Local Animal Enthusiast Makes Impact in Africa

Like other 12-year-olds, Esme Salzman fills her free time by messing around on the Internet. She spends hours online, actually. But the way this soon-to-be LCHS 7th-grader kills time benefits wildlife in Africa.
Salzman is a top user at wildcamgorongosa.org, a website that relies on the public to crowdsource animal identifications in order to help scientists at Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique discover which animal species are still in the park and track their recovery.
The idea — as Salzman has shared with classmates, friends, sister Ava and the 100 members of a recent TEDx event audience at LCHS — is for visitors to the site to look at photos caught by camera traps set up throughout the park and identify the animals they see.
To the right of each photo are buttons listing types of animals, as well as attributes that might be clues if there’s any confusion. And, no, there is not an “I don’t know” button, because multiple people will see each photo and weigh in, and if there’s disagreement, a researcher will take a look.
“It’s cool because you know a lot of people, when they’re on their phones, they play apps or something like that,” Salzman said. “And it’s not like that helps the world at all. This is something where people are actually helping, and it’s fun!”
Some history: Before it was decimated by decades of war, Gorongosa region was, at one point, among the most diverse places on the planet. That isn’t the case anymore, but an international conservation effort is working valiantly to restore the area’s wildlife.
Salzman knows, first-hand, the great value of this work. An aspiring scatologist who prizes her collection of faux animal poop, she’s visited Mozambique twice with her mom, Jessica Yu, an Oscar-winning documentarian who traveled to the country to work on her film, “The Guide.”
It was Yu’s work that brought them back to Gorongosa last summer, when Salzman got to assist with lighting and listen in on interviews and soak up the sunsets — “the sun looks huge compared to what it looks like here, and it turns red as it starts to set. It’s really amazing!”
Most amazing of all, of course, were the animals. Salzman is all smiles as she lists off the all those she encountered:
• “You drive into the gates and you see all these baboons everywhere, and warthogs!”
• “We were exploring these new roads that probably hadn’t ever been driven on before, with all the bumpy flood plain, and there were all these birds, and water buck and crocodiles!”
• “A lot of bush babies — like the monkeys with big eyes.”
• “We were going to track the lions … and we couldn’t find them. And then one guy was suddenly like, ‘Stop!’ And there are two lions in front of the car, just lying down!”
• “My favorite animal in the park? The eland. I love their body shape — they have this rooster-like neck. It’s just really cool!”
Salzman was there for nearly two weeks, learning about the history of the region and gaining inspiration from the scientists with whom she spent time. But for all the species she spotted, she never got a glimpse of the animal she most wanted to spy: a zebra. There are, she explained, only 14 of them in the area.
“At Gorongosa Park, something clicked for her when she realized that scat was a form of ‘evidence’ that could help biologists understand the health and behavior of a species,” Yu said. “As a parent, you know that your child’s enthusiasms often fade, only to be replaced by new fascinations. In this case, Esme’s interest seems only to have evolved. She’s been reading books on mammalogy, identifying animals on wildcamgorongosa.net and looking out for opportunities to help out in the field.”
“I was just concentrating on how amazing everything is,” Salzman said. “And it just got me thinking, you know: ‘What can I do here? How can I help?’”
The Wild Cam was the opportunity she was looking for. At the start of the month, Salzman had made more than 3,100 identifications, which she told the TEDx audience makes her the site’s most prolific volunteer.
“The sincerity of her passion and the depth of her understanding were clear from the beginning,” emailed Hilary Gregg, GATE teacher for the La Cañada Unified School District. “It’s so rare for a student of her age to have such a focused passion, and it’s even rarer for them to have gone out and acted upon that passion in a way that has had a significant impact on scientific research and has inspired others to do the same.”
Salzman has gotten pretty good at both — the inspiring and the identifying.
“Some of them are kind of obvious,” she said. “Like if you see a baboon, you know it’s a baboon. But the first hard one was a little blob going into a bush. We probably spent seven minutes trying to decide. So there have been ones like that, but mostly, you just use the shape.”
And then there was the time she spotted, near a fence, a couple of those zebras. “I got so excited!” she said.
Salzman also gets excited about performing; she’s been singing and acting in La Cañada Junior Theater productions for the past three years.
And she’s excited to have been allowed to register for a Los Angeles County project that will have her helping collect and analyze coyote scat.
“I just love that she has interest in so many fields,” said her father, Mark Salzman. “Music and drama and science. She’s into how the world works, and I just think that’s a wonderful balance.”
It’s especially wonderful for the animals of Gorongosa National Park.

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