Linking Education, Conservation and Volunteering: A Docent’s Journey from West Africa to Her Hometown Zoo
Docent, Elmwood Park Zoo
In 2004 I decided to go back to school for my master’s degree in Education. I was hoping to find a program that would allow me to think and teach “outside of the box”. As I was waiting for my interview to begin, I glanced at a photograph hanging on the wall. Curious, I asked where the photograph was taken. My interviewer explained that it was taken in the rainforest of Bioko Island and the smiling group, participants in the annual Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program Caldera Expedition. I pressed on needing to know more. My interviewer, a member of the expedition team that year, was eager to share her adventure. Fascinated, I asked if there was some way I could earn my master’s degree in education while working with the program. After hearing my ideas, a short phone call was made to the biology department and the rest is history.
My new advisor, Dr. Gail Hearn, founder and director of BBPP was delighted to have a “mature” student to help crunch the sea turtle data that the locals had been collecting for several years. Eager to become a part of the expedition team, I agreed to the task although I knew absolutely nothing about sea turtles! So in addition to my required studies, I had to learn everything I could on my own about the gentle giants of the sea.
After a year and a half of data crunching, and needing field experience to complete my thesis, I packed my duffle bag, laced up my hiking boots and heading for Bioko Island. It is here that my journey begins.
The Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program (BBPP) is an academic partnership between Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA and the National University of Equatorial Guinea (UNGE) in Malabo. BBPP’s mission is the conservation of Bioko Island’s biodiversity, especially its critically endangered primates and nesting sea turtles, through the development of economically sustainable research programs and conservation activities. Education efforts include an international study abroad program based at the National University of Equatorial Guinea in the capital city of Malabo, on Bioko Island. The program unites UNGE and American students.
Each year BBPP conducts a three-week research expedition in January to Bioko Island’s remote, rarely visited, Gran Caldera de Luba and Southern Highlands Scientific Reserve to census endangered primates and nesting sea turtles. Approximately ten volunteer research assistants take part in two main activities: counting diurnal primates in the rainforest in the Caldera and census and tagging of sea turtles on the black sand beaches of the southern coast of Bioko Island. The expedition is a valuable source of field experience for those studying conservation biology, ecology, primatology or anthropology.
Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea is the largest of the four Gulf of Guinea islands (2027 km2) and the nearest to mainland Africa, situated 32 km off Cameroon. Four species of marine turtles (leatherback, Dermochelys coriacea; green, Chelonia mydas; olive ridley, Lepidochelys olivacea and, hawksbill, Eretmochelys imbricata) nest on the 15 km of black sand beaches along the island’s southern coast, which is within the legally protected
Gran Caldera and Southern Highlands Scientific Reserve. The remainder of Bioko’s 150 km coastline is either structurally unsuitable for nesting (~120 km of cliffs or narrow rocky beaches), or too close to roads and villages (approximately 15 km sandy beaches along the northern and western coast).
Steep terrain, the result of two volcanic peaks (Gran Caldera de Luba, 2260 m a.s.l. and Pico Biao, 2010 m a.s.l.) less than 10 km apart and within 15 km of the turtle beaches, plus the lack of nearby roads and villages protect the southern beaches of the island from most human predation. There is only one settlement, along the southern coast, Ureca, with a population of approximately 100 people. To reach the rest of the island, these villagers must either traverse a 20 km footpath that crosses a 1343m pass between the two volcanoes or wait for intermittent boat service (once or twice per month).
However, during the nesting season poachers arrive multiple times per month by boat Moraka Playa (~12 km west of Ureca and one of two places where boats can land along the southern coast) to harvest turtles, both on the beach (overturning them to prevent escape) and in the waters immediately offshore. Poachers are less interested in turtle eggs, but other predators including drill monkeys (Mandrillus leucophaeus), brush-tailed porcupines (Atherurus africanus), monitor lizards (Varanus niloticus), pied crows (Corvus albus), palm nut vultures (Gypohierax angolensis), ghost crabs (Ocypode spp.), ants, and Ureca village dogs take advantage of this seasonal food source (Tomás et al. 1999).
A few years ago, docents from Elmwood Park Zoo (EPZ) attended a program I presented on the sea turtles of Bioko Island. They extended the invitation to speak to their docents at the zoo. I happily accepted always excited to talk about my adventures and the good works of BBPP and my experiences as a volunteer for the organization. The opportunity to present and speak with the fine docents of EPZ made me realize that the backbone of this successful organization was its volunteers. Although I had returned to Bioko three more times to assist with conservation efforts, I longed to be doing something stateside. My day job as an environmental educator brought me in contact with young people enabling me to encourage the need for conservation in our own backyards, but I was always looking to expand by boundaries.
As I drove home from my presentation at Elmwood, I thought about how working with BBPP for the past eight years I discovered the value of an education, the importance of conservation and the power of volunteering. So why limit these important components to the rainforest and black sand beaches of West Africa? Needing to fulfill a desire to foster a greater appreciation of these values in others, I decided to become a docent at Elmwood Park, my hometown zoo.
With only a year and a half under my belt, I am a “young” docent with much to learn. In this case, my knowledge cannot be gathered by sitting in a classroom or pouring through books. I am learning all there is to know from my fellow docents.
Each time I walk through the gates of the zoo, there is a renewed excitement comparable to taking that first step onto the trail that winds through the rainforest of Bioko Island. I am surrounded not only by the sights and sounds of the animals but by curious, knowledge seeking visitors just like the scientists, volunteers and students that work and learn on Bioko Island. At days end, I leave the zoo with a sense of fulfillment because as a zoo docent, I have discovered the perfect opportunity to link education conservation and volunteering.
Resources and Acknowledgements
MTN 111: 8-10 Marine Turtles on the Southern Coast of Bioko Island (Gulf of Guinea, Africa), 2001-2005 Heidi Rader, Miguel Angel Ela Mba, Wayne Morra & Gail Hear Dr. Shaya Honarvar, Research Coordinator, BBPP Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA Drew Cronin, Ph.D Candidate, Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA.
National Geographic Photographers: Tim Layman, Christian Zeigler, Joel Sartore and Ian Nichols for use of photographs in slide presentation.
Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program www.bioko.org