World Teachers’ Day falls on October 5; this year’s theme is “Teachers: leading in crisis, reimagining the future.” Many of us have developed a newfound appreciation for the teachers in our lives since so many schools were shuttered at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but here at the Fossey Fund, teachers have always played an essential role in helping us realize our mission of “Saving People, Helping Gorillas.”
The Fossey Fund is committed to education as part of our people-centered approach to conservation. We operate conservation education activities in 15 primary and nine secondary schools near the Volcanoes National Park (VNP) in Rwanda. In 2019 alone, we reached 5,409 students through our programs. Through our work in these schools, we hope to equip the next generation of conservationists with the knowledge to help them change attitudes and behaviors toward conservation and to give them the tools to protect mountain gorillas and other species in the VNP.
For 12 years, our staff have gone into classrooms to lead conservation courses for students. In 2015 we expanded this program; instead of asking our limited number of staff members to teach all of the courses, we began directly training teachers to deliver conservation messaging throughout the school year. We provide the teachers with accurate, up-to-date information about the park and threats to its biodiversity, enabling them to teach the courses themselves, which both empowers the teachers and allows us to expand the reach of our conservation messaging.
We have provided teacher training and resources for 60 primary school teachers, who now deliver conservation courses to elementary-aged students at 15 primary schools using a curriculum designed by Fossey Fund conservation experts and our partners at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. Content focuses primarily on the importance of and threats to biodiversity in the region, and ways stakeholders—including children—can work to protect it.
Participating teachers are provided with conservation guidebooks and lesson plans, as well as games, posters and other materials that can help them in their classrooms. We also lead the teachers on field visits within VNP so they are able to explore and understand the biodiversity of the nearby gorilla habitat.
We organize Nature Clubs with 30 teachers from the 15 primary schools where we work. We teach them how to lead and manage the clubs, and the teachers then help student club members to design and implement hands-on conservation projects at their schools and within their communities. These projects illustrate the importance of gorilla conservation and give young children the power to improve their own communities on a grass roots level. Each year, the students prepare projects and apply to the Fossey Fund for support. We’ve helped fund animal husbandry projects for chickens and sheep, giving communities access to protein-rich eggs and manure-based fertilizer. We’ve supported school vegetable gardens, which improve student nutrition. And we’ve funded tree nurseries—in fact, in August 2020, nature club members delivered 300 native hygenia trees that they’d grown to the nursery at our new Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, where they will be used in our Campus reforestation projects.
Last year we brought our successful nature club programming to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We currently work with two schools in the DRC and we are planning to add four more next year.
Because time to teach conservation in the classroom is limited, in 2019 we added a new educational initiative: Conservation Camps. Started in collaboration with three partners—Rwanda Children in the Wilderness, Conservation Heritage Turambe and Muhisimbi Voice of Youth in Conservation—Conservation Camps give us more time with primary school students, who join us along with their teachers during school holidays to learn more about conservation and to take field trips into Volcanoes National Park, where they gain firsthand knowledge of the importance of and threats to biodiversity in the gorilla habitat.
In addition to our primary school activities, we also reach out to older students with more advanced programming. Since 2011, Environmental Clubs have involved 30 secondary school teachers at nine participating schools. This program introduces biodiversity education and research skills to secondary students and teaches the students to implement environmental projects in their communities. Past projects have included agroforestry and fruit tree nurseries, building school gardens, tree planting and providing garbage bins at schools. Students have also been trained to detect long-term changes in the environment through citizen science programs that focus on collecting data related to the migratory birds and butterfly species that we monitor.
We also organize conservation debates for secondary students, which are facilitated by the teachers involved in our secondary school programs. Teachers help their students to find resources and documentation to prepare for debates on particular topics. The debates are organized by the Fossey Fund in collaboration with our local partner Prime Biodiversity Conservation.
Making a difference
Emmanuel Ntezimana, a teacher at Groupe Scolaire Kampanga, has participated in our conservation education activities since 2015. Mr. Ntezimana says that before he attended the Fossey Fund’s training, he “did not know the importance of environmental conservation.” Now, he says, “I have learned how to integrate conservation into the national curriculum, to help kids learn about the environment and animal conservation.”
“Teacher training helps teachers to link conservation-related examples to the kids’ course programs easily,” says Maurice Ngiramahoro, Fossey Fund’s conservation education officer. “The program helps us to reach more students than our staff could reach on our own, and it allows us to deliver a quality conservation education program throughout the year.”
Through our education initiatives, we are reaching the next generation of African scientists, conservationists and policy makers. And we owe our success to the teachers who join forces with us to help these future leaders understand the importance of conserving this biodiverse habitat, which is home to more than endangered mountain gorillas. Teachers are a key to our success, Ngiramahoro says, because once we give them the tools to teach conservation, they “become ambassadors for the environment to their neighboring communities.”
Happy World Teachers’ Day!