Buffalo Zoo’s Curator of Education Travels to see Wild Polar Bears as Part of Polar Bears International’s Leadership Camp
Tiffany Vanderwerf, the Buffalo Zoo’s Curator of Education, traveled to the tundra near Churchill, Manitoba, Canada to spend one week in a Communicators Leadership Camp. The Camp was sponsored by the conservation group, Polar Bears International (PBI).The Buffalo Zoo, which is part of PBI’s network of Arctic Ambassador Center Zoos, selected Vanderwerf based on her past outreach and community involvement. They stay at the Tundra Buggy Lodge—with polar bears just outside— to learn about polar bears, climate change, and how each of us can help. From this remote location, they stay connected to the rest of the world through their blog at http://polarbearsinternational.org/programs/blogs Before returning home, each Ambassador creates an individual action plan to help reduce CO2 in their community.

Here is Tiffany’s blog from the Tundra Buggy

Day 1 October 4th

Tiff-Blog-photo102OMG!!! How can I express how amazing this experience has been so far. It is only day 1 and we have already had 6 polar bear sightings. It was really 5 different bears. We saw arctic fox, willow ptarmigan, bald eagle, short-eared owls, tundra swans and snow buntings. Have to stop writing for a moment. There is a bear just outside the tundra lodge at 8:00 pm...... I cannot believe how close I just got to a live, wild polar bear!!!!!!!! This place is amazing! Today we toured Churchill and met with three fur trappers. They sustainably use the land and I have a new appreciation for trappers who know how to do it right. We also saw D-20 - "polar bear jail". It is a holding sight for problem bears before they release them away from humans. Then we made our way across the tundra to our tundra lodge. It was the bumpiest ride I have ever taken. Gotta go. We have more work to do before we sleep

Day 2 October 5th

day202Imagine waking up in the morning and going to eat breakfast in your kitchen only to be greeted by a polar bear lumbering up to your window and a peregrine falcon dive-bombing an arctic fox. This is how I started my morning. The emotion it stirred in all of us here was visible. This is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity! This was followed by learning and discussion about climate change science. My new knowledge and my first hand experience with tundra wildlife makes me want to take action on climate change and polar bear conservation even more.

day2a02Then we went out on the tundra buggy for the day to learn more about polar bear biology and see wildlife. After lunch, we got to walk on the bottom of the Hudson Bay…literally. It was low tide. It is colder today than yesterday and there was a frost last night. We were told that this is the first frost of the season. This seems wrong. It usually happens three weeks earlier. This has been the trend lately. Climate change??? Then I was placed in a group that led the discussion on polar bears. It was a lively one that went in interesting directions. Learning and deep discussion is usually followed by fun opportunities and more wildlife sightings. Wildlife was scarce in the afternoon so many of us got the opportunity to try our hand at driving the tundra buggy. I jumped at that chance. It was FUN!!!

We returned to the lodge to eat dinner. The meals here are great and they always seem to be feeding us. Not complaining! The wind has been howling today and it was rocking the lodge back and forth. The meal was followed by a presentation from Frontiers North Adventures. They let us know more about their tundra buggies and other ecotourism opportunities. It is amazing to see a for-profit company that is so conservation minded. They are actively reducing their carbon footprint and giving back to the community in so many ways.

The day has been long and tiring but it was so worth it!

Day 3 October 6th

short-trees02Today started out with kitchen duty.  Early in our trip, we were split into four groups.  Each day, certain groups are responsible for breakfast, dinner, blogging and tweeting as well as presenting to the group on assigned readings.  I got up bright and early to help set tables and make LOTS of pancakes.  It may not sound like fun but it was.  We have become a pretty tight family here and it was nice to give back in some way.

After breakfast we enjoyed skyping with Geoff York from WWF.  He talked with us about the WWF conservation perspective and all of the ways they make an impact on polar bear conservation.  Then we all feverishly practiced our distance learning/video conferencing skills since we were charged with presenting a program on the tundra to a school in North Carolina.  We delivered the program at 10 AM and the kids were great!  They were 4th and 6th graders who had been learning about polar bears, the tundra and climate change.

After that, we headed back out on the tundra buggy for the day.  We went south to the border between the tundra and the forest tree line. Avery, an expert on trees and climate change who has been a part of our family for the trip, schooled us on black spruce (one of the most abundant trees around here) and tamarack.  It is striking how short the trees are here.  The harsh climate and ground only allow trees to grow a little each year and they all work hard to just barely cling on to life.  The most important part of his presentation in the forest concerned the number of trees it takes to offset one person’s carbon footprint. The statistics were staggering!  Each person in the US would have to plant 8,000 trees in a year to offset their carbon footprint.  Then that person would have to tend to that big forest for about 80 years to continue to offset their carbon footprint each year.  WOW!

Our wonderful tundra buggy driver, Dave, also happens to be an expert on the plants in the tundra.  He taught us all about the lichen, mosses and fruit plants we were walking on.  I could not believe what the ground felt like.  It was covered with lichen and it was so incredibly soft and spongy. I wish I could bring some back for all of you to touch.  We traveled back to the lodge to settle down for appetizers, blog time and then dinner.  I’m sure our evening will be filled with engaging conversation, as usual.

Day 4 October 7th

It is hard to believe that my journey in Churchill is almost over. This is our last full day here. Today was, by far, the most draining day. We have all been working hard all week to connect with polar bears, understand climate change and begin to think about what we can do to help polar bears. This was the day when we had to formulate a solid plan on how we would affect change in the world to ultimately help reverse climate change. Though we are almost all educators and marketing folks from zoos and other wildlife organizations, we were charged with stepping outside of our roles and not just come up with a “presentation” to show people in the hopes that they will change their behavior. We have to truly reduce the world’s carbon footprint. The process to decide on our project was depressing, annoying, VERY hard, and ultimately incredibly gratifying.

One year ago, the leadership camp group of polar bear zoo keepers came up with a wonderful new program called “Acres for the Atmosphere”. Part of this initiative required all participants in the camp to plant an acre of plants (mostly trees) to act as a carbon “catcher” or “sink” that will take CO2 out of the atmosphere. Excess CO2 produced by human activity is the major gas responsible for climate change. What a great project! Our group at the communicators leadership camp decided to help increase the power of those newly planted trees by improving the atmosphere for the new acres. We are sort of affectionately (and not officially) calling our project “Atmosphere for the Acres”. After a lot of math calculations, we decided that we would commit to getting our communities to reduce carbon emissions by a group total of 25,000 metric tons annually. That is equivalent to the carbon emissions produced by one small business! I truly believe that we can do it!!! We also certainly want to support our zoo keepers by helping them directly with their initiative as well in any way we can.

The fun part of the day included, as usual, going out on the tundra buggy to search for wildlife. Wildlife was scarce for a few days but it was out today. We saw many polar bears, an arctic hare, more ptarmigan, snow geese, and several other tundra buggies converging on our wildlife search. We asked why we were suddenly seeing other people in “our” tundra. We were told that the tourist season is just starting to ramp up here. It officially started on October 5th. We are leaving just in time to remember the area as our special spot in the world. This is the spot where true transformation and commitment to conservation happened for me.