About Author: Samantha Young

Posts by Samantha Young


Helping Vaquita Porpoises

We are working with teachers and students in San Felipe, Mexico, to address the human dimension of conservation.

We are working with teachers and students in San Felipe, Mexico, to address the human dimension of conservation in an effort to help save the vaquita.

What do Sonoran pronghorn, desert bighorn sheep, and California condors have in common? They are threatened, priority species for San Diego Zoo Global conservation initiatives in Baja California, Mexico, and are united under a new community-based conservation initiative of the Conservation Education Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

The extraordinary Baja California peninsula contains a unique array of biodiversity that is a nature lover’s paradise. However, much of the biodiversity is threatened due to increasing human activities, and we must place ever-more importance on working with the local people to become protectors and stewards of the land. You may have caught wind of the program “From the Ridge to the Reef” (Del mar a las montanas in Spanish) in the September 2014 issue of ZOONOOZ, as we are excited to team up with researchers working all over Baja to help address the human dimension of conservation of these important species.

Teachers work together to review a curriculum designed specifically for the region with their help and with priority species in mind.

Teachers work together to review a curriculum designed specifically for the region with their help and with priority species in mind.

There is one species, in particular, so close to extinction that we felt compelled to begin work with communities immediately. On the eastern side of the Baja peninsula in the northern Gulf of California (or Sea of Cortez) exists the most endangered porpoise in the world. The vaquita marina Phocoena sinus is inadvertently caught in nets intended for fish and shrimp, including a lot of illegal fishing, and recent population estimates are at fewer than 100 individuals.

We have begun working with teachers and students in San Felipe, BC, and our last trip to San Felipe was a huge success. Our new postdoctoral fellow, Jenny Glikman, and I conducted a teacher-training workshop with 15 teachers from 4 different schools. This involved brainstorms and discussions on current and future implementation of environmental education activities, the adaptation of curriculum developed specifically for the Ridge to Reef program, and teacher-led creation of conservation project proposals that their students will implement and share with the community. We have also begun collaborating with local organizations already on the ground and part of the community, including the Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans.

Teacher attendees of the Ridge to Reef workshop pose with facilitators while sporting a parting gift:  "Del Mar a las Montanas" hats.

Teacher attendees of the Ridge to Reef workshop pose with facilitators while sporting a parting gift: “Del Mar a las Montanas” hats.

We are working with UCSD’s Engineers for Exploration (E4E), who are developing technologies to take photo and video of vaquitas, as we have nearly none. In September, David O’Connor of Conservation Education collected water visibility measurements to get an idea of clarity where the cameras will be deployed. Read more about this in a special blog by the E4E crew themselves!

This is still the beginning of what is shaping up to be an exciting collaboration between a variety of scientists and local teachers, students, and those who make a living from fishing, and there is hope for the future of the vaquita and Baja’s treasures. You can help by sharing information about the plight of the vaquita (find out more here), supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy, and purchasing products coming from sustainable fisheries (the United States is one of the largest markets for Mexican fish and shrimp). With less than 100 of these beautiful, mysterious, and ecologically important porpoises left, urgent action is required, and culturally conscious, grass roots, community-based conservation—whether local to San Diego or international—is how we’re going to make a stand against disappearing species.

Samantha Young is a research coordinator with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Across the Pacific in 60 Days.


Building Conservation Foundation by Training Teachers in Peru

Teachers investigate a cactus at the Spectacled Bear Conservation Center.

Teachers investigate a cactus at the Spectacled Bear Conservation Center.

Forty-six! That’s how many teachers attended our recent environmental education professional development workshops, in collaboration with the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society, in Peru. That’s also the minimum number of classrooms that will be affected by the methods and materials that were discussed over the 10 days spent at the Conservation Center in Batan Grande, Peru. And it’s pretty safe to assume that each teacher has about 25 students. Hmm… 46 x 25 = 1,150. Maybe it’s a little premature to say we’ve touched the lives of over a thousand children and possibly their families, but I’m overly optimistic. It’s a pretty good number, if you ask me.

I work in the Conservation Education Division of the Institute for Conservation Research, the research arm of the San Diego Zoo. But rather than thinking about what I do as education, we like to think of what we’re doing in northern Peru, in support of the Andean bear conservation project, as capacity building. This is an approach to working with communities to enhance their abilities to allow them to achieve measurable and sustainable results. Having learned a bit about the communities over the last year and a half, I’ve come to know some of the modern challenges they face. It is my job to assist them in finding their potential and developing a “tool kit” for sustainable, improved living. This tends to have a measurable, positive impact on the forest and Andean bears. In this way, we are helping to address the human dimension of conservation.

Teachers in a small group discussion, with the education coordinator of the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society, Francisco Nolberto Aurich Terrones.

Teachers interact in small group discussions outside the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society.

Instead of a lot of lecturing by professionals and sitting and listening by students, we conducted the workshops in an inquiry and project-based learning format. Inquiry involves the quest to learn more about the things that interest us. Project-based learning directly engages participants through projects applicable to life outside the classroom. The workshop was also conducted as if the participating teachers were their own students in a classroom, similarly to how we conduct our summer teacher workshops at the Institute. Using these tools, we hope to increase their active engagement with students, encourage investigation of the things in which they are interested, and provide them with tools that they can use in their everyday lives. Actually, these workshops were modeled after the Earth Expeditions program offered in conjunction with Miami University of Ohio and the Advanced Inquiry Master’s Program (check out the new Earth Expedition going to Hawaii this summer and the new Advanced Inquiry Program being offered by the Zoo!).

Samantha, in front, poses with the first group of teachers at the end of Workshop 1, wearing their commemorative T-shirts.

Samantha, in front, poses with the first group of teachers at the end of Workshop 1, wearing their commemorative T-shirts.

Although there were some unanticipated challenges, I think it’s safe to say that overall the workshops were quite successful. Teachers were engaged. They asked questions. They were exposed to new methods and got up close and personal with the inquiry process, as well as the San Diego Zoo and the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society. We had guest speakers from the area and active investigations, and the teachers developed their own network of educators interested in conservation in the region. Teachers were also challenged to develop a conservation action project to implement in their village, tied in with the curriculum.

We will stay in contact and provide support and advice for these projects throughout the school year of March through December. And at the end of the year, we hope students will showcase their conservation projects in a festival celebrating community-based conservation to ensure that these great lessons make their way to the next generation.

Samantha Young is a conservation educator for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Can Cute Trinkets Save Andean Bears?


Can Cute Trinkets Save Andean Bears?

New artisans with their certificates after completing their first workshop in wool-felting, with all products made through out the week displayed. Staff included: Betty (far left), Samantha Young (third from left), Jessica (fifth from left), and Maria (far right).

Artisans with certificates after completing their first workshop. Staff included Betty (far left), the author (3rd from left), Jessica (5th from left), and Maria (far right). Click to enlarge.

My latest trip to Peru was a lot different from the others. There was no exploring or adventuring, but a lot of work—the type of productivity with output that you can write up in a report to your donors, with actual numbers! “Calm down,” I bet you’re saying. “You’ve been to this site in northwestern Peru twice before,” you’re pointing out. Well, the reason I’m getting all worked up has to do with the fact that this project–community conservation of Andean bears–is actually getting off the ground! Things are happening. Bear with me as I make this profound statement: It’s incredibly satisfying to see something you’ve put a lot of effort into succeed. Sound the gongs, because they might need to write a book about that one!

Over the course of the two weeks I was there, I assisted in the planning and implementation of an artisanal training workshop, where local Peruvian women were taught the art of dry wool-felting. Two groups of students attended: five women learning this skill for the first time, and a team of six experienced women refining their skills. Besides me, the workshop staff consisted of several Andean (spectacled) bear project team members: Betty (a local Peruvian and the project’s artisan coordinator), Maria (local Peruvian, experienced artisan, and instructor to the new artisans), and Jessica (director of artisanal products, Spectacled Bear Conservation Society [SBC]).

Besides my role as a Spanish translator for Jessica, I was also there as the San Diego Zoo’s merchandise consultant for the products that will be sold in our gift shops. That’s right, folks, you will soon be able to purchase adorable, handcrafted, wool-felted bears and other animals through the Zoo and directly support the conservation of Andean bears.

Experienced artisans in front of the Spectacled Bear Conservation Center showing off their wool-felted frogs after completing workshop number two.

Experienced artisans in front of the Spectacled Bear Conservation Center showing off their wool-felted frogs after completing the second workshop.

The goal for these types of workshops is to provide an alternative income source to people in the communities adjacent to vital Andean bear habitat. We want to help improve their lives, share information about life science and bear research and conservation, and ultimately alleviate pressure on the forest and the bears. I’m pleased to announce that the workshop went smoothly, and the new artisans are now employed by the Andean bear project and paid a competitive salary for the work they do.

Working on this project has given me a whole new perspective on the word “community.” I’m referring to the dedicated people involved with the implementation of the conservation of Andean bears in northwest Peru. The team of local Peruvians who work on bear conservation consists mainly of a few close-knit families, and each person has their role. Be it artisan coordinator, instructor, outreach specialist, lawyer, or field technician, they are team players, capable, and motivated.

I’ve also had the opportunity to work closely with several people from SBC, and you don’t know motivated until you’ve met the director, Robyn, who led the discovery expedition for this dry-forest population of bears seven years ago. She has persisted in the time consuming yet ground-breaking research for her doctorate along with running an NGO. I’ve also grown a new appreciation for the meaning of “supportive,” with regard to her husband, Ian, and her parents, Jessica and Robert. Robyn is gone much of the year from her home in Canada to be at the field site in Peru, and her family has not only made that possible, but they’ve spent much of their time contributing to the infrastructure of the project.

It is a pleasure and an inspiration to be able to work with SBC in the conservation of Andean bears; NGOs like theirs make our work at the San Diego Zoo possible and sustainable.

Samantha Young is a conservation educator for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Scientific Concepts for Non-Scientists.


Scientific Concepts for Non-scientists

My new friends at a primary school in Batan Grande.

“How was your trip to Peru?” everyone and their mother asked me upon my return (see post, Assignment: Peru and Its Bears). I’m not complaining, but it’s hard to distill the trip down to one or two sentences, so I just tell everyone “It was amazing” (which it was). Though it was my first time in Peru, it was not my first time in a Spanish-speaking country, nor my first time devising plans with people I’ve never met, nor my first time explaining scientific concepts to a non-scientist. But it was really, really cool, if you don’t mind me saying so.

During this trip to Peru, I had conversations with children and adults about their thoughts on the nearby wildlife, items of importance in their daily lives, areas in which they would like assistance, and their present understanding of protected areas. I conducted 1,152 interviews and surveys with children, while visiting 11 primary and secondary schools, and speaking with another 111 adults in the communities. I might have had two English conversations the entire time I was there. I ate, slept, played, conversed, relaxed, danced, researched, and learned with the field team, their family, and their friends. They care deeply about the project at hand and have an amazing respect for the forest and the wildlife it contains.

Interviewing in the village of Papayo

The coolest part is that the Spectacled (Andean) Bear Conservation Society is comprised of locals, and the community trusts them. I’m slowly working on earning the trust of the people at the Center, and I hope they can help me earn the trust of the community. One such “trust-building exercise” consists of me constantly asking for the Spanish equivalent of a word. I have never used Spanish in a professional or scientific capacity before, and there is a whole new set of vocabulary that I must learn. Como se dice… ? and Que es la palabra para…? have become well-worn phrases. I can now say with certainty, in Spanish, que el silvestre del bosque seco necesita nuestra ayuda (that the dry forest needs our help!).

Being that it was the dry season, and I was in a dry forest, you can only imagine that it was not very wet. The small amount of water people subsist on in this area during this time is quite incredible. But what was most apparent about the communities in Rio La Leche is that they are very receptive to learning about and protecting the forest. While they are a bit disengaged from the wildlife and are focused instead on agriculture and immediate survival (not at all shocking, given the prevalence of poverty locally), they do have incredible knowledge and appreciation for what the forest provides them, from medicine and food to oxygen and construction materials. I am optimistic that local knowledge and their receptivity to new ideas will combine to help ensure the success of our Andean bear conservation project.

After surveys had been completed, the children of the only school in the village of El Algarrobito posed with me for a photo. Perhaps it’s a little more clear why they might have given me the nicknames “La Grande” and “La Gringa.”

I am now back in San Diego working on the myriad of projects that I want to develop in collaboration with these communities. This list includes seminars and discussions, teacher-training workshops, training citizen scientists for data collection, festivals celebrating the forest, field trips with school children and adults into the forest, and introducing solar cookers as an alternative method of cooking. Many believe the foundation of conserving wildlife is working with local communities. They provide us with something extremely valuable—local knowledge—and they are the future stewards of the land. In other words, if the locals don’t do it, it’s probably not gonna happen. That’s why, to me, this is well worth being bitten by chupasangres, giving up hot showers, and being honored with the nicknames La Grande and La Gringa.

Samantha Young is a conservation educator for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.


Assignment: Peru and Its Bears

Just arrived at the Spectacled Bear Conservation Center (Centro De Conservacion de la Organizacion Para La Conservacion del Oso de Anteojos).

“After juggling some things around, it seems like we WILL have enough money to send you to Peru after all,” says James Danoff-Burg, the director of Conservation Education for San Diego Zoo Global. It was a quiet day in the Conservation Education Division, not even one month since I had been officially hired as a new conservation educator (my dream job!). Learning that I was going to Peru in less than one month meant getting down to business. First things first: learn that the San Diego Zoo has a project studying Andean bears in northern Peru. Check. Next, cram as much into my brain as I can about Andean (spectacled) bears and the cultures of northern Peru, brush up on my long-rusty Español, begin email introductions with the Peruvian field team, formulate trip objectives, and prepare surveys and interviews to conduct with children and adult community members.

The objectives: Familiarize myself with the Andean bear conservation project (see Missing Camera: The Work of a Bear?), the field site, and the communities of Rio La Leche watershed and begin formulating education and outreach initiatives to involve affected Peruvian communities in the conservation of Andean bears and the tropical dry forest ecosystem in this region of northern Peru. Was I ready to go? You bet. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that I’ve been gearing up for an opportunity like this my whole life, though I didn’t know what I was preparing myself for.

Here’s what my resume says, in a nutshell: degrees in biological anthropology and evolutionary biology, 14 years of teaching experience, and 8 years science research experience. Here’s what my brain says: This is happening to me?! It is a dream come true that all of my hard work has culminated in the opportunity to utilize my skills to bridge the gap between conservation biology research and the public. This is not to say it wasn’t all a little bit overwhelming, as this is my first project of the sort. But I’ve taught many different types of students, I’ve traveled to several foreign countries, I understand the science, and I’m pretty good at thinking on my toes. Also, I like people, and I like nature. A lot. What more did I need?

The view from the highway on the way to Batan Grande. Those hills in the distance are prime Andean bear habitat. Those trees in the foreground are prime Andean bear feeding grounds. Yeah, I’d say the bears are impacted by human activities.

Traveling to Batan Grande, the big town of Rio La Leche, is not so bad, especially compared to other educators and their extremely remote field sites (see Making Progress toward Monkey Conservation in Vietnam). Two flights and a taxi, and I’m in Batan Grande, a town that gets its name from a pre-Incan society that used large stone anvils to grind ore. The town is moderately rustic, with a few paved roads and mainly dirt-floored homes, but modern in the universality of running water, electricity, and the cell phone (seriously, everyone has a cell phone). I am greeted at the Spectacled (Andean) Bear Conservation Center by three Weimaraners (the resident watchdogs), the Peruvian field team members, and their family. This is where I am to spend the week, as this project works in collaboration with the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society.

A small, steadfast population of the bears lives in the foothills of the western slope of the Andes, very close to the communities of Rio La Leche, and the bears are hugely impacted by human activities. Deforestation, habitat degradation, and illegal hunting are some of the major threats faced by the bears and the tropical dry forest ecosystem. To combat these issues, the plan is to educate the communities about the forest to help increase how much local people value their nature and to provide them with tools to improve their lives in ways that help reduce the impact on the surrounding ecosystem. That’s my job: to take the cutting-edge research uncovered by Russ Van Horn and the small team of Peruvian para-biologists to the people and help ensure long-term sustainability of conservation measures. I am here now, and my mission began 11 hours ago when I boarded a plane from Los Angeles to Lima. I don’t like to wish people good luck because I rarely feel that anything is about luck. So instead, wish me a sound mind and a steadfast heart, and I’ll let you know how it goes.

Samantha Young is a conservation educator for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.