School Curriculum for the (Native) Birds
When I tell people that I work in Hawaii, the response is comically predictable. Sometimes it’s a sarcastic, “Oh, that’s rough.” Other times they will wistfully remark on how lucky I am, and I can see them picturing me in shorts and sandals, sipping a Mai Tai on the beach every evening.
The reality is that the Hawaii I know is much different than the tropical paradise most people imagine. High on the slopes of Mauna Loa volcano on the Big Island, it rains nearly every day and temperatures rarely get above 70 degrees. Despite the fact that my towel never dries, I love this special place. Here, staff at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC), part of our Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program, breed and rear some of Hawaii’s most endangered native birds, including ‘alala, the Hawaiian crow.
‘Alala are currently extinct in the wild, but hard work and perseverance have paid off and our staff have managed to grow the captive population from an all time low of around 20 birds in the early 1990s to more than 100 individuals today. This captive breeding success makes it possible to now consider reintroducing ‘alala back into native forests on the Big Island.
But much groundwork must be laid prior to this reintroduction. While a working group of professionals is tackling the biological and ecological issues, there is a human dimension to ‘alala conservation that must also be addressed.
‘Alala represent an important part of Hawaii’s natural and cultural heritage. ‘Alala were once an ‘amaukua (spiritual guardian) for many Hawaiian families, and play a key role in maintaining healthy forests. Sadly though, ‘alala have been missing from Hawaiian forests for so long that they have effectively been forgotten.
Community support for ‘alala conservation is critical to the success of the reintroduction, but for people to want to conserve ‘alala, they must know it, understand it, and be a part of its story. This is where I come in. I travel to Hawaii several times a year to work with our partners and provide the education and outreach support needed to garner community backing. And what better way to ensure a future for ‘alala than by concentrating on the next generation of voters, landowners, and stewards of the forest?
This year, we are piloting a school-wide program on the Big Island that fosters bio-cultural knowledge, environmental stewardship, and community action in support of ‘alala conservation. Together with our local partners, we are taking a participatory approach in developing this program.
This summer, in combination with a graduate field course offered jointly through San Diego Zoo Global and Miami University’s Project Dragonfly, we are hosting a strategic planning summit that will bring together local stakeholders from across the Big Island. With input from teachers, administrators, informal educators, and other conservation professionals, we will develop a framework for school engagement in conservation that can be replicated in schools across Hawaii and beyond.
Baseline data is critical to effective planning, so one morning on my most recent trip to Hawaii, while the KBCC staff attended to the cacophony of juvenile ‘alala, I drove down the bumpy road towards a different lot of juveniles. I was headed to a local school in a small, rural community, about 45 minutes to the south.
My goal: to gather information on how students currently understand and interact with wildlife by having students write essays about an experience they’ve had with wildlife. By the end of the trip, I was able to collect essays from three different schools representing three very different communities. These data will guide the development of our school program so that it meets the needs of a diverse student population.
Back at the KBCC, I couldn’t wait to read through the essays! Though I wasn’t surprised by the content, the essays reinforced to me these students’ need for opportunities to reconnect with local nature. Many of them have no wildlife stories to share at all, and instead share stories about playing sports or shopping. Of those with wildlife stories, the vast majority of the experiences are with non-native species. None mention native forest birds. Worrying as this may be, I’m more compelled than ever to get this new school program off the ground and foster connections between students and native wildlife and wild places that will be vital to their conservation. More adventures coming soon!
Robin Keith, Conservation Program Specialist, Conservation Education Division