An interview with Claire Lewis: Technical Advisor to the North Luangwa Conservation Project
Claire lives in Zambia’s North Luangwa National Park with her husband Ed Sayer, and their three children, providing support on behalf of Frankfurt Zoological Society, or FZS. The society has partnered with the Zambian government since 1986 to protect the North Luangwa ecosystem. Ed and Claire joined the project just after the first black rhinos had been reintroduced to the Park, having previously been wiped out by poachers throughout the 70s and 80s.
In March 2017, I spent 10 days with Claire and the dedicated team of rangers, rhino monitors and many others who make up the extended family of people looking after North Luangwa. We sat down in the park’s new Education Centre to talk about North Luangwa’s award-winning conservation education programme; Lolesha Luangwa.
Can to tell us about Lolesha Luangwa?
Lolesha Luangwa is a Bemba - the local language spoken here – name for the education programme, roughly translating as “Look after Luangwa”. It began in 2003 as an initiative to coincide with the first translocations of black rhinos into North Luangwa. Back then it was small, with just a few schools taking part. 14 years later it has grown exponentially into something much bigger, with a formal curriculum, schoolbooks for children, teaching manuals for teachers and has been adopted by 22 schools across the whole ecosystem. It started off with very humble beginnings but has grown into a bit of a mammoth!
What’s the aim of Lolesha Luangwa?
It’s really been the same since the beginning – to engage children with the black rhinos coming back to North Luangwa, to raise awareness and educate them about the species and its conservation throughout Africa but particularly Zambia. That’s still the core of the whole programme. We expanded the lessons to cover lots more topics, like deforestation, water pollution, soil erosion and more, but at the heart we’re focused on the black rhino, its conservation, its threats, and what’s being done to change that.
How important is the education programme for the rest of North Luangwa Conservation Project’s work?
I think the programme really helps us achieve something we can’t through law enforcement or anti-poaching practices. We’re upholding the law in an environment in rural Zambia where the lines are blurred. You get people who are very poor who want to feed themselves and get money, so we’re trying to educate people that there is an economy based on black rhinos and wildlife, and that by preserving them they could have an alternative livelihood. Every animal is worth far more alive than dead.
Kids absorb messages easily and then pass this learning onto other children, and adults. The feedback that we get is that this is definitely happening. This isn’t just face-based stuff, it’s emotive too. The children are telling people that rhinos are beautiful, that black rhinos are incredible, that black rhinos need saving and that you shouldn’t poach because it’s bad for the ecosystem.
How have attitudes changed since the project began in 2003?
The 12-14 year-olds we first met and introduced to rhino conservation in the early 2000s are potentially parents themselves now. Hopefully they’ve gone on to retain some of the information they learnt and maybe tell their children about it. My hope is that the lessons are so engaging, that they are remembered. We all remember the teachers that were great at school, and the ones who taught us in an interesting and fun way. The lessons that the kids have as part of Lolesha Luangwa are all related to the Zambian national curriculum but it’s also completely different to the usual teaching style. I still remember the time when, back at Junior School in Birmingham in the UK where I grew up, a guy came into our assembly with a bird of prey which flew around our hall. Hopefully it’s the same for these kids when Michael, our Conservation Education Officer, turns up to their school with a laptop and projector, and shows them colourful pictures and gets them outside playing games. If that memory stays with them, then the messages we’re teaching them will too, and the kids will look at black rhinos differently and appreciate them.
How do you approach teaching the children?
We’re approaching things in three ways: head, heart, hands. The head means knowledge. We’re providing the children with information so they learn about black rhinos and their history. The heart means their change in attitude. They’re learning about rhinos, and that’s helping them to start feeling differently towards them. And, finally, the hands means changing behaviour. In the long term, that’s about being equipped with knowledge, and having the right attitude, to choose not to poach when they’re older.
How do you create that feeling of empathy for rhinos?
Most children, even ones living here in North Luangwa, have never seen an elephant, zebra, impala or any wildlife up close. We bring the kids into the park, usually for their first ever visit, and provide a real, first-hand experience seeing wildlife and meeting the people working here to protect it. They spend three days here with their teacher and our Conservation Education Officers. The experience of seeing a rhino first hand can never be replaced by anything in the classroom.
What are the kids’ reactions when they see animals for the first time?
They’re blown away by what they see. They usually have little understanding of the size of the animals, so we often hear beforehand that they think black rhinos are the size of a domestic pig. When they see them first hand they’re amazed by how big they are. The variety and proximity of the wildlife is exciting to them. Many of them will have parents who are subsistence farmers and previous interactions with wildlife may have been in a conflict situation – for example an elephant trampling their crops – so to have time just to appreciate wildlife for its beauty is something very different for them.
How can supporters help rhinos in North Luangwa?
Supporting the Education Against Extinction Appeal will help ensure that more children can visit North Luangwa National Park, and learn to love rhinos. Beyond that, we’re also looking for funding for vehicles, socks, books, food like beans etc. All the basics! They’re not very sexy but the basics are always the most important.
It costs just £40 to take a Zambian child to North Luangwa National Park for the first time. Can you help more children learn to love rhinos?