By Deston Nokes
Oregon Zoo’s senior simian animal keeper, Asaba Mukobi, is grateful for the passion that people in Oregon and elsewhere have for saving Africa’s animals from extinction — and he is grateful for the financial and volunteer support many have given to the cause.
But he knows firsthand that any meaningful, lasting conservation effort begins with local education.
Mukobi grew up in the small Ugandan village of Bwera, located just 20 minutes away from the Queen Elizabeth National Park. This park is known for its wildlife, including hippopotamuses, elephants, leopards, lions and chimpanzees. The park is now home to 95 species of mammals, many endangered, and over 500 species of birds.
“Growing up, going to a national park and looking at animals wasn’t an interest to me,” Mukobi said. “It wasn’t until I later worked in a zoo that I realized I needed to get people back home to understand what we have in our backyard.”
Ugandans and Americans have very different perspectives on wildlife. For many decades, Ugandans considered wildlife to be pests, crop destroyers, food, sources of traditional remedies and sources of income through poaching and trade. Only recently have efforts been made to stop the poaching and increase the population of endangered species in the country.
There are other threats as well. Because many areas don’t have electricity, there’s a problem of deforestation in the park due to people needing firewood, which reduces the amount of available habitat for birds and animals.
Conservation at the grassroots
Unfortunately, most Ugandan children and adults never have the opportunity to see wild animals and understand their value. While there are other organizations working in Uganda’s Kasese District (where the park and Bwera are located) to protect wildlife, Mukobi knew that he could bring about real, sustainable changes in attitudes by educating the children first. He feared that without conservation education, Ugandans would hunt — or allow their animals to be hunted by others — into extinction.
While working as a zookeeper at the Columbus Zoo in Columbus, Ohio, Mukobi founded the Kasese Wildlife Conservation Awareness Organization (KWCAO) in 2002, to help foster an ethic of conservation and stewardship among Ugandan children, teachers and parents.
“I started it in 2002 with a goal of going to one school, taking a few magazines, showing a video and letting schoolchildren see what they had in their parks,” Mukobi. “The Columbus Zoo wanted to support the effort, and gave me money to buy a television and the video equipment.”
His intent was to go to one school, but the education administrators didn’t want him to leave until he went to all of the schools in the district.
The presentations led Mukobi to start producing animal trading cards for the kids, as a leave-behind to help students remember and share what they learned with their parents and friends. Since he moved to the Oregon Zoo, its staff and volunteers have helped the trading cards catch on like wildfire.
The cards are now printed in batches of 125,000, representing 26 animals in the park. His colleagues at the Oregon Zoo give him ideas on how to improve the messages, and volunteers help him sort the huge volume of cards.
“The cards are printed in Oregon, by Precision Printing in Tualatin,” he said. “We sort them and ship them to Uganda, or I take them on my trips back.”
In March, Mukobi returned from a trip to Uganda, where he checked on the program’s progress. With the support of the Oregon Zoo, he was able to purchase a laptop computer, projector, speakers and screen to do his presentations. “It changes the whole experience,” he said.
He also offers a couple of incentives to the kids. “I said, if you can show me a card I gave you last time, I’ll give you 10 more,” he said. “I was surprised how many of them still had them, even years later. Many were passing them down to their brothers and sisters.
“The fact that they were holding on to the cards for so long was shocking to me. I could give them to my two boys here and they’d lose them within a couple of days.”
The other incentive was a trip to the national park, which many of the children had never seen. “The kids enjoyed the cards, but how cool would it be to actually go to the park? We selected those who scored best on their tests, and last March, 111 children from 17 schools got to go to the park to see the animals for themselves.”
About 350 schools now that have seen the KWCAO presentation. Mukobi makes two or three trips to Uganda each year for the program. “The students write me a gazillion letters about how wonderful it is,” he laughed.
In 2005, KWCAO also expanded to having children plant trees. As mentioned earlier, deforestation is a significant challenge in Uganda’s national parks.
“Not everyone has electricity in their homes,” Mukobi said. “People need firewood to cook, so you can’t just tell people to stop cutting trees. You have to come up with solutions.”
Mukobi and his schools plant trees and prune them to use as firewood. Each tree is given to a student to care for. In 2009, they planted 1,500 in a four-week period at 25 schools. “During my last trip, I was shocked at how big they’ve grown,” he said. “The kids would come up and tell me with pride that this was their tree”
Ten years after it began, KWCAO continues to change attitudes across Kasese district through:
Mukobi, who has been with the Oregon Zoo for 10 years, is gratified by the support he’s given in the workplace. “This really doesn’t have anything to do with bringing animals to the zoo,” he said. “It represents what the Oregon Zoo stands for globally. In the zoo, not only do we talk about conservation, we put our talk into action by doing actual conservation work.”