by Kathy West
I’m alarmed by the loss of biodiversity worldwide, but as a primatologist I’m particularly distressed with the dangerous rate of extinction facing primates. This crisis has only become more dire as the COVID-19 pandemic closed the borders to international visitors in March 2020 and one of the only eco-friendly source of income, tourism, has stopped entirely. People lack food, income and health care, which only puts more pressure on the forest and the endangered animals.
Anxious to contribute to conservation solutions, I founded this conservation project –– Photography Inspiring Children in Conservation (PICCmadagascar.org). We inspire children to find their voice and become lifelong learners and conservation leaders within their communities by providing them with skills, knowledge and a passion for conservation through the arts of photography, illustration and writing.
PICC was designed to face the primate extinction crisis head on by: 1) Building local capacity for sustainable conservation through educating and engaging students, teachers, elders, and the broader community, thereby empowering them with an appreciation for the mutual benefits of protecting the local biodiversity and ecosystems; 2) Providing avenues for program participants to obtain income through their conservation efforts and ecotourism, and providing guided support and resources for them to continue doing so after we leave; and 3) Creating media with direct calls to action, which uplifts the voices of community members and allows for their stories to reach a wider audience. PICC executes a sustainable, all-encompassing conservation strategy that shows data-driven impact long after the program is completed.
Suriname. In 2018, I was invited to contribute the PICC program to a Fulbright scholar’s forest conservation program in Suriname. Here, I introduced thirty 8-10 year old children to local protected areas and was amazed how quickly they became engaged with biodiversity details. After quick lessons with the DSLR cameras (300mm telephoto zoom lens and preset manual settings to give them the highest chances of success), they were incredibly skillful in capturing gorgeous images. I selected a photograph from each child’s images to enlarge, print and laminate, and we shared the images and stories of their forest experience with their families and teachers at a “gallery” celebration. (https://piccmadagascar.org/2018/10/26/picc-pilot-project-successfully-launched-in-suriname-community-of-lelydorp)
Madagascar. The coronavirus pandemic restricted my scheduled plans to conduct the PICC program with Malagasy children in the summer of 2020. However, COVID-alternative plans were put into action and I developed bilingual teaching materials so that my Malagasy PICC Team member, Pascal Elison, could teach lemur behavior and ecology, and conservation awareness programs in the villages next to the Masoala National Park (piccmadagascar.org/picc-curriculum/madagascar-2020). Through discussions, worksheets, field sketching, and guided walks to the forest and beaches to visit the lemurs, the children experienced the forest with their new knowledge and practiced their drawing and note-taking along the way. We provided the children and their teacher with information about their local lemurs and biodiversity, conservation awareness and solutions, and skills to share their new knowledge with their communities. They’ve taught their parents about the importance of the tall trees for the lemurs and are actively protecting the lemurs in their local forests. Pascal is currently teaching children in the nearby village of Marotofotra and from the city of Maroantsetra, where the older children in a conservation club have been trilled to see lemurs for the first time in their lives on a field / camping trip to the Nosy Mangabe reserve.
I’m excited about the immediate impact the PICC program has had on the protection of lemurs and am thrilled that word-of-mouth is rapidly expanding the PICC program in this area. Also, there is a large benefit to Pascal who has lost his pre-pandemic eco-guide income but is receiving professional level pay for his excellent leadership and PICC teaching. We can’t wait to teach the children photography when we can safely travel to Madagascar, and when the borders are open to international visitors again.
In addition to teaching the children photography, part of our curriculum is environmental education through a local language coloring book that I’ve written and illustrated specifically for each areas’ unique biodiversity with conservation issues and solutions. I create these books using my photographs and collaborating with local guides, scientists and conservation organizations. I aim for accuracy but also fun engagement through stories and line drawings, to provide effective conservation knowledge and activities that are easily put into practice by the children and their families. “Book One: Lemur Conservation Coloring and Activity Book” was published for SE Madagascar (2018); and “Book Two: Masoala for NE Madagascar” was published online in 2020. Book Three is under development to build local capacity and outreach with mountain gorilla conservation in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park communities (Uganda). (http://bit.ly/LemurConservBook1; https://bit.ly/PICCbook2020)
Recently PICC has expanded into multiple new project sites in African primate habitats and has exciting new networking opportunities with like-minded organizations around the world. We are working to develop long-term funding to allow us to replicate the PICC photography and conservation education workshops in critical primate habitat communities worldwide.
Panama. Another program under development is on the Azuero peninsula in Panama. A PICC session is scheduled for a week-long session in April 2022 with the children on this peninsula who live near a number of reserves that protect 3 endangered primates. Check out the coloring book for this project: https://piccmadagascar.files.wordpress.com/2021/11/picc_azuero_2021.pdf. (Read more about the endangered Azuero spider monkey and the conservation efforts to locate remaining populations in an article in the NY Times https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/28/travel/panama-azuero-spider-monkeys.html?searchResultPosition=4).
Rafiki Memorial Wildlife Conservation Initiative, Uganda. Rafiki (rafikiwildlife.org) is an exciting new conservation partner for the PICC program. The Rafiki Memorial Wildlife Conservation Initiative is focusing on teaching skills to create artwork as an alternative income source, instead of traditional lifestyles that included poaching. We are supporting them in numerous ways and look forward to collaborating our programs for increased conservation in the Bwindi area. I’m currently writing and illustrating a custom coloring book for mountain gorilla conservation workshops with local Buhoma children, with the Rafiki founder as my translator and co-author.
As part of this partnership, I’ve also been developing a mountain gorilla conservation PICC session near Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, scheduled for August 2022. There are two main components to this project: 1) PICC sessions will teach gorilla behavior and ecology, conservation issues and solutions, photography, illustration and writing with Buhoma village children, teachers and elders; and 2) A multilingual documentary film will feature perspectives of program participants and local community leaders and will highlight the conservation issues faced by both gorillas and community members, and will be available online. We will also produce a published gorilla conservation book of student works containing student photos, drawings, and notes. It will be published in the U.S. and Uganda, then sold to tourists. Funds will support conservation-based education for students. We are currently obtaining funding for this project. Let us know if you’d like to support our efforts!