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Not as simple as it seems: ZooCrew students tackle wildlife trafficking

Posted by: Ryan Driscoll, Education
Photos by Ryan Driscoll, Woodland Park Zoo

The issues of poaching and wildlife trafficking can seem black and white—it’s bad news.  At least that was the initial sentiment of many of the middle school students who participated in this last semester’s ZooCrew, Woodland Park Zoo’s after-school program. However, as the students explored the issue, they started to realize just how complex the causes and solutions can be.  

One student explained why poaching in Africa can be a difficult issue, “people poach because they need the money and they can’t find a job that will pay them enough.  They need to have a way to feed their families.”  This led the students to explore a range of solutions such as recruiting those poachers to become rangers (who protect wildlife), building sustainable industries and supporting local communities that offer alternative employment.  They then explored ways that people here in Seattle could help. They created projects based on these ideas which were presented to others on their zoo field trips throughout January.  Here are just some of the highlights, activities and projects from this last semester:

ZooCrew students greet an Egyptian tortoise.

ZooCrew students spend time together making conservation props.
Bowling for Rhinos

One of the most iconic victims of poaching is rhinos.  For the second year, ZooCrew partnered with the Puget Sound Area Association of Zoo Keepers (PSAAZK) to prepare projects that will be presented at Bowling for Rhinos, an annual fundraiser for the LewaWildlife Conservancy in Kenya.  Some groups chose to make videos to inform guests at the event about the threats rhinos face and ways they can help protect them.  Other groups aimed to share similar information in the form of trading cards.  Students and their projects will attend the Bowling for Rhinos event on May 5th to educate participants as well as enjoy a night of bowling, taco bars, and raising money and awareness for rhino conservation. 

Conservation Innovation

Four groups used their creativity to find new solutions for wildlife trafficking and poaching.  One group explored ways to keep predators and livestock separated to reduce retaliatory killing in ranching areas by creating living bamboo fences.  Another group looked at the illegal pet trade and how it impacts animals like servals—advocating for domestic cat species that have similar appearances but aren’t wild animals.  Two more groups discovered alternatives to poached products—focusing on the use of tagua nuts as a replacement for ivory soap carvings.  Another looked at a variety of alternative products including synthetic furs, skulls and possible replacements for traditional medicines made from endangered species.

ZooCrew students present their ideas to zoo staff and volunteers.

Those sheep are safe thanks to bamboo barriers, great idea!

Citizen Science with Camera Traps

Camera traps are necessary tools for conservationists to study animals in the field, but they can often lead to large caches of photos that need to be sorted.  In some cases, researchers have turned to the public for help.  Two groups assisted with a back-log of images by sorting through hundreds of photos from various projects in Africa and coding them based on the animals they contained.  Not only did they learn how to tell a wildebeest from a gazelle, but they helped create a database that scientists will use to determine the population size and distribution of various species on the savanna. The ZooCrew students encourage you to head to and find a project to help with!

Conservation Advocacy

Two groups aimed their projects at a broader audience with the intent of informing people about why poaching is a problem and what they can do to help.  One group focused on poaching here in Washington state and highlighted actions like reporting suspected poaching to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.  The other group focused on the Amur leopard and researched organizations that help not only the leopards but local communities.

Restoration Field Trips

ZooCrew doesn’t just happen in schools and the zoo.  Each semester, we aim to get out into the community to help improve the green spaces around the students’ homes.  In October, we participated in Green SeattleDay and helped to plant trees in Jefferson Park—right next to one of our school sites!  Together with other community members, we helped plant over 100 native trees and shrubs at our work location.  In November, we braved the rain to help remove invasive ivy from Lincoln Park in conjuncture with Friends of Lincoln Park.  A special thank you to the family members that came out to help make our green spaces a better place for animals and people!

Zoo Field Trip

At the end of each semester, students and their families from all three sites come together at the zoo.  They started the day being toured around by some amazing teens from the ZooCorps program.  This was followed by our customary pizza lunch and a wonderful presentation by Sarah Werner, the zoo’s Senior Interpretive Content Developer.  Sarah discussed the design process her team goes through when working on the signs and interpretive elements around the zoo. She also gave us a sneak peak of the new Assam Rhino Reserve exhibit space coming this spring! Groups then headed off to special keeper talks at the Tropical Rain Forest dome and the giraffe barn. Finally, they presented their projects to a group of staff and volunteers.   

Giraffes check out the ZooCrew team.
As the fall program wraps up, we wanted to extend a giant THANK YOU to our community partners, ZooCorps volunteers, and the zoo staff who help make this program possible.  We also wanted to thank the parents and guardians who make so many of these opportunities possible for their students.  We look forward to our spring semester where we will delve into climate change action and the ecosystems of the tundra, taiga, and temperate forest!

Great work ZooCrew!


Laura said…
Great overview... sounds fun!