Elephants are a menace for these 6th graders. Then they went on a safari ...
The guide starts up the Land Rover, then calls for attention from his excited passengers.
"All right, We're going into the bush!"
We're at the gateway to Botswana's safari country – one of the most glamorous tourist destinations in the world. But this isn't one of the $5,800-per-day excursions for international visitors that this guide normally leads.
This is a field trip for about 35 sixth graders from a village of mud-walled huts.
The village is called Habu, and you won't find it on Google maps. There are no paved roads here. No shops. And almost no jobs. Most of the 800 or so people who live in Habu survive on unemployment checks worth about $2 a day – supplemented by crops that they grow in their gardens, and a few cattle that they raise at posts in the wilderness surrounding the village.
The safari guide, Moreetsi Tsile, asks the kids which animal they're most hoping to see.
"Tau!" they call out in Botswana's Tswana language. "Ah," says Tsile, laughing, "the lion!"
But the focus of this drive is actually an animal these kids are a lot more familiar with – elephants.
This field trip is the high point of one nonprofit's multi-pronged effort to shift the dynamics of a delicate conflict:
Botswana is home to one the world's last thriving populations of wild elephants. At more than 130,000, it's the largest in any country. But as the elephants' habitat has shrunk, and the number of people in Botswana has grown, this region has become an epicenter of a clash between humans and wildlife that's threatening all sides.
I ask the kids if anyone has had a personal encounter with an elephant. The hands go up.
A tall boy named Fortune Kalafo is the first to share, even though he's so shy he squeezes his eyes shut as he speaks.
In a halting whisper he explains that his family grows maize and pumpkins on their land. And the elephants are always coming in to eat the crop — ruining it before it can be harvested. When his parents see elephants they beat drums to scare them. But the elephants keep coming back.
A few months ago, says Fortune in Tswana, "my uncle went after the elephants with a gun."
Another boy – this one with a huge, confident grin – waves for my attention. His name is Kaurihongua Ngaazire. He says that just a few days ago he and his older brothers were on their donkeys, picking the tiny, sweet-tasting orange fruits from what's called a Shepherd's tree, when a herd of elephants passed by.
Kaurihongua and his brothers set their dogs after the elephants, hoping to shoo them off. Instead, one of the elephants – a mother protecting her calf – turned around and started charging at the dogs. "We had to race into the house to escape it," says Kaurihongua in Tswana.
But it's a girl with a grave expression named Lorato Andreck who describes the most serious encounter. She says she was visiting her grandmother in a nearby town a few months ago, when she heard screams.
"People saying, 'Elephant! Elephant!' " she recalls.
A large male had wandered directly past the house. Lorato watched as her uncle, who had an intellectual disability, approached it – and the elephant attacked.
"Took him, threw him, hit the house, took him again," she says.
"People were screaming, 'Hey! The elephant is killing somebody! The elephant is killing somebody!' "
He was dead in minutes.
A new view of elephants
Today's safari drive is about trying to see elephants in a different light.
The Land Rover lurches forward.
"Vroom!" shouts Kaurihongua "Go ... to ... elephants!"
Soon we're speeding through the flat scrubland, past towering termite mounds. An acacia tree's thorny branches scrape the sides of the truck, sending the kids ducking and squealing with delight.
Kaurihongua calls down to the girl Lorato, sitting in a front seat: "You've got so many leaves in your hair!" They collapse into giggles.
When he's in a classroom Kaurihongua struggles. In fact, his grades are so low his teacher worries he'll drop out before high school. But he has bigger goals: "I want to get into BU," he says – Botswana University – "then become a teacher." And out here on safari, he's the most outgoing, engaged kid in the truck, calling out landmarks as we pass them as though he were a guide himself:
"Garden!" Kaurihongua shouts, pointing out a communal garden. It's surrounded by the kind of metal fencing that people here usually can't afford. It's been newly built with the help of Wild Entrust, the nonprofit dedicated to conservation that has organized today's safari drive. Xigera Safari Lodge – a luxury outfitter that lent its guides to lead the drive – is also contributing funds to the garden. The plan is for the villagers to eventually earn money by becoming one of Xigera's vegetable suppliers.
"Trust! Trust of Habu!" Kaurihongua exclaims next, as the truck rumbles through a gate and pulls to a stop. We're now on a vast tract of land managed by a community trust.
Wild Entrust, the nonprofit, is also working with Habu's leaders here – hiring scouts who will be scoping out locations for campsites and a new road network so the community trust can eventually open a safari business on the land. It will most likely be a no frills set-up for tourists driving in with their own vehicles. But they're hoping it will bring in yet more jobs and income.
A woman approaches the Land Rover with some water bottles. "Hey guys!" she says as she passes them out to the kids. "Did you see the termite mounds?"
She's Lesley McNutt, a Canadian anthropologist who co-founded Wild Entrust. McNutt says the garden effort and the camping safari business are among a raft of projects the nonprofit is collaborating on with Habu's leaders in order to meet two simultaneous goals: alleviate Habu's pervasive poverty; and protect elephants and other wildlife by making it easier for villagers to at least co-exist with the animals – and ideally make a living off them.
Yet after decades of researching and working on conservation in Botswana, McNutt has also concluded that even when people have those kinds of economic interests for safeguarding wildlife, it's often not enough.
"I was looking at, so for example, a cheetah eats your cow – What do you do?" says McNutt. "Do you apply for compensation [from the government]? Do you go out of your way to try to corral your cattle differently? Or do you shoot the cheetah?"
"What I found was, even though people understood there was monetary value coming back to them from the [wildlife] tourism industry – were even employed in the tourism industry – there wasn't any shift in behavior when there were situations of conflict."
Instead, McNutt reasoned, what really makes the difference is when people also have empathy for the animals. The kind of appreciation and even cherishing that, she thought, could come from studying them from childhood.
And so, over the last several years McNutt has been developing an educational program that's now delivered to every primary school in this province of Botswana, starting in fifth grade and running through seventh. Each year Wild Entrust staffers, or "coaches" as the nonprofit refers to them, come in to give a lesson on a different endangered animal – not just elephants but for instance, vultures, wild dogs and rhinos. They talk to the kids about the ways the animal benefits Botswana's ecosystem as well the challenges it faces. Then they play specially designed games in which the kids are encouraged to identify with the animal by emulating its qualities on the sports field.
In most cases these sessions consist of a two-and-half hour visit. But for a handful of schools, McNutt has raised enough money to add on what she considers the ideal pairing: a day-long safari drive.
"You can sit in a classroom, you can learn for months and months," she says, "and it may not have as much impact as one day on the back of a vehicle seeing an elephant in terms of changing your worldview about caring about them. It's the aha moment. It's a trigger. It's a switch. Because they're impressive. They're amazing!"
How to react when you see an elephant
And the awe is certainly there as the truck starts up again ... and the kids spot the first wild animal of the drive: A species of antelope with impressively large spiraled horns called a kudu.
"Wow!" says Fortune Kalafo, the shy boy. He is especially transformed – his reserve melting away as he shouts out the names of the creatures bounding past.
"Impala!" he calls out.
"Or maybe a Springbok?" says another kid.
"Definitely impala," says Fortune.
He's always loved animals. Especially rabbits. They're so clever, he says.
The animals are coming ever faster now.
"Springbok!" intones one of the guides, Ike Mogalakwe, pointing.
"Springbok!" the kids repeat in unison.
But what about the main object of this safari – the elephants?
Mogalakwe slows the truck as he spots some fresh tracks. "Yeah, on the right hand side. At the bottom," he says. "Evidence of an elephant that was here."
Lorato purses her lips. Her mother is one of the teachers at the school. So her house is a step up from the other kids' — it's brick instead of mud and thatch. Still she dreams of getting away from Habu. So boring, she says.
She leans forward and taps Mogalakwe on the shoulder.
"What is the safe thing to do when you see an elephant?" she asks.
"Don't run!" says Mogalakwe.
"Stand like a statue?" says Lorato.
"Yeah, stand still. Don't run," he answers.
Their elephant encounter
Soon after, the kids get to put that advice into practice when they pull up to a waterhole for a lollipop break.
Suddenly a huge elephant ambles over ... and starts to drink.
Mogalakwe motions for silence.
"I want you to come down one by one," he whispers. "But very quietly."
Lorato is the last to climb out of the truck.
She gives a nervous chuckle. "I'm a little bit scared."
"Okay," says Mogalakwe. "Let's go together. SLOWLY."
He steps closer and closer to the elephant – the kids creeping behind him. Then he motions for a halt.
"So you should never give elephants your scent," he says. The key, he explains, is to remain downwind.
He picks up some sand from the ground and slowly releases it. "It will show you the wind is blowing that way," he says.
Then Mogalakwe gets to the heart of the lesson: If you approach the elephant this way, it's a calm animal.
"We are still here," he notes. "And look how long we've been here."
As the kids suck on their lollipops, Mogalakwe starts to point out all the cool features of this elephant: The finger-like projections at the end of its trunk. How its ears are shaped like the continent of Africa.
"Right at the bottom, this is where Botswana is," he says.
All of the things stacked
On the ride home the atmosphere is giddy as the kids rehash every moment, the details growing in the re-telling. "It was humongous!" says Kaurihongua in Tswana, "A beast!"
The rest of the afternoon passes in a whirl of further diversions: A helicopter lands in the field by the school to whisk the guides from Xigera back to their lodge as the kids cheer. One of Wild Entrust's coaches passes out new activity books on elephants as another, Lefentse Oscar Xhao, goes through the highlights: "See how when the elephant digs that hole, when it rains it will create more space for water collection," he says, "and that means more animals will benefit."
And there is game after game. "Okay guys, get inside this circle," says Xhao, the coach. "You are elephants and imagine around you this is a river infested with crocodiles." The challenge is to grab water bottles outside the circle beyond the reach of any one kid. The children try forming a chain, hanging on to the leg of a girl at the end so she can dangle forward over the edge of the circle. "What are you going to use that you learned from elephants?" says Xhao, shouting over the shrieks and giggles. "Teamwork!"
McNutt maintains that these exercises are essential to expanding the initial connection that kids can feel when they watch an animal on safari into a deeper, more durable interest in protecting wildlife. "You have this amazing experience," of effectively meeting the animal in a new way, she says. Then, through play, "you mimic those characteristic behaviors of the animal and you think, 'Wow, I can actually learn something from an elephant.' Because of all those connections you come out the other end in a relationship of empathy."
And McNutt stresses that the shift is a cumulative process, as the seventh grade sessions move into more brainstorming on actions kids can take to help animals. "It's a combination of all of the things stacked," she says.
What did the kids make of it?
The next day I meet up with the kids back at their school to find out what the takeaway was for them.
Lorato ticks off facts she learned. "Elephants are smart and they beautify the country," she says.
And she tells me she appreciated the tips on how to stay safe. "I feel like I can be brave now and not be afraid of elephants," she says.
But it hasn't changed her opinion of them.
"Yes, I can protect myself from elephants," she says. "But love them – No! I don't like elephants at all. I hate them."
Kaurihongua, the outgoing boy who had set his dogs on elephants, says he won't ever do that again. Now he feels sorry for elephants. "We're always taunting them," he says.
But what about the very rational fear that people in Habu have when they run into an elephant, I ask. "What's the solution?"
Kaurihongua sighs heavily. "None," he says.
And then there's Fortune, the shy animal lover.
He says watching that elephant on the safari changed his thinking. He'd never seen an elephant so calm.
"I was surprised that if you don't provoke it, It won't harm you," he says.
He talks of becoming a soldier, "because they watch over and protect animals." And he muses about solutions to the elephant problem in Habu. "Maybe we could dig waterholes for them," he says. Away from our fields?
Because Fortune still doesn't see people and elephants coexisting in Habu itself.
"Most people, when they see the elephants, they'll want to chase them off," he says.
But Fortune says he is going to talk to his own family. Tell them, when the elephants come by, let's not do things that just rile them up, like beating the drums.
"Do you think they will listen to you?" I ask. "I mean, you're a kid."
"My mother will," he says.
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