Saving Tortoises one Student at a Time


“When I saw the night sky for the first time in the Mojave National Preserve I felt like a layer of film had been peeled away from my eyes,” says David Lamfrom, the Barstow based field coordinator for the National Parks Conservation Association.

“I want the kids who live in the high desert to realize how rare and precious it is.”

Lamfrom and his partner Rana Knighten are on a mission to share their love of nature and the Mojave National Preserve with underserved students from California’s High Desert. They’ve created the innovative Tortoises through the Lens Program, which takes diverse youth and teaches them conservation ethics through nature photography and field study.

The students take field trips, do volunteer work and go to lectures to learn about the ecology and life history of the threatened desert tortoise.  The planning, photographs and writing they do throughout the course of the year culminate in a published book about Desert Tortoise Conservation and an exhibit of the students photography at the Kelso Depot Visitor’s Center in the Mojave National Preserve.

Lamfrom knows the challenges of engaging today’s youth in nature.

“Many children who grow up in highly urbanized and underserved communities - and I’m speaking from personal experience - live in a world of buildings and streets and noise. When they come to wild places they are scared because it’s so foreign to them.”   

Lamfrom grew up in urban Florida, more familiar with the dissonance of honking cars and ambulance sirens than with the music of songbirds. But a nearby canal filled with turtles, fish and Florida gar inspired a love for the natural world. Through a strange twist of fate, the same canal that taught Lamfrom stewardship also diverted precious freshwater from the fragile Everglades ecosystem.

Students in the Tortoises through the Lens Program go out into nature and learn photography and ecology through field trips around the Mojave Desert. Lamfrom and Knighten also think it’s important to provide the students with enough space and independence so that they can build their own connections with the natural world and endangered species like the desert tortoise.

Student choice is an important part of the program and the students are involved in every part of the production of the desert tortoise conservation book. They decide which of their photos will be featured in the book and at the art exhibit, and how to best spend the money the program receives from book sales of the book to further desert tortoise conservation.

So far there have been seven field trips including several to the Mojave National Preserve, Joshua Tree National park, Rainbow Basin National Natural Landmark, the Desert Tortoise Natural Area, the Fresno Climate Change Forum and Sequoia National Park and a service trip to the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas.

Project manager Rana Knighten thinks a transformative moment occurred during a recent field trip to the Rainbow Basin. Knighten scouted out a juvenile tortoise creeping across the desert floor that was no more than four inches across. The students sat on the ground to take photographs and watch the tortoise eat. The juvenile tortoise sauntered up to one of the students and rested in the shade of her shoe. “The students got to see for themselves how much personality these animals have,” says Knighten, who points out that most people don’t know how curious desert tortoises are.

Inspiration also came from volunteering at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas.   The students spent the day mixing up tortoise chow, feeding hungry injured or unwanted tortoises and washing the center’s “transportation totes” – bins that are used to move the tortoises between pens. The students also found some dead tortoises in the pens and Knighten reports that this “hit the students hard.”

“Seeing that the tortoises are in a safe facility and could still be eaten by predators like foxes and ravens showed them that they are fragile creatures,” says Knighten. At the end of the day, every student asked whether they could come back to the center and work again.

Lamfrom and Knighten work tirelessly to share their love of nature and sense of stewardship with youth from the California Desert, but acknowledge that our society doesn’t always value connections with the natural world. Families have less time to spend outdoors, electronics are prevalent in U.S. households, and open space is shrinking at unprecedented rates. But despite these challenges, Lamfrom contends there’s great value in learning how to be introspective by studying nature, thinking independently and caring for the earth’s creatures and each other.

“I think that the more time that people spend in beautiful places like national parks, being curious about the natural world and enjoying themselves the more they will want to take care of them. They’ll realize that having wild places allows us to be human.”

Seth Shteir is senior program coordinator at the National Parks Conservation Association in Joshua Tree, California.

To see more student photos from the project, check out their Flickr photo set.