– This blog post was written by Leigh West, a research assistant who volunteered with the Primate and Predator Project from June and August 2014 and again from June to August 2015. She led on designing the new game described in this article. Thanks so much Leigh!
At the end of July, we said goodbye to Oldrich and Judy van Schalkwyk. We were sad to see them go not only because of the friendships they have forged with countless staff members, research assistants and Earthwatch volunteers, but also because of the amazing contributions they have made to the project over the years. One such contribution was Judy’s involvement with the project’s environmental education program. In affiliation with an organization called WESSA Ecoschools, Judy helped the PPP and visiting groups to relay some of their ecological knowledge to the surrounding communities. Because of her hard work and unflagging enthusiasm, many local children have been inspired to learn about and care for the Soutpansberg ecosystem.
Though we will miss Judy greatly, her leaving provides the PPP with an opportunity to turn over a new leaf in developing its own environmental education program. We will be able to tailor the program to the project’s initiatives and expand the program to schools we haven’t been able to visit before. One of the first changes has been designing a new predator themed game (a primate-centric one will be in the works soon). The game was created to inform schoolchildren about the carnivore species living in the area, why they are important, and the problems they face. It addresses topics such as snaring, trophy hunting, and methods of protecting livestock from depredation. The children are presented with an issue surrounding indigenous carnivores and then are prompted to speak about the implications of the issue and/or its possible solutions.For example, when the game addresses snaring, it teaches children how inefficient and harmful a hunting method snaring is – that it often results in the injury or death of non-target species – and how if snaring stops and leopards thrive, the community and the ecosystem can benefit. We explain that leopards are a draw for tourists and their presence aids with job creation and economic prosperity.
We also trailed a new icebreaker which introduces ecological terms such as carnivore, herbivore, prey and predator to the children. Each child is given a photograph from the PPP camera trapping grid of an animal and must sort themselves into categories based upon what the animal they have eats.
Games like this are important to play with children because of how low environmental knowledge levels tend to be (especially among young people) in this area. Many people are unable to identify from name or sight the species that live on the mountain. Not even having this basic understanding, they then lack an awareness of the role each individual species plays in a balanced and healthy ecosystem.
We hope to instill within the children we visit both a practical and intrinsic appreciation of the environment in which they live and the species that they live alongside. As these schoolchildren represent the next generation of custodians for this area, imparting this kind of knowledge will help to create a future in which local people and indigenous species can live harmoniously.
In addition to creating new PPP-focused games, the project has been able to start visiting schools not previously involved in the Ecoschools program. While it was great to go to schools that were receptive to and excited about learning about the environment, there are many other schools in the area whose students have less environmental knowledge. We are very excited to expand our efforts to such schools. Last month, a group from Bainbridge High School near Seattle helped us to kickstart our revamped environmental education program. We visited a community called Kransport, which lies right at the bottom of the mountain on which Lajuma is located. The Bainbridge students played the aforementioned games with the children and painted an environment-themed mural on their school wall.
We also have had Earthwatch groups participate in snare sweeps in this community, combing the area for both old and active snares and removing them to reduce the amount of non-target casualties. By participating in activities like this, the project hopes to strengthen relationships with the surrounding communities. We hope to forge a mutually beneficial relationship wherein the local people feel they can contact the PPP for help regarding wildlife-related problems and the project feels that the local people are invested in the wellbeing of the species on the mountain. This is not an easy or short-term goal by any means, but we’re on our way.