conservation Botswana (Botswana) Cheetah Conservation Fund (Namibia & Somaliland) • Lion Maasai South Rift Association of Land Owners (SORALO), African Conservation Centre, Ewaso Lions

Wild Nature Institute (Tanzania)

S SOMALILAND • Cheetah Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF)

Action for Cheetahs in Kenya (Kenya)


African Parks (Chad)

• Giant Endangered Trees Applied Ecological Research Foundation

Peninsular Pronghorn Recovery Program (Mexico)

M MONGOLIA • Argali Sheep Mongolian Conservation Initiative • Siberian Ibex Mongolian Conservation Initiative

Southern Rift Association of Land Owners (Kenya) Grevy’s Zebra Trust (Kenya) African Conservation Center (Kenya) Sahara Conservation (Chad)

Pesca ABC — Fishing Alternatives for Baja California (Mexico) Desert Tortoise Monitoring, United States Geological Society (USA) Wildlife Conservation Network (USA) Wildlife Trafficking Alliance (USA)


The BCCS social science training workshops are the best thing that I have ever created. If I succeed in helping save species in my life, this will be the biggest contribution I will make. Dr. James Danoff-Burg Vice President of Conservation

The Living Desert’s Building Community Conservation Success (BCCS) social science training workshops are transforming how conservation is being done around the world. Our week-long workshops introduce conservation biologists to what they must know to successfully learn from their communities, understand the efficacy of their programs, and determine the best ways to structure their conservation activities to ensure communities, species, ecosystems, and economies can all succeed together. Thus far, our team has completed 9 week-long workshops in 11 countries for a total of over 241 people. The Living Desert has also offered a dozen shorter one- or two-day courses for an additional 230 people from a total of 31 countries.


Photo by Hannah Trantner

Building Community Conservation Success Globally

SPECIES ARE NOT DECLINING because they forgot how to breed, eat, or otherwise secure what they need to survive. Species are declining because of human activity and our choices. As such, because people are the problem, people need to also be the solution. This has led many to realize that conservation is not a biological science, rather, conservation is a social science.

Building Community Conservation Success Participants Include:

OPPOSITE: In Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park Dr. James Danoff-Burg, Vice President of Conservation, and Katie Shaw, Conservation Social Scientist, stand with BCCS participants.

• Painted Dog Research Trust (PDRT), Zimbabwe Why do conservationists need social science training? Most people that go into conservation do so because they love nature, animals, and plants — not because they love working with people. However, when they begin working where species live, they quickly learn that addressing the root causes of species decline requires working with people. Unfortunately, because conservationists are usually biologists, they are ill-equipped to learn from and work with people living near conservation projects. They need the skills and support to do social science research. This is where The Living Desert has become a world leader. By helping local conservation organizations around the world, The Living Desert is helping them address the root causes of species decline, while improving the lives and livelihoods of people living in and around invaluable natural areas. LEFT: Students from the National University of Science and Technology with Katie Shaw during the BCCS workshop in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. BELOW: Dr. Danoff-Burg works with students in Sizinda, Zimbabwe, during the Painted Dog Research Trust BCCS Workshop.

• Community Rhino Conservation Initiative, Zimbabwe • Imvelo Safari Lodges, Zimbabwe • National University of Science and Technology (NUST), Zimbabwe • College of African Wildlife Management, Mweka, Tanzania • Wild Nature Institute (WNI), Tanzania • Cheetah Conservation Botswana (CCB) • Botswana Wildlife Training Institute, Botswana • Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), Namibia and Somaliland • Action for Cheetahs Kenya (ACK) • Grevy’s Zebra Trust (GZT), Kenya • South Rift Association of Land Owners (SORALO), Kenya

Bottom: Photo by Chris Llewelyn

• Applied Environmental Research Foundation (AERF), India




BOTTOM: Children participate in Wild Nature Institute's "Celebrating Africa's Giants" educational program as part of World Giraffe Week.

THROUGH ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION, the Wild Nature Institute works to protect wildlife in Tanzania. The organization developed a “Celebrating Africa’s Giants” educational curriculum, which focuses on the conservation of giraffe, elephant, and rhino — now available online and currently being used in schools across Tanzania, the U.S., and beyond. Wild Nature Institute also created “Juma the Giraffe," a program to raise awareness about the population decline in Tanzania’s national animal. The Living Desert leads the evaluation of all the educational programs by Wild Nature Institute by designing and interpreting impact assessment surveys to assess the program efficacy. As an example of the halfdozen projects the Zoo has helped WNI with, researchers at The Living Desert conducted data analysis to determine the impacts that the “Celebrating African Giants” program had on children in several schools in Tanzania. The evaluation highlighted the many successes of the program, including pro-conservation attitude changes, an increased sense of responsibility to protect wildlife, increased empathy for wildlife, and increased knowledge about wildlife. Results also indicated how the program can be refined, which will ultimately help improve the program for future students. In this way, The Living Desert is helping to improve conservation education and ensure that it leads to better outcomes for nature and people. 2 0 2 3 CONSERVATION REPORT

This page: photos courtesy Wild Nature Institute

Protecting Wildlife in Tanzania

TOP RIGHT AND TOP LEFT: Students in the Tarangire-Manyara region of Tanzania learn about the critical role of giraffe, elephant, and rhino with Wild Nature Institute's "Celebrating Africa's Giants" educational curriculum.

To help strengthen the population of this endangered species, The Living Desert works with the Zimbabwe organization Painted Dog Research Trust to decrease vehicle collisions and process wildlife monitoring data.

African Painted Dog Conservation DUE TO HABITAT LOSS which has in turn displaced the animals and spurred human-wildlife conflict, African painted dog populations are declining. Located in Zimbabwe, Painted Dog Research Trust (PDRT) is an organization that studies African painted dogs (Lycaon pictus) and their interactions with humans to assist local communities to be better able to co-exist with these predators. Part of PDRT’s mission is making the Kazungula Road safer for the

endangered painted dogs. This road is the main transit way for east to west travel through the Zambezi National Park in northern Zimbabwe, and is used by many, including commercial trucks. For painted dogs, Kazungula Road bisects integral territory needed to hunt and find dens for pups, so they often get hit by vehicles as they try to cross the road. To combat wildlife-vehicle collisions, PDRT has worked with The Living 2 0 2 3 CONSERVATION REPORT

Desert and Zimbabwe Republic Police to enforce the speed limit of 80kph (about 50mph). Additionally, the teams distributed pamphlets listing possible animal species that could be encountered on the road along with what to do in case an animal is hit. In Zimbabwe, it is not illegal to hit an animal, but failure to properly report the incident is illegal. Nonetheless, many drivers still do not report the occurrence. With these efforts, along with enhanced Zimbabwe Republic Police reinforcement, the African painted dog stands a much better chance at recovering from its endangered status. For many organizations, studying animals in their natural habitat by setting up trail cameras — often called “camera traps” — is the ideal way to observe and gather data for monitoring wildlife activity. Gathering and sorting through camera trap data is time and resource consuming due to the significant number of images. PDRT has shared over 20,000 images with The Living Desert, and the team has been able to assist with data processing. Our numerous volunteers go through all the images, record what’s present in the image, and help manage all the data. This information is then sent back to the researchers who own the camera traps and PDRT as quantifiable information they can use to inform conservation efforts.



Black Mambas AntiPoaching Unit


OPPOSITE: The Black Mambas, an all-female, unarmed anti-poaching unit in South Africa, helps to protect threatened wildlife species such as the black rhino and white rhino. LEFT: The Bush Babies Environmental Education Program teaches environmental awareness at primary schools in surrounding communities.

Opposite page, top right and bottom left: photography by Adrienne Pitts. This page, top left: photo by Julia Gunther, courtesy of Transfrontier Africa.

BELOW: The Living Desert conducts interview surveys throughout five communities in South Africa to assess the social impacts of the programs.

POACHING IS A MAJOR THREAT to wildlife and biodiversity, even threatening the overall survival of certain species — such as the critically endangered black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis). This crisis, exacerbated by the demand for rhino horns to be sold in the illegal wildlife trafficking market, is especially prominent in South Africa, home to the majority of the world’s remaining rhinos. In response to this crisis, Transfrontier Africa, a South African organization based near Kruger National Park, formed the Black Mambas Anti-Poaching Unit ten years ago. The Black Mambas are an all-female, unarmed unit who patrol and protect the most critically affected areas within Balule Nature Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger National Park. This approach is an alternative to the armed patrols and fortress conservation tactics more commonly used and has dramatically decreased wildlife poaching in the area. To further involve and empower the surrounding communities, the Black Mambas have a conservation and wildlife education program for local school children, The Bush Babies Environmental Education Program, also formed by Transfrontier Africa. The Living Desert works directly with both exceptional programs by conducting in-the-field research to inform and improve future community-based efforts in the area. In 2018, The Living Desert team traveled to South Africa where they conducted a study on the social impacts of the programs by interviewing community members in which the Black Mambas and Bush Babies were active. The direct results of this study prompted Transfrontier Africa to expand the Bush Babies program to additional, nearby communities to help in furthering conservation awareness and education. A follow-up study was completed by The Living Desert in 2022 to assess local communities’ perceptions of wildlife, conservation, and protected areas. Results of the interviews indicate that Transfrontier Africa would benefit from expanding the outreach efforts of the programs further and helped to define areas of concern within the communities and ways in which Transfrontier Africa can target their messaging. These key takeaways and other findings can inform and improve future community-based conservation efforts in this region, and The Living Desert will be there to help support all aspects of this important project. 2 0 2 3 CONSERVATION REPORT


Conservation through Co-Existence

This new, innovative partnership will not only result in the successful conservation of wildlife, ecosystems, and herder livelihoods in Mongolia, but will serve as a model for how international partnerships can amplify community-led and holistic conservation initiatives world-wide.

Argali sheep at Ikh Nart Nature Reserve

The desert landscape of Ikh Nart Nature Reserve.

Photography by O. Rentsen; Jack Kerivan (horseman)

Local horsemen are an integral part of the community-based wildlife capture, tag, and release efforts.

Mongolian Conservation Initiative leader Gana Wingard.

Ikh Nart local herder with his domestic sheep and goats.

Wingard, to implement public outreach, and communitybased conservation work in Ikh Nart Nature Reserve, Mongolia. Within this mutually beneficial partnership, The Living Desert team brings global conservation expertise in ecosystem restoration, biodiversity research, curriculum creation, public outreach, and community-led conservation. Moving seasonally across the landscape in search of pasture for their livestock herds, nomadic herder communities within Ikh Nart have served as stewards of these important ecosystems and wildlife for centuries and continue to play an integral role today. The Living Desert's Conservation Department will work directly with and fund Ikh Nart herder communities, researchers, reserve managers, and school leadership in their priority communities to take action to conserve wildlife locally. The Living Desert team will also assist with ecological restoration components and with assessment and prevention of livestock-wildlife disease transmission in Ikh Nart. To build a capacity of Ikh Nart reserve managers, the teams will work with experts in California protected areas to provide specialized training for Mongolians coming to Palm Desert through the partnership.

Photos courtesy: O. Rentsen (Wingard); Alix Morris (herder)



DESERT STEPPE grassland ecosystems protect globally important biodiversity, play a critical role in mitigation and adaptation to climate change, and directly support the livelihoods of many human communities. However, they are one of the most threatened ecosystems on Earth due to the ease of conversion for human agricultural use. This is especially true in Mongolia, where nearly 70% of grasslands are degraded because of increased drought, expansion of mining, and overgrazing. This is threatening the ecosystem’s unique biodiversity and its role in the cultural heritage, livelihoods, and wellbeing of nomadic herding communities.

Ikh Nart Nature Reserve

The Living Desert has established a new partnership with Mongolian Conservation Initiative (MCI) to implement holistic conservation in the Gobi Desert steppe ecosystem of southeastern Mongolia to ensure both nature and humans thrive. This is a unique opportunity for The Living Desert to partner with a long-established, globally recognized conservation success story, and to help expand it by more pointedly addressing the threats to biodiversity and human wellbeing. The partnership’s combined holistic approach to conservation will amplify and extend the work of MCI, headed by long-time leader Gana

Located on the northern edge of the Mongolian Gobi Desert, Ikh Nart Nature Reserve encompasses 160,000 acres of critical grassland steppe and desert ecosystems. Within this space, the Reserve protects an essential pasture for 150 nomadic herding families as well as many native animals, including: • 40 mammal species • 200 bird species • 7 reptile species




Ikh Nart Nature Reserve


TIMELINE APRIL-JUNE 2022 Edwards Air Force Base (EAFB): San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance (SDZWA) ecologists used trackers and mobile x-rays to locate adult female desert tortoises with eggs.

MID-LATE AUGUST 2022 EAFB outdoor rearing facility: An unexpected heatwave necessitated the eggs and hatchlings be evacuated and moved to The Living Desert ahead of schedule.

MARCH 2023 Transport to EAFB outdoor rearing facility: For six months, tortoises re-acclimatized to the desert and learned predator avoidance behaviors.

SEPTEMBER 2023 EAFB: Before releasing the hatchlings, radio trackers are attached to their shells to monitor dispersal, survivability, and habitat use.

SEPTEMBER 2022 The Living Desert’s Tennity Wildlife Hospital: Incubators allowed eggs to hatch safely. Tortoises lived in a temperature-controlled environment and were given a nutrientrich diet to help growth rates.

Headstarting Desert Tortoise Hatchlings TO GIVE CRITICALLY ENDANGERED desert tortoises (Gopherus agassizii) a better chance of survival in the wild, The Living Desert partners with the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance (SDZWA), Edwards Air Force Base (EAFB), and United States Geological Survey (USGS) in an innovative headstart program. In September 2022, 69 wild desert tortoise hatchlings and eggs from EAFB arrived at The Living Desert’s Tennity Wildlife Hospital. Once at the hospital, tortoise hatchlings grew to the size of three-year-olds within their first six months of life thanks to an abundant, nutrient-rich diet and warm habitat. This increase in size helps to make them less vulnerable to predation and increase their chances of surviving to a reproductive age. Recently, scientists have noticed an absence of young and juvenile desert tortoises in the wild with only about five percent of hatchlings surviving to reach sexual maturity. Using a technique called headstarting, a tool used with species for whom surviving through their youngest life stages can greatly increase their chances of reaching adulthood, The Living Desert provides the tortoises with the appropriate environmental conditions to grow about four to five times as fast as they would in the wild.

Caring for the desert tortoise hatchlings for six months and seeing their impressive growth has been an incredible experience that is only made better with the knowledge that we are directly supporting this keystone species. Lou Thomas, Lead Conservation Biologist

RIGHT: During the indoor phase of the headstart program at The Living Desert, the tortoises quintupled in size and developed a thicker, more protective carapace (shell) thanks to a nutrientrich diet and temperaturecontrolled environment. BOTTOM RIGHT: Desert tortoises are about the size of a golf ball as hatchlings and have a soft shell until they are approximately five years old, meaning they are at their most vulnerable to potential predators such as ravens and coyotes. BOTTOM LEFT: Teams from The Living Desert and the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance in the protected outdoor rearing facility.



During the indoor phase of the program, each tortoise is measured monthly to track growth rate. A large body size upon release is correlated with higher survivability when tortoises return to the wild.

The headstarting program presented scientists with the unique opportunity to learn more about the youngest age class of desert tortoises. Scientists were able to test behavioral traits and thermal preferences amongst the tortoises to discover what role the traits and climate change may play in predicting habitat use, movement, and survival of the animals once they are back in the wild. In this way, behavior and climate models can inform or shape conservation practices to be more effective. Once trials were completed and the hatchlings were large enough, they returned to the outdoor rearing facility at EAFB for another six months to re-acclimatize to the desert. SDZWA staff trains the hatchlings, teaching them to be wary of some of their top predators, specifically ravens and coyotes. Once training is complete, scientists attach radio trackers to the tortoises' shells and release the hatchlings back into the desert on Edwards Air Force Base. The radio trackers will allow scientists to monitor the dispersal, survivability, and habitat use of the hatchlings once they're released. The next cohort of hatchlings arrived at the Zoo in September 2023, bringing the headstart program full circle!

Time To Talk 18


One of the main predators of juvenile desert tortoises are ravens. Over the past few decades, raven populations have increased by up to 1,700% in parts of the California desert due to resource subsidies provided by humans. Consequently, ravens are one of the single biggest threats to the survival of the desert tortoise. The Living Desert works to conserve the desert tortoise by addressing the root cause of raven overpopulation through targeting uncovered trash, a significant source of food for the ravens. The Time to Talk Trash campaign is an education and behavior change program that works with local restaurants to encourage them to close their dumpsters and reduce food subsidies for ravens. The Living Desert team assessed how frequently over 100 restaurants near Joshua Tree National Park were covering their dumpsters. Restaurants with at least an 80% closure rate received a Gold Star Award that publicly highlights their efforts to protect our local wildlife and incentivized other restaurants to achieve the same standard. The Living Desert is currently working to expand this campaign to additional communities within or adjacent to parts of the desert tortoise’s range, as well as spreading the message that individuals can help by covering their own trash at home.


It is incredible to think that some of the biodiversity in these desert ecosystems falls on the shoulders of the humble desert tortoise.

The critically endangered desert tortoise plays an essential role within their ecosystems, providing homes for myriad other desert species.

Dr. Luis Ramirez, Curator of Conservation

Habitat Restoration Near the Orocopia Mountains

The Living Desert team prepares beavertail cacti — a source of food and water for desert tortoises — for outplanting in the Orocopia Mountains. These cacti, along with many other native plants, are propagated onsite at the Zoo’s Desert Plant Conservation Center.

THE DESERT TORTOISE (Gopherus agassizii) is not only California’s state reptile but also a species that can have a cascade effect across their desert ecosystems. From burrowing owls to snakes and mammals, dozens of species benefit from the dens that tortoises create for shelter. However, California deserts have suffered from great disturbances due to human activity, invasive species, and climate change. To combat these negative impacts, The Living Desert has been involved in several components of tortoise conservation for several years, including the restoration of tortoise habitat near the Orocopia Mountains in Southern California. To allow for both short-term and long-term restoration success, The Living Desert is approaching this challenge from different angles. First, the team plants essential plants that provide food for the desert tortoise during extended dry periods. For example, beavertail cactus provides nutrition and scarce water to thirsty tortoises. Second, the team enhances the native species’ seed bank by collecting seeds from plants within the seed transfer zone. These seeds are then grown at the Zoo's Desert Plant Conservation Center to produce and then harvest even more seeds which will eventually be scattered back into the field sites. Because the plants are grown in ideal conditions, they are more likely to produce a higher number of quality seeds, and because seeds are sourced from plants in the area of focus, they'll be adapted to that habitat’s conditions. By increasing the number of native seeds available to take advantage of scarce rains, it ensures these species are available for tortoises to forage. Climate change has increased the frequency and severity of drought — making it essential that the benefits of each rainfall is maximized. The Living Desert's third approach to help improve desert tortoise habitat is to introduce small changes in the natural drainage throughout the landscape, such as rock structures to promote water retention and percolation. When it does rain, the goal is to both slow the water down and promote its penetration into the soil. Consequently, this will help all the species in the ecosystem. Plants will quickly respond to more water and soon thereafter, small mammals, birds, insects, and the precious tortoises will have a better chance of survival, improving the overall health of the ecosystem in the long-term. 2 0 2 3 CONSERVATION REPORT


The peninsular pronghorn is endangered as a subspecies in Baja California, with a population as low as 150 individuals in 1994. Since 2008, The Living Desert has been an active partner in the Peninsular Pronghorn Recovery Project, helping to establish a wild population in Baja California of almost 500 individuals and approximately 50 individuals in human care across different facilities in the United States, including The Living Desert.



LEFT: The Living Desert team is working to bring both the Sonoran and peninsular pronghorn back to Southern California, a goal that could be attained within the next decade. BELOW: Dr. Luis Ramirez, Curator of Conservation at The Living Desert, with a peninsular pronghorn.

Bringing Back the Pronghorn TWO SUBSPECIES of pronghorn (Antilocapra ameriana) thrived in Southern California until the 1940s when both were extirpated in the area due to hunting and habitat loss. Pronghorn are the second fastest land animal on the planet, able to maintain speeds of 40mph for an hour. Sadly, both the peninsular and Sonoran pronghorn have not been a part of our Coachella Valley desert ecosystem for nearly a century. Historically, the Salton Sea separated the two subspecies, with the Sonoran on the east side and the peninsular on the west side. The Living Desert is working with a coalition of partners led by the Peninsular Pronghorn Recovery Program in Mexico to help in the breeding of this subspecies so that some may be brought to eastern San Diego County to establish a population there. Additionally, The Living Desert has been the lead facilitator and editor for the Peninsular Pronghorn Recovery Plan that was accepted and approved by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Sonoran pronghorn, aptly nicknamed the 'desert ghost' because of its elusive nature, were once an important part of the California desert 2 0 2 3 CONSERVATION REPORT


ecosystem. Luckily, some populations survived in northern Mexico and Arizona. With international collaboration, three stable populations currently exist, two in Arizona and one in Mexico. In partnership with many Federal, State, and NGO partners, Sonoran pronghorn from stable populations in Arizona will be relocated to repopulate the California desert. However, before pronghorn are brought to California, the landscape where these animals will live must be assessed. The Living Desert is one of the leaders of this recovery effort by setting the stage for their return, working at the Chuckwalla Bench — a spectacular landscape and biodiversity hotspot located in the Colorado Desert — to survey existing water sources, identify potential dangers, and map where the best habitat exists. Gathering this assessment data will help to secure a future for this unique species in California.


Saving the Critically Endangered Vaquita DID YOU KNOW that the vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is the most endangered marine mammal in the world? Vaquita numbers in the past were in the 500-600 range, but over the last 30 years their numbers have plummeted to only around a dozen in total. Living only in the Upper Gulf of California, the vaquita is unfortunately close in size to one of the main targeted fish species in the area, the totoaba. Because of this, vaquita are frequently unintentionally caught in fishers’ gillnets, contributing to their critically endangered status. The Living Desert has been one of the leaders of the Vaquita SAFE (Save Animals From Extinction)

program on behalf of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Working with fishers in the Upper Gulf, the program is transforming fishing in the area away from gillnets, as this approach has one of the highest rates of incidental bycatch of any fishing technique. The program has already had success working with the local fishers’ cooperative Pesca ABC to identify, field test, and popularize suripera nets, a viable alternative to gillnets that produce high quantities of quality shrimp with zero bycatch. Internationally, the education, outreach, and behavioral change efforts through the Vaquita SAFE program have brought attention to the vaquita and the ecological plights that they face.


CLOCKWISE FROM TOP RIGHT: By removing invasive, water-hungry tamarisk trees and replacing with native, beneficial plants, The Living Desert team is helping to maintain the desert pupfish’s native habitat at Salt Creek.

The Living Desert’s ponds are inspected regularly to ensure they remain a highquality pupfish habitat and to identify and manage other species using the ponds.

To help the declining population of this vulnerable fish, The Living Desert approaches conservation efforts through habitat restoration in their native environment and also within on-site ponds.


Desert Pupfish Conservation THE LIVING DESERT is home to the vulnerable desert pupfish (Cyprinodon macularius), the only native fish species in the region. The Living Desert hosts three distinct populations of the species, from Salt Creek, San Felipe Creek, and the north Salton Sea. Salt Creek and San Felipe Creek are the only two natural bodies of water in which the desert pupfish naturally occur. The Living Desert’s Sonoran Pond was built when the Zoo opened in 1970, and just two years after completion, desert pupfish from Salt Creek were introduced. The second pond, Sharon Pond, was built in 2019 to support a pupfish population of several thousand from north Salton Sea. The new behind-the-scenes Preserve Pond will be home to pupfish from San Felipe Creek.

Protecting the Salt Creek and San Felipe ecosystems is crucial to the survival of the remaining pupfish in these creeks. The highly invasive tamarisk tree (Tamarix ramosissima) or salt cedar, was introduced into the area initially as a wind block for the railroad; however, it quickly became a detriment to local species. Tamarisk trees outcompete native plants for water and space, overshading the creek and creating an unsuitable habitat for pupfish who thrive in warm, unshaded waters. The Living Desert began restoration efforts in Upper Salt Creek in 2020 by removing tamarisk trees, often requiring saws to cut down the stands. In early spring 2021, the team planted 710 native plants in places where tamarisk had been removed to slow the trees from resprouting. These plants were grown from seeds collected by The Living Desert from the restoration sites and propagated in The Living Desert’s Desert Plant Conservation Center. Currently, the restoration site has remained almost entirely tamarisk-free, as the native plants planted there outcompete the cut tamarisk roots. Consequently, the desert pupfish habitat in the creek has markedly improved, restoring a crucial part of the desert for this imperiled fish. 2 0 2 3 CONSERVATION REPORT

Desert Plant Conservation Center

Going Green CARING FOR OUR ANIMALS at The Living Desert results in substantial amounts of waste, including manure from the animals, straw from their bedding, and food waste. Not only would all this waste require petroleum to transport and greatly add to our landfills, but the breakdown of these organic materials in landfills would produce methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide that is a significant contributor to climate change. Composting is the art of using decomposition — a natural process — to create a soil amendment or mulch that is beneficial to plants. The Living Desert's on-site compost machine, called a biodigester, is used by adding the organic waste along with wood chips, which are needed to provide an essential element to compost. The biodigester accelerates the composting process dramatically by mixing the materials and heating them to aid in the establishment of the bacteria that decompose the materials.


The end product of the composting process is notably smaller than the original volume. The Living Desert composts onsite because the high-quality soil amendment improves our gardens, removes carbon from the atmosphere, eliminates truck traffic to the landfill, sequesters carbon in the soil, and significantly improves the root health of plants — all while reducing our garbage volume and our carbon footprint by turning animal waste into a valuable commodity.

Climate Resilient Community TO HELP BEAUTIFY the urban spaces in the Eastern Coachella Valley communities, The Living Desert is planting native pollinator plants in habitats on Tribal lands, at local schools, and in other public places where they will benefit local people. The addition of these pollinator gardens will beautify and improve public spaces and help mitigate the urban heat island effect. As such, this work enhances public health, cultural connections, and community placemaking to our local desert ecosystem. By engaging with residents to use native landscape in their own yards, people will become more caring stewards for the plants. This project improves climate resilience across the city and unincorporated communities of Coachella, Thermal, and Mecca by creating pollinator habitat and demonstration gardens in various schools. The conservation team will share their expertise on the care and cultivation of native plant species while helping schools create their own demonstration gardens. Working with schools within underserved areas through a community-based conservation approach, this project will provide curricula and expand access to educational programs that showcase pollinators and biodiversity, improve environmental stewardship, and promote sustainability and adaptability to climate change.

Composting with an on-site biodigester is environmental stewardship that allows The Living Desert to repurpose our waste rather than add it to landfills and create greenhouse gases.


Pollinator Pathways INSECT POLLINATORS are under threat globally because of land use, climate change, and invasive species spread. For the Pollinator Pathway project, The Living Desert will grow native plants on grounds and then use them to create pollinator gardens and encourage the planting of native California plants in underserved communities in the Coachella Valley. Pollinator habitats were once common throughout the Coachella Valley, but many have been replaced by golf courses, agricultural areas, exotic home gardens, streets, and other developments. Native plant species in pollinator habitats have evolved to better withstand the effects of drought and generally require less water compared to many nonnative species. Through this project, The Living Desert helps local residents learn about the importance of drought resilience, water conservation, and native biodiversity by building a pathway for pollinators, like the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), across the Coachella Valley. These gardens will immediately increase the number of new resources for pollinators. As these plants disperse seeds, they will naturally continue to improve the local populations of these plants in the long term.



Sienna Thomas, Conservation Social Scientist & Tribal Liaison at The Living Desert, has resided on the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Reservation for over 30 years and shares her passion and knowledge with the programs’ participants during each excursion.


Torres Martinez Youth Environmental Ambassador Program THE LIVING DESERT Zoo and Gardens, Outward Bound Adventures, and the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian Tribe have embarked on an important conservation collaborative to reconnect Indigenous youth with their ancestral homelands in the Coachella Valley. The Torres Martinez Youth Environmental Ambassador (TM-YEA) program is a paid, youth-led work learning program that introduces Indigenous youth to the various fields of conservation. We shine a light on the environmental concerns that currently affect their Reservation and quality of life including loss of habitat for native plants and animals, drinking water contamination, poor air quality, illegal dumping, the decline of the Salton Sea, and climate change. Our goal has been to stimulate a passion for wildlife and wild places among these young environmental leaders. Ideally, all of them will become passionate advocates for the environment, and some, hopefully, will go into conservation as a profession.

Torres Martinez Youth group participants set up a tent while camping at M ission Creek Preserve in partnership with Outward Bound Adventures. Once camp was prepared for the night, the group hiked into the canyon, stopping along the way to discuss plants and their traditional Cahuilla uses.


I am a Traditional Ecological Knowledge educator and cultural preservationist with a passion and dedication to reconnecting Indigenous people to the lands and creating opportunities for them in the fields of conservation and preservation. Sienna Thomas, Conservation Social Scientist & Tribal Liaison at The Living Desert

ABOVE and LEFT: A trip up the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway was the first outing for the second group of the Torres Martinez Youth Environmental Ambassador program. This outing was in collaboration with and funded by Friends of the Desert Mountains. BELOW: Sienna Thomas points out a bedrock mortar to Torres Martinez Youth group participants during a hike at La Quinta Cove. During this excursion, Sienna identified culturally significant plants and discussed their traditional uses.

“The Torres Martinez Youth Environmental Ambassador program is foundational to the protection of California deserts,” says Sienna Thomas, Conservation Social Scientist & Tribal Liaison. “Indigenous youth are reconnecting to their culture through land-based learning to create healthy communities and become new leaders in conservation.” Through this multi-faceted program, Indigenous youth are establishing personal goals, goals for their tribal community, learning federal and state environmental laws, and observing how Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and western science can work together to support and protect their changing landscape. The TM-YEA program aspires to encourage Indigenous youth to consider an environmental science path in higher education and expose them to the many diverse fields of employment in conservation. Bringing the program fullcircle, Maya Nunez, who completed the TM-YEA program last year, has recently joined The Living Desert team as an Assistant Conservation Scientist! The second year of the TM-YEA program, with a new group of participants, began in the summer of 2023. Our success with TM-YEA inspired the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservatory to recently award The Living Desert a new grant, extending the program’s impact to train early-career Indigenous adults to go into conservation as a career. This new initiative is called the Native American Conservation Workforce Development program and, along with TM-YEA, will help improve the representation of Indigenous people in conservation and the quality of conservation that is done.

ON THE COVER Argali sheep at the Ikh Nart Nature Reserve in Mongolia. Photo by O. Rentsen


47900 Portola Ave. Palm Desert, CA 92260 760-346-5694

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