Biologist, Conservationist, & Portlander. My passion lives in Africa.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Meet Asaba Mukobi: Founder of the Kasese Wildlife Conservation Awareness Organization.

9:14 AM Posted by Tara Easter No comments
I was given a whole new perspective on American vs. Ugandan childhoods on Thursday. Inspired by his story on the Oregon Zoo's website, I contacted Asaba Mukobi to find out what his Kasese Wildlife Conservation Awareness Organization was all about. Why did he start it? How does it work? What are his goals? He answered all these and so much more as we talked over lunch on a cold Portland day.

Asaba grew up in Uganda about 20 miles away from Queen Elizabeth national park. Like the rest of his village, he never had much of an interest in animals until a job opened up at Queen Elizabeth to work at a chimpanzee sanctuary. He worked with the Jane Goodall Institute as they raised money to reintroduce 50 chimpanzees to the wild, which is where he met his wife, an American who was volunteering with the program in Uganda.

He moved to the U.S. and worked at the Columbus Zoo before moving to the Oregon Zoo, and it was there that he started to truly develop a love for animals, and a desire to conserve them. He thought if he could teach the kids in Uganda about the wildlife they live right next to, and the jobs that the conservation field offers, he could change some of the attitudes Ugandans have about their surrounding environment.

You see, growing up in the United States, there was never a question of why I liked animals and why I wanted so badly to go to Africa. All my life I have been surrounded by National Geographic, zoos, Animal Planet shows on big screen TVs, and stuffed animal toys. I read books about lions in the Serengeti, and was amazed by the speed of a cheetah and the memory of an elephant. I had the time and resources to leisurely investigate the animal kingdom and was never worried about where my next meal was coming from or how the family farm was doing. But this is not the case in Uganda. Asaba said he was surprised when he moved here by the amount of people that volunteered at the Columbus and Oregon Zoos, simply because they liked animals and cared about them. So, he set out on his mission to bring that same kind of awareness and passion back home, thinking that he would have his one little  program in a village school, but here he is 10 years later as a registered non-profit in over 400 schools in Uganda (which is equivalent to about 400,000 kids!).

An example of one of the trading cards
His teaching tools? A TV, a generator, a pack of animal trading cards, stuffed animals, puppets, animal masks, maps and globes. The generator powers the wildlife documentaries shown on TV, and the cards, with a picture of an animal and its facts, are traded, cherished, and passed down to younger siblings among the kids. These simple programs have already done so much to change the attitudes of these communities, and the schools have even started wildlife clubs. Asaba hopes these families start to see the national park not as potential farmland or hunting grounds, but a source of revenue and jobs through ecotourism and conservation, and a home for the animals they've learned about.

Now KWCAO is reaching even further. They are taking field trips into the park where even the teachers are seeing some of Africa's most iconic species for the first time. They are approaching the parents of these communities with informational brochures, and lightly tackling tough topics like family size and agricultural traditions.

Friends and supporters of KWCAO are often telling Asaba that he needs to tour around the U.S. and tell people what he is doing, but he responds, "Why would I tour America when $10,000 would go so much further within the schools of Uganda?" (Not to mention the other resources we have available here such as websites and Facebook that are also used to tell people about his program.) To put this all into perspective a little bit, Asaba told me a story of taking his mom to the Uganda Wildlife Education Center when he visited home. He said first she questioned the price, and she started listing all the food she could get for her children with a $1.50 (the cost of entrance to the Center). Then she said "OK, so I go and see the animals, then what? What good does that do me?" But once she was there, she was intrigued by the similarities between people and other primates.

So I can't help but to agree and appreciate the use of Asaba's awarded grants and donated funds, and instead I am hoping to help him spread the word through social media and of course, Roots and Shoots at NCSU.

If you would like to know more about this organization, please visit their website, "like" their Facebook page and follow them on Twitter @KWCAO. If you would like to help KWCAO, you can contribute to a school visit or student field trip here. Thank you!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

"Enough is enough."

3:10 PM Posted by Tara Easter No comments
It's funny how when you start paying attention, history really does repeat itself. At our very first Roots and Shoots meeting, my friend and I (nervously and shaking) presented a history of the ivory trade and sparked a debate over the recent decision of Kenyan officials to burn a pile of ivory to make a statement.

The controversy 

Kenyan officials wanted - and needed to - make a statement: Poaching for ivory is unacceptable. But, others felt this was a waste of resources. Killing elephants for ivory is illegal (hence the term "poaching"), but confiscated tusks that are in the hands of the government could be legally sold under Appendix II of CITES, so why not sell and feed that money back into conservation programs? 

As the struggle to protect the worlds largest land mammal continues in Africa, let's jump to the Western hemisphere, where a giant of a different kind faces the same turmoil.

Last week, Belizeans watched a pile of illegally harvested rosewood burn, estimated to be worth U.S. $400,000. Not all of it went to waste, "The Minister burnt only the export quality beams, while the smaller posts were donated to communities in the district and the burls to carvers at a local foundation."

Destroying the rosewood was, “not an easy decision to make,” said Hon. Senator Alamilla, “but I want to send an unmistakeable message to everybody in Belize: we have to manage our forest sustainably for the benefit of the Belizean people, and this government is going to stamp out the clandestine illegal logging of our natural resources.”

Rosewood and ivory actually have a lot in common. Rosewood is used to make fancy furniture in a high-end market. Ivory is used for figurines for the wealthy consumer and devoted worshippers. Both are in high demand. Both come from organisms with a slow growth rate. And both are being harvested at an unsustainably high rate. Whether the debate is in Africa or Central America, protecting animals or trees, the message of these countries is clear. 

There has to be a way to get that message to the governments of the countries that support these illegal trades the most. Imagine if their officials were to say to their people and to the rest of the world:

"Enough is enough."

Friday, January 18, 2013

WCS announces an increase in tiger numbers.

3:23 PM Posted by Tara Easter No comments

In light of some recent news posted by the Wildlife Conservation Society, I decided to make my next YouTube video about tigers. With as many people that love them, there are some surprising misconceptions about them, and I am hoping to provide some information on their conservation that may not be as mainstream for people who aren't in the science field. 

When I attended The Wildlife Society's conference back in October, I attended a very interesting lecture on tiger conservation that I had almost forgotten about until WCS made their announcement. The research done by Neil Carter from Michigan State University, and the work being done by WCS in India are very different, but both are positive outlooks for the continued existence of this magnificent big cat. In India, WCS is working to preserve tiger habitat and have as much non-human space for them as possible, and it's actually working! Some villages have voluntarily relocated away from tiger habitats, India has created more reserves and wildlife corridors, and the government is cracking down on poaching. But Carter's research in Nepal shows that humans and tigers may be able to exist together after all, which certainly gives us hope as Asia's population continues to grow. In my video, I'll explain the different efforts going into protecting the tiger, and why Carter's study area supports both a high human density and tiger population.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

San Diego Zoo Doing Their Part.

5:02 PM Posted by Tara Easter No comments
You would think with all my Africa talk I had always wanted to frolic with the lions and elephants on the plains of the Serengeti, but truthfully, growing up I wanted to be a marine biologist. I'd stay in freezing cold water for hours on end with my goggles and goofy sun-protecting visor discovering everything I could about aquatic life. That's me in the dorky green hat on my very first dolphin watching expedition. But enough about me, I'm writing to admire someone else's passion for our ocean dwellers. 

Zoos and Aquariums around the world face harsh criticisms with their conservation involvement. I even took an entire class on it in college called: Are Zoos and Aquariums Modern Arks? I have to admit, I too sometimes join in on the skepticism, but from what I've found, what visitors see at the zoo itself is not at all the whole package. At the larger zoos especially, the Smithsonian, the San Diego Zoo, Busch Gardens, the Georgia Aquarium, there are whole teams of people working behind the scenes to conduct research on endangered species all over. The mass crowds they pull in to see these magnificent animals up close end up funding reintroduction and community outreach programs just like this one:

I especially appreciated the community based management tactics they are going for with this program. 
Our collaborative group has prioritized the most efficient methods of addressing the human dimension of conservation. We will cultivate a sense of local pride in the vaquita and ultimately transfer ownership of vaquita conservation to the three fishing communities that are our main focus.
To do this, we are engaging the communities in education, outreach, and alternative livelihood opportunities to garner an interest in alternative fishing gear."
I believe a sense of pride and responsibility for a rare species within communities inspires them to examine their own lifestyle choices. Like the SDZG said, it's the most efficient method of conservation. It's worked many times in other places, like in Rwanda with their mountain gorillas. Every year, there is a massive ceremony to name the newborn gorillas, and it gives the locals a personal connection with the animals. They did the same thing with lions in a village in Kenya when poisoning was on the rise, and in SE Asia with red pandas. 

I have high hopes for vaquitas' continued existence. I think these delightful porpoises will be swimming into the imaginations of other little explorers for years to come. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Ecology: systems work better as a WHOLE unit.

6:58 PM Posted by Tara Easter No comments

I LOVE Ted Talks. In fact, Ted Talks are what helped get me through some of my more patience required days of field research in California. I watched, or rather listened to, this video while sitting in a tent monitoring cameras set up on stationary rattlesnakes. Some, not even bothering to come out of their burrows. Thanks to Dan Barber, I still learned some important things about ecology that day, and it has stuck with me ever since. 

I love every message he delivers in this video. Feeding the world, better tasting food, reducing pollution, increasing sustainability, these things are not up to the farmer. They are determined by the basic principles of ecology. Every system works better as a whole. This farm lets nature do its thing, and the fish taste amazing. How about that.

Let me a give you some other examples.
  1. In our own bodies:
    I've been watching a lot of health documentaries lately. My family doesn't exactly have the greatest track record with cancer, and what better prevention is there than proper diet and exercise? What I've heard over and over again is that there is nothing better for you than a WHOLE food, plant based diet. For example, what I mean by this, is that we know that beta-carotene is an essential nutrient in carrots and other vegetables, but when we extract it and put it in tablet form, our bodies do not get the same benefits from it as when it is paired with the other organic compounds found in the vegetable.
  2. Predator-Prey Dynamics:
    Wolves were hunted to near extinction because they were considered to a be a threat to our food source. When they were reintroduced, scientists were pleasantly surprised to find that their existence in the food chain not only helps keep ungulate populations down, but in doing so, it improves water quality which of course benefits our local freshwater fish. Because ungulates are now weary of the wolves' presence, they do not feed along the banks of rivers and streams, which allows for young vegetation to grow and thus prevents erosion. There are also fewer direct deposits of feces. 
  3. Agriculture: 
    We took cows off of pastures and gave them corn instead to supposedly feed more people, quicker. But because they are ruminants, the lack of grass produces and extra acidity in their stomachs which hosts a higher amount of E. Coli (the harmful kind) and creates all kinds of other health problems to the cows. So, we solved this by pumping antibiotics into their systems, which in turn goes through our systems, which leads to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and washing beef with ammonia. And let's be real, that's just gross. 
I like to point out examples in ecology that we can all easily relate to, e.i. the things we eat, so that when conservationists talk about our oceans' and forests' biodiversity crashing, or a certain species dying out, maybe we'll pay closer attention. 

This fish "farm" in Southern Spain knows what's up. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Big oil strikes again.

3:18 PM Posted by Tara Easter No comments
To tell the story of why I am personally enraged by this news, we'll need to back up a bit. 

As you may know, my study abroad trip to Namibia was more than a life changing experience; it was a catalyst in forming my lifelong goals to work and explore in Africa. Upon meeting Tom LaRock, owner of Tom LaRock's Safari Professionals, I immediately wanted to help his organization expand in their tourism business so that he could have more money to start up his non-profit branch: Impact On Africa.  So I began an informal internship with Safari Professionals. Through this, I have had the privilege of getting to know many of his previous clients, who have since devoted their lives to making a positive difference in the African communities they visited. 

I was especially excited to write an article for a local magazine (which I will post when it is released). For this article, I interviewed past safari goers who dazzled me with the sights they saw in Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda. One in particular recalled his visit to Virunga National Park. I listened to his enchanting stories of going from open grass plains to thick mountain jungles, his guides hacking their way through the forest with machetes, radioing in to the gorilla trackers miles away. After a two hour hike, he was 10 feet away from a group of 18 mountain gorillas. 

I have also heard of the courageous stories of wildlife rangers in the Congo. They often risk their lives to protect the forest and incredible species that inhabit it. 

Then, I see this. Virunga National Park has a new enemy: Oil. It saddens me to think of how so many incredible places could be destroyed because of human and corporation greed. And to think we were just celebrating the increase in the gorilla population. The possibility for oil exploitation in the Congo was also addressed in this article, which has since become increasingly concerning. 

Many people do not realize that the ethical dilemmas that stem from oil extraction focus around people sometimes just as much as it does the environment. This article does an excellent job at pointing out just that, arguing that the local people would never actually see any benefits from the oil extracted. 

On top of lies told by the company saying the communities welcome their presence, I was especially blown away by a comment made by senior SOCO executive Roger Cagle in attempts to justify any environmental degradation:
The environmental destruction already visited on Virunga by decades of deforestation, poaching and war would render “inconsequential by comparison” any adverse affects caused by SOCO’s oil activities."
Two wrongs do not make a right, Mr. Cagle.

And if being protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site doesn't protect a park, what will?

Thursday, January 3, 2013

My Corny Resolution Post.

10:22 AM Posted by Tara Easter 2 comments
On a more personal note than the majority of my posts, I'd like to share with you my thoughts as 2012 comes to a close. 

Last year, just before I brought in 2012 with college buddies, my Facebook status read:

This year, instead of making your routine resolutions of losing weight, getting good grades, or whatever it is you see needs improving in your daily life, decide to make a difference in someone or something else's life. If there's something you're passionate about that needs help, fight for it.

Whether it's the environment, wildlife, or people, there is always something you can do.

As I look back on what has been both the best, and absolute worst, year of my life, I stand by that statement. In the first 5 months of 2012, nothing made me happier than working with my best friends to make Roots and Shoots at NCSU the best possible organization it could be. It was fulfilling, to think that I was truly raising awareness on issues I cared so deeply about. I went on to graduate college, drive across the country with my sister (click here for a fun video montage), and made some new friends in California. I explored the Pacific coastal states, and settled into a brand new life in Portland, OR. 

But in between chasing rattlesnakes and becoming an Oregonian, my world was shattered. My beautiful mother and best friend, after a 6 year fight against stage IV colon cancer, passed away on August 28th. I could go on for pages about my mom, about her struggle, my family's struggle, and how much she meant to us, and what a wonderful person she was, but I will leave those details to my sister who more eloquently explains the situation through Still Easier Than Chemo

On top of the daily reminders of the giant hole in my life, finding a job has proven to be much more difficult than I imagined, even when Portland offers so many excellent organizations. And it should be noted that I am the type of person who NEEDS to work.

But while my life isn't going all that great right now, and I still have many personal improvement goals, I still think there isn't anything better than doing something good for someone/something else. I recently watched a documentary called "Happy" (which I would highly recommend, it's on Netflix!), and it mentioned how most people achieve a great deal of happiness just by helping others, and being part of a caring community. One of Mom's friends tragically lost her baby due to heart complications after birth, so other families were offering to make meals. My mom volunteered to be the deliverer, that way the family didn't have to worry about visiting with different people everyday, or even having to be home when the meals were being brought. Even though Mom was sick and very tired from rigorous chemotherapy, that little task, that small purpose genuinely made her happier. I could hear it in her voice when we spoke on the phone. 

But your cause doesn't have to be a friend, or even a person, or even the result of tragedy. Me, I love animals, and nature. I love getting dirty and working hard. So I fight for my earth, and even when I get discouraged about the job market or start to really miss my mom, making a difference in the world picks me back up.

So, 2013, I'm comin' for ya.