It’s strange that as of today, July 21, I have about one month left working at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo — really, less, since I’m taking a pre-planned vacation August 7-12. My individual days don’t rush past me, but every time I look back, weeks seem to have flown by.

My responsibilities so far haven’t changed much. I still do regular observations of the elephants, and still delight in seeing their individuality. I still watch footage of the elephants at night, documenting their instances of play and recumbent sleep. (I wish everyone could see Moshi and Martika play-spar with each other, I really do.) I still do assorted conservation assignments, helping out with and other work.

Currently, though, I have one big project — not my last one, but still significant. The Association of Zoos & Aquariums, the nonprofit accrediting body which includes more than 230 institutions in the U.S. and abroad, provides some resources for zoos and educators to teach the public about conservation issues. Yet AZA members do not currently have easy access to educational materials and resources about the second-biggest threat to wildlife worldwide, the fourth most profitable global crime: the illegal wildlife trade.

The illegal wildlife trade has contributed to the demise of not just my loves, elephants, but also rhinos, tigers, orangutans, pangolins, snow leopards (Cleveland has a baby right now!), Asian turtles — the list goes on. Dozens of species are threatened by poaching to meet human greed, not to mention those species’ environments and the livelihoods of people who live there

Unlike many of our world’s problems, such as Donald Trump’s presidential nomination, the illegal wildlife trade is solvable. We can stop it. Public awareness reduces demand for wildlife products. Trade bans actually work if they aren’t sabotaged. The trick is raising that public awareness: to lessen demand, to encourage lawmakers to pass trade bans and to make it harder for corrupt politicians to circumvent those bans for personal interest. (Unashamed plug: if I’ve now made you aware and you want to reduce demand, go here. If you want America to have one of those lovely trade bans, go here.)

Because AZA’s zoos and aquariums receive more than 183 million visitors every year, AZA has a unique opportunity to influence the public’s views about the illegal wildlife trade. Hence my big project right now: writing a proposal for AZA to develop resources about the illegal wildlife trade for its member institutions to use.

It’s important work, and I’m honored my supervisor Kym is trusting me to write it. It’s also, as you can probably guess, very challenging. I’ve never written a formal proposal of this sort before. As I write, I’m figuring out how I want to structure my proposal; how many facts I can include without sounding overbearing; which sources I should cite; what resources, exactly, AZA should make. And that’s just the beginning: because I work over-carefully, I’ve confronted far more quandaries, large and small, than just those. (Focusing on the proposal without going on Facebook is a whole issue in and of itself. I’m working on it.)

Even though this proposal relies most on my existing skills — writing; organization; persuasion, to a degree — it’s become my hardest assignment. That’s been an important reminder of humility, and an even better opportunity to improve as a student and worker. This paper is far from my last assignment, but for the first time this summer, I feel my job winding down.

After all, I just have three weeks left. I’m at the end of this column now, and that’s still bizarre.


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