Fred Howat, Interpretation Officer, is often tasked with researching, writing, designing and installing interpretation around the zoo. These range from signage about our species to conservation projects and scientific research we’re doing at the zoo. It might also include exhibition theming, audio / visual elements and even commissioning bronze statues and artworks. However recently, he was asked to work on something slightly further afield.
Below, Fred tells us about the project that led him to Nigeria, and using his skills to support our Gashaka Biodiversity Project.
“The Gashaka Biodiversity Project (GBP) is one of our conservation projects based in Gashaka-Gumti National Park, Nigeria. Working alongside the National Parks Service, we monitor the endangered Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee, as well as study the varying ecosystems of the region using camera traps and surveys.
“As part of this project, we built an education centre on the edge of the park which serves local schools and visiting tourists. As part of my job, I was tasked with creating an exhibition for this space that could be used to teach school children about the importance of the National Park.
“My first job was to make contact with Stuart Nixon, our Field Programme Coordinator for Africa. He’s visited the park numerous times and knows the project. He was able to help me identify some key issues in the park that we could explain in the interpretation. Not only this, he put me in contact with the staff directly working in the park who I could ask more detailed questions.
“After several weeks of research and emailing, it became clear that creating an exhibition for a space I hadn’t seen was going to be quite difficult. So, soon after, it was decided I’d travel to Nigeria to see the park first hand.
“My trip to Nigeria was both my first to Africa and my first to a National Park. Flying to Abuja, the Federal Capital of Nigeria was a real eye-opener and insight into a vastly different culture. After a day’s rest, another short flight to Jalingo and four hour car ride, we arrived in Serti, a large town on the fringes of the park. This is where the Gashaka-Gumti National Parks Service is based, as well as the education centre I would be working on.
“Here we met with various staff from the park who took us to the education centre. I was able to have some good discussions about what sort of interpretation they wanted, as well as take measurements of the building and wall space. However, to really understand some of the problems faced in the park, we needed to head further in to it!
“After a two hour jeep drive, 30 minute motorbike ride and then short hike into the park, we arrived at Kwano, our research camp deep in the heart of the park. Here, we had 24 hour solar power, cooking and refrigeration facilities, a running shower (water is pumped from a local river and heated by the sun) and field assistants who maintain and manage the camp throughout the year.
“The park and camp area are beautiful, with dense forest and tall trees lining the route in. We encountered black and white colobus monkeys and some inquisitive, if not slightly intimidating olive baboons just a short distance away. It’s also not uncommon for a local troop of chimps we regularly monitor to visit either! After dumping our gear, a few hours (sweaty) hike south, following a trail of camera traps that had been set up months before, took us to a beautiful river, lined with sandy and rocky shores.
“To avoid overheating we decided to have a quick dip in the river before having lunch, all watched by another troop of baboons further down the river. Floating in the cool water, staring at the tree-lined blue sky, it was easy to forget that there was a reason we were in this beautiful forest. Beyond the treeline and further down the hill, thick black smoke was rising.
Global conservation will always rely on strong partnerships with local organisations and individuals, and nowhere is this truer than at Gashaka-Gumti National Park.
“Despite the immediate beauty of the park, it’s under huge pressure from a rapidly growing human population. Cattle grazing is the staple means of income for local people, and they roam the park in their thousands. To promote grass growth in the dry season, swathes of savannah and forest get burnt down. While this encourages new shoot to grow (and feed the cattle), it also destroys vital habitats for many species. With enough burning and cattle grazing, the forest edges close further in, shrinking what’s left of this precious ecosystem.
“And this brings us back to the interpretation. Creating an exhibition in the education centre which explains the issues is one step to saving the park. Teaching local children about the importance of saving the park also helps instil pride in their local surroundings. After several days of talking with staff, school children and teachers, I’d gained enough information and knew what I needed to do. The hard work back in the office was all to come.
“With a more environmentally friendly generation growing up, we’re hoping that they’ll take on the gauntlet of saving the park. We’ll continue playing our part, working together to protect and monitor the species found there, and to help educate the next generation of conservationists.
“Global conservation will always rely on strong partnerships with local organisations and individuals, and nowhere is this truer than at Gashaka-Gumti National Park; a place I’d be visiting again in several months’ time to install the exhibit.”