Issue: 2005: Vol. 4, No. 2

Zoo Atlanta: Conserving Giant Pandas through Research and Education

Article Author(s)

Dr. Shelly Lakly

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Dr. Lakly is the Vice President of Education and Conservation for Zoo Atlanta. She cab be reached at 404-624-5890 or [email protected] 

Sarah Bexell

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Ms. Bexell is a Field Conservation and Education Specialist at Zoo Atlanta. She can be reached at 404-624-5904 or [email protected] 
2005: Vol. 4, No. 2
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Zoo Atlanta: Conserving Giant Pandas through Research and EducationZoo Atlanta has been working with Chinese counterparts on conservation and education projects for many years, and represents one of Georgia’s key links between the State and China.

One of Zoo Atlanta’s major commitments is to helping conserve the giant panda. Through our Panda Conservation Fund, we support biological monitoring, field patrols, and infrastructure in three critical panda reserves in Sichuan Province, China: Anzihe, Baodinggou and Baihe. Since 1997, an active and productive partnership with our colleagues at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (Research Base) and the Chengdu Zoo, located in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province has formed. In 1999, this resulted in Zoo Atlanta receiving a pair of giant pandas, Yang Yang (male) and Lun Lun (female), on loan from the Research Base. Together, our organizations are leaders in giant panda research on breeding, social and maternal behavior, and we actively advance husbandry and veterinary practices with our partners in China.

Zoo Atlanta is also an innovative leader in conservation education. With the support and guidance of our partners in Chengdu, we helped establish the first Conservation Education Departments in China at the Chengdu Research Base and the Chengdu Zoo. Through our relationships, we have piloted many innovative programs including pre-kindergarten programs and curriculum, volunteer programs, and family programs. These programs were designed to increase conservation awareness and conservation action on key issues such as the Asian Turtle Crisis.

As a result of these successes and at the request of the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens (CAZG), Zoo Atlanta has designed an ambitious six-year plan to create a conservation education training program for zoos and aquariums throughout China. The Academy of Conservation Training (ACT) will be culturally relevant and will incorporate the best conservation education practices developed over the last 30 years in the United States. It consists of three phases:

  • Camp and Field Trip Curriculum for children and families

  • Educator Training Curriculum

  • Implementation of the Academy of Conservation Training

Creation of Camp and Field Trip Curriculum for Children and Families

We have created an innovative conservation education curriculum designed to instill a conservation ethic and connect children with animals and the environment. The curriculum is based on diverse and relevant academic fields, including conservation psychology, social learning theory, socio-biology, conservation science, and empathy and moral development, while looking at cross-cultural applications. The curriculum is the foundation of our camp and field trip programs for children and families. The programs are hands-on, immersive and fun, and are designed to increase environmental stewardship by increasing empathy for and knowledge of animals and the natural world. In October 2004, we and our Chinese program coordinators conducted a four-day overnight instructor workshop for 32 teachers and implemented two three-day overnight camps for 60 students during the National Holiday at the Chengdu Research Base.

Our camp and training were highly successful and increased the knowledge, interest and empathy of students and instructors toward animals and the environment. As participating professor Li Decheng wrote, “I feel my understanding toward animals and animal conservation has risen to a new stage. Like the bright moon in the evening sky, I felt my mind is suddenly open and clear.”

We will continue to enhance and expand our curriculum as we next initiate camps at the Chengdu Zoo and continue them at the Chengdu Research Base in summer 2005. We also plan to implement school field trips in 2005-2006 at both of our partner facilities.

Educator Training Curriculum

In the United States, education and education departments serve as foundations to the mission of zoos and aquariums. However, education departments have not been a traditional part of Chinese zoos and aquariums. Therefore, if funding can be secured, we will create and test a comprehensive Educator Training Curriculum in China that will develop effective conservation educators. This curriculum will serve as the basis of ACT.

In our pilot programs, we have seen a huge interest from teachers in learning new ways to teach and inspire students. Much of traditional Chinese education is formal, and our methods of inquiry, exploration and impassioned discovery were truly embraced by the instructors.

As one middle school instructor said, “I will use the methods of education emphasizing practice, hands-on and experience. This helps arouse students’ enthusiasm and interest.” Another instructor noted that “I will emphasize experience and empathy in my teaching now, (because) to experience and tell makes students change their behavioral habits and attitude.”

Our experience in our camps has also shown us that the professors and teachers not only personally embrace our programs, but also believe they will impact their students. Another instructor wrote “I think my students or my friends will have totally new thoughts and understanding about animals because they will learn how to respect animals, love animals and live with animals in harmony (through this program).”

Finally, it is the teachers’ personal investment and embracing of our programs that show us the true impact we have had. A middle school professor told us that “Before today, I am afraid of animals. I don’t really like anything that moves. Spending time with animals today, especially seeing a white egret with the security guard, really moved me. Wherever he goes, the egret will follow him. Sometimes, the bird would land on his shoulder. They are like two loving friends talking about friendship. So, man becoming a friend with an animal is so simple.”

Zoo Atlanta is extremely excited and proud of our history of success and future plans for conservation education in China. We believe that it is only through good science and education that true conservation of the giant panda and other species can be accomplished.

We at Zoo Atlanta firmly believe that empathy and fostering a connection toanimals and the environment is the first step to creating environmental stewards. This has been substantiated by many of our participants, but one instructor put it best:

“In the past, I only know that we need to love animals and protect animals, but lacked true experience. Through (this program), I understand that we should think about things and feel things from the animal’s point of view. You will deeply feel that loving animals and saving animals are not just a few slogans. It should translate into the thoughts and action of a person. We should treat animals as persons, as friends. We should respect and love them. This means our feelings toward animals have reached a new milestone.”