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Connecting Habitats: The Los Angeles Zoo Supports Development of Democratic Republic of Congo Wildlife Corridor

Standing at a lectern, Dr. Jake Owens, L.A. Zoo Director of Conservation, opens ‘Gathering for Gorillas’ event on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. An image of a Grauer's gorilla and the text "World Gorilla Day" are projected on a screen behind him.
Dr. Jake Owens, L.A. Zoo Director of Conservation, opens ‘Gathering for Gorillas’ event on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. During this panel discussion, representatives from the L.A. Zoo and Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center discussed GRACE’s ongoing efforts to save wild gorillas and how partnerships with local communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Los Angeles Zoo have been instrumental to their success.

I am excited to share a new biodiversity initiative that was recently announced at the ‘Gathering for Gorillas’ event at Los Angeles Zoo, which provides you with the unique opportunity to help support the conservation of Grauer’s gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Along with our nonprofit support organization, the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA), the Zoo is helping its conservation partner, the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center, with the creation of the Usala Conservation Corridor, which will connect two critical biodiversity hotspots in the DRC.

This ambitious project will connect two critically important but disconnected protected areas, Maiko National Park and Tayna Nature Reserve, by developing a wildlife habitat corridor in one of the most biodiverse forests in the world. Not only will the Usala Corridor ensure that habitat for gorillas, elephants, okapis, pangolins, and other vulnerable species is protected in perpetuity, it will also contribute 346,000 acres of land to the global initiative to designate 30% of Earth’s land and ocean area as protected areas by 2030. This is critical to fighting both the biodiversity crisis and climate change.

It’s also critically important to recognize that because of the community-driven philosophy of GRACE, this corridor will ensure local communities in the region will obtain land rights for sustainable management of their tribal lands.

This project and the partnership between GRACE and the Los Angeles Zoo demonstrates the significant positive impact that Los Angeles is capable of having on global biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation. To put it in perspective, the City of Los Angeles covers an area of 321,000 acres– this means the City is supporting a critical biodiversity hotspot that is nearly 25,000 acres larger than itself. That is something to be proud of and the level of impact that we should be striving for.

I urge you to learn more about GRACE and what you can do to help save wildlife both here in Los Angeles and across the world. If you’d like to support this initiative, please visit lazoo.org/grace.

(From Left to Right) Dr. Jake Owens, Tommi Wolfe, GRACE Gorillas Executive Director, Beth Schaefer, L.A. Zoo Director of Animal Programs, and Laurie Cummins, GRACE Gorillas Education Manager, at the ‘Gathering for Gorillas’ event on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023.
(From Left to Right) Dr. Jake Owens; Tommi Wolfe, GRACE Gorillas Executive Director; Beth Schaefer, L.A. Zoo Director of Animal Programs; and Laurie Cummins, GRACE Gorillas Education Manager, at the ‘Gathering for Gorillas’ event on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023.
GLAZA Senior Editor Brenda Scott Royce, author of Angela & Lulingu, signs copies of her new book, which features Angela, the western lowland gorilla at the L.A. Zoo, and Lulingu, a Grauer’s gorilla in the DRC.
At the ‘Gathering for Gorillas,’ GLAZA Senior Editor Brenda Scott Royce, author of Angela & Lulingu, signs copies of her new book, which features Angela, the western lowland gorilla at the L.A. Zoo, and Lulingu, a Grauer’s gorilla at the GRACE Gorillas sanctuary in the DRC. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the book goes to GRACE Gorillas.

‘A Gathering for Gorillas’ Presentation Videos

Speaker Information

Tommi Wolfe combines a lifelong passion for African conservation with decades of leadership strategy, organizational development, and startup expertise.

She brings an uncommon depth and breadth to leadership. From managing complex, global, Fortune 50 teams to deliver a billion-dollar project, to building an award-winning seven-figure consulting startup, she reliably delivers results.

As Executive Director of the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE), she is privileged to combine her conservation passion and her leadership skills to help preserve planet Earth’s largest primate, the Grauer’s gorilla.

GRACE’s mission is to build a healthy, stable population of wild Grauer’s gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo and to make this animal a source of pride for the Congolese people.

Tommi is based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and loves wildflowers, birding, and hiking.  She believes in creating WIN-WIN solutions and doing the right thing, even when it is hard.

Beth Schaefer has been the Director of Animal Programs at the L.A. Zoo since December of 2014. She is a native Angeleno, and after graduating with a degree in microbiology from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, she started her zoo career as a docent at the Charles Paddock Zoo in Atascadero, CA. The next twenty years were spent moving around the country from the Kansas City Zoo to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the Center for Great Apes, and the Houston Zoo before arriving happily back in L.A. She has had the opportunity to work with many taxa including primates, marine mammals, carnivores, and birds. In her role, she oversees all aspects of the Animal Care division at the zoo.

Beth is deeply committed to saving animals in the wild and sharing the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) value of respect for wildlife and wild places. Beth is a steering committee member of AZA’s Wildlife Conservation Committee (WCC) and the Wildlife Trafficking Alliance (WTA). The WCC oversees AZA’s Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) flagship conservation efforts. Beth serves as the WCC liaison to the Orangutan and Black Rhino SAFE programs. Her involvement in the WTA has included playing a key role in the formation of the Southern California Wildlife Confiscation Network (WCN), which aids law enforcement in caring for and placing animals affected by wildlife trafficking.

The Los Angeles Zoo believes that zoos have more to offer than contributing dollars to a cause. The value of shared expertise is why zoos matter. With this value in mind, Beth actively participates in conservation efforts around the globe. Her conservation focuses are currently Grauer’s gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she lends her husbandry expertise to help rehabilitate gorillas orphaned by poaching, and the conservation of pronghorn on the Baja peninsula where the Los Angeles Zoo is helping to repopulate these unique animals and bring awareness to this often-overlooked species.

Beth’s career has allowed her to see many fascinating and far-flung regions of the globe including Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central America. She is passionate about sharing her knowledge and experiences with fellow Angelenos and explorers of this planet, whether that exploration is trekking through a desert, trekking around the zoo, or imagining a future trek while attending a talk.

Laurie Cummins brings more than 13 years of conservation education experience to her new role as GRACE’s Education and Community Engagement Manager. Laurie is passionate about meeting the needs of people and communities in order to conserve wildlife and wild places. She has served as an Education Advisor for the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center for the past seven years, helping to develop curriculum and materials and conduct onsite trainings with the educators in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Prior to joining GRACE, Laurie was an Education Manager with Disney’s Animals, Science & Environment for the past eight years. As an Education Manager, she trained diverse teams of interns and international cultural representatives from Africa and Asia, supported conservation educators at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Epcot, and created educational materials for a global audience. Laurie also led a team of education instructors in community outreach efforts and summer conservation day camp for the Central Florida community.

As Education and Community Engagement Manager, Laurie is honored to support the GRACE Education Team full-time. She looks forward to continuing and expanding GRACE’s conservation education efforts throughout the Democratic Republic of Congo and the United States. Laurie trusts fully in GRACE’s mission to build a future for Grauer’s gorillas, based on community.

Laurie is originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she grew up boating on Michigan’s inland lakes, walking in the woods, and camping with her family. She holds an undergraduate degree in Biology from Eastern Michigan University and an MBA from Stetson University. Laurie now resides in Florida, where she enjoys spending time at the beach, volunteering at a nearby nature preserve, and performing in local choirs. Laurie strives to live through her values of integrity, empathy, creativity, and excellence. She believes everyone can be a hero for Grauer’s gorillas through their actions; small changes make a big difference!

Dr. Jake Owens is an international conservationist and researcher, with a B.S. in Biology from Stockton University and Ph.D. in Environmental Science from Drexel University. For his PhD, Jake performed the first focal study on the ecology and behavior of the Bioko Island drill, an elusive and highly endangered monkey found only on Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea. Following his Ph.D., Jake spent more than five years in China codeveloping a novel release program for giant pandas at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Jake became the first Director of Conservation at the Los Angeles Zoo in 2019, where he has led the development, launch, and initial implementation of the Zoo’s first Conservation Strategic Plan. Ultimately, his role at the Zoo is to coordinate the expansion of its conservation impact in Los Angeles and around the globe to help create a just and sustainable world where people and wildlife thrive, together.

Jake is passionate about fieldwork and travel, having conducted field research on a wide range of species and topics on five continents and spent years living in remote field sites. Jake is a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group and Conservation Translocation Specialist Group (CTSG), and co-founded the CTSG Human-Wildlife Interactions Working Group. He is also a Review Editor for Frontiers in Conservation Science, a partner of the Society for Conservation Biology Publishing Partnership Program, a member of the Los Angeles Biodiversity Expert Council, and the Advisor for Endangered Species Conservation at the Chengdu Panda Base. His work has been featured in numerous peer reviewed publications, news, and popular press print and multimedia, and in the 2018 film IMAX Pandas.