Wildlife Warriors Kids Expedition 2019
August 27, 2019
We spent months planning the Wildlife Warriors Kids expedition. Every school in the Wildlife Warriors program had been visited three times and we were assessing teachers and children to find the most committed schools. There are 34 schools in the program located in remote isolated parts of Kenya. A separate team led by me, visited the Mpala Research Center, developing detailed activities, and tested them ahead of time. We trained volunteers and produced a detailed expedition manual for all the volunteers, teachers and staff. And, after countless meetings, edits and planning the day arrived. The logistics team had worked till late at night for several days to make sure that all items were procured and the tents, mattresses and sleeping bags were tested. Buses were checked. We booked meals and bought and packed stationery. Despite all the preparations, nothing could have prepared us for the 5-day field expedition for 115 children from all corners of the country.
Some came from Kilifi, Mombasa and Kwale Counties in the Coastal region and others from Busia and Siaya in the Western region of Kenya taking two days to get to Mpala Ranch. Their journey required spending the night in Nairobi to meet the team and travel together to the wilderness. Those from the north, Samburu, Wamba, Marsabit, Isiolo, and Laikipia spent up to 15 hours to reach Mpala by road.
Well, if we were overwhelmed, imagine what it must have been like for the children. Some of them had never been on a vehicle in their lives before. Some even got motion sickness. Some had never left their villages. Most had not been to a wilderness area nor seen wild animals. Some did not speak English. Yet they were all identified themselves as wildlife warriors. Brave young people aged 10 to 17 who were on the adventure of a lifetime. Teachers had warned us that the children were so excited that they had not slept the night before. They arrived tired but super excited.
They began to arrive from 5 pm, but most arrived in the dark at 8 pm. By midnight, all were at the campsite. It had not occurred to us that the journey to the campsite was such a big part of the adventure. Students from Western Kenya saw the Great Rift Valley for the first time. Those from the north stopped to learn about wheat farming – they had no idea that flour came from a plant that looked like grass. Nanyuki town was the staging post for the last stretch of the journey to Mpala. The buses waited for all the schools to arrive and some teachers used the wait to take children to Cedar Mall where the escalator was a source of great entertainment.
We had chosen a campsite with a lot of flat land which made it easy to pitch 30 tents. At least it would have been easy if it were daytime. The late arrival of buses due to delays on the highways meant that students, who had never seen a tent before, were fumbling around in the dark. Thank goodness for the few scouts and the rapid erection tents, we got most of them up relatively quickly. Four students from different schools shared
a large tent to encourage discussions in a common language, Kiswahili or English. After a large dinner, they went to bed though few slept due to the haunting sounds of hyenas, buffalo, and hippos throughout the night.
At dawn, students woke up to beautiful sunny skies and after a briefing, the expedition was flagged off by Dr. Dino J. Martins, the Executive Director of Mpala Research Center. The students were assigned to groups and were issued with colour coded bandanas, a backpack, a water bottle, name tags, an expedition T-shirt, stationery and collection jars.
The expedition was themed around endangered species, their habitats, threats, and mitigations. On the first day, students learned about the four different habitat types in Mpala and how to identify the animals found there. Within the four days, every student knew all the habitats and the species. They saw rare animals like the Grevy’s Zebra which is critically endangered, the Reticulated Giraffe, jackals, hippos, elephant, rhino and many other species. They learned to track wild animals from their signs and saw their first lions, cheetah and wild dogs. They scrambled up rocky outcrops, explored the Ewaso Ngiro river banks, and recorded all the species of animals and plants that they saw. The mammal species list had nearly 30 species. Each of the 8 groups had a team leader and two teachers attached to them. They collected feathers, bones, grasses, and other specimens to create their own museum. By the end of the expedition, each student had filled their notebooks, had created numerous artworks and a brochure that described the different habitats and species found in them. They identified the threats and how they could be alleviated. Most children committed themselves to plant trees next year. Each afternoon, students had free time to reflect, draw, socialize and play. After dinner, they gathered around the campfire where different students volunteered to sing and dance in the flickering light. They even recited poetry. Volunteers were responsible for ensuring lights out at 8 pm but children were still telling jokes and laughing with their new friends until 11 pm every night. The joyful chatter could be heard throughout the campsite through the thin walls of their tents.
The expedition was great fun for all participants but fun was not the object. Our goal was to explore, discover and learn. The highlight was a tour of Ol Jogi Wildlife Conservancy and their animal orphanage where students met a variety of birds and monkey species from around the world, as well as an elephant rescued from Zimbabwe. It was perhaps the most moving moment for them to learn that in Zimbabwe the elephants were being culled and that someone rescued one male, female and a calf and brought them to Kenya where they are safe.
There were moments when I wondered if the students really understood the lessons, but one teacher reminded me that when they are quiet and reflective, you can be sure that they are processing the wealth of information they had gained in such a short time. Just hearing two girls say that they want to be Wildlife Warriors when they grow up made the whole expedition worthwhile for me.
When we suggested the expedition to our major donor Safaricom, they didn’t question the idea of rewarding the best 100 students with a wilderness field trip. They had seen pictures of our previous event in Samburu Reserve and it was clear that such events are valuable. But student expeditions are rare in Kenyan schools. Most schools do not visit parks, and when they do go to protected areas, these are considered fun outings, a day off for teachers and not a vital part of the curriculum.
We see the wilderness as a vital outdoor classroom and we developed a program that integrates many subjects while creating a life-changing experience for the children. But we can only reach a few students. We need help to make expeditions accessible to millions of Kenyans. So we invited an official from the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) to attend the expedition and help us explore how to get wildlife into the curriculum. Mr. Samuel Mulwa spent 3 days with us in the wild and witnessed children working hard, studying nature and having fun. He agreed that nature isn’t just about science or animals. The expedition was about adventure, values, cooperation, collaboration, environment, and national heritage. He said he saw every subject come up in one way or another. Children did art, music, poetry, writing, and composition. The expedition required teamwork and critical thinking. It engaged every part of the body and mind. Even he was at a loss for words. It wasn’t a holiday or a safari, it was an adventure. An opportunity for students to explore and discover for themselves. To experience the sounds of the wild animals and the wind in the trees, the colours of the landscapes, the feel of dew, thorns, hot sand, and the scorching sun at noon. Our students also met people who they might never have met before like ranchers, herders, scientists, laboratory technicians, wildlife rangers, and elders. At first, they might have felt rather overwhelmed. By Day 5 the children were right at home, in the wild.
You can’t do such expeditions for school children anywhere. Kenya is unique. We have a great diversity of landscapes and wildlife. We have an amazing climate. The weather was perfect, including the torrential downpour which added a touch extreme – students learned the hard way that tents should be closed during the day time. The rain was quickly forgiven as a blessing from above for a successful expedition.
Twelve schools participated in the expedition and it was as important to the students as it was to the 24 teachers who accompanied them. They pledged to expand the program, create a Wildlife Warriors magazine, and to initiate projects at school to protect the environment and wildlife. They also agreed to lobby their local governments to make parks more accessible to school children. We want parks to be free for all school-going children. They can only visit with adults which will create demand and new opportunities for expeditions, conservation, and businesses.
The Wildlife Warriors Kids Expedition 2019 is the second of its kind by WildlifeDirect. We owe the success thanks to the commitment of the WildlifeDirect staff, interns and volunteers who included young people, scientists and a teacher from the USA. We could not have done this without the funds from Safaricom, as well as other donors. Our location was Mpala Ranch and Research Center who provided an amazing campsite, security and catering for the 150 participants.
WildlifeDirect is committed to holding two smaller expeditions per year and we invite any schools to join the Wildlife Warriors program to be eligible to participate in these incredibly powerful expeditions. Please contact us or leave a comment if you are interested in participating in or supporting an expedition during the holidays at firstname.lastname@example.org.