The world is a big place. And as much as I would love to be able to take the kids to see the disappearing rainforests in Brazil, or the “sinking” Maldives, and many other beautiful and endangered places, it’s really not possible. But as a conservationist, wildlife manager, and marine zoologist, I want my children to understand what is going on in the world: why animals are becoming critically endangered, what that actually means, and how we as humanity can help no matter where we live on this planet.
However you feel about zoos and aquariums, they are a way for kids to learn about global conservation efforts and to increase their understanding of our connection to life on our planet. Watching a wildlife documentary or reading a book are good ways to learn, but experiencing nature in person – sometimes with hands-on activities – is really worth it.
Looking at What “Endangered” Means
Kids read the word “endangered” in books and hear it on TV, but what does it really mean? The zoo is the perfect place to explain it. Start off with a common animal that isn’t endangered. Try to choose an animal that is native to your country, that is considered a pest species, and that your child may have seen outside of the zoo environment. It can even be one that you see wild in the zoo, such as a bird or a butterfly. Discuss how common it is and how easy it is to see it. You can talk about what makes that animal a pest. Does it destroy crops? Does it spread disease?
Then take your kids to one of the large endangered species exhibits. Choose a species that is easy to see within the zoo collection and that will make an impression on your child. For example, our local zoo has a couple of orangutans who are very charismatic and therefore quite engaging for children. You can talk with your children about how there are two species (the Sumatran Orangutan and the Bornean Orangutan) and both are endangered. With the animals in front of you, take the time to read the displays or signage about the threats they face in the wild. Use this opportunity to talk about what endangered means and teach your kids about global conservation.
- How many are there left in the world?
- What is causing them to be endangered?
- How can we protect them?
Global Conservation: Helping Kids Understand What They Can Do
I have visited zoos in many countries during my backpacking days. Some of them were better about conservation than others, I must say, but even the worst had conservation messages. However, if you pick the right zoo or aquarium, then the knowledge that the children receive about global conservation efforts is amazing.
Unfortunately, many of the problems that cause animals to become endangered are a result of human interaction, such as overhunting, pollution, or habitat loss. Looking at the displays and listening to the talks can help your children to understand how they can become part of the solution.
I recently listened to a talk at an aquarium that doubles as a rehabilitation centre for injured manatees and sea turtles. The discussion was all about the conservation of sea turtles, a subject that is dear to my heart as it was my focus for research. The talk was aimed at children, but I was entranced as well.
When the speaker brought out a model of a Turtle Exclusion Device (TED) and explained why it was needed, my 4-year-old put her hand up and asked, “Why doesn’t every fishing boat have one because turtles need it? Turtles eat jellyfish and I don’t like jellyfish so we need more turtles to stop people being stung.” She had sat and listened to all of this information and really wanted to know. The answer was that they cost money and not everyone can afford them. Of course, we then had lots of discussion about raising money so that all fishing boats could purchase a TED.
Which brings me back to why visiting the zoo is so important for global conservation and something that your children need to understand: Zoos help fund conservation work. They directly help conservation with breeding programmes to help wild populations or to return a population to the country of origin where it has become extinct. They offer grants for which field conservation project coordinators can apply.
For example, as a marine zoologist in a conservation project, I applied to zoos around the world for grants to:
- fund our sea turtle conservation project,
- help build an education centre for local schools, and
- provide knowledge, training and incentive for poachers to switch their ways and work to protect the critically endangered Leatherback Turtle.
It’s a species that you can’t find in a zoo but whose conservation is directly supported by the zoo visits that you and your children take around the world.
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