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Earth Expeditions: Participating in Community-Based Conservation in Kenya – Part I

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. Please join me for a series of blog posts about our experience.

Earth Expeditions students with Amboseli game scouts in Kenya

Earth Expeditions students with Amboseli game scouts in Kenya

Day 1:

We met up with the class at the Wildebeest Eco-camp in Nairobi on July 27, and spent the first day getting to know each other and learning about the role of the African Conservation Centre (ACC) in supporting community conservation efforts in Kenya from its Director, Lucy Wauringi. The students also led their first group discussion on inquiry and participatory education.

Lucy Wairungi, ACC Director, addresses the class (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Lucy Wairungi, ACC Director, addresses the class (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Day 2:

The next morning we hit the road in a huge overland vehicle and spent the better part of the day driving down to the Amboseli Game Scout Camp, located just outside of Amboseli National Park. We pitched our tents in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro, had our second group discussion on African savannah ecology and bedded down for the night.

Standing by my tent in front of Mt. Kilimanjaro

Standing by my tent in front of Mt. Kilimanjaro

Day 3:

Up with the sun, we headed to Amboseli National Park for a full day of game driving. Before we even reached the park, we spotted plenty of wildlife from the giant giraffe to the tiny dik-dik antelope. Just inside the gate, we came across a bull elephant ambling alongside the road.

Bull elephant in Amboseli National Park (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Bull elephant in Amboseli National Park (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Bull elephant through the window (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Bull elephant through the window (Photo: Shasta Bray)

We would see many, many more elephants throughout the day from singles to large herds with multiple babies. Later that afternoon, Norah with the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, joined our game drive and shared her research on elephant behavior and social structure with us. Currently, there are about 1,500 elephants that use the park and she knows each one by name!

Young elephant nursing (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Young elephant nursing (Photo: Shasta Bray)

There must have been more than 40 elephants in this herd! (Photo: Shasta Bray)

There must have been more than 40 elephants in this herd! (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Norah with the Amboseli Elephant Research Project explains how they identify individual elephants by their ears (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Norah with the Amboseli Elephant Research Project explains how they identify individual elephants by their ears (Photo: Shasta Bray)

At lunch, we drove up to Observation Hill overlooking the swamp and heard from Dr. David Western, former Director of Kenya Wildlife Service and founder of the African Conservation Centre (ACC). Dr. Western has studied the relationship between people and wildlife in Kenya for more than 40 years. With more than 75% of Kenya’s wildlife living outside of protected areas, he promotes human-wildlife co-existence and community-based conservation as the way to protect the African savannah and its wildlife.

Observation Hill and the surrounding swamp in Amboseli National Park (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Observation Hill and the surrounding swamp in Amboseli National Park (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Dr. David Western talks with our group atop Observation Hill (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Dr. David Western talks with our group atop Observation Hill (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Day 4:

This morning, we joined the Amboseli game scouts on their daily patrol. Each day, they cover a lot of ground on foot looking for signs of poachers like unusual footprints and snares. Along the way, they showed us how to identify animal tracks and dung, pointed out dung beetle balls and smiled at us patiently when our clothes got caught on the thorny “wait-a-bit” bushes.

Abrehem shows us a dung beetle ball (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Abrehem shows us a dung beetle ball (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Then it was time for a short flight on a 12-seater airplane to our next destination. As we flew northwest towards Magadi, the view from the window was amazing. You can clearly see how the Maasai and their livestock literally share the same space with wildlife as their bomas, or homesteads, are sprinkled throughout the landscape. If you look carefully, you can even pick out tiny dots of mostly brown and white as cattle, sheep, goats and wildlife walk along their trails.

Students get ready to board the plane (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Students get ready to board the plane (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Maasai boma as seen from the plane (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Maasai boma as seen from the plane (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Livestock crossing the landscape as seen from plane  (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Livestock crossing the landscape as seen from plane (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Just before landing, we flew over Lake Magadi, a soda lake popular with flamingos. (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Just before landing, we flew over Lake Magadi, a soda lake popular with flamingos. (Photo: Shasta Bray)

When we landed, three land cruisers were waiting to take us on the last leg of our journey across very bumpy roads to the Olkirimatian conservancy, a group ranch communally owned by Maasai pastoralists and home to the Lale’enok Resource Centre.

Welcome to Lale'enok Resource Centre

Welcome to Lale’enok Resource Centre

A product of SORALO (South Rift Association of Land Owners) and ACC, Lale’enok serves as a hub for the local Maasai community and research partners from which various community-based research and conservation programs run. The Zoo has supported Lale’enok and its programs for many years, and has brought Earth Expeditions students to participate in them since 2008. Here is where we spent the rest of our time in Kenya engaging with our conservation partners.

To be continued in a future blog post. Check back soon!

July 29, 2015   No Comments

Come Celebrate International Tiger Day on July 29!

This coming Wednesday, July 29, is International Tiger Day, and the Cat Canyon keepers and volunteers are gearing up for our 2nd annual celebration. We will also be celebrating the birthday of our Malayan tigers, Taj and Who-Dey. They will turn eight years old on July 30.

Tiger! (Photo: Mark Dumont)

Tiger! (Photo: Mark Dumont)

Like last year, keepers and volunteers will be on hand at the Malayan tiger exhibit to talk with guests about tigers and how we can help save this critically endangered species of which scientists estimate there are less than 350 individuals remaining in the wild. (The total estimate of all tiger subspecies combined is less than 3,200 remaining in the wild.)

Celebrating International Tiger Day in 2014 (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Celebrating International Tiger Day in 2014 (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Why are Malayan tigers in such big trouble? The most immediate threat today is from poaching and the illegal wildlife trade in tiger body parts used in traditional Asian medicine. The loss of forests on which tigers rely, which are rapidly being converted to palm oil plantations, is another major threat. Add to that the competition with hunters for sambar deer and other natural prey, which can lead tigers to attack livestock and increase conflict with people.

Tiger (Photo: Moni Sertel)

Tiger (Photo: Moni Sertel)

Since 2006, Panthera, a leading conservation organization focused on wild cats, has led the charge to stabilize and restore wild cat populations across the globe, including tigers. Panthera’s approach is to put as many boots on the ground as possible to protect tigers as well as promote co-existence between tigers and people.

The Zoo has pledged support to Panthera’s Tigers Forever program, which trains local rangers to patrol forests, gather intelligence and arrest poachers. In 2014, Tigers Forever added three new sites for a total of 15 sites under protection. This represents 36% of the world’s critical tiger sites. Panthera’s goal is to expand Tigers Forever to 50% of these sites by 2016.

New camera technology is also being deployed to prevent poaching. Panthera’s Technology team has developed the V5W PoacherCam, a hidden camera that uses an imaging algorithm to distinguish people from wildlife. When a person is detected, the PoacherCam instantly transmits the image to law enforcement who can immediately respond to the threat. PoacherCams will be distributed to Tigers Forever sites beginning in 2016.

Taj and Who-Dey relaxing in their pool (Photo: Kathy Newton)

Taj and Who-Dey relaxing in their pool (Photo: Kathy Newton)

Meanwhile, here at the Zoo, our Malayan tiger brothers, Taj and Who-Dey, continue to impress guests and help us spread awareness of the need for tiger conservation. We invite you to come celebrate International Tiger Day with us on July 29. In addition to talking with our keepers and volunteers and seeing Taj and Who-Dey, you can compare your hands to tiger paw prints, see example of tiger enrichment items (e.g. toys), and participate in the tigers’ birthday fun. Roar!

Roar! (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

Roar! (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

July 27, 2015   No Comments

Zoo Educator Heading to the Galapagos as a 2015 National Geographic Grosvenor Fellow

I am excited to announce that I’ve been selected as a 2015 National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellow. Every year, K-12 educators (formal and informal) are encouraged to apply for this professional development opportunity that allows them to bring immersive geographic learning experiences back to their classrooms and communities. Last year, my colleague in the Zoo’s Education Department, Sarah Navarro, was a Fellow and traveled to the Canadian Maritimes. This year, it’s my turn.  I am one of 35 educators from the United States and Canada to receive this honor this year in recognition of my commitment to geographic education here at the Zoo (out of a pool of 2,700 applicants). Read about all of the Fellows here.

2015 National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellows  (Photo: Mark Thiessen)

2015 National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellows (Photo: Mark Thiessen)

In September, I will embark on a Lindblad voyage for one-of-a-kind field experience, accompanied by Lindblad-National Geographic expedition experts. I will be traveling on a 10-day expedition aboard the National Geographic Endeavour to the Galapagos, and I couldn’t be more excited!

National Geographic Endeavour sailing in the Galapagos (Photo: Michael S. Nolan)

National Geographic Endeavour sailing in the Galapagos (Photo: Michael S. Nolan)

The Galapagos is a unique ecosystem with an equally compelling history. I’ve read (and will continue to until I embark) about the region’s geology, ecology, wildlife and human history, but travelling to the actual place will really bring those ideas to life. I’m keenly interested in understanding how all the biotic and abiotic components interact with each other to provide a big picture of the region as well as learning how each component is designed to survive in this place. I’m also very curious to learn about conservation on the islands.

Snorkel with Galapagos sea lions? I'm in! (Photo: Michael S Nolan)

Snorkel with Galapagos sea lions? I’m in! (Photo: Michael S Nolan)

During the expedition, I expect to build my knowledge through first-hand experiences such as hiking and snorkeling as well as from interactions with the Expeditions staff and fellow travelers. I’m particularly looking forward to a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station to learn about their tortoise conservation efforts. I plan to keep a detailed journal as well as take a LOT of photos.

This could be me in September, taking pictures of giant tortoises! (Photo: Walt Denson)

This could be me in September, taking pictures of giant tortoises! (Photo: Walt Denson)

My primary responsibility here at the Zoo is to plan and create interpretive exhibits and experiences that connect people to nature and inspire them to respect and conserve it. This expedition will provide me with new and exciting first-hand knowledge of the wildlife and ecology of the Galapagos Islands that I can incorporate into authentic learning experiences for guests, particularly at our Galapagos tortoise and bird exhibits.

On April 15, another of the Fellows from Cincinnati, Dawnetta Hayes, and I were invited to share our news on WVXU’s Cincinnati Edition with Mark Heyne. That was a new experience for me, too! You can listen to the podcast here.

Pre-voyage interview with Mark Heyne on WVXU's Cincinnati Edition (Photo: Brian Jorg)

Pre-voyage interview with Mark Heyne on WVXU’s Cincinnati Edition (Photo: Brian Jorg)

Prior to our expeditions, all 35 of the Fellows traveled to National Geographic Society’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., in April to participate in hands-on workshops covering photography and outreach planning. We had the opportunity to meet Lindblad Expeditions’ naturalists and National Geographic staff as well as get to know each other and several of the previous year’s Fellows.

Here I am at National Geographic headquarters in D.C.

Here I am at National Geographic headquarters in D.C.

This year marks the ninth year of the Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program, established to honor former National Geographic Society Chairman Gilbert M. Grosvenor’s lifetime commitment to geographic education. The program began with two Fellows in 2007 and has grown each year. The expeditions were donated in perpetuity to the National Geographic Society by Sven-Olof Lindblad and Lindblad Expeditions to mark Grosvenor’s 75th birthday in 2006 and to honor his service to enhancing and improving geographic education across the United States. (Additional support for the 2015 program is provided by Google and private funders.)

Sven-Olof Lindblad actually gave a presentation here at the Zoo in May as part of our Barrows Conservation Lecture Series, and I was very happy to connect with him then. He gave a fantastic talk about the importance of travel and direct experiences to opening people’s eyes and minds and hearts to the wonder of our natural world and the interconnections between themselves and the people and wildlife of faraway places. Our world is changing and we need to be global citizens to ensure its sustainability.

Former Fellow Sarah Navarro, current Fellow Janet Shedd (from Lexington) and I introduce Sven-Olof Lindblad to Gabriel the potto prior to his presentation.

Former Fellow Sarah Navarro, current Fellow Janet Shedd (from Lexington) and I introduce Sven-Olof Lindblad to Gabriel the potto prior to his presentation.

As the date of my voyage approaches, I’ll be reading and absorbing as much as I can about the Galapagos Islands in preparation, and I will be sure to share my experience through pictures and stories after I return from the expedition in October.

I can't wait to see these blue-footed boobies in action! (Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins)

I can’t wait to see these blue-footed boobies in action! (Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins)

May 29, 2015   3 Comments