Lisa Otsubo Yook ’94, Executive Director of Conservation Operations at the Wildlife Conservation Society, spent a morning speaking with Middle and Upper School students about her work around the world.
Yook’s visit to Spence included a small-group conversation with Dr. Brandon Kraft’s Upper School science students. The discussion was moderated by seniors Indira T. and Lucy R., who asked Yook a range of questions about her work for the Global Conservation Program. Yook then spoke at the Upper and Middle School assemblies, discussing her career path and the work she does to support cross-disciplinary conservation efforts worldwide.
In her current role, Yook works to support the programs globally, including 260 protected areas across 14 regions and 45 countries, as well as the New York City-based zoos and aquarium.
“My work in operations is about helping ensure that our global programs are running smoothly, we have the funding to operate our programs, and we’re being as efficient as possible so that our folks around the world can focus on the important work at hand,” said Yook, noting that the Wildlife Conservation Society employs about 4,000 people total, 2,000 of whom work internationally.
“We keep wildlife at the core of our mission,” Yook continued before explaining that a major part of the organization’s work is protecting wildlife and the places they live.
“We protect those places, not just for the species that live there, but for the people that live in and around those protected areas,” she added. “They depend on the natural resources for their livelihoods, and…for the health of our planet, because we want to maintain healthy, functional ecosystems.”
Yook noted that the Wildlife Conservation Society also works to counter the international illegal wildlife trade. She explained that the organization employs teams working “to understand where the demand [for wildlife products] is coming from, how to intercept and break up these networks and how to reduce demand…through education and policy reform.” “We want to close down ivory markets for example, so we’re working with governments to shut them down in their countries.”
“We are often involved in busts or seizures at airports or ports,” Yook shared, noting that they often work closely with customs, INTERPOL and many others to support their efforts. “We have to work well with governments and communities in order to be effective.”
During the Q&A period at the end of Yook’s lectures, students had the opportunity to ask a range of questions about her work.
One Upper School student wanted to know how the Wildlife Conservation Society is funded.
“The U.S. government has been our largest funding source, but over the last couple of years, we’re getting more funding from European countries, so our funding mix is diversified,” Yook responded.
Other Upper School students asked Yook about whether the Wildlife Conservation Society is involved in any domestic legislation efforts.
“We’re working not only domestically, but also on international policies to…influence laws that will help species protection,” said Yook, who noted that in the United States, “We’re following what’s going on with the Endangered Species Act” in light of recent changes to the law.
At the Middle School Assembly, a student asked, “How do you gather information about animal poachers?”
“One of our tactics is to work with local communities around the places where we work and develop informant networks,” said Yook. “Using those networks, we gather information, and we work with law enforcement, the police and the judicial system to ensure that they are caught and prosecuted.”
Other students were curious about why Yook decided to work for the Wildlife Conservation Society and about her favorite parts of the job.
Yook, who’s been to 35 countries, including many for work, noted that she is “amazed by the wildlife” and “[enjoys] traveling and the opportunities…to see some of these amazing places…and make sure that they’re still there” for her family and future generations to enjoy.
“I know I’m having a small impact on ensuring that, in the future, more baby tigers and baby gorillas will be born in the wild,” Yook said.
“That’s thanks to all of our collective effort,” she added, emphasizing that Spence students can be part of creating change.
Spence students who would like to follow in Yook’s footsteps can look forward to many opportunities to immerse themselves in ecology as Spence further deepens its schoolwide learning experiences in the field in preparation for the opening of the Eco Center at the Spence 412 facility
next fall. The newly launched Eco Fellows program, a three-year interdisciplinary experience for Upper Schoolers interested in environmental studies, is just one of many ways Spence students will be able to engage in conservation and ecology work. Spence’s new City Sustainability Experience (SCSE) summer camp is another such initiative, offering students in Grades 5-7 the opportunity to engineer solutions to New York City’s most pressing sustainability challenges such as rising sea levels, water and food insecurity, and poor air quality.
“I think we can all make a difference,” Yook said. “Conservation isn’t just about science and research. All kinds of skills are needed…to help us tackle these challenges.”