Who's who at the zoo: meet Dr. Axel Moehrenschlager

Sep 16, 2014

As part of our “Who’s who at the zoo” series we spoke with Dr. Axel Moehrenschlager, Head of the Centre for Conservation & Research. Dr. Moehrenschlager works with a dedicated team here at the zoo to carry out important conservation projects, as well as liaises with other worldwide conservation institutions to ensure that the Calgary Zoo continues to become Canada’s leader in wildlife conservation.

Q: What training and career lead to your work at the Calgary Zoo?

I took my Undergrad education at the University of Alberta, and received a Bachelor of Science in Zoology. Around that time I did several work terms, and a period working for Parks Canada at Wood Buffalo National Park led me to my first hands on work with endangered species. This included my first experiences with species reintroduction-specifically I worked with the peregrine falcon and the whooping crane in the wild.

I then earned my PhD in 2001 at the University of Oxford in their Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, which is one of the premier university based conservation centers in the world. While I was living in England, I received a call from the Calgary Zoo and was asked to apply for their Conservation Research Coordinator position. After working in that position for several years, in 2003 we founded the Centre for Conservation Research, and in 2013 it has grown again with a larger mandate to become the Centre for Conservation & Research.

Q: Did you always want to work at the zoo:

Not necessarily. But I wanted to work somewhere where I could use science to help conservation affect the world. I have learned that zoos can do that, and that there is a huge potential at the Calgary Zoo to make a difference - now more than ever.

Q: What does your group do?

We specialize in two things: reintroduction of species, and community conservation. These might seem counterintuitive to the classical perspective of zoos because we specialize in releasing animals for conservation gains to the wild.  Also, we don’t just work with animals, we work with people to achieve significant gains for both nature and human livelihoods.

We’re increasingly in a world leading role in reintroduction; we return species to wild places where they’ve gone extinct in the past. While zoos are best known for their animals, we specialize in working with people in communities to affect change. In community conservation we really are balancing two of our generation’s greatest challenges- alleviating poverty in communities, and enacting biodiversity conservation.

Q: Tell us about your team?

Our Conservation & Research team is the best team that I’ve had during my time at the Calgary Zoo. I’m very privileged, because they are very skilled and passionate about what they do. They work harmoniously as a team, and are both ambitious and selfless.

Q: What do you love most about the zoo?

I love that we have an ambitious vision to make real difference in the world, and I believe that it’s possible to be Canada’s leader in wildlife conservation if we focus on our strengths, which are the reintroduction of endangered species, and conservation strategies that empower communities to make a difference

Q: What is your favourite animal at the zoo?

It would have to be the Swift Fox. We don’t have them in habitats on grounds at this time, but I worked with them for 23 years, and did my PhD work on them. They’re really engaging.

Q: Who is the most interesting person that you’ve ever met?

I would say the Head of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, Dr. Simon Stewart. He’s a passionate naturalist, an excellent academic, a diplomat, and an effective communicator. He oversees the primary IUCN group in charge of influencing conservation across the globe. Dr. Stewart is very pragmatic, and he understands how best to affect change in our world.

Q: Where in the world do you want to visit?

My wife and I dream of going to Nepal.

Q: What is the thing that you haven’t done yet that you most want to?


Q: What has been your most life changing experience?

Personally it would be getting married and having three kids. Professionally it would be going to the University of Oxford- doing so changed my whole perspective; I realized that there were other people doing great things around the globe, and that anything is possible.  Now I don’t assume any personal limits, and I am passionate and ambitious to make a difference. More recently, I was also appointed as the Chair of the IUCN Reintroduction Specialist Group; that has reopened my perspective on global conservation, and exposed me to networks of incredible conservation leaders around the world.

Q: What message do you have for visitors to the zoo?

It would be that species and ecosystems around the world need your help, and that we have the skills and the power to save anything that we want to- we just need to have the desire and the will to make a difference for nature and for people. We’ve shown that there is hope for genuine change.