Wild Shaale: Bringing Indian biodiversity to classrooms

Ishika Ramakrishna and Krithi K. Karanth

Growing up there were always some subjects in school that were obligatory in nature. They were believed unnecessary for the real world, but compulsory for study ‘as per the syllabus’. Environmental sciences (EVS), life skills, value education and physical education were some of these requisite, yet, seemingly unimportant subjects when viewed through a busy teacher’s lens. With a plate full of the more ‘serious’ topics like science, history, geography, mathematics and languages, we seldom fought the relegation of those ‘ancillary’ subjects to the back benches of our minds. Back then we didn’t always realize their importance, if taught well, in the real world. We welcomed the borderline free-classes where some of us could goof off instead of paying keen attention to a teacher. When we did realize the relevance of environmental sciences, it was disappointing when it wasn’t taught with enthusiasm.

When subjects like EVS were taught with a degree of seriousness, especially in the higher classes, we were made to memorize unimaginative and dull textbook chapters about pollution, waste management, food chains and global warming. The syllabus was highly focused around human beings alone, often painfully minimal and dull in content and visuals. Rather than inspiring young minds to get involved and take action on a myriad of environmental issues facing the planet, these classes probably turned kids off the subject. The lax attitude with which EVS was approached was not the teachers’ fault. They seldom received any information or training in these fields beyond the meagre textbooks that had to be internalized by their students and regurgitated in school exams.

Admittedly, not all EVS textbooks are this limited, and not all teachers lack the drive to make it interesting for their students. The syllabus is getting better with time, and practical aspects to these subjects have begun creeping into the more elite schools in the country. However, we still have a long way to go. In 1991, the Supreme Court of India mandated that environmental science be taught in schools, but the quality of its implementation in schools today still leaves much to be desired. The importance of nature education is rising globally, coinciding with its quality improving in some aspects. Yet, it is still highly people-centric and influenced by western philosophies with examples far from home in its application.

Environmental education is broad and often neglects to focus on nature, particularly the importance of wildlife and wild places. The lack of representation of biodiversity and examples in school curricula is especially problematic for children who grow up with Indian wildlife. Children from metropolitan cities are now increasingly disconnected from wild spaces, while students from semi-urban and rural areas grow up with varying degrees of wildlife around them. Often, consequences of pollution, poor waste management and other conservation issues are also felt most strongly in areas far away from the cities. Learning (and teaching) about both local and global environmental issues should be one of the fundamental requirements of a well-rounded education.

At the Centre for Wildlife Studies, we have been studying human-wildlife interactions for over three decades. Our research and conservation efforts in India, especially in Karnataka, have brought us in close contact with families and children that live in the thick of this close interaction and sometimes in conflict with wildlife. Although it was our love for wild animals and the drive to conserve endangered species that brought us to these families all those years ago, we soon realized that true conservation effort lies in working with people. Our work with agrarian families in areas surrounding wildlife reserves led us to recognize how the hardships faced due to human-wildlife conflict also adversely affect young children from these households. The psychological trauma of witnessing conflict first hand and experiencing losses can directly influence how they perceive wildlife and interact with animals through their lives. For example, a family cow may be killed by a tiger, or a herd of elephants may trample upon an entire season’s crop. Developing negative attitudes towards conflict-prone species at a young age can also result in the propagation of incorrect or biased information about wild animals.

Growing up in high-stress environments in proximity to wild animals that cause such economic losses by killing livestock or destroying croplands is challenging. In light of adversity on several fronts, it is not uncommon for children to adopt negative perceptions of animals such as tigers, elephants or monkeys. A predisposition to retaliate against wildlife or develop a dislike for them from a young age is not surprising if one superimposes the lack of nature education provided to students over these occurrences.

Most children from these human-wildlife overlap zones attend village government schools. Children who live around wildlife reserves are well aware of the diverse life that surrounds them, but need to be provided with relevant information about that natural world. In the absence of context-specific knowledge, these children have only folklore, personal experience and traditional know-how to rely on. This could also leave them vulnerable in the face of conflict scenarios, as they do not entirely understand how to deal with them.

We found that the state board curriculum followed in these schools lays little emphasis on environmental education, lacking the gradual improvement in teaching approaches we now see in some urban schools. This duality and disparity between rural and urban contexts indicated to us that students’ requirements from EVS were vastly different. In urban areas, children must first be made aware of the biodiversity that exists in the country (and globally), followed by their responsibility towards the environment that they are a part of.

In 2018, we found the perfect push in the right direction to address these issues through a serendipitous collaboration with Gabby Salazar from the University of Florida. With her expertise, we conceptualized an inclusive, multidisciplinary environmental education program built upon a foundation of experiential learning – one that would enrich every student through context-appropriate, engaging and interactive teaching. We wanted to tailor-make curriculum for students living around wildlife reserves and bring good quality environmental education to their schools. Thus, began the Wild Shaale program (‘shaale’ means ‘school’ in Kannada) around Nagarahole and Bandipur Tiger Reserves in Karnataka.

What began as a small pilot program with five schools in 2018, soon blossomed into a bustling wide-scale program reaching over 400 schools in just 18 months. We created a team of passionate educators, researchers and collaborators who came together to develop a wholesome curriculum and reach over 20, 000 students in Karnataka and Maharashtra by early 2020.

The Wild Shaale program consists of a four-part curriculum conducted over one month. In this time, our educators visit government schools and interact with students between the ages of 10 and 13 to conduct sessions of various themes, covering topics like Our Wildlife, The Environment, Living with Wildlife and The Future of Wildlife.

These sessions comprise audio-visual presentations, enactments, role plays, activities and games. By designing the curriculum in this manner, we aim to teach children important concepts in biology and conservation science through practical experience and critical thinking, rather than one-way instruction. Our evaluations suggest that this has proven to be a successful approach in working towards our goals to increase children’s environmental literacy and improve their attitude towards wild animals in India. We continue to learn and adapt the program based on these insights and interactions.

Ever since the Covid19 pandemic hit early this year, schools in the country have remained closed, temporarily pausing the work we do. Using this time away from fieldwork as an opportunity, our team worked towards expanding the curriculum by adding a fifth module on climate change and zoonotic diseases, which is now ready for implementation when schools reopen. We are putting together a Teacher’s Guidebook – a comprehensive resource that school teachers can use to conduct interactive EVS activities independently post the Shaale program. We are also exploring ways to digitize the program to reach many more children. Just like our dynamic world, environmental education must adapt to the changing times as well.

The past two years have taught us far more than we ever envisioned. The children we interact with regularly, the school teachers we work with and our very own educators who hail from diverse backgrounds have contributed in several ways towards building Wild Shaale into what it has become today. This program is still young and like all conservation efforts requires time and patience to achieve its full potential. We are steadily working towards creating teacher training programs, resource books for teachers, wildlife-themed storybooks and information kits for students. Our curricula and team continue to grow and we hope to soon expand the reach of our program to many more students, schools and states in the country.

Although we may be conservationists and scientists today, many of us did not experience the joy of interactive environmental education as students. Perhaps if we did, we could have nurtured our love for wildlife from an even younger age. Instead, we stumbled upon this field through our luck and privilege – having timely wild experiences and inclinations. However, this was not true for many of our peers then, and still is not for the larger populace in India today. Our classrooms could be holding tomorrow’s environmentalists, journalists, scientists, conservationists, activists and lawyers – they deserve to learn as much as possible about the world they live in right from the start. Effective conservation could after all be hidden in the curiosity of a child – we should do all we can to nurture it.

Ishika Ramakrishna is a Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Wildlife Studies, India. Her academic and applied interests lie in an interdisciplinary space across ethnoprimatology, social sciences and conservation education. She has an MSc in wildlife biology and conservation from the National Centre for Biological Sciences, India. She can be reached at [email protected].

Krithi K Karanth is the Chief Conservation Scientist and Director at CWS. She has a PhD in Environmental Science and Policy from Duke and MESc from Yale. Her research in Asia spans 22 years of understanding species distributions, wildlife tourism, consequences of voluntary resettlement, land use change and understanding human-wildlife interactions. She can be reached at [email protected].

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