The Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens (LA Zoo) asked RK&A to explore ideas for the content and interpretation of a new Asian elephant exhibition under development by the LA Zoo and Portico Group. The evaluation was conducted to examine visitors’ perceptions, misconceptions, and knowledge of elephants and conservation issues facing elephants.
How did we approach this study?
RK&A believes that successful exhibitions result when staff combine their knowledge and expertise with the perspectives and perceptions of visitors. Therefore, RK&A designed a front-end study to find common ground between the content and potential visitors. In November 2006, we conducted 75 in-depth interviews with a random sample of English- and Spanish-speaking drop-in visitors. The interviewer asked visitors open-ended questions about the topic and also elicited their responses to statements and photo boards about elephants and conservation.
What did we learn?
Most visitors demonstrated some general knowledge of elephants; interviewees perceived elephants to be intelligent, social, and family-oriented animals that care for their young. Not surprisingly, many interviewees associated elephants with Africa rather than Asia. Some were under the impression that elephants in the wild live primarily in areas in Africa far from human population growth. Similarly, despite the fact that two-thirds of interviewees responded affirmatively to the statement “Human population growth is the main reason elephants are facing extinction,” many cited poaching as the main reason elephants face extinction. Some did not realize that increased human population and demand for natural resources negatively affect elephants.
What are the implications of the findings?
The data indicate that the LA Zoo could use comparison as a teaching strategy; comparing and contrasting Asian and African elephants (e.g., physical characteristics, behaviors, habitat needs, and conservation threats) would allow exhibit developers to close the gap between visitors’ preconceptions about elephants and the exhibition’s content. Furthermore, findings suggest that the exhibition content and interpretation would need to appear throughout the exhibition, rather than in one area, to reinforce the message that human-caused habitat loss is the primary threat facing elephants.