Independent Appeal: School wildlife clubs help give Uganda's gorillas a future

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The Independent Online

"Our next song," announces 11-year-old Robert Ntegereje, at the front of his primary school class, "is about how we can look after the gorillas by planting trees where they can live." It's hardly an announcement you'd hear in a school in Britain.

British schoolchildren do not do that much tree planting, they do not do that much singing about the curriculum, and they certainly do not have gorillas living in the forest down the road. In Uganda, however, all three apply, plus a fourth the need to create a culture of conservation, in a country where spectacular wildlife sometimes comes into conflict with poverty.

So it is across much of Africa. Some of the world's most charismatic species, like the mountain gorillas Robert was referring to among the world's rarest animals can often be seen as rivals with local people for scarce natural resources. In Uganda the gorillas are found in two national parks, Mgahinga, on the massif of the Virunga volcanoes in the south-west of the country and Bwindi, further north. In each case the communities surrounding the parks have cast envious eyes on their natural riches, from the wood of their forests, the water and the honey, to the animals that inhabit them, a potentially valuable source of meat.

But attitudes are changing. If Africa's remarkable wildlife is to be saved for the future, it is clear that local communities must play the key role in saving it; they must see it as a worthwhile exercise. The old way of simply prohibiting people to touch, to put up fences with "no entry" signs, will not work where human need is too strong; the way forward is community-based conservation. And one way of fostering it is to make people see the point of it from a very young age.

Uganda is fertile soil for that exercise. It is a country obsessed with education and for the past 30 years young people with an interest in their environment have benefited from one of Africa's best-known indigenous green organisations, the Wildlife Clubs of Uganda (WCU). The British charity, The Gorilla Organization, one of the subjects of The Independent's Christmas Appeal, has gone into partnership with WCU to develop a more focused programme in areas where Uganda's wild gorillas are found, with the aim of creating 100 wildlife clubs in schools.

Leading the project is teacher Denis Agaba, 29, who fits in the organisation between his duties at Mutolere Primary School near the town of Kisoro. At his own school he has established a thriving wildlife club, with many of the 1,200 pupils keen to take part. The members do a lot of tree planting as well as gardening, learn about wildlife every week, and go on excursions to national parks.

Perhaps another reason for the club's success is that it also offers opportunities for music, dance and drama, and the children, including Robert, the club chairman, perform songs about their activities.

Many of the children are keen the see the gorillas, although they will have to wait until their late teens to visit them. Denis Agaba has seen them four times three times in Mgahinga and once in Bwindi. "In Bwindi, they just came up to us, seven of them and a silverback [adult male]", he remembers. "The young ones came to play with me and jumped over my shoulders I was delighted."

The school club is so popular that children who have gone on to secondary school come back for its meetings. "I love it, because it teaches us to conserve the environment," says Anna Muhawenimana, 18. "It teaches us about wild animals, and the apes, which are so close to us almost our relatives."

Based on the evidence of Mutolere Primary School, community-based conservation will flourish in this part of Uganda, not least because the next generation of conservationists is already taking shape.