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Partnerships and collaborations for conservation

Volume 8 Number 1 - January 2011

Virginia Wall and Randy Fulk


Partnerships among conservation organizations, non-government organizations, botanic gardens and zoos are often critical to conserving biological diversity. The North Carolina (NC) Zoo is working with partners in NC and in Uganda, East Africa to help preserve and restore populations of rare and endangered plant species, natural communities and ecosystems.

Besides the in-situ conservation benefit, our partnerships provide opportunities for our staff to gain field experience that broadens their vision and helps in designing unique plant and animal habitats at the NC Zoo. Ultimately, as horticulturists and educators, we combine this knowledge and these experiences with the plant species themselves into exhibits and educational programs that show the complex relationships between species.

The NC Zoo’s horticulture program is defined, in part, by its collections of rare and endangered species, native species, and wild-origin, known-provenance species. The Zoo acquires most of its plants for display from suppliers who have domesticated these species from the wild, thus reducing pressure on wild populations. The NC Zoo staff’s participation in natural areas conservation, both locally and internationally, is important to help safeguard finite biological resources and to help ensure sources of wild genes for the future.

The Zoo cannot hope to fulfil its mission to conserve biological diversity without helping institutions in the places where biological diversity exists.

Two documents were early inspirations for the NC Zoo’s international plant field conservation programs:  The International Agenda for Botanic Gardens in Conservation (2000) and The Global Strategy for Plant Conservation which sets out targets aimed to safeguard the world’s plant diversity.
A door closes and a window opens…

Our strategy is to locate and build on established expertise and experience in areas identified as important for biological diversity. We involve local experts and organizations in the region and help to empower communities to conserve their natural resources. The knowledge Zoo staff gain from working with indigenous organizations is a rich source of inspiration to improve NC Zoo’s exhibits and interpretive storylines.

Developing partnerships is a way to extend our limited resources and we have found willing and capable partners in Africa who have similar missions and values to ours. We have found that all partners can benefit equally from a trusting relationship that incorporates “SMART” (specific, measureable, achievable, realistic and timely) goals.

We have found that these partnerships work better if long term planning and participation is expected on both sides.”

Making a commitment to spend the time needed to establish relationships, define projects, and work through organizational and funding problems is critical to a successful field partnership. Other issues that must be considered include local political stability for staff safety, identifying a biologically important hotspot that is recognized by the appropriate world conservation organizations, and finding a willing partner who understands transparency and accountability of financial dealings. These are some of the more important criteria we use when making decisions about who we will approach for Zoo partnerships.
After finishing a project in 2005 with a partner in Cameroon, West Africa, the NC Zoo was looking for new opportunities and one became available in Uganda, in the Albertine Rift, a hotspot for biodiversity in Tropical Africa. Conservation of plants in areas like the Rift is one of the targets identified by the botanic gardens of the world. One of our first challenges was identifying potential local partners. The Zoo has been working in Uganda for over 15 years on other projects, but we had not worked specifically in plant conservation before and we had to cultivate a number of new relationships.

Among the issues we often face are questions about why a zoo would be interested in conserving plants in the wild. The NC Zoo has broader interests than most field conservation organizations might expect. Zoos generally have animal focused conservation programs, and are not known for their work with plants.  Animal conservation projects, however, often include studies of the habitat and plants that support animal populations.

The NC Zoo formed a partnership with Tooro Botanical Gardens to help understand and document plant diversity in the area of the Albertine Rift near Kibale Forest. The project includes working with garden staff to assist with long-term strategic planning, establishing herbaria and living collections, and providing training, resources, knowledge and funds to develop a working list of the known plant species in this biologically diverse area of the world. This plant work is also an important piece in the puzzle of understanding the habitat needs for the conservation of animals in the area.

Drafting the Memorandum of Understanding to form the North Carolina Zoo/Tooro Botanical Gardens partnership in 2007 was an important first step.  Subsequent letters of agreement stating clear goals, outcome measures, products and evaluations made for a good foundation. Drafting and agreeing on the garden’s strategic plan helped focus the work. Face-to face meetings were important, with travel funded by the NC Zoo Society. The partnership’s accomplishments are assessed each year and have been essential to furthering the collaborative work. Partnership visits occur on a regular basis and involve either Ugandan Garden staff coming to the United States or Zoo staff visiting the garden in Uganda. In all cases Zoo staff travel is designed to assess conditions at the Garden, evaluate progress toward goals, and identify training and funding needs that are important to the next phase of the project. Besides Society funding, grants from other non-profits and fundraising events are now funding most of each year’s work plan.

An important special project for the partnership is the development of the Tooro Botanical Garden’s medicinal plant garden. Many plants found in the forest of the Albertine Rift have medicinal properties for humans and other animals. Medicinal plants are important to rural Ugandans because of the cost and scarcity of health care. The medicinal plant garden will include a family “first aid” garden that is intended to help Ugandans (mostly women) to understand what plants can be used to treat their families. The medicinal gardens at Tooro also propagate medicinal plants to sell to local women for their family gardens, thus reducing the pressure on the plants in the wild. Gardens of native plants will surround the demonstration first-aid garden, showing the indigenous plants native to the Albertine Rift that have other medicinal properties. Programs at the garden already focus on working with traditional healers and herbalists in the conservation and preservation of traditional knowledge threatened by modernization.

Benefiting equally

Exhibiting tropical plants ex situ brings with it the responsibility to also work for their conservation in situ.”

The partnership with Tooro Botanical Garden allows the Zoo to meet this responsibility and has given us other benefits. The Zoo has learned a great deal about unique ecosystems from our partners. We have acquired plant species that we use in our exhibits for environmental education.  The one flagship plant the Zoo has acquired from Uganda so far gives us a great story to engage our visitors and encourage them to care about the environment. Our partnership and the networks it creates, give us first-hand material for graphics and interpretation in the park. 

The partnership has also provided unique opportunities for Zoo staff.  While working with Tooro garden staff, Zoo horticulturists also expand their own capacity to plan and care for the Zoo’s tropical collection. Zoo staff improve their skills in relation to organizing, planning, coordinating and understanding cultural diversity and these enrich our institution.

Working in situ, we learn a great deal about the natural habitats we are trying to represent.  Seeing and experiencing the habitat directly allows us to acquire images, experiences and other useful insights such as colors, spacing of plants, forest floor esthetics, and animal/plant relationships that are not usually available from books or from the internet.  Photos and drawings are critical to our design process. We spend hours trying to find habitat shots of places that we haven’t been too, which we then use to create accurate exhibits.  Finding published photos of details like the forest floor or how a stream edge looks or how plants grow in relationship to each other is difficult. These less than exciting images do not normally get published but are invaluable to our work. On each partnership visit we send different staff into these field situations to develop their design capacity and to build our collection of habitat images.

Learning how to fund a program such as this

The traditional emphasis and ability to raise funds for an international conservation program at the NC Zoo is, understandably, focused on animal species. Creative fund-raising and developing partnerships has been the key to building a funding strategy for the Tooro Botanical Gardens project.

It has taken a while, but we have come to understand and accept that horticulturists need skills in marketing, fund-raising and grant writing too. It also helps to be an entrepreneur and stay on the lookout for funding opportunities.  We are still learning these skills for ourselves and are discovering how to motivate people in other areas of the Zoo that already have these skills to join us.  Zoo horticulture requires us to wear many different hats and our new conservation fund-raising and promotions hat is one more to add.

In an effort at blending both plant and animal conservation, the NC Zoo held the first Plant Conservation Day Sky Art event in 2009. Leveraging partnerships with the Association of Zoological Horticulture the 2010 Sky Art event was held at five institutions and used to raise funds for the new AZH Keystone program. The Tooro Botanical Gardens is the first recipient of the AZH Keystone Project award. 

The 2010 NC Zoo Sky Art image story comes from a photo with George Bwambale, supervisor at the Tooro Botanical Gardens and Stephen Moore, a horticulture curator at the North Carolina Zoo examining an Aframomum species at the Tooro Botanical Gardens.  Wild gorillas, chimpanzees and other primates in Uganda rely on Aframomum (Alligator pepper) as an important food and medicinal plant. We are using this story to convey to Zoo audiences that their support can help preserve some of the world’s plants and the wildlife that depends upon them for survival.  We are asking them to “Help plant a seed for conservation”.

Recruiting other funding partners is also important. Smith College and the Jacksonville Zoo and Botanical Garden have both channelled funds through North Carolina Zoo to plant conservation activities at Tooro Botanical Garden. This unusual donation from non-profit to non-profit is good use of their resources and takes advantage of the groundwork that the NC Zoo has laid in Uganda. Our experience has taught us that having realistic expectations, making the effort to coordinate, brokering small donations from many institutions into one program, setting measurable goals, being transparent and clear about the use of other institution’s funds and using expertise and in-kind contributions from partners can lead to success.

Gin Wall and Randy Fulk
North Carolina Zoo
4401 Zoo Parkway
North Carolina 27205