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Wildlife conservation is simply protecting communities of wild animals, plants, and their habitats (their homes). Though it’s a simple definition, it can be hard to put into practice. How do we save every living species on the planet? For that matter, why should we care if they are saved? Keep reading to help answer the how. Let’s get to the why first.
It turns out conserving plants and animals has a huge effect on humans.
• The loss of one seemingly unimportant species of animal or plant will influence the lives of other connected species that may be very important to us.
• Undiscovered species or under-studied species may help provide important medicines or food sources for our survival.
• The loss of a species usually indicates a problem in their habitat (pollution, loss of food, etc.). We live in these habitats too, and eventually, those problems will affect us negatively.
• Many countries’ economies now rely heavily on ecotourism. No animals and plants to visit means no tourist dollars.
This brings us to that how question. How do we save every living species of plant and animal on the planet? Wildlife organizations, conservation scientists, and governments work tirelessly every day to save our wildlife, but they can only do so much. It takes the rest of us to understand the importance of wildlife and know how to help.
Places like the Buffalo Zoo are important tools in the wildlife conservation arsenal to educate zoo patrons about conservation issues and participate in conservation research.
Each year approximately 175 million people visit conservation-oriented zoos and aquariums that are accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. That’s more visitors than the NBA, NFL, NHL, and the MLB combined; and that’s a whole lot of opportunities for getting the word out about wildlife conservation!
The next time you visit the Buffalo Zoo or another zoo/aquarium accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, look for evidence of the following:
• A Species Survival Plan (SSP) logo at animal exhibits – This means the zoo takes part in efforts to manage, breed, and conserve that species.
• Signs or keeper talks about local zoo conservation efforts – The Buffalo Zoo works closely with other organizations and government agencies to save local wildlife. The next time you are at the Buffalo Zoo, find out what hellbender headstarting is or take a peek at the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake exhibits for great examples of local conservation efforts.
• Zoo conservation education programs — Zoos like the Buffalo Zoo that are committed to conservation specialize in teaching about wildlife and conservation in a fun, hands-on way. Sign up for a program to help support conservation education and find out.
The how really starts with our children. As they say, “children are our future…” Teaching children about wildlife and the value of wildlife conservation can be tricky. Psychology, brain, and learning research indicate that spewing facts, information, and concepts at them may not be the ideal way to help children develop an ethic about conservation. It requires just the right mix of eliciting curiosity, providing sensory experiences, creating empathy, allowing exploration, evoking emotion, and making topics fun.
The rest of this article outlines some great ways you can instill the conservation message in an age-appropriate way and gives some examples of methods the Buffalo Zoo uses to connect kids with conservation and nature.
Studies indicate that creating a “conservation ethic” takes time and begins at a young age by first simply getting a child to love and appreciate wildlife. The Buffalo Zoo starts them young through programs like the Cub Club. This popular child and parent/caretaker program helps children ages 2-4 explore wildlife while learning their ABC’s. The program takes place once per week and begins in September and January. People can sign up for a whole semester at a time or just for specific dates during the semesters.
Playing directly in nature is a wonderful way to begin the journey toward a conservation ethic. If you ask most people with a strong conservation ethic, they will tell you that some of their most powerful positive memories as a kid involve being in nature. They recount stories of sledding down big hills, creating forts in the back yard, playing hide-and-seek through the woods, or fishing with relatives.
Many adults are hesitant to allow their children time for unstructured play in nature. Our own fears or preoccupations with barriers like bugs, mud, and germs teach children early to avoid nature. The Buffalo Zoo recently teamed up with Reinstein Woods Nature Preserve & Environmental Education Center as well as the Aquarium of Niagara to expose parents and their children to concepts and skills associated with nature play. This led to the formation of the first Western New York Family Nature Club that is officially registered with the Children and Nature Network. Opportunities for new families to join this group will be coming in the fall.
Exposing children to nature and wildlife can even happen at your local daycare or preschool. A number of daycares and preschools are now paying attention to nature play research, building playgrounds from natural materials, and allowing more outdoor time. If yours doesn’t currently take part in nature play, ask if they could look into it.
What better place for a preschooler to experience the outdoors and gain exposure to wildlife than at a zoo! The Buffalo Zoo is starting a year-round preschool program this fall with an approach to early childhood education that is inspired by the famous schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy. The Reggio approach is characterized by its child-centered learning, which recognizes the individuality of each student and allows children to explore concepts of their own interest. Essentially, the Zoo will serve as a 23-acre classroom, with endless possibilities for exploration and discovery.
To ensure that children learn to love rather than fear nature, conservation educators at wildlife institutions like the Zoo try hard to avoid creating ecophobic children. Ecophobia is a term coined by David Sobel, the Project Director of the Antioch New England Institute and an expert in developmentally appropriate environmental education, to refer to a fear of ecological problems and the natural world.
Experts like Dr. Sobel recommend that young children not be exposed to the big, complex problems of wildlife conservation until at least 4th grade. Their brains are not set up to handle overwhelming, scary information until around that time. Conservation is a tough sell when a child finds out that most of the problems facing wildlife are caused by humans (us)!
Children may actually grow up avoiding conservation issues if they are exposed to these issues in a negative, overwhelming way earlier in life. This is why zoo programming such as zoo camps, family workshops, and zoo school programs are meant to be fun and engaging to get children interested in wildlife conservation without being scary.
Parents have a significant influence over their children’s personality, emotional development, behavioral habits and more. One of the best models for a conservation ethic is a parent with one. Modeling social conservation action in even little ways leads to life-long habits of conservation.
Even though young children’s brains are not ready to understand or take big action on complex conservation issues, having them practice nature “manners” (not littering, recycling materials, turning off lights, returning little critters to where they were found, etc.) is a strong way to have your child take simple, local, understandable conservation action early in life.
As children’s brains mature, they become ready to take on larger conservation actions and explore wildlife careers. Middle and high school students are able to think abstractly and understand more complex issues. Helping your child with community conservation action projects (recycling drives, river clean-ups, tree-planting projects, organic gardening, starting a school ‘green’ club, etc.) is very appropriate at this stage.
For a deeper, hands-on look at wildlife conservation, Buffalo Zoo programs for teenagers such as the Zoo Teen Naturalist Programs help them explore bigger conservation issues, zoo-related topics, and wildlife careers. Teens ages 13-14 explore topics related to conservation, animal care, exhibit design, and animal handling while teens ages 15-17 take part in a more internship-like experience with the care of animals and conservation. Each program is a three-week experience over the summer. Participants can choose one of two summer sessions to work around their busy summer schedules.
To help you help your children develop a wildlife conservation ethic, there are some great books out there with a few immediately coming to mind, including:
Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education by David Sobel;
Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv
Sharing Nature with Children and Sharing Nature with Children II by Joseph Cornell
This may sound big and over the top but, ultimately, our reward for helping all of our children develop into a community of responsible adults mindful of wildlife conservation is the assurance of our own survival.
For more information about any of the Buffalo Zoo’s nature and conservation education programs, visit
www.buffalozoo.org and click on the ‘Programs’ tab or call 716-995-6128.