Leah Melber and Katie Gillespie (center) post with students at Niger's Park W school as part of their outreach trip for the zoo's Community of Conservation partnership.
Leah and I were lucky to experience many wonderful things during our short time in Niger, like seeing hippos in the wild and meeting staff at the National Museum of Niger Boubou Hama. For me, one of the most memorable experiences was connecting with students at Park W's primary school, which serves students in the villages surrounding the park.
During our stay, the Park W students put on a play about wetlands, and a young girl recited a poem about the value of trees. As part of their instruction at the Park W school, students have the opportunity to visit the park and view the elephants, lions, hornbills, waterbuck and other wildlife.
Certainly these opportunities are not lost on them. I'm told by our colleagues here that these students are educating their parents about the importance of Park W and its resources—telling them not to cut down trees or graze their cattle on park lands.
To say these young students were inspiring was an understatement. They were the perfect ambassadors for a setting that highlights Niger's amazing beauty. And it got me thinking about the importance of childhood experiences in fostering positive attitudes toward the natural world.
The environmental education literature certainly supports this notion, but it's also something I identify with personally; I took the first of many camping trips with my family when I was just 6 months old, and I spent many summers with my nose pressed to the glass of the tiger exhibit at the Milwaukee County Zoo (I still remember the name of my favorite tiger, Shandar.)
Theses experiences were instrumental in shaping my career and also explain one of the many reasons I'm so proud to work at Lincoln Park Zoo, where we try to provide similar positive experiences to connect people with nature. I’m particularly glad to be involved with the MCCA grant in which students from Chicago and Niger are doing just that—observing nature both at zoos and in their own backyard.
I hope they will share these experiences with those around them, just as the kids at Park W are doing. I feel very blessed to have met what is surely the next generation of zoologists and conservationists here in Niger.
Katie Gillespie is Lincoln Park Zoo's conservation programs manager. Her trip—and the entire outreach project—is generously funded by the American Association of Museums and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ Museums & Community Collaborations Abroad (MCAA) program.