Since the end of January, 60 students from Takunda Primary School have been taking part in conservation education lessons at the ALERT Education Centre (AEC) in Gweru. Students have been split into two groups, taking turns to attend lessons for a week at a time.
The first module of the syllabus began with an introduction to what conservation means, both literally and from a socio-cultural perspective. The students were amazed to learn how their Zimbabwean ancestors used to enforce cultural practices which acted in favour of wildlife. The practice of adopting a totem - a natural object or living creature to serve as an emblem of a tribe - meant that killing or eating that particular animal was taboo, thereby preserving different species. Students realised that it was their generation’s duty to carry on this tradition for the benefit of wildlife.
In order to increase their appreciation of wildlife, students were asked to identify ways in which animals could be of value to their community. As with all tasks to be carried out at home, they were asked to involve their parents and guardians to encourage them to consider the importance of conservation too. Sadly, the answers they came up with - meat, horns, ivory and skins - were all focused on the economic benefits of poached animals, rather than considering the ecological values of wildlife, for example, how lions maintain balance in ecosystems. As a result, a lesson on sustainability was introduced to help students understand how society can benefit from conserving the wildlife around it.
A considerable amount of the conservation education syllabus is dedicated to learning about the threats that people pose to wildlife; poaching, trophy hunting, habitat loss and human wildlife conflict. The now-extinct Quagga (zonkey), was used as a case study. Students were sad to learn that this species no longer exists. What concerned them even more was the realisation that their own favourite animals, many of which are represented in their family totems, for example lions, are also at risk of extinction if their decline in numbers is allowed to continue.
During discussions on the negative impact humans have on their environment, many students commented that their parents are unaware of the need for environmental protection, regularly sending them to dump household refuse in open areas and in drainage systems. After exploring how this practice damages the environment, as well as posing a risk to human health, the students were keen to do their part as conservationists by educating their parents and raising awareness of the dangers of pollution.
So, what can be done? Module one ended with a discussion on ways in which humans can actively help to conserve wildlife and the environment. Answers ranged from building game reserves to arresting poachers, but there was no mention of the students, or their community, being accountable in any way themselves. They were challenged to think again about how they, as 11 to 13 year-olds living in the high-density suburb of Mkoba, could make a difference. By focusing on themselves, they began to appreciate that they had to take some responsibility and that it was possible to be a positive influence. This time, their answers included:
- planting trees
- disposing of litter correctly
- creating awareness about environmental issues
- educating themselves and others about wildlife and the environment
Two of the students, Felix and Ngonidzashe, quickly put what they had learned into practice, much to the delight of our community team, by going home and planting trees. In another positive demonstration that conservation education is having a positive effect in this community, a student told how his cousin, who had attended the AEC two years previously, had already passed on knowledge to him that he had learned during his studies.
Felix and Ngonidzashe explain how they planted their trees
The second module is now underway, beginning with a lesson on African animals. As part of their culture, the students carry many misconceptions and myths about wild animals. They, along with project volunteers, were asked to name their favourite animal and give reasons for their choice. Austin, a volunteer from the USA, amazed the children by saying that his favourite animal was an owl. According to traditional beliefs in Africa, animals such as snakes, vultures, hyenas and owls are associated with evil and used in witchcraft. As such, the students did not recognise an owl as being a wild species that needs to be conserved. After much discussion, they began to appreciate the value of such animals, with one student deciding that she wanted to change her totem to an owl.
As a fun session for the students, ten horses from Antelope Park’s stables were taken to the AEC recently for a guided riding lesson. Only a handful of students had been on a horse before. Initially, some of the children were nervous but, with encouragement, all ended up enjoying the session immensely. Another practical lesson was delivered by a volunteer named Heather, an art teacher, who shared her tips on how to make drawing African animals easier. The lesson was a big hit, especially the part on learning how to draw a giraffe. The students were also tasked to make collages to represent different habitats.
Students will cover several more modules and sit an exam before graduation day. All of them are looking forward to this celebration of their hard work, which involves a trip to Antelope Park; the chance for many to meet the animals in their totems face-to-face for the first time.
About ALERT’s Conservation Education Project
Our conservation education syllabus was developed by ALERT in partnership with Coventry University and David Brackstone of John Taylor High School. Evaluation of the effectiveness of the syllabus in changing attitudes towards a more positive view of conservation has been undertaken by Coventry University as well as by Ruth Armstrong, of Edinburgh Napier University. ALERT has also established a tripartite agreement between ALERT, Copperbelt University (Zambia) and Midlands State University (Zimbabwe) to improve conservation education provision in these two countries.
The syllabus has four main objectives:
- to increase participants’ awareness of their environment and assist them in developing sound judgement in the management of natural resources;
- to involve participants in activities to increase their understanding of environmental issues;
- to encourage participants to develop the ability to view situations from an environmental point of view, and to undertake simple investigations and interpret the results, and;
- to emphasize to participants the potential of the environment as a source of benefits and therefore something to conserve, manage and sustain.
This work combines science with local knowledge, to ensure we deliver a conservation education curriculum that positively impacts upon students’ attitudes and behaviours, and is culturally appropriate for the children and communities we reach.
About ALERT Education Centres (AEC)
Conservation Education is one aspect of the work of our ALERT Education Centres. The AEC operations at Livingstone (Zambia), Victoria Falls and Antelope Park (Zimbabwe) are all aimed at supporting the formal education system by offering extra-curricular activities to enhance student learning, and assisting with access to education for vulnerable students. Current programs include the provision of classes in conservation education, basic life skills, and English literacy. In addition, we provide funding to pay the fees of vulnerable students to take part in education from pre-school to university level, and fully funded internship and facilitated research placements for university level students. Future programmes will incorporate classes in numeracy, health & nutrition, physical education and business studies/entrepreneurship, as well as a variety of vocational training. The AEC is operated in association with Coventry University (UK), Midlands State University (Zimbabwe) and Copperbelt University (Zambia), and with the assistance of David Brackstone of John Taylor High School (UK). The first AEC, at Antelope Park, was opened in 2012 by the then Zimbabwe Minister of Education, Mr. David Coltart.
Join us at the AEC
ALERT offers a Conservation Education internship for those keen to gain hands-on teaching experience, while contributing to the protection and preservation of Africa’s wildlife. Interns will help in preparing and delivering lessons both in the classroom and on field trips. The syllabus encompasses environmental conservation, ecology and biodiversity, sustainability, and wildlife ecology and management. If you are interested in an internship at the AEC at Antelope Park click here full details.
Make a donation to support our work.
If you are able to contribute to fund our conservation education programme, you can make a donation here.