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The Importance of Urban Wildlife

Since the age of 9, I knew that I was going to grow up to be a wildlife conservationist. This is largely because some of my very first, most formative experiences were spent with my best friend catching mosquito fish from a pond at the bottom of our road. Wildlife was easy to come by in my hometown of Harare, Zimbabwe. Each morning on my way to school, I cycled past zebras and impala living in Delta Park, a property housing several corporate banking headquarters. Elephants and giraffe were never more than a 20 minute bike-ride from my back door, and my first birding experiences were spent mist-netting black coucals and fire-crowned bishops in Marlborough vlei. In my own back yard I had built 8 fish ponds where African toads flourished and croaked incessantly, keeping my parents awake all night.

You can imagine, therefore, that adjusting to super-urban Washington DC was tough for an African boy. Initially, I spent most of my time at the National Zoo, comforted by the incredible Amazonia exhibit. This indoor rainforest is a sensory overload, with free-ranging monkeys, tanagers and sloths swinging in the canopy above your head while giant Amazon fishes swim in pools below. While I was walking through the Zoo I would often see wild deer wandering around the grounds, and when I discovered the nesting colony of black-crowned night herons, my zoo experience became transformed into a wildlife experience. I began visiting the zoo as much to see the wild animals as the exotic creatures assigned to keepers.

Intrigued by the native wildlife, I began to explore other parts of the city. To my surprise, I discovered foxes hunting ducks on Roosevelt Island, white squirrels emerging from hibernation on the Mall, and hawks hunting pigeons above the Dupont Circle Metro stop. I later learned that my hero, E.O. Wilson, had his formative wildlife experiences in Rock Creek Park. Frederick Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture designed this incredible National Park. It extends like a green finger, right into the heart of downtown Washington DC. Today it is a wildlife corridor for coyotes, deer, foxes, migrating songbirds, and each spring thousands of herring migrate up the river to breed.

Few people living in Washington DC will ever have the privilege of seeing polar bears in Churchill, or tigers in Kanha National Park, but with very little effort they can observe fat cormorants on the banks of the Potomac River as they scarf down the bounty of migrating spring herrings. It is these personal encounters that make people value wildlife. And if wildlife becomes a priority in people’s personal value systems, then it makes life easier for conservationists working to save the tigers and polar bears. This is why a group of my friends got together and created a web based photography project www.dcnature.com that showcases the incredible wildlife living in the Nation’s Capital. Hopefully we’ll be able to engage a few budding E.O. Wilson’s out there and give them a venue to share their passion for nature with others, or touch someone who may consider making a donation to a wildlife charity.

Click here to share your own wildlife photos taken in the nation’s capital.

Brian Gratwicke

Please email us on dcnature@gmail.com to submit or pitch an essay for this section