Animals & Wildlife Magazine

Community Engagement and Friendship Through Earthwatch

By Iratemonkey @_sam_williams_

Sam and I have been at Lajuma now for nearly two years and during that time we have led 11 Earthwatch teams. Each team has been unique, memorable and rewarding. However last Saturday we came to the end of a very special Earthwatch expedition.

This year our Earthwatch project, Conserving Leopards and Monkeys in South Africa, was given the opportunity to invite local people to join the project as Community Fellows. We received a grant to allow local people to join an Earthwatch expedition who would not normally be able to attend. We were initially allocated nine Community Fellow spaces but this has recently been extended to 15.

Our first team for 2013 was composed of a combination of international volunteers and local participants. Several local postgraduate students from the University of Venda who are studying biology and nature conservation joined the team. We were also able to offer the opportunity to join the team to a local person who is setting up a research project north of our field site in association with Lajuma Research Centre. She will be able to apply the methods she learned on Earthwatch at her site.


Our Earthwatch volunteers with me (far left) and Kyle, our amazing chef (far right). Photo by Wilbert Yee.


Sam (PPP Research Coordinator) checking camera trap images in the field with a local and an international volunteer. Photo by Caswell Munyai.

From the beginning the international and the local volunteers clicked. One of the main advantages I observed on this team was the learning and teaching between participants, rather than just between the staff and the volunteers. The local volunteers were able to talk about life in South Africa and especially in regards to how people in the area interact with and perceive animals. The Venda students enlightened us all about how animal parts are used in traditional medicine and told us some of the traditional stories about animals. They talked about how these traditional stories shape the culture and the relationships between people and animals. The exchange went both ways. The international volunteers talked about how they manage their environment in the UK or the US. The local participants were extremely surprised to learn that in the US and the UK people will pick up their dog’s poo and take it home to throw away!


Radio tracking collared leopards and brown hyaenas. Photo by Caswell Munyai.


Big smiles from Evans while out radio tracking. Photo by Ian Dodimead.

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Working together to prepare equipment for a giving up density experiment on samango monkeys. Photo by Kate Nowak.

One of the international volunteers, Wilbert, has attended about 20 Earthwatch teams and he commented that never had local volunteers on a team with him. He appreciated the cultural value that this added.


Washing leopard scats for analysis! Photo by Wilbert Yee.

All the volunteers went to a local school to participate in an environmental education day through Eco-schools. This is an integral part of all our Earthwatch teams and the children love meeting Earthwatch volunteers from all over the world. This time however, the children worked with international volunteers and also people who were from the same community as them and who spoke their language. This was an inspiring experience for them. I believe that with previous Eco-schools days the children learnt a lot and gained a great deal but perhaps never felt like they could relate too much to the volunteers. This time they met Earthwatch volunteers who were local and who had gone on to achieve amazing things such as PhDs and jobs in conservation. The children and their teachers found this very inspirational and I hope that meeting them has helped them realize that they too can achieve so much.


Caswell teaching the children about environmental management. Photo by Ian Dodimead.


Wilbert with his new friends. Photo by Wilbert Yee.

Owls are a feared animal in the Venda culture. Like many nocturnal animals they are associated with witchcraft. Our Venda Earthwatch volunteers talked to the children about the important role that owls play in the ecosystem and this seemed to really sink in. For me, as a researcher, this experience reiterated the importance of community engagement and involvement in conservation. Getting locals involved should be key in our management strategy.


The school’s amazing recycled greenhouse. Photo by Caswell Munyai.

This Earthwatch group helped us achieved a great deal towards our research aims. I know they all had a great time. The local volunteers from this team specifically requested that we thank Earthwatch for giving them this opportunity. As one local volunteer commented, "We didn’t have time to do everything that needed doing which leaves the gate open for a second visit to Lajuma.” I hope they all keep in touch and revisit. I am looking forward to further participants this year that will benefit just as much from the Community Fellow grant.

- Katy Williams, Field Team Leader

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