Lucas Meers, Conservation Program Officer
When you tell someone you’re traveling to the Congo, you get a certain reaction. Raised eyebrows, dropped jaws or even a “Wow, you’re brave!” Perhaps it’s because there is a certain perception or stigma with the persistent political strife in the country, or perhaps it’s because of the extreme remote locale requiring multiple days and many legs of travel to get there. Whatever the case, tourists rarely visit the Democratic Republic of Congo, and it always sparks a conversation.
After two days of flying, John Lukas, Conservation Science Manager at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens and President of the International Rhino Foundation, and I boarded the last of our seven flights to Epulu, a remote village filled with a rich Belgian history in the heart of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, and where the Okapi Conservation Project (OCP) is based. Departing from Jacksonville International Airport, the planes got smaller and smaller as we neared our final destination, the near exact center of the continent of Africa, hidden in the dense tropical rainforest.
For nearly a decade, the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens has supported OCP and the work they do to conserve the enigmatic species and its habitat in central Africa. More recently, the Zoo has taken a stronger role in its support by providing office space for OCP to conduct work, and funding my position to allow me to assist with their marketing and development needs.
As my first expedition to the continent of Africa, my role was to collect as many photographs and videos of the project as possible, to share stories of the programs and people we’re helping and how it translates to the protection of endangered wildlife including the okapi, forest elephants and chimpanzees.
On the first day in Epulu, we traversed into the rainforest to deploy seven camera traps to document wildlife in the area, but not without first asking permission from the local chief to access his land. Once he gave the approval, we entered into the forest escorted by our Mbuti Pygmy guide and four armed rangers with the Institute in Congo for the Conservation of Nature.
Though we were there during the beginning of the rainy season, the rains had yet to arrive, and so the rainforest wasn’t as wet as I imagined. We searched for any signs of okapi, including dung, footprints, clay licks or freshly nibbled leaves, which would determine where we set up the cameras. As we found significant signs, we set up each camera with the hope it would catch anything interesting that walked by and set it off. Once we finished situating the last camera, we took the final GPS coordinates (so we could find the camera again), and meandered through the dense foliage back to the lonely dirt road.
Over the next few days, there was little down time. We traveled the rough road through the Reserve to one of our women’s group sites in the town of Mambasa (not to be confused with Mombasa in Kenya). Through this program, funding from the Zoo helps OCP empower women in rural communities to conserve forests by helping them organize women’s associations. The associations initiate programs to improve food security, safeguard clean water sources from pollution and overuse, and provide alternative income-generating opportunities to pay their children’s healthcare costs and school fees. As the women’s groups continue to grow, OCP will provide additional supplies and training to each new group to start up in exchange for their support of our ongoing conservation education programs.
As we pulled up to the building to visit the group, they greeted us in a cheerful traditional song and dance – probably the coolest thing to happen thus far during the trip. When they finished, we met with them to discuss any issues they are having, anything they need to be more successful and what we can do to assist. One of the conclusions was the need for additional sewing machines. The women’s group uses sewing machines to make clothing, stitch designs into fabric for decoration, and make other items for décor and practical uses. There are only four sewing machines for 35 women, so one of our objectives is to provide additional sewing machines to support the expansion of the group and recruitment of more women. Thanks to generous donors at the Zoo’s recent Toast to Conservation event, more sewing machines will be on the way soon!
The day continued by visiting one of our agroforestry nurseries where we ‘head start’ tree seedlings for reforestation projects and distribute beans, rice and other seeds to farmers. Agroforestry is a fast-growing initiative that we can’t keep up with! With a waitlist of over 100 farmers, we are looking to expand into new areas of the Reserve. Through the program, we provide seeds to farmers to grow their food, and provide education and training on proper, natural fertilizers and crop rotation to lengthen the life of their soil. By using the same, rejuvenated plot of land year after year, farmers need to clear less land to access fertile soil, therefore lessening the issue of deforestation. When the season is complete, we ask the farmers to provide a percentage of their harvest for new farmers wanting to join the program, thereby continuing the program’s growth.
The entire trip lasted 10 days 'on the ground' with two days' travel on either end. I was sad to leave the people who were so welcoming upon arrival,so hospitable during our stay and so excited to meet some new faces. I returned to Jacksonville with a renewed sense of the life I have here and how we take for granted the little things that would signify a huge difference in the lives of people on the other side of the world.
Interested in supporting the Zoo's conservation projects? Email Melissa at email@example.com to find out more.
W.I.L.D. (Wildlife Immersion and Leadership Development) launched at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in 2016 to provide teens from historically under-supported communities with leadership training and employment opportunities that make a real, lasting impact. Developed in response to the Mayor’s Jacksonville Journey initiative, it is modeled on programs our Executive Director, Tony Vecchio, has implemented at other zoos. We began with 10 W.I.L.D. Stewards, and will grow by 10 more this year.
The teens work together to learn about animals at the Zoo and how to best teach others about them. As employees in the Zoo’s Education department, they take on the roles of informal educators, zookeepers, public speakers, and Zoo representatives. Teens participate in training over the summer to become familiar with the Zoo’s education animals and techniques for leading presentations, as well as seminars on subjects like interviewing, resume building, and leadership. During the school year, Stewards take the front end on developing and presenting W.I.L.D. Outreach Programs in their communities. They book, create, and present programs. They also attend area festivals as Zoo representatives, and participate in team-building activities.
Under the guidance of W.I.L.D. coordinator Chris Conner, teens practice leadership development through a range of projects and learning opportunities. Stewards might spend a day helping the Zoo’s horticulture department eradicate invasive plant species at the beach, or staff an educational table at Global Tiger Day to interact with guests, or visit the St. Augustine Alligator Farm to learn from other educators in action. Chris emphasizes that the teens come from “unsupported” communities—the students are driven and passionate, but have not yet had the support they need to reach their full potential. He strives to be a boss, mentor, and friend who can make this difference in their lives. Stewards continue in the program for up to three years, and each year help choose the incoming class. Senior Stewards serve as program mentors for new teens.
Stewards are able to make an impact on all ages by presenting Outreach Programs in their communities. Through sharing their knowledge and experiences, they spread the message of the Zoo as a community asset, a place for job opportunities, and an organization that can provide something for everyone in our community. The teens express a continuous desire to be involved as ambassadors of the Zoo, and are already actively recruiting for the next class. We have received numerous comments from the public praising the Stewards for their passion and excellence.
Within the Stewards’ daily lives, they report the personal impacts the program has provided: reduced anxiety, increased confidence in public speaking, and increased ability to work with new people. They report speaking more in school, an easier time making new friends, and being more comfortable speaking on a wide variety of subjects.
Our program is holistic in its approach. Our paid jobs at the Zoo are very different from the traditional opportunities available to teens. Their work environment is dynamic, engaging, and constantly changing. Chris is not just their boss, he is their friend and mentor. He has an open-door office policy, and is available for homework help, family issues, or any conversations the teens might wish to have. We’ve intentionally kept the program small so we can focus on each individual’s growth, with the goal of creating leaders. Teens develop skills they can use to pursue their passions in whatever their future career may be. Chris has ambitious goals of not just a 100% high school graduation rate and 100% college admission rate, but a 100% paid college admission rate through scholarships for the teens.
Keep reading for personal statements from three teens in the program:
Safiyyah – When someone asks me about the program and what I do at the zoo, I always start with I have the best job because I work with my friends. Gaining new friends is the one of the most important things the W.I.L.D. Program has given me. I enjoy meeting new people who have the same interests as me, but not the same experiences. It was great to see that I was chosen to be in this program with 9 other people very different from myself, but we all shared one common thing which was our enthusiasm for learning… The other stewards have become my friends and what I like most is that some people may think that you will naturally become friends with someone you work with so closely, but that’s not always true. I like this program and consider them my true friends, because we learn from each other, watch each other grow and fail and are there to cheer each other on when we make mistakes… I can even see some of the stewards being in my life and on my team for a long time to come.
Damon – When I first started this program, I did not know exactly what to expect… for me the thought of being in the room filled with strangers was a little scary. The first week, I am pretty sure the other stewards thought that I really couldn’t talk. Even though I am on the varsity football team, help coach the JV team, and in a couple of honor societies and clubs, I am not a very social person. I am an introvert and I know it. However, this program with the assistance of Mr. Chris and Mrs. Christina, have honestly pushed my comfort zone further away… Getting used to the other stewards was easy, but for me, it was what I have noticed outside of work and this program. I am definitely more sociable in my life. I talk to more people about more stuff. Most of the time, that stuff isn’t animal or work related, but I know the skill to be able to has come from my time in this program. I can walk into the room or group of people and feel more comfortable.
Daniel – W.I.L.D. program has done a lot of things for me… but I would say the main things the W.I.L.D Program has done for me is given me valuable experiences that I can learn from and take with me further in life. As well as leadership skills to help me further in the military in my hopes of becoming an Officer in the military.
*An updated fun fact, Safiyyah, Damon and Daniel have all been accepted to one or all of their top 5 colleges!
Interested in supporting the W.I.L.D. program? Email Melissa at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.