Conservation Education… Pass It On

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Zoo Intern Quest 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 jobs, and then blog about their experience online.  Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

kalee_w1_picWe entered a spacious room full of microscopes and scientific equipment. It was there that we met the wizard, Maggie Reinbold, the Associate Director of the San Diego Zoo Institute of Conservation Research Education Division who led us through a California condor DNA analysis activity. Why? Well, California Condors are sexually monomorphic, which means there is no distinct way to tell the males and females apart. Using DNA analysis, scientists can determine which condors are male, and which are female in order to create effective breeding pairs. In other bird species, such as the peacock, the males have elaborate plumage or bright colors, but not the Condors. I mean, who needs to dress fancy when you’re eating leftovers?

California condors eat dead and decaying carcasses left over from the meals of other animals and human hunters, which makes them scavengers. Unfortunately, being scavengers is one of the many reasons they are endangered. In California and up until 2007, lead ammunition was widely used by hunters. Many times it was left behind in an animal carcass and not properly removed by hunters when cleaning their kill in the field. After the hunters left, the condors would swoop down and act as the clean-up crew. Unfortunately, in consuming the carcass left-overs, the condors were also consuming the lead bullets. This can result in sickness and even fatality.

Another reason for the demise of the condor is habitat loss. California condors live in the dry areas of Southern California and Mexico. This habitat is rapidly shrinking because of urbanization. Urbanization is the process of expanding human cities and neighborhoods, which unfortunately leaves no room for nature. In 1982 habitat loss and lead poisoning left the number of condors at an all time low. Twenty-two California condors were left in the entire world. That is when San Diego Zoo Global came into the picture.

San Diego Zoo Global, in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Game, the National Audubon Society, and the Los Angeles Zoo, gathered the remaining condors and started a breeding program, a program that is still in operation today. Since California condors are monomorphic, it makes it rather difficult to identify breeding pairs. In order to solve this issue, the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research used DNA analysis and chromosome identification to determine each bird’s gender.

The story of the California condor has a happy ending because of Conservation Education. What is Conservation Education, you might ask? I had the same exact question to which Ms. Reinbold responded, “Education forms the cornerstone of any conservation project. What you have discovered doesn’t matter unless you can share it with others.” I believe this to be true. Education doesn’t only take place in a classroom; it is a crucial part of every profession and comes in many different forms. Above all else, education is the sharing of ideas, the enlightening of others. Ms. Reinbold works with teachers and students to spread the importance of conservation and the actions that average people can take to help endangered species such as the California condor. By educating the next generation, Ms. Reinbold has the ability to help create a society that is environmentally conscious and understands the importance of conserving natural habitat and the animals that live in it.

Habitats are made up of a series of ecosystems. An ecosystem is a network of living organisms and non-living factors that interact in order to sustain each other. Humans need ecosystems to survive. As Ms. Reinbold stated, “Humans don’t only benefit from ecosystems, they are absolutely essential to life on this planet.” In other words, without ecosystems, there can be no humans. Some animals might not be as cute as the Giant Panda, or as beautiful as a tiger, but these animals are needed all the same. Put aside your squeamishness for bugs and rodents for a second and consider this: without pollinators such as honeybees, mice, and certain types of flies, two out of every three bites of food you consume would not be possible. Without decomposers such as cockroaches, fungi, and certain kinds of bacteria, biological waste would pile up until the earth became uninhabitable. We need ecosystems to remain intact if we are to remain on the earth. We get a lot of things for free from nature and it is high time that we start giving back.

Ms. Reinbold stressed that it is important to pick a topic or animal that you are very passionate about, and start there. Awareness is perhaps one of the most important components of furthering the efforts of conservation. Similar to a domino effect, where each small effort following the initial deed contributes to a large change, spreading awareness of the need for conservation through small actions creates a large amount of caring. Unless people care about a subject, unless they are emotionally attached, it is very unlikely that they will take action to aid in efforts to support this subject. By spreading awareness, you also spread a driving need for positive change. Even though you may choose only one animal to help, or one issue to rally for, you are still contributing to the cause of conservation. Who knows? Maybe your friends, their friends, their family, and their co-workers might get involved as well. A thousand small changes can lead a mass movement to help endangered species and their ecosystems, and, consequently, help ourselves.

Kalee, Conservation Team
Week One, Winter Session 2014