Building a new generation of local conservationists: how improving education in Uganda may save one of the world's great forests

Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com
June 20, 2013



The 2013 Zoos and Aquariums: Committing to Conservation (ZACC) conference runs from July 8th—July 12th in Des Moines, Iowa, hosted by the Blank Park Zoo. Ahead of the event, Mongabay.com is running a series of Q&As with presenters. For more interviews, please see our ZACC feed.


Students learn about sustainable farming. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Ross.
Students learn about sustainable farming. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Ross.

Conservation work is often focused on the short-term: protecting a forest from an immediate threat, saving a species from pending extinction, or a restoring an ecosystem following degradation. While short-term responses are often borne of necessity, one could argue that long-term thinking in conservation and environmental work (as in all human endeavors) is woefully neglected, especially in the tropics. This is why programs like the Kasiisi Project are so important: by vastly improving education for primary kids near a threatened park in Uganda, the project hopes to create a "generation of committed rural conservationists," according to founder and director, Elizabeth Ross.

"Conservation education is a long-term but critically important strategy. Today's children will be making the hard decisions about protecting tomorrow's wildlife. Unless they show more concern for their environment than their parents have done, the outlook for the forests and the animals that live in them is grim," Ross told mongabay.com in a recent interview. "The Kasiisi Project aims to change attitudes among village children living around Kibale National Park, Uganda to their forests and to the great apes that live in them."

Conservation messaging in education: the Kyanyawara boys soccer team were the winners of the Brevard Zoo Soccer Cup. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Ross.
Conservation messaging in education: the Kyanyawara boys soccer team were the winners of the Brevard Zoo Soccer Cup. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Ross.
Home to over a thousand chimpanzees and up to 600 elephants, Kibale National Park is Uganda's largest forest jewel and arguably its most important protected area. In addition to chimpanzees, the parks is home to a stunning 13 primate species with some of the highest primate densities in the world. Scientists have also recorded over 300 birds in the forest. Finally, by connecting to Queen Elizabeth National Park, Kibale creates a corridor for many species. But threats are rising: deforestation for fuel, bushmeat hunting, and unsustainable farming practices are cutting away at the park. Meanwhile, explosive population growth has put the whole park's future in jeopardy.

"Demands on Kibale National Park for farmland, fuel wood and timber have barely even begun," explains Ross. "Uganda has a population of 30 million, more than 50% of which is less than 15 years old, 7% of closed canopy forest in Uganda is lost annually and among the local subsistence farmers, conservation is a low priority."

This is why the Kasiisi Project has focused so heavily on the next generation: the children of Kibale. The organization has vastly improved school attendance, taught sustainable farming practices, and worked specifically on girls' education. The project has even sent primary school teachers on trips into the parks, so that they can share with their students the experience of seeing Uganda's famed wildlife up-close and personal.

"We have had two rounds of trips for teachers into three local National Parks, both funded by the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund. Our contention is that teachers are the key component of any education program. If they are not engaged and enthusiastic then we are wasting our time and money. Our evaluations have shown that not only did these trips increase knowledge of the environment and improve attitudes to conservation in the teachers but also within 12 months in their students, and these effects could still be measured 3 years later," Ross says.

The idea is that if the next generation of Ugandans treasure Kibale, they will not only be better equipped to protect species and ecosystems, but to create a better life for themselves.

"The Kasiisi Project was the vision of John Kasenene a Ugandan botanist working in Kibale National Park. A local, he understood better than most the challenges facing poor rural farmers, driven to illegally accessing the resources of the forest by the need to make ends meet," Ross says. "His contention was that if we could improve the standard of education in local schools the children could have futures that did not include relying on the forest, resulting in improved conservation."



Elizabeth Ross will be presenting on her work at the Kasiisi Project at the 2013 Zoos and Aquariums: Committing to Conservation (ZACC) conference on Friday, July 12th in Des Moines, Iowa.



AN INTERVIEW WITH ELIZABETH ROSS

Students count macro invertebrates with the Cleveland Zoo Water Project. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Ross.
Students count macro invertebrates with the Cleveland Zoo Water Project. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Ross.

Mongabay: What's your background?

Elizabeth Ross: I come from a laboratory science and education background—I have a PhD in immunology. My first experience of working in Africa was a project studying Pygmies in the Ituri Forest in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Since then I have I worked to promote conservation through well-run, properly monitored, self-sustaining educational projects that benefit communities living around protected areas in Africa, specifically through the support of primary school education in western Uganda.

Mongabay: What drew you to work in Uganda?

Elizabeth Ross: My husband Richard Wrangham is a primatologist who has studied chimpanzees in Kibale National Park in western Uganda since 1987. I have been visiting Uganda for the past 25 years as part of his research team. Through the children of the people who worked with us I was drawn into the local primary schools. This coincided with the introduction of universal primary education in 1997, which, for the first time, provided free primary school education. The result was burgeoning student numbers in schools already strained to breaking point by years of civil unrest. We agreed to help out one of our local schools by building a classroom. In the 16 years since, the project has grown to include 14 forest edge schools and 10,000 children.

Mongabay: Will you tell us about Kibale National Park? What makes this protected area important?

Kibale Forest Book Project. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Ross.
Kibale Forest Book Project. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Ross.

Elizabeth Ross: Kibale National Park is a critically important ecosystem for the long-term survival of chimpanzees. Like other environments that harbor great apes, it is priority biodiversity ecosystem and as the largest protected forest in Uganda (760 km2), is of enormous importance to the survival of chimpanzees at the eastern most limits of their range. It is an exceptional example of a mid-altitude rain forest with the highest primate diversity and density in East Africa. It is home to ~1,400 threatened chimpanzees, the largest population in Uganda and the second largest of its sub-species in Africa, and over 300 bird species. It is the last remaining forest in East Africa that is the habitat both of great apes and a healthy population of elephants. Once recorded here at a density greater than anywhere else in East Africa in 2000 it was estimated that 300 elephant lived in Kibale National Park. But as researchers following Kibale chimpanzees in 2010 see them almost daily it is likely that they are now closer to the 1970 levels of over 600.

Mongabay: What are the major threats to this wilderness?

Elizabeth Ross: The challenges to the survival of Kibale National Park and its animals are a matter for great concern. Although gazetted as a national park in 1994, long-term threats to the forest and its inhabitants remain persistent and alarming. Widespread deforestation and over-cultivation of farmland near the forest have led to firewood shortages, diminishing production of crops, and adverse changes in weather patterns. Chimpanzees lose hands and feet and sometimes even die as a result of the accidental consequences of illegal snaring. In 2005 President Museveni, a relatively conservation-minded politician, said that the future of Uganda lies in using its forests for commercial agriculture and we see that protected areas are not inviolate, with cattle often grazing in neighboring Queen Elizabeth National Park unchecked. Demands on Kibale National Park for farmland, fuel wood and timber have barely even begun. Uganda has a population of 30 million, more than 50% of which is less than 15 years old, 7% of closed canopy forest in Uganda is lost annually and among the local subsistence farmers, conservation is a low priority.

Mongabay: How does the Kasiisi Project aid conservation efforts in the park?

Students build and test fuel efficient stoves. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Ross.
Students build and test fuel efficient stoves. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Ross.

Elizabeth Ross: The Kasiisi Project was the vision of John Kasenene a Ugandan botanist working in Kibale National Park. A local, he understood better than most the challenges facing poor rural farmers, driven to illegally accessing the resources of the forest by the need to make ends meet. The standard of education in government schools around the park was appalling, giving the children few options other than subsistence farming on progressively smaller and less fertile plots of land. His contention was that if we could improve the standard of education in local schools the children could have futures that did not include relying on the forest, resulting in improved conservation.

Our mission is to get local children to come to school, keep them in school (the drop our rate between kindergarten and 6th Grade is over 60%) and give them a good education while they are there. We do this by supporting programs that improve academic standards and help keep our students healthy. These include construction, health programs, clean water, adequate latrines, school lunches, teacher training, libraries, post-elementary school scholarships, sports and the special needs of girls.

The second way that we aid conservation in the park is through our school based conservation education programs. We collaborate with research projects in the park and with the local community to ensure that our programs are directed at the most critical needs both of the forest and the people who live along its borders. Our partnership with Universities and schools in the west (Harvard, MIT, West Point, UNH, Grinell, Bates as well as primary and secondary school in Massachusetts) brings bright young people who bring fun, innovative new technologies and who volunteer their time in conservation and education activities.

As a project we practice what we preach and model good conservation practices: fuel efficient stoves, biogas generation, solar power, sustainable farming and eco-friendly building practices.

Mongabay: Why is education, especially of children, so important for conservation and environmental efforts?

Local cience teachers explore techniques to introduce practical science into classes of over 100 children with help from MIT students. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Ross.
Local cience teachers explore techniques to introduce practical science into classes of over 100 children with help from MIT students. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Ross.

Elizabeth Ross: Effective conservation of Africa's forests takes a multi-pronged effort involving both short-term and long-term strategies. In Uganda short term strategies include sanctuaries for rescued animals, promoting responsible fuel use, lowering the risk of infection from humans and law enforcement/anti-poaching strategies, including snare removal, to overcome the indirect effects (accidental injuring of apes in cable snares) of bush eat hunting. But while these all protect wild apes for now, nothing will save them if their habitats disappear. Conservation education is a long-term but critically important strategy. Today's children will be making the hard decisions about protecting tomorrow's wildlife. Unless they show more concern for their environment than their parents have done, the outlook for the forests and the animals that live in them is grim. The Kasiisi Project aims to change attitudes among village children living around Kibale National Park, Uganda to their forests and to the great apes that live in them and to make them a generation of committed rural conservationists.

Good conservation education begins with initiatives that generate excitement and curiosity about a world that children often take for granted. Children's engagement in any subject depends on their being involved; they need "hands on" and enjoyable activities to learn well. The children around Kibale are mostly taught by rote in classes that often top 100 students per teacher. We have found that relevant practical projects, especially if they include an exciting technological component, are a novel and captivating experience.

We encourage collaboration with schools in the west and with improving access to the internet Skype conversations between children in the U.S. and those in Uganda have led to very positive partnerships.

The critical question is will these programs, which we know increase knowledge and interest in conservation, also impact behavior. This of course is a long-term process but we have seen some signs that what we do in the schools impacts what the children do at home. One is example is the over 60% of students, partnering with schools in the U.S,, Brazil, and Rwanda in a project to build and test clean burning stove also built one at home.

Mongabay: Some of your programs focus on taking teachers and students into the park. How does this impact people?

DCWF Field Trips with teachers into Lake Albert Semuliki National Park. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Ross.
DCWF Field Trips with teachers into Lake Albert Semuliki National Park. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Ross.

Elizabeth Ross: We have had two rounds of trips for teachers into three local National Parks, both funded by the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund. Our contention is that teachers are the key component of any education program. If they are not engaged and enthusiastic then we are wasting our time and money. Our evaluations have shown that not only did these trips increase knowledge of the environment and improve attitudes to conservation in the teachers but also within 12 months in their students, and these effects could still be measured 3 years later. Field trips for children, while clearly a great idea, are expensive and we do not have the resources to take more than a very few children into the forest or further afield. Since teachers impact many children for many years we have found targeting teachers for field trips is an economical way of reaching large numbers of children.

Mongabay: Kasiisi Project runs a multitude of programs. What do you believe are some of the most important ones in aiding both local communities and the park?

Elizabeth Ross: We believe that for academic success a holistic attitude to educational support is critical, so it is not easy to say which programs are most important. Each one plays its part in making our schools among the best in the district. Clearly the 130 children who attend secondary and tertiary education because of our scholarship program will have had an impact on the local community. Over 90% of those who have graduated from our program have jobs, but they would not have succeeded academically without all the programs that go towards supporting teachers and improving educational standards and health.

Girls in our schools do as well as and in some schools better than boys as a result of the emphasis we have put on their academic success and it is well known that educated girls have a wide-ranging positive impact on the health and economic success of their communities.

Our flagship school, Kasiisi Primary School, has been designated a "model public school" attracting visits from members of parliament from all over Uganda, as well as from the U.S. Ambassador, helping spread our conservation message to the administration.

Linking the environment consistently to educational success keeps our primary conservation goal always in the public eye. In this way we hope that the improved economic status of many families due to the academic success of their children is seen as an outcome of a well-protected National Park.

Evaluations show that all our conservation education projects contribute to increasing knowledge of the environment and more positive attitudes to conservation, so it is hard to single out those with the most impact. The true outcomes will take many years to assess but the membership in our school wildlife clubs has doubled and we know of at least one other biogas digester, which is being built locally as a result of seeing ours, which was the first to be built in the district.

Our school farm acts as an outdoor classroom for our pupils, most of whom will become farmers, involving them in alternative, more sustainable farming practices, In addition we provides opportunities for students from local agricultural colleges to get vital practical experience of environmentally-friendly farming.

Many funding agencies require a conservation component to research grants. The Kasiisi Project, in providing a well-established project for this to happen effectively, assists in successful grant applications which in turn improve knowledge of the park and its people thus helping conservation.

Mongabay: Could your programs be replicated in local communities surrounding other imperiled protected areas?

Employing alternative building materials: building with bottles cleans up the environment and saves trees. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Ross.
Employing alternative building materials: building with bottles cleans up the environment and saves trees. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Ross.

Elizabeth Ross: Yes we think they can, if you have a sympathetic local authority, which welcomes investment in their schools and especially if the projects are in it for the long-term. None of this is rocket science.

Clearly programs that just build classrooms and then move on, for instance, can have a more superficial relationship with the schools, but for those associated with long-term projects the need to build good relationships with local colleagues is of paramount importance. It is critical to have a strong local involvement and an effective local organization to design, implement and evaluate programs. We were lucky in that we had Ugandans intimately involved from the very start.

The challenges facing conservation initiatives in developing countries are often similar and solving them is not easy. However we have found that being in Uganda for 25 years we have friendships, which help us over the cultural hurdles. We have learned that one of the most important things is managing expectations. We find that you cannot be too clear about what you can contribute and so for everything we do we have contracts that lay out exactly what each party's responsibility is.

Mongabay: What can people do to support your efforts in Uganda?

Elizabeth Ross: Funding of course is our primary concern and projects that help us raise money are always welcome. Activities that collect "stuff", pencils, sanitary pads, markers etc. are often more satisfying, especially for children, but the high cost of transporting anything to Uganda has to be taken into account.

We welcome tourists to Uganda to our Guesthouse, which generates income for the project, helping us make our programs sustainable and which offers a different kind of tourist experience than the traditional safari.

In addition we are always interested in volunteers to Uganda with skills that can benefit our children.



Biogas digester under construction for production of methane to cook school lunches. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Ross.
Biogas digester under construction for production of methane to cook school lunches. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Ross.















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CITATION:
Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (June 20, 2013).

Building a new generation of local conservationists: how improving education in Uganda may save one of the world's great forests.

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