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Category — Earth Expeditions

Pondering the Coexistence of People and Wildlife on World Lion Day

Today is World Lion Day, a day to celebrate one of the most majestic and revered creatures on Earth. It is also a day to recognize that we need to take action to ensure the African lion population, with fewer than 20,000 lions remaining, has a future in the wild.

(Photo: Jeff McCurry)

(Photo: Jeff McCurry)

In the South Rift Valley of Kenya, lion populations are growing, while elsewhere across the continent, they are in severe decline. The difference is testament to a human-wildlife coexistence approach taken by the Maasai South Rift Association of Landowners (SORALO) out of the Lale’enok Resource Centre.

At the heart of the program is a cadre of local Maasai who are employed as Resource Assessors (RA) to collect and apply ecological information directly relevant to community livelihoods, conservation and development. For example, the Rebuilding the Pride team of RAs monitor lion activity daily through various tracking methods. They share the information with local livestock herders, which enables the herders to make informed decisions on where to graze with minimal chance of conflict with lions.

The Resource Assessors team at Lale'enok Resource Centre

The Resource Assessors team at Lale’enok Resource Centre

Over the past nine years, the Cincinnati Zoo has supported the growth and innovation of the Centre and its programs. This past year, thanks to a grant through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Conservation Grants Fund and Disney Conservation Fund, the Zoo supported the training of Resource Assessors to develop new, effective ways to collect and communicate information about human-wildlife coexistence to communities in the South Rift.

In June, the Zoo’s COO, David Jenike, and I traveled to the South Rift to lead a Community Educators Workshop for the RAs. The purpose of the workshop was to train the RAs on how to more effectively share and disseminate the information they collect to the local community, schoolchildren and visiting international audiences. We spent several days with the group of 14 RAs, discussing and practicing education outreach and community engagement techniques and skills.

RAs work on developing an educational presentation during the workshop

RAs work on developing an educational presentation during the workshop

Following the workshop, Dave and I then taught the annual Kenya Earth Expeditions (EE) course. For more than 10 years, the Zoo has partnered with Miami University’s Project Dragonfly to lead graduate courses that take educators into the field to experience community-based conservation, participatory education and inquiry firsthand. The Kenya EE course focuses on co-existence between people and wildlife, and we spend the better part of our time in country working with the SORALO team at the Lale’enok Resource Centre. Having just completed the education workshop, the RAs were eager to try out their new communication skills with our EE students. They did a fabulous job, and I can’t wait to see how much more they develop over time.

The Rebuilding the Pride team of RAs teach Earth Expedition students how to track radio-collared lions

The Rebuilding the Pride team of RAs teach Earth Expedition students how to track radio-collared lions

Across the greater part of their range in Africa, lions are not faring as well as they are in the Kenya’s South Rift Valley. We hope that SORALO’s efforts to promote coexistence between people and lions can serve as a model for communities in other regions.

A radio-collared lioness named Nasha and her daughter being monitored by the RAs

A radio-collared lioness named Nasha and her daughter being monitored by the RAs

Here at the Zoo, we share the story of coexistence between people and wildlife on the African savannah with guests through our Africa exhibit and related education programs. The next time you visit, as you’re watching Henry and Bibi the hippos swim underwater, crushing on Cora the brand new baby giraffe, and admiring John and Imani the lions up close through the glass, I encourage you to reflect on the bigger picture. All of these animals you connect with at the Zoo have counterparts in the wild that rely on the capacity of our own human species to maintain a healthy planet and share our space with them.

Guests visit John and Imani in the Africa exhibit (Photo: Mark Dumont)

Guests visit John and Imani in the Africa exhibit (Photo: Mark Dumont)

August 10, 2016   1 Comment

An Advanced Inquiry Program Graduate’s Look Back

The Zoo congratulates all of its recent graduates of the Advanced Inquiry Program (AIP)! Did you know you can earn your Master’s Degree at the Zoo? Applications for the next year’s cohort are due on February 28.

Here is what one of our 2015 graduates, Faith Hilterbrand, has to say about the influence the AIP program has had on both her personal and professional life.

Guest blogger: Faith Hilterbrand (AIP-CZBG ‘15)

Have you ever had the feeling of being in just the right place, at just the right time?  I had been a junior high science teacher for seven years when Cincinnati Zoo’s Master’s program with Miami University’s Project Dragonfly appeared in my email.  I skimmed it, flagged it and thought “I’ll check this out later.”  So there it was, every day when I opened my email, and I finally gave it the attention it deserved.  As I began reading, idea after idea popped into my head and suddenly I was excited to apply.  Upon acceptance into the Advanced Inquiry Program (AIP) at the Cincinnati Zoo, a new challenge was thrown my way as I took a new position teaching high school life sciences.  I mean if you are going to test new waters, you may as well dive in!

The AIP quickly taught me how long it had been since I had felt the pressure of being a student.  I had to learn how to find balance while also still producing work that I was proud of at my job and in the classroom.  I often felt just like my students when faced with a new assignment, which helped me to be a better, more compassionate teacher.  The class meetings held at the Cincinnati Zoo were a time for learning and enthralling experiences, getting to see the animals up close and personal, but more importantly, I received support from classmates and instructors.  It was encouraging to know others felt as I did, and the collaborative approach to the coursework made a more significant impact on myself and each of our communities.  The focus on inquiry, scientific experimentation, and technical writing were all skills that were developed due to the coursework in the AIP and made me a more effective science teacher in preparing my students for their next academic step.  What I was not prepared for was the change it would evoke in my career aspirations and personal goals.

Learning about the Zoo's American burying beetle reintroduction project

Learning about the Zoo’s American burying beetle reintroduction project

The Advanced Inquiry Program has served as the cornerstone of change for my professional life.  The most amazing aspect is that I had zero intentions of that when I began the program.  The instructors and classmates that I was exposed to in Dragonfly, both at the Cincinnati Zoo and in online courses, were the source of inspiration that began to challenge my previously conceived career notions.  Suddenly, I was surrounded by people with a variety of ages, experiences, current work positions, and geographic locations, and I gained the courage to step outside the typical predetermined teaching path.  As I became acquainted with fellow Dragonflyer’s, I realized my own desire for professional growth and change.

Presenting results from a wetland inquiry with fellow AIP students

Presenting results from a wetland inquiry with fellow AIP students

That is the beauty of the Advanced Inquiry Program – I was able to tailor my learning to meet my professional needs and open new doors in the future.  I travelled the world, created my own internship, and gained invaluable knowledge and networking opportunities that connected education with conservation.  I knew moving forward that my teaching background would prove instrumental in taking the fork in my career path instead of staying the course.  As I have taken a year to reflect, explore, and dream of my next position, it is all the people associated with the AIP and Project Dragonfly that have encouraged and challenged me to follow my own path.

Meeting a cinereous vulture following a field course in Mongolia

Meeting a cinereous vulture following a field course in Mongolia

January 7, 2016   1 Comment

Earth Expeditions: Participating in Community-based Conservation in Kenya – Part V (Final)

For more than 10 years, the Zoo has partnered with Miami University’s Project Dragonfly to lead graduate courses that take educators into the field to experience community-based conservation, participatory education and inquiry firsthand. This year, I had the fortunate opportunity to co-facilitate Earth Expeditions Kenya: People and Wildlife in Integrated Landscapes with Dave Jenike, the Zoo’s COO. We took 17 educators with us, including formal classroom teachers as well as informal educators from zoos and similar institutions. This is the fifth and final post in a series about our experience. Read the previous post in this blog series here.

Day 8:

Today was Community Day! Following a wrap-up of the ecological monitoring projects and our last group discussion on balancing human land use and conservation in the morning, the afternoon brought us a special treat. Students from various local schools were transported to Lale’enok Resource Centre for a cultural day. Other community members, including Maasai elders and members of the Women’s Group, came to partake in the festivities as well. The students presented on the theme of “Water is Life” in the form of traditional song, dance, poetry and debate. They even invited us to join them in some of the dancing.

Schoolgirls singing a traditional song (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Schoolgirls singing a traditional song (Photo: Shasta Bray)

I had prepared the Earth Expeditions group that they might want to come up with a presentation of their own. In years past, groups ended up singing silly songs like the Hokey Pokey. This year, one of the students, Jen, brought the idea of doing the BioBlitz Dance. The Bioblitz Dance was originally created for National Geographic’s Bioblitz Event and is a celebration of the outdoors, human diversity and biodiversity, and national parks. I’m not sure it was any less silly than the Hokey Pokey, but at least it had a connection to people and wildlife. The best thing it did was break down barriers between the local community and our students, make everyone laugh and smile, and allowed us to do something in return.

Earth Expeditions students perform the Bioblitz dance. I believe this move is called "the turkey vulture". (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Earth Expeditions students perform the Bioblitz Dance. I believe this move is called “the turkey vulture”. (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Later that afternoon once the students had departed, we had the chance to mingle and have small group conversations with the community members. No topic was off limits, and they were just as curious about us and our culture as we were about theirs. We talked about marriage, family and more. Everyone was so open and friendly.

Conversation between Earth Expeditions students and local community members (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Conversation between Earth Expeditions students and local community members (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Soon, we all moved to the campfire for a traditional Maasai dinner featuring fire-roasted goat. There was much more conversation, singing, dancing and star gazing before heading to our tents for the night.

Day 9:

Our last full day in the South Rift began with an early morning walk just after sunrise to a ravine overlooking the river. We walked down to the riverbank and spent some time hanging out and reflecting on all the wonderful experiences we’d had so far. On the way back, a lone hyena burst out of the bush just ahead of us and booked it across the dirt road. Amazing!

Ewaso Ng'iro river (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Ewaso Ng’iro river (Photo: Shasta Bray)

We finished up the last of our coursework with a discussion about what the students planned to do for their Inquiry Action Projects once we returned home and how it fit into their Master Plans for those in the graduate program.

Then it was time to shop! Another way we can support the community and their conservation efforts is to support their livelihoods. As a group, we had the chance to purchase a variety of hand-crafted jewelry, belts, shukas (colorful cloths) and more directly from the women who made them.

Jen Rydzewski picking out her purchases (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Jen Rydzewski picking out her purchases (Photo: Shasta Bray)

At the Zoo, we have created a Lions and Livelihoods Bracelets program. More than 200 local Maasai women showed up to sell us bracelets made in a particular design to symbolize the coexistence of people and wildlife. Each color represents an integral component: red stands for lions, black for the Maasai people, blue for peace and white for clarity. Guests can then purchase these bracelets back at the Zoo. Revenue goes back to the Olkirimatian Women’s Group to provide tuition for local school girls and contribute to the operation of the Lale’enok Resource Centre.

Inspecting Lions and Livelihoods Bracelets (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Inspecting Lions and Livelihoods Bracelets (Photo: Shasta Bray)

We spent our last evening having a sundowner with the Lale’enok staff on top of a hill overlooking the South Rift and Mount Shompole. There were plenty of laughs, hugs and pictures as we said our farewells. It was a fantastic, life-changing expedition that no one will soon forget.

August 27, 2015   No Comments