Nature Appreciation and Wildlife Conservation 101

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Freeland helped to run and support a youth camp for 60plus students in Khao Yai National Park.

The many dangers posed by climate change, air and water pollution, deforestation and the greatest mass extinction of species since the age of the dinosaur, have brought our natural world to a decisive tipping point. If this generation cannot help to reverse some of these negative effects, the future of the planet is in peril.

That’s why educating the young about these issues is so important. In this spirit, the Protecting Wildlife Youth Camp held at Khao Yai National Park from January 17 to 19 brought more than 60 secondary students from Surin province to the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Over the course of three days, park rangers, local authorities and members of Freeland, a counter-trafficking NGO based in Bangkok, schooled the youth in some subjects that are not on any high school curriculum, but crucial to our survival: Nature Appreciation and Wildlife Conservation 101.

The activities at the youth camp, organized by the Department of National Parks, and Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) and Freeland, worked on multiple levels. The presentations and talks gave the students some background, hard science and down-to-earth facts in the main issues. The live songs and games led by camp instructors provided the entertainment. And the treks presented the students with a chance to really immerse themselves in the great outdoors.

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Led by park rangers, these outings strove to instill a love of nature in the youngsters. The early morning bird-watching tours afforded them glimpses of Khao Yai’s rich avian life (from various species of hornbill to Asian fairy bluebirds and Thailand’s national bird, the Siamese Fireback). The treks taught them how to appreciate nature’s balancing act, with rangers dispensing wisdom on the importance of watersheds and trees serving as carbon sinks, just as the night safaris alerted them to the presence of nocturnal creatures such as bats, one of the forest’s most important pollinators, as well as porcupines and those big cats which loom so large in the human imagination yet are so rarely seen.

Whenever possible the rangers made these outings into hands-on experiences. One of them picked a branch from a cinnamon tree to let the students peel the bark and smell the spice. He then discussed its medicinal uses. The ranger also alerted the students to the paw prints of a sun bear which had scaled a tree in search of honey, and a skinny yet deadly pit viper camouflaged by leaves.

In the main hall, Napalai Gogkhuntod, a Forestry Technical Officer for the DNP, presented a power-point about elephant ecology, which had special significance for these teens, who live in Ban Ta Klang. The town is famous for having more domestic elephants – some 200 or so – than any other village in Thailand. Around half of the students’ parents are mahouts. Many of the youngsters will follow in their parents’ footsteps and become the next generation of elephant handlers who are also bound to inherit some jumbo problems. As deforestation robs the kingdom’s national animal of the room it needs to roam and forage, clashes between villagers and elephants have become increasingly frequent and occasionally deadly, just as elephant tourism has become a cause of controversy and outrage among many conservationists and travelers.

Napalai’s presentation addressed some of these concerns.

Sade Ojoula from Oakland, California, who teaches the students English under a program supported by the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, which also co-sponsored the camp along with Black Ivory Coffee, said, “The foundation is concerned about showing the youth of this village more responsible ways of dealing with elephants. Most of them have never seen a wild elephant before and until now were not aware of such big issues as the domestic trade in elephant ivory, which is still found on sale throughout the village.”

The camp also attracted wildlife educators from others NGOs in Southeast Asia, like Free the Bears, which works in Cambodia and Laos, as well as members of the Kouprey Express (KE), an educational outreach unit attached to Wildlife Alliance in Cambodia. For many years, the KE has traversed the country’s hinterlands providing classes, screening films and doing night shows about wildlife conservation in villages that frequently lack electricity and running water.

20170119_093721For Sengaloun Vongsay, a Lao Education Officer working with Free the Bears, it was fascinating to observe how the different games for students played out at the Protecting Wildlife Youth Camp. In one such role play game, the instructors blindfolded the students before they walked through the forest holding onto a rope, and faced many different obstacles, to make them identify with an orphaned deer whose parents had been poached.

Such games are not child’s play. They are intended to build empathy with the creatures of the wild that will inspire the young to better protect them and their natural habitats in the future.

By seeing how the students reacted to the various activities, and by comparing notes with their peers, the educators from Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and California learned a lot from each other that will benefit their future classes and workshops.

Tim Redford, a Program Director at Freeland, who helped to oversee the camp, thought it was a testing ground to form a group of such educators on wildlife and environmental issues that could come together every year to share best practices and lessons learned.

Overall, the team effort that went into staging the camp was impressive, he said. “This is how conservation should work, with different government agencies, NGOs, students, teachers and the private sector coming together – all for the greater good.”

(A shorter version of the story appeared in the April edition of the Bangkok Posts Student Weekly publication which is online here.

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