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Published:July 25th, 2010 11:56 EST
Children and Educators Help Save Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary

Children and Educators Help Save Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary

By SOP newswire2

Pune (Women`s Feature Service) - Armed with colourful posters, picture cards and slides, Pune residents Sharmila Deo and Purnima Phadke have been heading to Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary each month for two years now. They have a mission on their mind - to instill in the local children of Bhimashankar an appreciation and protective attitude towards their verdant home.


Bhimashankar is an evergreen forest in the Sahyadri range, 120 kilometres from Pune, Maharashtra. Declared a reserve forest in 1985, it boasts of several varieties of trees, 236 species of birds and 66 of mammals. But the region also faces multiple threats: The local population, comprising mostly tribal and farming communities, uses the forest for cultivation and fuel requirements; and the unchecked tourist influx that has led to an increase in air pollution. Even an 18th century Shiva temple that stands within the forest has contributed to its ecological woes. Large-scale pilgrim presence causes extensive littering. The plastic bags, bottles and wrappers that are strewn for miles not only choke the water bodies but are also increasingly responsible for the death of wild animals that ingest them. The Bhimashankar Sanctuary is definitely in dire need of conservationist intervention.


In 2008, prominent Pune-based environmental NGO, Kalpavriksh, decided to conduct a sensitisation drive on these issues among the local residents. A two-year environment education programme for school children was a part of this effort. 


Kalpavriksh officer Sharmila, 37, who had earlier done similar work in Ladakh, was put in charge of this project that was sponsored by Concern India Foundation and Ruffords Small Grants Foundation (UK). She roped in German language teacher, Purnima, 64, as collaborator and voluntary educator. The two had met and found shared interests when they did a one-year diploma on environmental conservation in 2003.


"I looked after the organisational and financial aspects, while Purnima designed a lot of the content, after deliberating with me and the experts at Kalpavriksh. We conducted the actual workshop together," Sharmila informs. Extensive research and several exploratory trips to Bhimashankar later, the project got underway.


The svelte jeans-clad Sharmila and the matronly Purnima soon became familiar figures in the `ashramshalas` of Tekavade and Terungan villages, where their playful, hands-on half day sessions provided relief from monotonous classroom studies and opened a whole new world of discovery for the 150-200 students of class 7 and 8. The Ashramshalas are government run residential schools for tribal children.


"In the beginning, the students were completely non-responsive, as they were accustomed to passive learning. Breaking the ice was the most difficult part of this job," recalls Sharmila. Another barrier was the rural-urban divide between the teachers and the taught. The children were bemused by the city women, who looked and spoke very differently from them.


It was a game that finally broke the ice. The classroom rang with peals of laughter as blindfolded children tried to pin a tail onto a picture of the Indian giant squirrel, locally knows as `shekru`. This endangered animal has put Bhimashankar on the global wildlife map, as it is found only in this sanctuary and nowhere else in the world. For the children, the `shekru` was a common sight.


The educators had decided that teaching would be non-pedantic, context specific, and rooted in the children`s world of experience. Cultural events were turned into teaching opportunities. The human pyramids formed by the students during the Dahi-Handi festival, for example, became a tool for explaining the concept of the energy pyramid.


Soon a rapport was established, and the children`s enthusiasm soared. They learnt about the food chain and the web of life through role-playing of different birds, mammals, insects and aquatic animals. By identifying the predator-prey links, they saw how extinction of even one of these species could cause the entire ecosystem to collapse.


Experts were called in from time to time to disburse specialised knowledge. Kiran Purandare, a renowned birder, was invited to speak about local birds. He even taught the children a few bird calls, with a warning that they were not to tease forest birds with their newly acquired skill. Another expert was called in to explain the characteristics of indigenous trees, but much to his amazement, the children rattled off the local names of all the trees they saw during their nature walk, along with their diverse uses! Films on dolphins, snakes and insects were also screened at some sessions.


"We gave them many opportunities to display their creativity," says Purnima. The children made collages out of various kinds of leaves to produce a fascinating array of patterns and shapes - green snakes, insects, peacocks, airplanes and Ganesha figures!


That year, an anti-plastic drive during the Mahashivratri festival, which brings thousands of pilgrims to the temple, gave an opportunity to train them in activism. Draping themselves in assorted plastic waste and dubbing themselves as plastic monsters, the children moved among the crowd, singing anti-plastic songs and asking the pilgrims to eschew plastic. "They should be smacked with bamboo poles," exclaimed an indignant 12-year-old boy at one point, noticing the public indifference to their appeals. "We may have produced a really belligerent activist there," laughs Purnima.


The comprehensive, ingenious programme that the two women ran is indeed a model of how environmental science must be taught. Prakash Dudhe, the principal of the Tekavade school, expresses appreciation for the efforts of the two women. "The classroom walls melted as children trampled through the jungles, and explored their own environment with more scientific eyes." He sees considerable change in the students who participated in this programme. "They have become more outgoing. The exposure gave them confidence that they could also do something meaningful." Though the two-year project is now at an end, he promises that some activities that were initiated here, like the plant nursery, will certainly be continued.


An important part of the project remains unfinished - that of training local educators, so that the good work continues. But finding local candidates with the necessary qualifications, communicative skills and attitude has proven to be difficult, confesses Sharmila. So far, only one youth has been trained. Chandrakant Langhi, 29, a 12th pass agriculturist is an enthusiastic crusader. "For lasting impact, such programmes must become an integral part of school education, and must be run on a wider scale," feels Langhi. But Sharmila says there are practical constraints. Money and manpower available to NGOs is limited. "Over two years, we have planted some seeds of thought in the young minds. Some of them will take root and grow," she says optimistically.


Meanwhile, Purnima is compiling a booklet that will be an invaluable resource for future environmental educators. It will have detailed notes on the content and structure of the programme, the teaching aids used, the games and activities conducted, and insights gained while running the project. "We learnt a lot from them, too. The children shared their native knowledge with us, and corrected many of our preconceived notions," she says.


When they started the project, the duo had few expectations from these unexposed and underprivileged tribal children. In reality, they found the same sharpness, intelligence and curiosity of mind among these rural youngsters as they would find in children anywhere else in the world.


As they bid their students goodbye after the last session of academic year 2010 " though Sharmila is still trying to source funds to run to for another year - the children asked, "You will come back again next year, won`t you?" The hopeful query was a gratifying indication that the environmental cause had found a place in the children`s hearts. Sharmila and Purnima needed no other reward. 


By Smita Deodhar


© Women`s Feature Service