Not once, not twice, but three times, I have had the overwhelming privilege and opportunity as an Oakland Zoo employee to visit and work with our partners Centre ValBio on the Great Red Island, otherwise known as Madagascar. Over the past three years we have been part of a team of educators and environmentalists working to build and implement science and conservation based after school programming in remote villages throughout the Ranomafana rain forest of South Eastern Madagascar. The goal of the appropriately named program, My Rainforest, My World is to inspire future generations to gain a better understanding of their ecosystem, protect their environment, foster a sense community, and be proud of all the diverse wildlife that they cohabitate with.
After 23 hours flight time, in 3 planes and 3 middle seats, we arrived to the bustling capital city of Antananarivo in what some refer to as the 8th continent - Madagascar. When picturing an Oakland Zoo employee working in Madagascar, you might envision me trekking through a wet, humid jungle searching for a nearly extinct lemur or running into one of those Dreamoworks characters, but in reality, a good portion of the time was spent a with something that is not always attributed to Madagascar – the people.
I believe to help wildlife you need to start with the people.With like minded individuals and supporting staff, our job was to train 20 student teachers and develop a conservation based science curriculum for 3rd and 4th grade students for the My Rainforest, My World afterschool program.
We were tasked to train the students on content and to give the student teachers the necessary tools, inspired by the Next Generation Science Standards practices and ideas, to be successful in their teaching. Not only did each student teacher have to adjust and commit to a life in a new, and foreign-to-them rural village for 9 months, they were also responsible for inspiring these local students to improve in their studies and take stewardship of their community and the environment.
Over a week we bonded, we laughed, and we learned – not just about science, but about culture, about customs, and from our small sample size, that Malagasy people don’t like Red Vines and Root Beer. Each year I have made new friendships and have met some amazing people that I hope to stay connected with for years to come.
After 8 straight days of working upon arrival, we had the opportunity to explore a little bit and see first hand what we were advocating for and what many tourists visit for – the wildlife!
We took a day trip to the Anja Community Reserve where the local people have embraced their local 400 ring-tailed lemur residents and protect this area in return – a perfect example of humans and animals co-existing.
A few days later, we had the chance to visit Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, a protected rain forest area home to many different types of wildlife and lemurs, including the largest of all lemurs - the Indri. Legend goes that the Indri saved a boy from being stuck in a tree, and since then the largest lemur revered and protected by fady or taboos.
Andasibe is also home to other lemurs that we got to see like the Diademed sifaka, the Common Brown Lemur, and the rare, nocturnal Wooly Lemur.
Of course the lemurs were amazing, but it would be unfair to all the other unique animals we saw to not mention them as well. We had the opportunity to see a variety of insects and a few very cool chameleons!
While seeing the wildlife in Madagascar was truly amazing, for me the highlight of the trip was hiking into the remote village of Ranovao, being welcomed by the local residents, and having the chance to go observe their classroom and play games with the students.
Prior to our departure, thanks to the generous private donations and fundraising efforts by our Teen Wild Guides, we were able to raise over $1500 to purchase much needed school supplies before we left. The remaining money was donated directly to the program when we arrived.
While this year marks the third and final year of the three year grant funded by the Three Graces Foundation, we hope that the program will continue in the future. The community and schools are highly invested in the program, the students impacted by the program have improved in their studies and increased their understanding of the environment – many are happy to stay longer for this after school program, sometimes wanting to stay longer.
We hope to stay involved with Centre ValBio and hope that My Rainforest, My World will continue to grow and improve over the years. The program, the people, the food, the animals, the country will forever have a special place in my heart.
Enjoy this video of our 2018 #OZinMadagascar trip!