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Wildlife clubs teach children in Guyana’s Rupununi about life and livelihoods

SWM Programme provides tools for learning
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Wildlife club coordinators. Photo: © Samantha James

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A box of chocolates seems completely out of place as a tool for teaching kids about wildlife, but Susan George makes it work.

George, a member of Guyana’s North Rupununi District Development Board (NRDDB), used the chocolate strategy when she started working with kids in wildlife clubs in Macushi villages. It was a creative – and tasty – way to get them to understand heady terms like conservation and sustainability.

“Our first step was to see if the kids really understood what we were talking about,” George said. “Did they really know what we meant when we talked about wildlife or sustainability? Candy was our methodology.”

The game, which is called “fishing today, fishing tomorrow,” involved putting chocolates on a table and dividing the kids into three groups – elders, adults and children. The first two groups would take everything, leaving nothing for the last group. The “aha” moment would come when George told the kids that this is actually happening today with the fish their families consume.

“When you ask the kids what is needed for everyone to have fish, they come up with rules,” she said. “They offer to put some of the candy back on the table, so everyone can have some. It is a way of teaching about sustainability.”

The wildlife clubs have become an integral part of communities in the northern Rupununi that are part of the NRDDB, not only teaching kids about sustainability but introducing them to science and even careers. On a broader scale, the clubs are also a way of getting parents more involved in their kids’ education and keeping adults engaged in community activities.

   Photo by Samantha James

With support from the Guyana branch of the Sustainable Wildlife Management (SWM) Programme, which aims to improve wildlife conservation and food security in 13 countries, the clubs spend time birding, setting camera traps and providing elements that contribute to community development.

“When the kids watch birds, or see what is on the camera trap, they are learning,” said George, who divides her time today with an SWM Programme-sponsored fish-monitoring project. “They want to keep learning, going on to study or becoming guides.”

Careers and more

Examples of the potential George sees in the wildlife club abound in Surama, a remote village where the northern Rupununi savannah starts to give way to tropical forest.

Surama was the first village in the zone to get involved in community-based tourism. Five other villages have since followed, but Surama remains in the vanguard position, and its wildlife club continues to expand and contribute to the community.

Neil Allicock, 21, was elected last year as the adult coordinator of Surama’s Wildlife Club. He first joined when he was six — actually too young to belong – and has watched the club evolve over the years. He said when he joined members would go birdwatching, but it would stop there. Today, thanks to his input and technology, birdwatching is an entirely different experience.

The kids jot down species in notebooks. They record the time and location of the sighting, the sound the bird makes and, if they get a close enough look, its markings.

The SWM Programme provided the group with a camera trap in December and its location is changed monthly. The trap has caught images of a wide range of animals and birds, including the great tinamou (Tinamus major), a terrestrial bird that Allicock said elders used as a kind of clock.

“When you hear the tinamou, it is either dawn or dusk, so you know it is time to go to work or go home,” he said.

Birding is also helping the village rebuild its community tourism after the severe blow from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are contributing to the village and our community-based tourism,” he said. “Many tourists come for birding, so we are identifying where certain birds are found to make maps. Birding is our way of giving back to the community.”

Zeela Allicock, 17, also started in the Surama Wildlife Club when she was young, and in June 2020 was elected its president. She is working with the coordinator and other members of the leadership team to add activities.

“I want us to continue with our data analysis of birds and expand to other areas,” she said. “We have gone to look at arapaimas (Arapaima gigas), but now we want to monitor them and analyse what they do.”

   Rewa. Photo by Samantha James
   Rewa. Photo by Samantha James
   Rewa. Photo by Samantha James
   Rewa. Photo by Samantha James

The club has also helped her get ready for the next stage in life. She took the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate, the standardized test for the Caribbean Community, hoping to embark on a career in science.

“Being a club member has been very useful, helping me learn about science and the environment,” she said. “We also have professors who come here to do research and they let us work with them.”

Civic mindedness

The clubs are also about personal development and leadership. In Yupukari, Wildlife Club Coordinator Jessica Roberts said the clubs teach members to be civic-minded and understand the village and its history.

“We have campaigns to keep the community clean,” said Roberts, who is also a schoolteacher in the village. “We have installed trash bins and have done art projects to create posters for the ‘no littering’ campaign.”

The club does bird watching and the SWM Programme has provided it with a camera trap as well, which Roberts said has contributed in unexpected ways.

The camera trap has not only caught a variety of animals but has been used as a tool by the kids in a kind of role reversal. They have taken the information and used it to educate the elders in their community about the importance of conservation.

“The kids were really surprised by what they saw (a giant armadillo, for example) on the traps, realizing that we have all this fauna that they do not see, Roberts said. “They decided that it was necessary to tell the adults to stop cutting down trees.”

A key point for her, however, is letting the kids themselves address the village council.

“I do not do the talking as coordinator,” she said. “It has to be the kids. It helps them with their confidence and makes the parents feel good that their children speak in public.”

   Yupukari. Photo by Ali Joel
   Yupukari. Photo by Ali Joel
   Yupukari. Photo by Ali Joel

Next generation

The clubs also get exposure throughout the northern Rupununi from the NRDDB’s Radio Paiwomak, which is also supported by the SWM Programme.

Rocky Vanlong, a broadcast journalist and original member of the Paiwomak team, has three time slots during the week to talk about projects under the program, which is broadcast in English and Macushi, with the wildlife clubs a central focus. The programs have an average audience of around 7 000 people, mainly older adults.

In a way, Vanlong and the radio station help bring the wildlife clubs full circle. In addition to covering the clubs and their activities, Vanlong holds training sessions with the club coordinators that they relay back to the members.

“We want the kids to be able to communicate what they are learning,” he said. “We are forming the next generation of leaders.”

The SWM Programme is an initiative of the Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States, which is funded by the European Union with co-funding from the French Facility for Global Environment and the French Development Agency. It is implemented through a consortium partnership, which includes the Center for International Forestry Research, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

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