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Zoo partnership brings educators to Borneo

Posted by: Jenny Mears, Education

I’m straining my eyes and craning my neck while sitting in a small boat speeding around a bend in the Kinabatangan River in Borneo. “There! There!” someone shouts and points to the nearby bank. It’s then that I catch my first glimpse of an elephant in the wild, a Borneo pygmy elephant calmly grazing on grass by the river. Eventually, we turn the corner and are able to see the entire herd of approximately 45 elephants. Most of the adult elephants are also ripping up and eating the long grass; some juveniles are wrestling with each other in the river; a few of the babies are nursing. Meanwhile, I am awestruck and amazed, tears streaming down my face, unable to believe that I’m witnessing this incredible natural phenomenon first-hand.

Summer 2010 found me embarking on a Field Expedition to Borneo, an island in Southeast Asia considered to be a hotspot of ecological diversity, as part of my Global Field Program Master’s degree through Ohio’s Miami University. This Field Expedition was the first offered in partnership between Woodland Park Zoo and Project Dragonfly at Miami University. Project Dragonfly offers Field Expeditions courses for classroom and zoo/aquarium-based educators to experience inquiry-based science in dynamic field settings and to develop first-hand understanding of community-based conservation efforts in important wildlife areas around the world.

In addition to inquiry-based learning and community-based conservation, this Field Expedition course focused on the ecology of Southeast Asian tropical forests, with particular attention to Borneo’s exceptionally rich primate community. Our time was divided between the Danau Girang Field Centre, located in the middle of dense secondary tropical forest, and the village of Sukau, where Hutan Asian Elephant Conservation, a Woodland Park Zoo Partner for Wildlife, is based.

At Danau Girang, we participated in boat rides in the morning and afternoon to observe the populations of primates that inhabit the forests around the Kinabatangan River, including orangutans, proboscis monkeys (found only on Borneo!), long-tailed macaques, pig-tailed macaques and gibbons. In addition to primates, these boat rides also afforded excellent viewing of crocodiles (no swimming for us!), hornbills (we saw six of the eight species found on Borneo!), and the aforementioned elephants. When not cruising the river, we worked in groups on inquiry investigations, helped researchers with their small mammal trapping projects, and went on nocturnal frog walks (where we encountered the smallest frog in the world!).

At Sukau, we worked with some amazing local people involved in Hutan, a Woodland Park Zoo-supported, community-based conservation project that works to conserve orangutans, elephants and tropical forests in a way that also benefits the local communities living with wildlife. With a research team, we surveyed orangutan nest transects, in which we locate and mark the daily nests orangutans make, then identify the tree the nest is made in, estimate its height and gauge the degradation of the nest, which determines how old it is. We also planted trees in a restoration site along the river, heard from the Elephant Conservation Unit on how they mitigate human-elephant conflict and learned about Fishermen for Conservation, in which fishermen use traps made of reused materials instead tree-damaging bark.

We were welcomed warmly into the Sukau community. They taught us traditional games, we stayed with their families in homestays, we ate amazing Malay food and experienced traditional Warisan music and dance. It was a truly transformative experience; in fact, I’m already planning a return trip next year! For more information on next year’s Borneo Field Expedition, see the zoo’s website. Even if you’re not earning graduate credit, you can still visit the community of Sukau through Red Ape Encounters, an ecotourism opportunity started by villagers involved with Hutan.

Starting summer 2011, Woodland Park Zoo will have a new opportunity for educators in partnership with Project Dragonfly: the Advanced Inquiry Program, a new Master’s program for educators! Co-delivered by faculty at Miami University and Woodland Park Zoo professional education staff, the Advanced Inquiry Program combines graduate courses at the zoo with web-based learning communities that connect you to a broad network of educators and community leaders.

Please join us for these exciting opportunities to get connected with animals and their habitats through community-based conservation and inquiry-based experiences at the zoo and in the field!

Photos by Jenny Mears/Woodland Park Zoo.