Can Armadillos and Antelopes be Teachers of Conservation?

Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventure here on the Zoo’s website!

You may be wondering what a small, armored, animal from South America and a Central Asian antelope have in common. I had the same question when arriving at the San Diego Zoo last Wednesday. After spending some time with Ms. Colleen Ferguson, I discovered the answer: both animals are used to teach children about the importance of conservation.

Ms. Ferguson started off her presentation by giving a brief history of her career. After graduating from Texas A&M, Ms. Ferguson worked for both Disney and SeaWorld caring for and training animals. In 2014, Ms. Ferguson came to San Diego to work as an Educator at the Zoo. As an Educator, Ms. Ferguson works to inform the public about different conservation programs going on at the Zoo. A large part of being an educator entails giving presentations to schools, tour groups and summer camps to teach children the importance of conservation. At the center of the Zoo’s community outreach are the Zoo’s Animal Ambassadors. More specifically, animal ambassadors include animals that have been specially trained to be comfortable around the public. The thought behind the animal ambassadors is that people are able to make a connection with animals they will be more inclined to be conservation-minded. They encourage children to take an active role in protecting the environment because when kids interact with different animals they bond with the animal, and hopefully, feel a responsibility to preserve them.

In addition to working with school children throughout our local community, Ms. Ferguson also works internationally, partnering with groups all over the world in conservation efforts. More specifically, Ms. Ferguson informed us that in 2015, the Zoo partnered with the Saiga Conservation Alliance (SCA) to help protect and raise awareness about the saiga. Saiga are a species of antelope that has become critically endangered over the past 15 years, seeing nearly a 95% drop in population. Poaching is one of the leading causes for the decrease in their wild populations. Much like a rhino’s horn, saiga antlers are coveted for “medicinal” purposes. However, that being said, scientists have proven time and time again that the saiga’s antlers carry no medicinal properties. Additionally, saiga are one of the many species that have been the victims of climate change. In 2015, around 250,000 saiga suddenly perished due to an increase in temperature and humidity which caused fatal bacteria to spread through the wild populations.

Ms. Ferguson told us about a trip that she took last August to Uzbekistan, one of the few remaining habitats of saiga. While she was there, she helped to facilitate in the first Summer Wildlife Academy for Environmental Teachers in Nukus. The workshop was designed with the intent to provide teachers in Central Asia with all the materials they would need to best educate local children about the saiga. In order to be culturally appropriate and relevant, facilitators of the workshop, including Ms Ferguson, relied on locals to incorporate the Uzbek culture as much as possible. For example, during a school’s summer program, older students put on a puppet show telling the story of a migrating family of saiga and a poacher, who in the end learns to dance instead of hunt.

After listening to Ms. Ferguson’s experiences, we were able to meet one of the Zoo’s animal ambassadors; Bola, a three-banded armadillo. Throughout the presentation, Ms. Ferguson answered any questions we had about armadillos, and shared facts about Bola and the other armadillos residing at the Zoo. It was amusing to see Bola snuffle around in a search for bugs, and all of us felt a newfound sense of compassion for armadillos as well as a desire to protect them.

Watching Bola and listening to the story of the saiga showed us the important role the San Diego Zoo plays in conservation. From designing saiga themed coloring books for after school clubs in Central Asia to reaching out to children in San Diego who have never had the chance to visit the Zoo, the Zoo is indeed, as Ms. Ferguson puts it, a “hub of conservation education.” The opportunity to learn about and interact with animals will make people less likely to hurt them, and more likely to preserve and protect them.

James, Real World Team
Week One, Winter Session 2018

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