The jeep bounces down an uneven village road, the boxes inside rattling and threatening to spill their contents out of the vehicle. At the end of the road is a stone wall, the small gate framed by a colourful blue and pink archway with the words “Sarkari Hiriya Prathamika Shaale” etched in black. The jeep rumbles to a halt outside the gate.
The clamour of young voices descends upon us as we leap out of the jeep. Boys and girls, eyes bright with curiosity and undisguised delight, crowd around us, slim hands touching our clothes, our hands, the jeep, voices high with excitement. Their voices are first a jumble of sounds, which unify into an enthusiastic chant: “Wild Shaale! Wild Shaale! Wild Shaale!”
After dislodging ourselves from eager little hands, we unloaded the jeeps. Daily field supplies here include two enormous boxes of art supplies and props for games, as well as biscuits to give the children and our portable power supply, as most schools did not have regular electricity. These supplies, along with the children, were divided quickly into two equal-sized classrooms, and Wild Shaale officially began for the day.
But what is Wild Shaale?
Wild Shaale (“Shaale” means “school” in Kannada) is a conservation and environmental education programme launched by the Bangalore-based Centre for Wildlife Studies in 2018. The programme was born out of the organization’s interactions with rural children living in villages bordering and within two of Karnataka’s premier tiger reserves – Nagarahole and Bandipur. These children live in proximity to wildlife and regularly witness human-wildlife interactions, be they positive, neutral, or negative. Wild Shaale aims to raise children’s interest in and awareness of the local wildlife that they live alongside, and to involve children in conserving India’s remaining wild places and endemic wildlife.
So what do we do?
Wild Shaale brings wildlife and wild landscapes right into government school classrooms, using a combination of art, games, role-play, story-telling, and engaging presentations to teach students about our country’s unique natural heritage. The programme is directed towards students between the ages of 9 and 13, with a focus on the wildlife and ecosystems found in the parks nearest to the schools.
The curriculum: Lessons for living with wild neighbours:
In Wild Shaale, education is more than just memorizing facts and writing examinations. It integrates daily life with the natural world in a manner that will capture the minds and hearts of India’s rural children. Having gone to 38 schools myself and interacted with these children first-hand as a part of the Wild Shaale pilot programme team, I can say that the programme has positively impacted these children and enables them to speak knowledgeably about wildlife and be aware of the potential risks involved when interacting with Asian elephants, tigers, and leopards.
Wild Shaale goes a long way in fostering tolerance in conflict-affected communities and in building awareness and empathy towards wildlife in the children who will grow up to be India’s future. As of 2019, we reached 50 schools and 2,000 children around BR Hills, Bandipur, and Nagarahole. Wild Shaale shares valuable knowledge, but all resources are provided by the team as our investment in the future of both India’s children and her wildlife.
So what comes next?
India is a highly diverse nation, and this diversity is reflected in her wildlife and people. In 2019, with your support, we are hoping to expand the program to several wildlife reserves across India. Thus, we are custom-tailoring the curriculum to the needs and realities of the communities that we reach out to across state boundaries. Our hope is that every child that learns to love the wild will become an agent for change in their families and communities to make informed choices and co-exist with nature.
And now I make a request of you, Dear Reader. Wild Shaale cannot grow without you. Spread the word, donate to the cause. Any donation you make is a direct investment in the education and lives of rural children, and the future of the wildlife around them!