“Wiping my eyes, I made a promise to myself that I would use all the information and education I have been lucky enough to receive to educate, advocate and spread the message of conservation, animal protection and education to as many people as I could.”
I knew what I was getting myself into… travelling to the poorest country in the world was going to be confronting, upsetting, challenging and life changing. I was ready to experience poverty, stare down disease, and even see death. However, I had one experience in particular that captured the attitudes and problems that face conservationists, wildlife enthusiasts and animals alike in Africa.
Let me go back to the beginning…
I was volunteering with the NGO Wildlife Action Group Malawi in the Thuma Forest Reserve, a 19,700 hectare mountain forest of stunning miombo woodland, bamboo forests, rugged terrain and home to populations of elephants, buffalo, antelope, monkeys, small carnivores, hyenas and leopards. The forest is thought to be home to one of only three increasing populations of elephant in Malawi, but due to being surrounded by villages this ecosystem experiences unrelenting and increasing pressure from poaching and deforestation via crop expansion and garden cultivation.
On this particular day, we visited a school in a local village. We were with a film crew who were travelling around the country to educate children and villagers about the importance of wildlife conservation, the significance of elephants to tourism and the economy, and the legal and environmental consequences of poaching. Children from a number of different villages typically all attend one school, often made up of a few concrete classrooms, dusty grounds, a few longdrop toilets, and minimal books and teaching resources. We all crammed into a tiny concrete classroom with no furniture at lunchtime on a 35 degree day along with some of our scouts, teachers, 200 school children and a few adults from the local village.
As part of the lesson, we showed a video that was made by Wildlife Action Group Malawi. One of Thuma Forest’s identified elephants, Kit, was brutally slaughtered by poachers for her tusks. Camera traps caught on film her family coming to say goodbye - they used their trunks to try and rouse her, to gently stroke her, and they swayed in sorrow. They remained with her body for over a day.
In that sweltering hot concrete room, crammed full of people, despite having seen the footage before, I sobbed my eyes out. Looking around through tear-filled eyes, I saw the faces of 200 children staring back at me. Why was this mzungu (white person) so upset? Is she crazy? It’s just an elephant.
The wheels started turning in my head. To these children, elephants are animals most of them have never seen and have only heard stories about - trampling crops, or destroying a house, or perhaps even killing someone (more often than not due to being forced out of the shelter of the forest by deforestation). Having never been exposed to David Attenborough videos and information about the social hierarchies and emotional capacity of elephants, how could they possibly find reason to emphathise with these animals? Wiping my eyes, I made a promise to myself that I would use all the information and education I have been lucky enough to receive to educate, advocate and spread the message of conservation, animal protection and education to as many people as I could.
That was the start of Eyes of the Elephants. A view of conservation through education, experience, awareness, and advocacy. Bringing global conservation news to New Zealand and the rest of the world, offering different perspectives on issues, and making conservation everyone’s business.
The biggest objection I hear is that one person can’t make a difference, but as we all know the sum of many has the power to move mountains. One action can save an animal, and while to the world that may be just one animal, to that animal one action can mean the world. Every single country on our planet faces conservation issues, and every single person has a responsibility to do something for this planet we live on and demand so much of.
Beckie Calder-Flynn is an animal lover, science graduate, conservationist and blogger at eyesoftheelephants.com . You can follow her adventures on Instagram and Facebook.
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