Teach first!

National parks, wildlife corridors and anti-poaching patrols are all key to protecting Africa’s wildlife, but perhaps the most important action is teaching the locals to look after their environment and to use resources sustainably. A key part of my job here in Tanzania has involved teaching local primary and secondary school children lessons on conservation issues, with the aim of making the next generation aware of the importance of wildlife to their lives and future.

“What is conservation?”, “Food chains and their importance”, and “the water cycle”: Three key lessons for any schoolchild. In Africa, though, these topics take greater significance, with abundant wildlife living on their doorstops and water highly scarce. As part of our teaching programme in Lupiro and the nearby villages, we have given these lessons to numerous classes, encouraging the children to look after their country’s rich wildlife.

With many families living in poverty and having difficulties growing enough food to feed themselves, teaching conservation to these children poses a significant challenge. Human-wildlife conflict is vast in the Kilombero valley, with baboons stealing crops, and snakes and mongooses killing chickens commonplace. Telling the children to protect these animals when they threaten their livelihoods is very difficult indeed, but teaching these topics remains vital for wildlife conservation.

Placing the topics within a framework of ecosystem services, we are able to show the children how wildlife conservation can in fact benefit them directly. For example, reducing deforestation can prevent soil erosion, improving crop yields; increase rainfall, lessening the severity of droughts; and provide a home and food for wild animals, including baboons, reducing the likelihood of crop raiding. Through this method, the children are able to recognise that wildlife can actually improve their livelihoods.

Interacting with the children and inventing fun ways to teach the topics has helped engage them, improve their memory of the topics and encourage them to enjoy learning about the environment. Whilst teaching the lesson on food chains, for example, we were able to show the high connectivity of food webs with just some string. After giving each of them a different plant or animal, we asked them to tell us what eats them or what they eat. By connecting each of them together with a long piece of string, we showed each of them how dependent species are on each other, with all needed for the whole system to function properly. Subsequently, we introduced humans to the system. Instantly, they all identified that we belong in the middle of the web. They were of course correct, as we have an impact on nearly every single species nowadays! Finally, we introduced the possibility of humans driving one species to extinction, taking them out of the web, thus loosening the string. Those species that relied on it for food then died out, until eventually the system was highly depauparate of biodiversity. It provided an ingenious way to help them easily recognise the indirect impact humans could have on the environment and in turn on themselves.

Interacting with the local kids has been a very fun and rewarding opportunity. It is amazing to see their faces light up when a ‘mzungu’ (or white person) turns up at their school. They quickly crowd around us, making us feel like we are celebrities. Seeing them learn about conservation has been very fulfilling and I have fully embraced this opportunity. It has been great fun to join in their football games at break time and to take photos with them – something they love, unlike most other Tanzanians – whilst also communicating in the little Swahili I have learnt during my time here. I hope our involvement within the school can make a difference to their lives as they begin to look after their environment, and hopefully encourage their parents and grandparents to do likewise.

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Teaching the local children about conservation has been one of the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of my work in Tanzania. Photo copyright: Mehdi Liot
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To help the children understand the topics more easily, we created games for them to play. Here we used string to create a food web to show how different species rely on each other. Photo copyright: David Bartholomew
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Teaching the water cycle was a key lesson to help them understand how water moves around, how to preserve much needed rainfall and the importance of conserving water in a country where droughts are common. Photo copyright: David Bartholomew

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