PICC Background & Updates, 2022

Brown lemur female and infant, Madagascar

by Kathy West

I’m alarmed by the loss of biodiversity worldwide, but as a primatologist I’m particularly distressed with the dangerous rate of extinction facing primates. This crisis has only become more dire as the COVID-19 pandemic closed the borders to international visitors in March 2020 and one of the only eco-friendly source of income, tourism, has stopped entirely. People lack food, income and health care, which only puts more pressure on the forest and the endangered animals.

Anxious to contribute to conservation solutions, I founded this conservation project –– Photography Inspiring Children in Conservation (PICCmadagascar.org). We inspire children to find their voice and become lifelong learners and conservation leaders within their communities by providing them with skills, knowledge and a passion for conservation through the arts of photography, illustration and writing. 

PICC was designed to face the primate extinction crisis head on by: 1) Building local capacity for sustainable conservation through educating and engaging students, teachers, elders, and the broader community, thereby empowering them with an appreciation for the mutual benefits of protecting the local biodiversity and ecosystems; 2) Providing avenues for program participants to obtain income through their conservation efforts and ecotourism, and providing guided support and resources for them to continue doing so after we leave; and 3) Creating media with direct calls to action, which uplifts the voices of community members and allows for their stories to reach a wider audience.  PICC executes a sustainable, all-encompassing conservation strategy that shows data-driven impact long after the program is completed. 

Suriname. In 2018, I was invited to contribute the PICC program to a Fulbright scholar’s forest conservation program in Suriname. Here, I introduced thirty 8-10 year old children to local protected areas and was amazed how quickly they became engaged with biodiversity details. After quick lessons with the DSLR cameras (300mm telephoto zoom lens and preset manual settings to give them the highest chances of success), they were incredibly skillful in capturing gorgeous images. I selected a photograph from each child’s images to enlarge, print and laminate, and we shared the images and stories of their forest experience with their families and teachers at a “gallery” celebration. (https://piccmadagascar.org/2018/10/26/picc-pilot-project-successfully-launched-in-suriname-community-of-lelydorp)

Madagascar. The coronavirus pandemic restricted my scheduled plans to conduct the PICC program with Malagasy children in the summer of 2020. However, COVID-alternative plans were put into action and I developed bilingual teaching materials so that my Malagasy PICC Team member, Pascal Elison, could teach lemur behavior and ecology, and conservation awareness programs in the villages next to the Masoala National Park (piccmadagascar.org/picc-curriculum/madagascar-2020). Through discussions, worksheets, field sketching, and guided walks to the forest and beaches to visit the lemurs, the children experienced the forest with their new knowledge and practiced their drawing and note-taking along the way. We provided the children and their teacher with information about their local lemurs and biodiversity, conservation awareness and solutions, and skills to share their new knowledge with their communities.  They’ve taught their parents about the importance of the tall trees for the lemurs and are actively protecting the lemurs in their local forests. Pascal is currently teaching children in the nearby village of Marotofotra and from the city of Maroantsetra, where the older children in a conservation club have been trilled to see lemurs for the first time in their lives on a field / camping trip to the Nosy Mangabe reserve.

I’m excited about the immediate impact the PICC program has had on the protection of lemurs and am thrilled that word-of-mouth is rapidly expanding the PICC program in this area. Also, there is a large benefit to Pascal who has lost his pre-pandemic eco-guide income but is receiving professional level pay for his excellent leadership and PICC teaching. We can’t wait to teach the children photography when we can safely travel to Madagascar, and when the borders are open to international visitors again.

In addition to teaching the children photography, part of our curriculum is environmental education through a local language coloring book that I’ve written and illustrated specifically for each areas’ unique biodiversity with conservation issues and solutions. I create these books using my photographs and collaborating with local guides, scientists and conservation organizations. I aim for accuracy but also fun engagement through stories and line drawings, to provide effective conservation knowledge and activities that are easily put into practice by the children and their families. “Book One: Lemur Conservation Coloring and Activity Book” was published for SE Madagascar (2018); and “Book Two: Masoala for NE Madagascar” was published online in 2020. Book Three is under development to build local capacity and outreach with mountain gorilla conservation in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park communities (Uganda). (http://bit.ly/LemurConservBook1; https://bit.ly/PICCbook2020)

Recently PICC has expanded into multiple new project sites in African primate habitats and has exciting new networking opportunities with like-minded organizations around the world. We are working to develop long-term funding to allow us to replicate the PICC photography and conservation education workshops in critical primate habitat communities worldwide.

Panama. Another program under development is on the Azuero peninsula in Panama. A PICC session is scheduled for a week-long session in April 2022 with the children on this peninsula who live near a number of reserves that protect 3 endangered primates. Check out the coloring book for this project: https://piccmadagascar.files.wordpress.com/2021/11/picc_azuero_2021.pdf.  (Read more about the endangered Azuero spider monkey and the conservation efforts to locate remaining populations in an article in the NY Times  https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/28/travel/panama-azuero-spider-monkeys.html?searchResultPosition=4).

Rafiki Memorial Wildlife Conservation Initiative, Uganda. Rafiki (rafikiwildlife.org) is an exciting new conservation partner for the PICC program. The Rafiki Memorial Wildlife Conservation Initiative is focusing on teaching skills to create artwork as an alternative income source, instead of traditional lifestyles that included poaching. We are supporting them in numerous ways and look forward to collaborating our programs for increased conservation in the Bwindi area. I’m currently writing and illustrating a custom coloring book for mountain gorilla conservation workshops with local Buhoma children, with the Rafiki founder as my translator and co-author.

As part of this partnership, I’ve also been developing a mountain gorilla conservation PICC session near Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, scheduled for August 2022. There are two main components to this project: 1) PICC sessions will teach gorilla behavior and ecology, conservation issues and solutions, photography, illustration and writing with Buhoma village children, teachers and elders; and 2) A multilingual documentary film will feature perspectives of program participants and local community leaders and will highlight the conservation issues faced by both gorillas and community members, and will be available online. We will also produce a published gorilla conservation book of student works containing student photos, drawings, and notes. It will be published in the U.S. and Uganda, then sold to tourists. Funds will support conservation-based education for students. We are currently obtaining funding for this project. Let us know if you’d like to support our efforts!

Madagascar: A Story of Conservation Hope Through Education

Story and Photos by Kathy West

There is a supernatural ambiance to Madagascar’s incredibly diverse habitats, rich species biodiversity, implausibly-unique animals, strange drought tolerant plants, and stunningly beautiful landscapes.

Pre-pandemic, ecotourists came in droves from around the world to see the lemurs and discover for themselves the tiniest chameleon in the world, Brookesia nana, the fairy-like Paradise flycatcher, the odd fleshy-face of Schlegel’s asity, and the red, succulent-like plants perched on the razor-sharp Tsingy rock.

1. The Indri (Indri indri) is Madagascar’s largest living lemur and is dangerously close to extinction. Due to unregulated and destructive mining and deforestation practices, even in protected areas the Indri is threatened. In Andisabe National Park, the remaining population is only around 110 individuals (2017) and other tiny populations are scattered throughout eastern Madagascar’s isolated sections of forests. These gentle, singing lemurs live in monogamous family units and have not been successfully bred in captivity like so many other lemur species. However, they are surviving and reproducing in an isolated private preserve (Palmarium, Ankanin’ny Nofy) on a peninsula in Lake Ampitabe, on the East coast of Madagascar. 2. Schlegel’s Asity (Philepitta schlegeli), male, Ankarafantsika NP. 3. Red Euphorbia plant on Tsingy rock, Ankarana NP

Yet, across Madagascar, even in the lushest of rainforest habitats, there has been a relentless destruction of the forests though the intense pressure from the growing human population to cut and burn forests for growing rice, grazing zebu cattle, and making charcoal, their main source of cooking fuel. In the most protected of Madagascar’s rainforests, such as those of the Masoala peninsula, 9 out of 10 species of lemurs are vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered with some species’ only remaining populations found in small, isolated areas.

Humans arrived in Madagascar from SE Asia around 4,000 years ago and found a forested island full of gorilla-sized lemurs, giant flightless birds, and a richness of plant life to support their growing populations. Fast forward to the present and there are now 25 million people living in Madagascar, many with food insecurity and difficultly growing staples in poor soils resulting from slash and burn agricultural techniques (tavy). There is also a large percentage of the population that is mobile due to the lack of land ownership, crowding in the cities, and few opportunities for income. Approximately 95% of the forest has been removed and pristine forest habitat precariously remains in small protected areas.

While visiting Madagascar in 2017, I found it overwhelming to consider the enormous amount of deforestation, habitat destruction, human over-population, poverty and food insecurity, and the impending risk of losing most lemur species to extinction.

But then, stepping back I took stock of the myriad of conservation programs working in Madagascar to help restore the balance. Effective international programs are supporting Malagasy efforts with infrastructure and education to assist with learning to grow sustainable food sources (delicious “bacon bugs”), discover new cooking fuels (solar stoves), teach good sanitation and sustainable solutions (SEED), develop reforestation and forest protection programs (research is showing that even newly planted seedings can have a quick, positive impact on water retention), and educate children in the basics as well as developing environmental curricula (UNICEF and others).

I am hopeful that with these efforts and the hundreds of others underway, there will be a tremendous improvement in the protection of the lemurs as well as the quality of life and health of the communities. With education as the foundation, the Malagasy people can build a collaborative alliance with the local biodiversity to protect the lemurs and preserve their own lifestyles.

(L) Rice is a staple food for the Malagasy people and generations of farmers use the same area for their crops. However, with a rapidly increasing population and more people leaving the cities for the countryside, new lands are being deforested and prepared for growing rice. Fortunately rice growers don’t have to rely on soil quality for their crops. However, after slash and burn techniques, the soil is depleted for other crops or reforestation.

(R) The nocturnal Ankarana Sportive Lemur (Lepilemur ankaranensis) is another endangered lemur species whose population is in decline due to habitat loss (here pictured in Ankarana National Park, NW Madagascar). It may not be as charismatic as the singing indri but it also benefits from the protection of the forest as do thousands of other unique, endemic species found only in Madagascar.

As I gathered images from my travels in Madagascar and then attended professional meetings with the American Society of Primatologists, I began to frame an idea using education and visual arts as a pathway to conservation.

In order to contribute to conservation solutions through education and using my photography and communication skills, I founded a nonprofit organization, Photography Inspiring Children in Conservation (PICC). This project is based upon the concept of truly seeing and engaging with the natural world through visual arts. The PICC program goal is to inspire students to become conservation leaders within their communities by providing them with knowledge of primate ecology, local conservation issues and solutions, and through learning the skills of photography, field sketching, and writing.

In working in collaboration with local primate-habitat communities we celebrate their relationship with, and together learn about their local ecosystem and endangered wildlife. The PICC sessions are designed with a goal of building local capacity for sustainable conservation through educating and empowering both the children and the broader community, including local teachers and elders. The sessions teach the children the skills of photography, writing and field sketching and follow up with publication of these students’ creative works in a book. Local sales of these books go to building funds for continued engagement with conservation issues and solutions. The children’s stories, photos and drawings are a relatable platform to engage people of all ages with the wonderfully unique characters that make up the lemur family, and to share awareness of conservation issues in Madagascar.

(L) Chickens and ducks are the most used source of protein in Madagascar and can be a sustainable and low impact food resource. Organizations such as Mad Dog Initiative (link) are supporting the health of these flocks throughout the country by inoculating them against Newcastle Disease. A more resource-heavy and habitat destructive protein source is zebu cattle that are a prominent part of their livelihoods, cultural celebrations and burial ceremonies.

(R) Ankarafantsika National Park. Malagasy families live around the park and commonly use the forest resources as well as the plumbing infrastructure at the lodges. Water is a precious resource and children are seen collecting it throughout the day from rivers, lakes or from communal faucets in their village (at a cost).

Sharing these conservation success stories celebrates the progress, achievements and passion of the children, and the successes of protecting their local forests and wildlife. After mini-PICC (pandemic) sessions in villages of the Masoala peninsula (2020 and 2021), I am hearing reports from the Malagasy staff that children are teaching their parents to protect the forest through their new-found love of the lemurs and understanding of habitat needs. These children are sharing with their families what happens with habitat destruction and how it affects the lemur families, reduces water flow and retention, depletes fish stocks, increases land degradation, reduces crop output, and reduces tourism.

Malagasy children are fortunate if they are able to attend school even part-time, walking long distances from their homes to attend a few hours of school per day. Limitations for children’s education are many: families must financially support 40% of their children’s school costs, most teachers are not paid and are inconsistent about attending school to teach, 97% of teachers are not professionally certified, and even when the children complete their education only 17% are competent in reading and 20% in math. Official, national environmental curricula has been lacking in Madagascar. Only recently has the Ministry of National Education, through the Environmental Education Department and in collaboration with UNICEF, launched the Environmental Education for Sustainable Development program with resources to strengthen awareness and knowledge in students and teachers (Oct 2020).

One of the most common solutions to sustainable success in protecting bio-rich habitats such as in Madagascar is through developing a strong system of ecotourism to host international visitors and provide a reliable source of income. PICC students gain skills in visual communication methods, providing an effective foundation upon which they can successfully build conservation-oriented careers in eco-tourism, guiding, and communications.

(L) A guided walk for international tourists (2017) through the forests at Amber Mountain National Park, led by a professionally certified guide. As is becoming increasingly obvious during the Covid-19 pandemic, with bans on travel into and within Madagascar, eco-tourism is one of the best solutions to protecting the biodiversity and lifting the local populations out of poverty.

(R) These dried mudflow erosion scars, locally called “Red Tsingy” or “Lavaka”, are adjacent to Ankarafantsika National Park. A result of deforestation, this extraordinarily large erosion canyon continues to claim more of this land. Just meters from the Tsingy are burned forests and destructive land use with slash and burn agriculture, destroying more forests and soil for both future crops or reforestation, and turning previous lemur habitat into wastelands.

Conservation in Madagascar is not only about saving the lemurs, but they are some of the country’s most visible and endearing species. Protecting the lemurs as an umbrella species means protecting all of the wondrous plants and animals that are unique to Madagascar and comprise the complex ecosystems that are spread across this island. Building awareness and capacity through education is the key to preventing the runaway environmental destruction and giving the Malagasy people hope for healthy and productive lives in their beautiful country.

Smoke from grass and forest fires hangs over a valley near Ankarana National Park in NW Madagascar. Here, the Sakalava people live in the valley, farming what they can from the poor soils, grazing their zebu cattle by using frequent grass fires to regenerate growth, and harvesting wood and resources from the nearby forests.

The PICC program is active in numerous locations in Madagascar as well as in Kenya and Uganda. Please help us to build environmental awareness and capacity in indigenous communities in primate habitat countries, and to develop future conservation leaders with our PICC sessions. Photography Inspiring Children in Conservation is a 501c3 nonprofit. 100% of your donations go directly to the children’s education programs.

Photography Inspiring Children in Conservation

Learn about the PICC program

Engaging Children in Conservation Issues

The act of creating an image with photography or sketching rewires us to be truly present and see details and beauty on a deeper level of appreciation.

Photography Inspiring Children in Conservation (PICC, 501(c)(3) nonprofit) is a project that was founded in 2016 based upon this concept of truly seeing and engaging with the natural world. In working in collaboration with local communities to celebrate their relationship with their ecosystem and endangered wildlife, we provide a platform to share ecological knowledge, empowering future generations in conservation issues and solutions. (PICC website).

The PICC project focuses on threatened primate species and is designed to engage and inspire students and the broader community through improving knowledge of local ecosystems and learning the skills of photography, illustration and storytelling. The communities are empowered with an appreciation of the ecological, cultural, and economic value to their communities when protecting endemic biodiversity.

Children from the Masoala village of Ambodiforaha sketch white-fronted brown lemurs (Eulemur albifrons) June 26, 2020. (IUCN: Endangered and decreasing). Photo by Pascal Elison.

2020–2022 UPDATE: PICC Team member Pascal Elison and I  collaborated to develop a curriculum to conduct alternative pandemic-sessions of the PICC program in villages on the Masoala peninsula. The children have been so excited and engaged learning about their local lemurs and ecosystems. I appreciate having such skilled and knowledgeable Malagasy partners! (See here for updates.)

PICC is currently being conducted in Madagascar, Panama and Uganda by our outstanding local partners and team members. The students have been learning using activity books, workshops, hikes in the forest, and photography skills. The sessions begin with gathering students, teachers and community leaders in classroom workshops to learn how to make drawings and field notes and use a DSLR camera (when possible). Each student has many days in the forest to experience and enjoy the local biodiversity,and make drawings and journal notes of the plants and animals that pique their interest. Children naturally see the world with unique viewpoints which can teach others to look at the same scene with a new appreciation.

We are excited to include in our workshops and the forest experience local elder leaders with traditional ecological knowledge in order to integrate their local perspective into our project and learn from them through their cultural stories, ancestral practices, and their understanding of their local ecosystem.

When we have the full PICC team onsite, students will work in the classroom with PICC team members, both local community members and international specialists, to develop photography skills, and stories with scientifically accurate illustrations and text. The program staff will assist the students in putting the photographs, illustrations and stories together to demonstrate effective communication methods, skills which can be further developed and used after the program is completed for careers in tourism and conservation.

A village-wide gathering is held at the completion of the program, introducing the community and other students to the photographs, illustrations and stories that the program students have produced. The PICC students are named “Forest Ambassadors” and receive a certificate of completion. These Forest Ambassadors proudly share their images, experiences and knowledge with their parents and community, extending the teaching benefits and in the process developing strong allies for the animals within the community.

Furthering the PICC project’s sustainability, the creative works that the children produce is published in a small book and poster in their local language and English. These will be available to the students and teachers for sharing their local ecological story and the books can be sold to visitors as a source of income for conservation programs and continued environmental education.

In addition, a film about the project is being produced, engaging the audience with the beauty and fascinating behaviors of the animals, highlighting conservation issues and showing the benefits to the community of conservation projects. The film will be available open-source online for expanded international outreach education and awareness, and provided to educators and government officials.

To sustain learning, an internet-connected iPad, scanner / printer and DSLR camera is provided  to teachers and students. The PICC website is being developed to provide a moderated platform to post drawings, creative stories, and access learning resources.

This project is partially supported by a generous grant from the American Society of Primatologists Conservation Committee, 2018, and private individuals. We have gathered an exciting team of multilingual experts in lemur biology, photography, illustration, storytelling, conservation issues, and the Malagasy culture to help to lead the students and teachers through the program.

How can you help? All of our project team members are donating their time and skills to advance primate conservation through this project. However, additional funds are needed for printing, student materials, and logistics in order to successfully accomplish all components of this program. In-kind services and contributions are welcome! To see how you can help, please visit Support Us or contact us at: PICC.director@gmail.com.

PICC is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. 100% of all donations go to the project and in-country staff.



Conservation Coloring and Activity Books

Custom-tailored conservation coloring and activity books are an effective method to engage and inform children and adults in topics of local biodiversity, ecosystems, and conservation issues and solutions. I have been designing science education coloring books for over 17 years and am excited about the potential for sharing this tool with as many primate habitat communities as I can reach. Contact me if you would like to have a custom book designed for children in your community!

  • The mountain gorillas of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park are the focus of our latest coloring and activity book for conservation education. Co-authored by Ugandan conservationist Mushamba Moses and Kathy West. Check it out! PICC_BwindiMtGorillaBook2022
  • One of our newest coloring books addresses a new part of the world for the PICC program – Panama! This English and Spanish book focuses on the endangered monkeys of the Azuero peninsula and what people can do to protect their habitats and these unique species. Download the pdf here!
  • Our bilingual children’s educational series Lemur Conservation Coloring Book – Southeast edition is available to download to teach students about lemurs and how to support them in their local habitats. This first book in my primate conservation coloring book series was written and illustrated for the southeastern habitats of Madagascar, co-authored with lemur biologist Dr. Amber Walker-Bolton and published in English and Malagasy. The illustrations (by Kathy West), activities and text provide information on lemur behavior, biology and natural history, and present conservation issues and solutions. Dr. Walker-Bolton has provided a copy of the book to teachers and students in Madagascar in 2018 and Kenya in 2019, with great excitement from the classes, especially on owning their very own book, a first for many of the children (see photos below). Download a free copy of the Berenty edition (2019) RBC Lemur Conservation Colouring and Activity Book.


Please feel free to download all editions of the coloring book and share with children in your life – we are providing the books open-source so that more students can learn about conservation issues facing primates. If you would like to have hard copies they are available at-cost. Contact me for details. Heavy cardstock, English & local language.


Teachers planned lessons around the lemur conservation books, 2018

Over 130 Primary students in the mountain gorilla community of Buhoma/Bwindi, Uganda each received a copy of the Gorilla Conservation Coloring and Activity Book (2022)