Sierra Leone sets an example through environmental education

In a world on the verge of climate catastrophe, small-scale conservation efforts don’t get nearly enough attention. Despite the overwhelming evidence that our planet is terminally ill, instilling a conservation ethic to those in the Western world still proves to be a treacherous task.

Now imagine undertaking the task of propelling conservation in places where environmental protection has been neglected for so many years; the Earth’s decline a negligible problem compared to far more tangible issues of poverty, disease, and conflict.

Friends of Tacugama  Fundraising and Scholarships

In August 2017, a devastating landslide hit the Freetown peninsula in Sierra Leone, killing more than 1,100 people, and leaving more than 3,000 homeless. The slide occurred less than 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) away from the sanctuary.

“When there is a disaster of that magnitude, whether you’re an NGO, wildlife organization, or a research institute, you are all morally obligated to help," Kazandijan said. 

This disaster hit home. Many staff members ended up losing loved ones and their homes. Tacugama knew that they had to intervene, as many of those affected by the slide were members of communities where outreach and educational projects were being carried out.

In the beginning, Tacugama provided immediate supplies that were most needed — collecting donations to help provide breakfast (milk, bread, sardines), bowels, plates, cups, and waste management bins. After the launch of a GoFundMe page, and by approaching various donors, the sanctuary managed to raise quite a bit of money. But by this time, however, other far more established NGO’s had moved in, and were supplying aid and resources effectively. So Tacugama decided to use the money they had raised for more long-term objectives. That’s when they came up with the idea of scholarships: sponsoring children who were orphaned by the landslide.

“It’s about assessing the gaps, figuring out which organizations are specializing best, and if they have the funds, they should cover the full spectrum, while we focus on more long-term objectives,” Kazandijan said. “It’s not a one-off commitment.”

Four of the schools that implemented Tacugama’s education program were greatly affected by the landslide. In two of the schools closest to the sanctuary, more than 40 children were killed. Two months after the disaster, full scholarships were provided to 44 children who had lost their parents to the slide — and their school fees will continue to be covered on an annual basis.

The sponsorship covers their school fees, the registration, and, in some cases, uniforms, shoes, and book bags. Their academic progress and wellbeing are being monitored through relationships with the teachers and principals. The charity arm of Tacugama, known as “Friends of Tacugama,” is also continually fundraising and receiving donations, of which a portion goes into continuing these scholarships. You can help by fundraising or donating here.

Children in Sierra Leone are at the forefront of changing this narrative. At Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, the Tacugama Kids Environmental Educational Program (TKEEP) is already shifting the values held by children in nearby communities.

“Bala always saw it as the core,” Aram Kazandijan told me, although the environmental education program has been gradually developing on an upwards path for years. 

Kazandijan is the development manager of the sanctuary, who has overseen the hard work into TKEEP. The program is aimed at the children who live and attend the schools that are in closest proximity to the sanctuary and to the Forest Reserve. 

When you walk up the scorched copper-colored path, and into the lush greenery at the mouth of the sanctuary, you pass the sign, “Change Starts with Kids.” Printed intentionally on the wall on the backside of the surgery room, visitors at Tacugama can see it right away. This eye-catching sign reflects the importance of education to the sanctuary’s core mission.  

Kazandijan, who doubles as the assistant director of Tacugama, is convinced that kids have the power to influence great change. After my time working at the sanctuary this past summer, I am also convinced.

As a wildlife and conservation intern, I spent an abundance of my time at Tacugama working with both the environmental education program and community outreach programs.  

The Kid’s Environmental Education Program enables children in Sierra Leone to have access to valuable conservation education, giving rise to future voices and leaders in research, environmental protection, and climate change.

One of the ways they are helping to implement this mission is by the creation of the Kid’s Workbook: a comprehensive, 13-lesson educational workbook that teaches kids about various aspects of the rainforest ecosystem, about health and sanitation, and about wildlife conservation.

While Tacugama was originally created as a sanctuary for orphaned chimpanzees, it has now expanded to address the issues that are most relevant to not only the forest and its species— but also to the people living in communities in its closest proximity.

With a combination of education and livelihood support, they “are trying to not just enhance, but improve their quality of life,” according to Kazandijan.

He explained how without basic needs, “there is no way you are going to be able to connect and facilitate change.”

In order to create lasting changes through conservation and livelihood projects, you must improve the quality of life.

Kazandijan said, “That’s key.”


Author's Note: During the six weeks of my internship, I spent time almost every day working on an updated version of the kid’s workbook and teacher’s manual. This required extensive redesign, lesson planning, interviews, and editing. This was also done for the corresponding teacher’s manual, which is given to the teachers as instruction onto how best utilize the workbook in their classrooms.

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