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Saving snow leopards in India and pandas in China

Zoo's head of conservation outreach thinks outside the cage

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Dressed in a turtleneck and sport jacket, Brian Keating doesn't strike one as the type to trek treacherous Nepalese mountains, hot on the tail of the elusive snow leopard. But as the full house drawn to his 'Going Wild' lecture Wed., Apr. 4 at the University of Calgary can attest to, when it comes to Keating, there is clearly more than meets the eye.

Only several minutes into his presentation, Keating quickly shed his mild-mannered exterior as images of grinning mountain guides, enormous peaks and snow leopard urine flashed across the screen. Keating's lecture revolved around his many travels as head of conservation outreach at the Calgary Zoo, and was sponsored by the Students' Union and University of Calgary Ecoclub.

"I've been traveling the world now for 30 years and all of my focus has been on places where there's some of the best wildlife-watching in the world," said Keating. "When I come back, I come back with a story of hope. We have a huge problem facing us now with the disappearance of habitats, global climate change and so on, but I want to show people that there's still a lot out there. What I want to do is inspire people and get them excited about nature."

After serving as the education director at the Calgary Zoo for 15 years, Keating entered his current position inspired by the progress being made internationally by other zoological societies.

"I realized then that there were lots of zoos doing amazing things, not just caging animals," said Keating. "I realized that there was maybe something else I could do at the zoo, and ever since then it's been a whirlwind. Zoos are starting to think of different ways of affecting the world. If you want to be a progressive zoo, it's your duty to be involved in conservation work."

Keating went on to list the numerous partnerships the Calgary Zoo has developed since the inception of their conservation program, including a panda breeding centre in China, and more recently, a hippo sanctuary in West Africa.

The Calgary Zoo's conservation program is also associated with a number of other conservation organizations and independent researchers.

"In the course of five years, the numbers of zoos involved in active conservation has doubled," continued Keating. "It's very exciting because collectively, if you look at the total budget money those zoos invest, it's huge. It's millions and millions of dollars, so zoos now are doing effective work."

Keating's presentation chronicled his many adventures, including his recent outing to Northern India in search of the world's most mysterious carnivore: the snow leopard.

Accompanied by renowned field biologist and photographer George Schaller, Keating journeyed to remote mountain villages to learn about the peaceful coexistence between snow leopards and the mountain range's indigenous population, despite the obvious threat posed to their livestock.

"These are people that live with snow leopards," Keating said. "They are actually living with them, not killing them. It can actually be done. People are realizing that now is the time to start changing. If we don't, we're going to lose a lot of the wildlife and areas that we hold special to our hearts."

In addition to his current role as head of conservation outreach at the Calgary Zoo, a position he noted was created for him, Keating has also become a prominent figure in the conservation community.

Coupled with his extensive travels, Keating has worked with CBC Radio, the Discovery Channel and published several books, all advocating protection of the world's remaining wild spaces.

"We have 6.5 billion people on the planet," said Keating. "If we don't get our collective act together and try to find a way to live with wild creatures that are still on this planet, we're going to lose them. I think zoos can have a very powerful voice in getting public attention focused towards doing good conservation work. If we use that effectively and carefully, it gives us an amazing opportunity to talk to a lot of people."

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