• John Mendelsohn

Seeds for a new generation of conservationists and scientists

Updated: Nov 9

Environmental science and conservation are life-long pursuits to understand and conserve the living world. Both vocations are built on the values of commitment, compassion and curiosity. In Namibia, many experienced conservationists and scientists are getting tired, retired or expired, while most of their potential successors are attracted to more lucrative professions in towns, often far from the natural environment that requires their services.

Where will Namibia find young, dedicated people eager to make science and conservation their professions? We commonly assume that schools, colleges and universities will produce them, but formal education is not enough, and it is especially deficient in fostering values that lead to the enthusiasm and commitment needed for these careers.

How can these deficiencies be remedied? ORC believes that well-defined measures are needed to expose young people to experiences, role models, mentors, and information that fire-up curiosity and rational thinking. These catalysts should be experienced at an early age to ignite zealous, quizzical minds.

After saying this for some years we eventually put words into action in the 3rd week of September 2022 when eight pupils from St Paul’s College in Windhoek spent four days with us at ORC. Their programme was designed to encourage imagination and the pursuit of knowledge through activities that were at times hands-on, novel, surprising, exciting, challenging and thought provoking. From ORC’s side it was also a test run as we didn’t know what activities would be practical, stimulating or enjoyable.

Here are a few activities we engaged in with them:

1. Camera trapping: each pupil was given a camera trap to be set on game trails, and retrieved at the end of the programme. They went home with all their images on a flash drive. They also took part in retrieving, or servicing camera traps already deployed at waterhole or on fences as part of ORC research projects

2. Learning how to track animals: from using spoors and faeces in the field to identifying the species who left them, to using telemetry to track animals equipped with radio collars

3. Being curious in the bush: This is all about being observant of what is around! Discussions on the orientation of social spider nests, and their use by Gabar goshawks, chats around a dead zebra snake, exploring dolomite rocks, erosion, and caves and discussions on the use of Albizia’s by elephants

4. The smaller things: Netting and pinning butterflies and other large insects and finding scorpions at night with ultra-violet lights. Each pupil went home with their own UV torch

5. Know where to find answers: searching the Visitor Centre and look for information to answer specific questions

6. Paying attention to details: the pupils train their eyes to identify individual leopards, cheetahs and giraffes from photographs, not such an easy task as it seems! And some challenges with close encounters with rhinos and identifying them from ear notches!

7. Time in the lab: extracting DNA from onions and the use of bio-indicators and museum and herbarium specimens

8. The joy of birding: Bird trapping and ringing, identifying bird feathers and body parts, dissecting birds

9. Fun time with a skeleton: Assembling a giraffe skeleton from bones scattered in the field

10. Some extras with carnivores: Calling hyaenas at night with loudspeaker and discussions on human-wildlife conflicts and attitudes of people to conflicts

Some feedback from students who went on the Ongava trip

“I especially enjoyed the game drives around the whole reserve, where we not only saw the beautiful scenery but we also acquired interesting facts about the environment in Ongava.”

“It was an amazing experience, getting to see all those birds and other animals all over the reserve. […] I really enjoyed assembling the giraffe skeleton […] Overall, I think the trip was an amazing experience and I do wish to go there again.”

“With every activity I learned something new and my thinking skills were challenged. I enjoyed the variety of activities and being sure that we would do something new and exciting the next day.”

“Even though, Mr Mendelsohn said that we should not learn anything, the variety of activities made it so that I did. […] We also spent a day at Margo and in the night we watched a lion and a crash of rhinoceroses in the hide. It was honestly amazing. “

“I feel immensely honoured to have had this experience. […] This is a wonderful experience for biology students or students specifically passionate about animals.”

“I especially liked how dedicated everyone there is to their craft. Overall, I am very grateful for the opportunity to visit Ongava Research Centre.”

“It was definitely an interesting trip it included a bunch of fun activities and it was fun to interact with the staff, the animals. Getting the feel of the place and getting to see the different animals. It was cool to be up close to them and building friendships and bonds with my fellow scholars.”

“[…] I also appreciate how the staff explained everything clearly. Even though I wasn't supposed to learn anything, I learned a lot. All and all the trip was amazing for me. Thank you for the opportunity.”

“My favourite experiences:

· Watching the rhinos at Margo, all the game drives, calling the hyaenas late at night, GPS tracking, butterfly pinning and extracting DNA from the onions, and I liked them because some were enjoyable to do and some sparked my interests.

· Getting to know how to identify the rhinos and seeing see them up close.

· Probably when we tracked our different collars … because I had a lot of fun trying to find the lioness' collar, plus we were the fastest amongst the three groups.

· Learning about the animals, their habits and how they make use of their surroundings in order to survive

· Butterfly pinning because it was enjoyable trying to catch them and it broadened my mind to know how much there is to a small animal, like butterflies.”

ORC is grateful to Steve Braine (https://thenaturalistcollection.com) and Iain Guthrie (St Paul’s Principal) for their help, and to Paul Maritz (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Maritz) for supporting this work.