What We Do

Connections Between Nature, Art, Culture and Conservation

Restoring Nature

“Why is San Diego Zoo Global working on this project?”

This is question that I have been asked many times in the past five years while working on various projects in collaboration with Native American communities here in San Diego County. For many, even here in the region, San Diego Zoo Global conjures up images of conservation efforts in exotic, distant lands. And yes, this is a big part of what we do, and in fact we have researchers working on the conservation of endangered wildlife all over the globe.  But, as an organization, we are also much more than that. 

Many projects fly under the radar, particularly those here in our own backyard, whether it is habitat restoration to support or local wildlife such as Stephens’ kangaroo rats and coastal cactus wrens. In this instance, we are partnering with Native American communities, artists, and native plant specialists to highlight connections between nature and culture and to preserve the biological and cultural heritage San Diego County. 

Biocultural Conservation

San Diego County is part of a regional “biocultural” hotspot. Ecologically, the County is extremely diverse and contains more threatened and endangered species than any other county in the contiguous U.S. Culturally, the county retains the highest number of Native American Reservations of any county in the U.S.—communities who traditionally managed the native ecosystems of this region.

The connections between nature and culture are deep and profound—plants, habitats, and landscapes of a region are a critical part of people’s cultural identity, and the loss, fragmentation, and destruction of ecosystems further erode traditional knowledge, practices, and life ways.  At the same time, biodiversity suffers as traditional ecological knowledge and management systems developed over hundreds and sometimes thousands of years are lost.

For past several years, I have had the privilege to learn, partner and work with a diverse group individuals, groups, and communities on efforts to halt this loss and renew and revitalize native plant knowledge and traditional management in order to conserve and restore native habitats important for tribal communities and the preservation of their traditional art and culture. Efforts have ranged from the development of ethnobotanical gardens at tribal schools to basket weaving workshops and summer programs for tribal youth and adults jointly led by cultural experts, native plant specialists, and conservation biologists.

The connections between nature and culture are seen clearly in Native American art forms, such as basket weaving. Traditional weaving is wholly dependent on upon the native plants and resources found in natural ecosystems.Native plants such as yucca, juncus, deergrass, elderberry, and skunkbush are used to make all types of baskets including winnowing baskets, granaries, burden baskets, seed beaters, fish-trapping and fish-netting baskets, as well as intricately woven gift and ceremonial baskets. 

Without the native plants that are used to construct these baskets, these cultural traditions are lost as are connections between people and their natural surroundings. This is already happening—the native plant basket rush Juncus textilis, the most widely used basket material, was once common along the edges of streams, ponds and wetlands; however habitat destruction and degradation has made this plant hard to find, further threatening cultural traditions. At the same time, many culturally important plants also provide critical food and shelter for local wildlife.

The Nature of Art

In an effort to help revitalize cultural traditions and increase awareness for habitat conservation, we have launched an exciting new program entitled “Native Roots: the Nature of Art,” in collaboration with tribal communities, artists, native plant specialists and basket weavers.

This program, focused on tribal communities in San Diego County, highlights connections between nature and culture, supports tribal conservation efforts and teaches traditional and contemporary basket weaving to youth and adults. In these workshops, participants not only learn how to weave, but also learn to identify, gather, prepare and sustainably manage and conserve basketry plants. Thus, this project supports both biological and cultural conservation right here in our own backyard.

Projects like this may not occur in exotic locations, and for many, native plants such as juncus are not quite as fuzzy and cute as others that we work hard to conserve; but the work is no less important and hopefully it is clear why San Diego Zoo Global works on projects like this one.

Bryan Endress, Ph.D., Applied Plant Ecology, San Diego Zoo Global
Photos by Deborah Small, Professor of Visual and Performing Arts, California State University, San Marcos