1 August 2023
KICKING FOR CONSERVATION
With the Women’s World Cup taking place in Australasia – not least England’s glorious win against China today – Born Free’s Head of Conservation Dr Nikki Tagg explains what football means to her, and to the wild animals we protect across the world.
It’s an exciting time! The campaign by the Lionesses – the England women’s national football team – to become World Cup football champions is well underway in Australia and New Zealand, including today’s 6-1 win against China. But, what could football possibly have to do with conservation?
Football speaks to people; it breaks barriers and brings people together. Enjoyed across the world, from back gardens, streets, and school playgrounds, to parks, clubs and gigantic international stadiums, millions of people from all walks of life have football in their lives. It is a talking point, a chance to feel part of a team, to feel the comradery and the joy of success.
As does everyone, I have my own relationship with football, and over the last year it has developed into a serious hobby, one that I hugely enjoy, particularly because I share it with my teenage daughter. And it fills me with positivity that I can say that – my daughter loves football, which might not have come about so easily, even a few years ago.
Because football is, increasingly, brilliantly, for everyone. The Lionesses and all women footballers across the world, are paving the way for equality and respect for all players – a cultural shift that can have massive positive implications, on and off the pitch.
But, football is a sport, a game. What does it have to do with conservation? Well, more than you might think.
When we have fun, when we focus on something enjoyable, it makes us feel good, and we can be more open to listening and engaging. As part of a suite of different ways to engage people who live with wildlife in the landscapes in which we work, we use football as a surprisingly effective tool for conservation. From Kenya to Cameroon, our Born Free teams on the ground are regularly donning their colours and taking to the pitch, not only to play but to spread the message about how important our natural world is.
“Our team also maximises on the energy of the footballers and their fans, instigating litter-picks and tree planting sessions before or after the matches. It’s also a great platform to galvanise relationships we have with the communities living with wildlife.” – Dr Nikki Tagg, Head of Conservation
Each summer in the Dja Landscape, Cameroon, our ‘Guardians of Dja’ team organises a hugely popular event: a football tournament between six villages. Last year, about 400 young people participated in the tournament, and another approximately 430 villagers (adults and young people) from many neighbouring villages came along to watch. Alongside community members and the Born Free team, some staff members of the Conservation Services department of the local government turned up. A packed agenda of music, speeches, dancing and films delivered a continual conservation message throughout the week-long event, bringing to life topics about the need to conserve wildlife and the forest, and alternative sources of income to poaching, as well as the importance of sending children to school.
Youths playing football in Duomo Pierre
Across the other side of the continent, our team in the Meru Conservation Area, Kenya, has embarked on a similar initiative, coined as ‘Kick to Conserve’. Last year, our team – dubbed the Bush-Trackers FC – played 15 matches against local teams including community groups and teams from Kenya Wildlife Service. This year is set to be another bumper league, with plans to organise two matches per month throughout the year with communities in Murera, bordering the park. On match days, Kenya Wildlife Service staff are also invited, and together with the Born Free team, they deliver messaging on the negative effects of pollution, bushmeat harvesting, poaching, deforestation, allowing livestock incursions into the protected areas, the degradation of water catchments; and how to reduce human-wildlife conflict.
Football match being played in Meru
The issues that communities face are complex. They may experience extreme danger and hardship living alongside wildlife. But football is unique in the way it unites people. From all sides of the pitch, common ground can be found, offering unique opportunities to learn from each other and gain perspective.
Messaging is not the only positive outcome of football. Our team also maximises on the energy of the footballers and their fans, instigating litter-picks and tree planting sessions before or after the matches. It’s also a great platform to galvanise relationships we have with the communities living with wildlife.
As the Lionesses are changing peoples’ opinions and shaping culture through football, we are using it to forge routes into community-driven conservation action. Because football is for everyone, including wildlife. Good luck to all teams participating in this summer’s Born Free matches. And good luck to the Lionesses!
If you or your company are interested in supporting Born Free’s football activities to support conservation, get in touch with our Partnerships Officer Molly Rutherford (email@example.com).