Children are brilliant storytellers. They tell tall tales, short tales and some spice them up and make word curry!
This year, Born Free partnered with Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) to facilitate the annual essay competition. With the theme ‘The Future of Wildlife in the Modern World’, we targeted from primary to tertiary institutions in the Eastern Conservation Area that comprises Meru and Kora Parks, and Bisanadi and Mwingi National Reserves; and Mountain Conservation Area comprising Mt. Kenya, Aberdare, Mwea, Samburu, Shaba, Laikipia and Maralal National Parks and Reserves. More than 200 and 500 students participated in the Eastern and Mountain Conservation Areas respectively.
All winners received their prizes in March. The real champions, however, were not those who penned well researched essays in perfect grammar. There were those who drew us to their daily environment in their usual expressions and invited us into their everyday world with wild animals - the voice of the communities that interact with wildlife. These students challenged our marking scheme and forced us to rethink our expectations.
For example, while it is known that poaching is a major threat to wildlife conservation in Kenya, what we didn’t know was that these children believe poachers should be shot at point-blank range and buried in unmarked graves. A harsh sentence indeed! Perhaps in our zeal and passion we may be tempted to agree with them. However, we are now challenged in setting the record straight that we have laws that humanely seek reform and equality in justice and the importance of addressing the real causes of poaching.
Some of these babes seem conflicted by what they are taught and their reality. The text books refer to wildlife as our national heritage, key for ecological balance and as a tourist attraction, which is all positive. But what about wildlife as crop raiders and pests, bearers of fear, permanent injuries and death? The loss of loved ones and livelihoods contradicts what they are taught in schools.
Our conservation education and outreach programmes are therefore tasked to address this conflict. To persuade them that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages and that these should be evidence-based. It is going to be a long listening and learning process!
Despite this challenge thrown to us, there are those students who discovered and named new species and genus and others who renamed some animals. For instance, a jaguar might have been seen in Isiolo County; the leopard can outrun a cheetah; and the “pudu” (meant to be kudu) is a type of antelope.
From this competition we gathered crucial information on what those who live side by side with wildlife really think. Maybe because they come from the marginally disadvantaged areas where wildlife also ranges. But one thing is clear: they are the ones we should nurture most.
All in all, conservation education and outreach needs to be realistic, localised and positive if there is going to be a future for wildlife in Kenya.