William Altoft first traveled to Zimbabwe in 2009, sparking a love for the country and an interest in all things Africa. He returned to Zimbabwe this past year to volunteer at a new project centered on conservation and education. When not volunteering abroad, he studies Wildlife and Practical Conservation at the University of Salford in the UK, where he is entering his final year.The project that I’ve been off in Zimbabwe helping at this summer is CNCZ: Children and Nature Conservation Zimbabwe Trust. It’s a young project and primarily revolves around going to schools and teaching conservation lessons, but there is also a wildlife research element to it. The project was conceived and started by a Zimbabwean friend of mine named Evans Mabiza and is currently, and hopefully continually, based in Matobo Hills National Park, Zimbabwe. The project’s emblem is the Southern ground hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri), a bird endangered everywhere it is found in Southern Africa, except in Zimbabwe. CNCZ wants to know why it does so well there.
The ground hornbill is extremely territorial but in Zimbabwe there are numerous groups of these birds living in close proximity.Why, then, aren’t they constantly fighting? Answering that question involves finding out information from locals in the rural area about the birds’ nests, as the locals will see ground hornbills on an almost daily basis and know information such as group size and where they fly off to and return from. The birds are seen as a pest, breaking windows thinking that their reflection is a different bird, and a lot of people believe they are eating their crops, when really they are eating locusts found on the crops, as well frogs and snakes, and so are a benefit to local people.
When visiting a school for the first time we would meet with the head-teacher and discuss the project, its aims and reasons for existing, and ask about forming a conservation club. Conservation clubs consist of forty to fifty kids at most, and lessons last anywhere between fifty and ninety minutes. One head teacher initially allowed us only forty minutes, as participation in the club meant students are taken out of their normal lessons. During the lesson she came in and watched for five or ten minutes then left, and by the time I had finished teaching the lesson the class had gone on for an hour-and-a-half. By briefly sitting in on the lesson the head teacher had seen what we were teaching the kids and its benefits, and at every school the teachers were very keen to thank us.
The first lesson of each conservation club is on ground hornbills: How to tell the sex of an individual and whether it’s mature or young, their lifecycle, diet, behaviour and why they behave that way. This gives the children, teachers, and parents a good understanding of the animals they encounter daily, knowledge of the benefits of having them around, and why we are asking for information on sightings and nests. It gets everybody – not just the kids in the club, but everyone – involved and interested.
There are a number of schools around the national park in rural areas, so we went round in a kind of cycle, visiting two or three schools each day. Besides the ground hornbills, the aim is to teach a wide variety of topics under ecology, biology, and environmental science; linking each one to conservation. It’s less about imparting knowledge and more about changing attitudes. For example, we taught food webs for awhile. Beyond simply teaching what a food chain and a food web is, we could then add in the hornbills, revising the students’ knowledge of their diet from the previous lessons and showing them what happens when hornbills are removed from the food web: more locusts and snakes. Occasionally it’s a broad ecological topic, at other times the lessons will focus on specific animals or a group such as birds or mammals. In one school the club had quickly grasped food chains and food webs, so the next time we visited we revised the lesson and I told them the story of the wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone, a classic example of what happens when something is removed from the food web. This meant that I could teach them about animals they didn’t know, such as wolves or beavers, giving them an African equivalent and teaching them terms such as “apex predator,” “wildlife reintroduction,” and “ecosystem engineer,” and show them the food web in action and the consequences of damaging it. Linking it all to conservation, of course.
The school children will learn about food chains and food webs in their normal syllabus in grade 6 or 7, but not only do they now have a head start, the topic is also linked in their minds to real life with examples that relate to their everyday lives as well as around the world. Linking it all back to conservation is important, because if you ask any of those living next to and around the national park “what is a national park for?” they answer, “For tourists.” They don’t get to go into the park, and they don’t benefit from it being there. Teaching them to understand why there is conflict between themselves and some animals shows them the reasons hornbills break their windows, leopards take their goats, etc.
In the future, we want to add leopards into the research. Matobo Hills is home to the highest density of leopards in the world, but this is dated and there hasn’t been a leopard population count in recent years. CNCZ would like to remedy this. Activities like population counts, as well as snare sweeps and boundary patrols, help out the national parks people, underfunded and understaffed, so that they benefit from CNCZ alongside the rural communities and schools.
Another plan is to eventually have a veterinary project, where volunteers who are veterinary students back at home can provide animal care for the local communities alongside a qualified vet. Given the regular visits to homesteads and schools, this would be a very valuable thing for the communities. Something similar is planned for a local medical clinic by having medical volunteers join the project.
The goal of the Children and Nature Conservation Zimbabwe Trust is about making the national park, conservation, and wildlife more understandable, more interesting, and more relevant to the lives of the people who live next to and amongst it.