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Bringing Wildlife to the Classroom: Wild Shaale

By Priya Ranganathan
Originally posted on On Life and Wildlife

I had always imagined myself as a school teacher, standing in front of orderly rows of unruly students, a chalkpiece in one hand and a textbook in the other. I would be the most loved teacher in the school, I always promised myself. The teacher who was seen as a confidante to the little girls, the one who disciplined the boys but did so in such a way that they came running to greet her every morning regardless. The teacher who was respected and loved simultaneously, pushing the boundaries of her students’ understanding of the world that they live in.

My own school teachers were a motley bunch of mostly-strict, sometimes-kind instructors who took their job very seriously. I appreciated their dedication to honing our minds and simultaneously feared their red-ink pens and exam marking sheets. I had a few favourites, of course: the sweet English teacher who always helped us through the tough passages in the textbook, the geography teacher who never raised her voice, the Hindi teacher who loved me because I already knew how to write my alphabet (thanks to my mother’s tireless ministrations), and the young, attractive history teacher who had an attitude of casual coolness that all the boys in my class tried to adopt. And there were the scary ones, the teachers who would throw chalk at you (or, on a bad day, aim the duster at your head), the ones who needlessly wrote pages of negative remarks to be signed by confused parents, the ones who looked you up and down and pronounced you an absolute dunce based on no relevant marks whatsoever, and the ones who made potentially-interesting lectures into endless cesspools of monotonous speech.

But regardless, the pull of teaching students kept this profession in the back of my mind even as I entered the field of scientific research.

Opportunity, as I found out, does come knocking on one’s door…

Last year, in the month of August, I was given the opportunity to step into the role of a teacher. And in the process of tackling the daily tasks associated with travelling to village schools and breaking a language barrier (anyone who has heard me speak Kannada knows that I am no expert), along with introducing novel concepts into an otherwise-rigid government-regulated curriculum, my respect for my own teachers of years past grew hundredfold.

I am, as some of you may know, talking about the unique wildlife conservation initiative by the Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bangalore (CWS) that was launched in August 2018 to bring environmental education to students living in and around protected areas in rural India. Known as Wild Shaale, this programme, which I had the privilege of helping to design and take to rural schools, has now spread far since its inception in Bandipur and Nagarahole Tiger Reserves in southern Karnataka.

Patience was never my strong point, and teaching students requires a healthy dose of patience to be swallowed along with plenty of coffee and a substantial breakfast. As soon as our jeep rolled up outside the school gates, a flock of excitable boys and girls would come charging at us shouting “Akka! Anna! Wild Shaale!” Eager hands would reach out to my coworkers and me, pulling us out of the vehicle and into the crowd, where we were hugged and tugged along to the classrooms. There, we taught the students about the wonderful wildlife that they live alongside, including tigers, leopards, elephants, sloth bears, and gaur. They learnt the meanings of the different vocalizations and behaviours of tigers and elephants, and learnt how resource depletion affects the intensity and frequency of human-wildlife interactions. These lessons were taught using art, games, video presentations, and quizzes.

And we learnt so much from our students as well; living their entire lives alongside wildlife, these children had precious knowledge passed on from their ancestors about the need to respect our living planet and all its denizens, even those that might come into conflict with humans. Respect for nature was a constant theme that we came across in every school that we visited, from the tribal hamlet schools nestled deep in the heart of Bandipur Tiger Reserve to the largest government school near the busy town of Gundlupet.

Educating our children means ensuring the future of our planet, and Wild Shaale aims to reinforce themes of living alongside nature and building a conservation ethic in youngsters who will one day be the custodians of our natural world. Many students come to us with their own pearls of wisdom and questions regarding wildlife conflict that even we cannot answer. But by exposing them to the wonders of our endemic wildlife and the struggles that animals, not unalike humans, face on a daily basis, we hope to bridge the growing gap between humans and nature and bring forth a grassroots change led by the nation’s rural youth.

Wild Shaale has grown far since I was a part of the programme and now has established roots in 112 rural schools across 11 national parks in Karnataka and Maharashtra. With a customised curriculam suited to the landscape that the children grow up seeing on a daily basis, the programme is set to continue to touch lives in more states.