Conservation Program Manager Katie Gillespie and Director of Student and Teacher Programs Leah Melber, Ph.D., at Park W.
After three days in Niger, it amazes me how much we have been able to accomplish and the incredible connections that are happening.
The very name of the grant program that has brought us here contains the word "connection," and since arriving in Niger I have become even more aware of how important that personally relevant connection is to conserving species and inspiring people to care for the environment.
Yesterday and today we spent time in Park W, which, as you may have read in a past blog, is a national park that spreads over three different countries: Niger, Benin and Burkina Faso. (Don't feel bad if you had to look at an atlas to find one of those three countries; I wasn’t familiar with all the nations that make up western Africa either until I started preparing our project application!). Like travellers before us, we saw an amazing array of wildlife, from a tree full of yellow weaver birds and their nests to warthogs, which hold their tails straight up as they run away from the sound of a vehicle.
Weaver birds at Park W.
But what my traveling companion Katie Gillespie and I kept pointing out to our Nigerien partners again and again were the two animals we saw that also live in Lincoln Park Zoo: waterbuck and the red-billed hornbill. Both were fairly common in the park, and we felt a special connection each time we saw them—we know about THOSE! Sure, that African buffalo is impressive…but those are HORNBILLS like the ones WE HAVE!
Knowing its "cousins" at Lincoln Park Zoo prompted a deeper connection to this waterbuck at Park W.
We aren't alone in the tendency to connect to something familiar. Educational research shows that when we can make a personal connection, we often see greater learning and increased interest in a topic. As part of the Community of Conservation grant, Nigerien students were able to travel to this same park for the first time. As they’re urban residents, like their peers at Francis W. Parker School, this was an incredible opportunity for them. We hear they quickly noticed the many guinea fowl at the park and immediately made connections to their guinea fowl observations at the National Museum of Niger Boubou Hama. Pretty impressive when you realize they also saw elephants on that same trip, but the modest guinea fowl was still noticed and appreciated.
For conservation efforts to be successful, we need folks worldwide to see the relevance of the natural environment to their lives and thus see the importance of protecting it. In short, making connections. Projects like Community of Conservation encourage youth to explore areas of personal interest. At Lincoln Park Zoo, we help connect the work of our own conservation researchers to the general public by leading programs and encouraging you to come out and connect with nature in whatever way you most enjoy by experiencing places like Nature Boardwalk.
In our last days here we’ll go visit the last herd of free-roaming giraffes in the country, and I'm sure I’ll immediately compare them to the giraffes that make their home at Lincoln Park Zoo. What we’re most excited about, though, is attending the culminating event for the project where each Nigerien student will share what they have learned about the nature of Chicago, the amazing biodiversity in their own backyard and how they personally were able to connect through participation in this project. Many will present their own personal animal-specific research...I wonder if anyone observed a red-billed hornbill.
Leah Melber, Ph.D., is Lincoln Park Zoo's director of student and teacher programs. 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.