By Taylor Maddalene
This fall students from the United States, United Kingdom, and throughout Africa started the school year off with a roar, learning about the importance of leopards, lions, tigers, and other big cats through National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative Sister School Program (BCISSP).
The Big Cats Initiative is a long-term effort to halt the decline of big cats in the wild. The initiative supports efforts to save big cats through assessment, on-the-ground conservation, and education. Through the Sister School Program, National Geographic connects schools in the United States and United Kingdom with schools in Africa near big cat populations to encourage cross-cultural exchange and to share an awareness of and appreciation for big cat protection.
Big Cats Initiative grantees involved in BCISSP act as liaisons that bridge the worlds between schools in the United States, United Kingdom, Kenya, Botswana, and Tanzania. Explorers connect with schools to share firsthand experiences and stories from the field with the students. They also foster a relationship between the schools by sharing educational materials, pictures, letters, and an appreciation for big cat species around the world.
The service learning model of the program enhances the global perspective of students, increases knowledge and awareness for big cat protection, builds school spirit, and provides the unique opportunity for students to have a personal connection with other students and explorers all over the world.
Susan Wildes, the Principal at Alta Vista Elementary School in California, describes the importance of the program at her school: “The Sister School program allows our students to make connections with diverse groups of people and become more internationally minded, while engaging in a passionate study of the animals our school loves so much.”
The program also demonstrates the global importance of big cats to local communities in Africa. Big Cats Initiative grantee Amy Dickman works with local communities in Tanzania to mitigate conflict between the communities and lions. Dickman explains how the sister school program provides “very obvious, tangible benefits for communities in Africa [that they receive] directly from the presence of big cats. It’s so critical for people to want to have these animals around and want to conserve them into the future.”
When possible, National Geographic grantees visit their Sister Schools in the United States to give a direct update from the field. Last May, Jeneria and Yesalai, two Samburu Warriors that participate in the Warrior Watch program in Kenya, visited more than 800 students at Alta Vista Elementary to discuss what it’s like living with big cats in their backyard.
The Warrior Watch program is part of Ewaso Lions, an organization founded by National Geographic grantee Shivani Bhalla. The program encourages local warriors to participate in lion conservation to help mitigate conflict with their local communities. They track and observe local lion populations, alert villagers to contain their livestock when lions are nearby, and teach them to react to the disappearing species with compassion, not violence.
Students got to hear firsthand accounts from the warriors, and they also had the opportunity to experience part of the community that their Sister School in Kenya belongs to.
The support that Sister Schools continue to provide goes beyond increased awareness and camaraderie. Since 2013, four BCISSP schools in the United States and two in the United Kingdom have helped raise over $12,500 for four schools in Africa. National Geographic grantees work with their associated schools to ensure that these funds support the most vital infrastructure and supply needs of the schools, such as purchasing books and school laptops, performing classroom renovations, and contributing to the construction of a school library.
For the 2016-2017 school year, Alta Vista Elementary School (CA, USA), Hyde-Addison Elementary School (DC, USA), P.S. 205, the Fiorello Laguardia School (NY, USA), Compton-Drew Investigative Learning Center Middle School (MO, USA), Gordonstoun (Scotland, UK), and Westfield Independent Day School (England, UK) will participate in the program!
Keep an eye out for more program updates and blog posts on Cat Watch.
BCISSP is an interactive, community service learning opportunity that is open to all schools. Please visit the website to learn more and get your school involved.