Students Get Off to Strong Start for Conservation Education

In Focus, August 2003

by Corrina Hackney

Amid the diverse student population of Kent University in England, a multinational team is nearing the end of an intensive 10 weeks of specialized training to become community educators with a single mission: to promote local pride in the environment in some of the planet's most threatened ecosystems.

The university course—offered in the United Kingdom and Mexico—is the first step in a 2.5-year program based on Rare's Pride Campaigns.

The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) is supporting a major expansion to biodiversity hotspots of these highly successful campaigns by a new partnership between Rare and Conservation International's (CI) International Communications Department (see press release: New Alliance).

In this initial university phase—run by Rare staff in conjunction with the University of Kent in the UK—students receive intensive training in all the skills needed to produce and carry out comprehensive conservation education campaigns.

"The university component of the course covers an incredible range of activities—from conservation law and biodiversity management to social marketing techniques and practicalities such as puppet-making," says Rosemary Godfrey, Rare's course manager at Kent University.

Pride Campaigns are run by local organizations and aim to appeal to the public on an emotional level. The campaigns focus activity on a single species, aiming to capture a sense of public pride and ultimately to change behavior and better protect the local species. The CEPF-supported campaigns will take place in 13 sites in China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Southern and West Africa and Central and South America.


While there are a number of conservation education courses offered in other institutions, the Rare course is unmatched in the kind of support structures it gives to students. The program is also unique in combining academic and technical training with hands-on campaign activity and implementation in the field.

The students start with the 10-week university component, followed by a 10-week preparation phase during which they each develop a comprehensive campaign plan using stakeholder meetings and attitudinal surveys. Each student will identify a key theme tailored to their local communities, core objectives and a species to be the focus. They then implement the campaign, returning to the UK after the first year to report back and share experiences.

Throughout the program, each student receives one-to-one support from course lecturers and RARE and CI staff to translate theory into practice during their campaigns.

"They are supported through weekly telephone calls (now free through MSN), online discussions with staff and fellow students and two on-site visits," says Godfrey, who developed an online discussion club now used by past and present participants to share best practices and address common challenges.

Commitment to Conservation Education

The students, who range in age from 22-45, have been carefully selected based on a demonstrated need for conservation awareness as a key conservation strategy in their home region.

Their existing involvement in conservation work, a supportive local employer and their individual dedication and commitment were also strong elements in the selection process. Personalities are strong and cheerful—two essential qualities if they are to succeed as the "voice" for the threatened species in their respective regions.

"There are not a lot of opportunities for conservation education," says Daniela Lerda, manager of CI's Community Education Program. "It is a very limited field in terms of training so there is a huge sense of privilege among the students, especially because the course has a hands-on component that will allow them to design locally appropriate programs for their communities."

None of the students knew each other prior to arriving in the UK but immediately established themselves as a cohesive group. The strength of this group will pay dividends when they return home and look to each other for additional support, via the Internet, while carrying out their campaigns.

The close, supportive nature of the group is characteristic of the program. Although the students will be leading their own campaigns back home, they will have the ongoing support of RARE and CI staff, fellow students and also past and future students through a Rare Club online community.

Course leader Godfrey and the other Rare staff are constantly looking for ways to make the program as well networked and supported as possible. The online community was developed to allow students past and present to talk to each other about challenges they face and solutions they are considering or have tried and tested.

One student, 34-year-old Clyde Scott, from the Cape Floristic Region hotspot in South Africa, said his preliminary campaign plan includes working the full network of 70 schools in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, to create a new generation of conservation-aware youngsters. He says the added layer of support from the online RARE staff and fellow students will be "a godsend."

"We can find out about what the other students have done, how they’re getting on and we can learn from their experiences," Scott says.

Students for the current course at Kent University have come from South Africa, Sierra Leone, the Philippines, China and Indonesia. They have a variety of backgrounds reflecting the program's selection criteria. Some students already hold conservation-related qualifications; others have basic school qualifications. Conservation experience and enthusiasm are more important, however, than academic qualifications.

Indira Lacerna (see photo right), a 31-year-old student from the Philippines hotspot, holds conservation-related qualifications already but had been looking for a program like this for years. Morne Farmer, 22, from South Africa, has his high school certificate and oceans of passion and enthusiasm.

The students' participation is fully funded throughout the campaign, including salary and a budget for campaign activity, meaning that no potential candidate or threatened region need be excluded for lack of financial resources.

Lacerna says she is planning major radio campaigns alongside building core youth groups. She intends to set up regular biodiversity field trips so that local young people can see first-hand what it's all about. This won't be easy. Transport in the Philippines presents logistical difficulties while rebel activity can make visits to communities a risky element of the job.

Edward Sesay (see photo right), a 45-year-old student from Sierra Leone in the Guinean Forests of West Africa hotspot, believes that adapting what they are currently learning to their own political and social environment will be one of the greatest challenges they face. While many countries have communications and logistical problems, Sierra Leone remains an unstable region and this will present an additional challenge.

Zhang Zhe, 25, is one of two students who will pioneer the campaign program in the Mountains of Southwest China hotspot. She acknowledges that the culturally controlled flow of information in China may present challenges but she is optimistic for her ambitions to engage the enthusiasm of China's young people. Zhang Zhe is assessing the possibilities of working in a community near Tibet. Here, one of the practical elements of the Kent course could be put into play: puppet shows that can cross language barriers and could also be used as an income generator in tourist areas.

Using the success stories of Rare's Pride campaigns in choosing a flagship species to focus understanding, Zhang Zhe has already identified the white-eared pheasant as a candidate. This bird has religious links amongst local people but is threatened by tourism, illegal hunting, logging and rapid economic development together with low environmental awareness about its status.

"My intention is to engage as many groups as possible to take ownership of the problem," Zhang Zhe says. "I am there to act as a facilitator so that the work will continue long after this particular diploma campaign ends."

In these next few weeks, the students are learning how to analyze problems and devise solutions that will benefit the people and wildlife of their region. When the students return to Kent University and the Rare course next year to report and review, they will hope to receive their Diploma in Conservation Education. The unique approach of the Rare course results not just in academic recognition but also practical achievement in conservation education thanks to the hands-on nature of this remarkable program.

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