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It’s 10am on the Tuesday after Easter. Children around South Africa are on holiday, splashing in swimming pools and frolicking at the beach or lazily lying around in pajamas watching cartoons on the television. But not 18-year-old Vusi Zikhali. Vusi is crouched down in the bushveld talking quietly to himself as he studiously completes an ecology-themed scavenger hunt.
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Vusi’s day began when he and 26 other students woke up for their first morning at Wildlife ACT Fund’s Conservation Education Kids Bush Camp. After breakfast, the children broke up into “crashes” (endearingly named after the term for a group of rhinos). Vusi’s crash attended a lecture on ecology and then marched up a hill inside the Emvokweni Community Trust property that lies adjacent to Somkhanda Game Reserve. Vusi and his fellow students are completing a scavenger hunt using the surrounding plants and animals, following on from the morning’s lesson on ecology. The Zululand sun is bearing down but the children don’t seem to feel it. They are focused. They are engaged. They are learning.

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This week’s group of students has been sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Network and has won their place at the camp as a result of their participation in a conservation education programme called Rhino Art. Rhino Art was started by Project Rhino KZN and the Kingsley Holgate Foundation. Using art and soccer, the Rhino Art – Let Our Children’s Voices Be Heard campaign encourages South Africa’s youth to voice their feelings on Africa’s poaching crisis through the creation of rhino-themed art and participation in educational activities that increase conservation awareness. One of the most interesting findings that has come out of the Rhino Art programme is that while urban youth have a very strong emotional attachment to the rhino, that same connection is largely missing in rural children.

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It seems the fences erected to protect wildlife in areas with high human populations are having the unintended consequence of disconnecting our local children and communities with their biological heritage. There is a much touted quote about conservation that goes: “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”

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This is the driving force behind Wildlife ACT’s Community Conservation Project and the camps are an important part of that. The camps consist of a four-day long programme aimed at children from communities that surround KwaZulu-Natal’s game reserves. The idea is to engage children using hands-on activities to teach them about conservation, and importantly to provide a first-hand experience of the animals and environment in our local reserves. In the words of Sheelagh Antrobus, Project Rhino KZN Coordinator: “These children want to love rhinos. We just need to give them the opportunity.”

As the scavenger hunt draws to an end, the children head back down the hill for a snack. When they are seated at a plastic table, sipping on juice, the children share their excitement. Though they all live on the border of Mkhuze Game Reserve, not one of the children in Vusi’s crash has ever been inside a game reserve. The activity they are unanimously most excited about at camp is going on a game drive. They take turns shouting out the animals they are most excited to see, “zebra.. lion.. giraffe.. rhino!”

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Crash leader, Thokozani Mlambo (whose official title is Community Conservation Liaison) speaks about the lack of engagement with rhino poaching issues in the local community. He is frustrated that the community forums deal with stock theft and general crime but seem to turn a blind eye to rhino poaching. Thokozani and his fellow CCL’s, Zama and Sboniso, spend much of their time outside of the kids camps in the community trying to address these sorts of issues by attending community meetings, giving educational presentations, and taking community members on game drives in local reserves. Thokozani was chosen as one of this year’s Disney Conservation Heroes and it is clearly a well-deserved title.

When they are done with their snack, Vusi’s crash heads back up the hill. Each student takes a private spot in the bush. They have some quiet time to connect with nature and use that inspiration to come up with a poem. 12-year-old Mandisa Mthembu begins her poem, “Elephant, you are beautiful like a brand new day.”

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In the distance the delighted squeals of another crash can be heard. They are playing a spirited game of predator-prey tag upon returning from their morning’s hike.

The week continues on much the same note – children wholeheartedly dedicating themselves to learning about conservation and delighting in the experience. On the last evening of camp, Kingsley Holgate himself arrives at the camp. Kingsley, a well-known African explorer, is a towering presence of a man, with a bushy white beard and twinkling eyes. When Kingsley speaks about his involvement with Rhino Art, he seems almost overwhelmed by the pure momentum of a project that was supposed to be a short-term addendum to one of his conservation related exploration trips. By the end of 2015, over 250,000 young people participated in Rhino Art, mainly in Southern and Central Africa. The project has even expanded to Vietnam, which is at the heart of the demand that is driving the rhino poaching crisis. It seems our youth have a lot to say about rhino poaching. Kingsley stays and participates in the evening’s celebrations. One crash of students sings a song they have written, called“We saw eight rhinos”. Their pride is visible. The students continue to sing and dance around a campfire, celebrating the things they have learned and seen.

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Wildlife ACT’s kids camps are doing important work in teaching students about conservation, but even more importantly they are offering children a chance to connect with nature. A chance that they so desperately want and willingly embrace. If their concentration and commitment are indicators, then the message of the camp is not lost on Vusi or his fellow classmates. The hope is that every student that goes through the camp becomes an ambassador for rhinos and a steward for nature. We need as many as we can get.

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Wildlife ACT Fund runs their kids conservation camps entirely on donations and grants. US$20 covers the costs of one child’s food for a four-day camp, US$150 funds a child’s entire four-day stay at the camp, and US$1,800 would fund all aspects of an entire four-day camp. Donations of any amount to Wildlife ACT Fund’s Community Conservation Projects will help children like Vusi to form a connection with, and develop a greater understanding of the game reserves that protect Africa’s wildlife. Children’s camps may seem a small part of the fight against rhino poaching but it is certainly one of the most crucial. Help Wildlife ACT to empower our communities to protect their natural heritage by making a donation today.

Shenton Safaris
Shannon Airton

I am an American expat living in South Africa. A conservation biologist by training, I have worked in Zululand researching rhinos, wild dogs and leopards for the last 14 years. I have given up the rather rough and nomadic life of a researcher to stay home and raise my two year old boy and help run our family business, Rhino River Lodge, in the Zululand Rhino Reserve. Following my passion for conservation biology, my writing focuses on bringing important conservation issues to a public audience.