Student: Ma’am will you be showing us an elephant?
Deepshikha: There are no elephants in the Himalayas. I might be able to show you blue sheep or ibex.
Student: But I wanted to see an elephant. Why are there no elephants here?
There is no shortage of such questions in Himalayan Nature Club “eco” camps that the Trust’s India partner, Nature Conservation Foundation (Bangalore), holds in the summer of every year in Spiti and Ladakh, northern India. These camps are the highpoint of our work in these Himalayan snow leopard landscapes. Started in the year 2007 in Spiti and 2009 in Ladakh, the eco camps are a product of years of conservation engagement with the local communities. The lack of appreciation for the local flora and fauna, especially in the younger generation, was one of the reasons we initiated a nature education and awareness program.
Every year, 250-300 middle school students, from both private and government schools, attend two days of nature immersion at the camps. They are generally held in high mountain valleys away from rural villages and schools. The idea is to take students away from classroom and textbook learning to observe and appreciate the natural world. The little learning material that we use is easily available in the form of leaves and rocks. Thus, equipped with just a notebook, something to write with, and a vague idea of what to observe, the students really do some astounding work in the field. The eco camps provide an incredible opportunity for students to experience a special place and see the flora and fauna about which they have only heard of. Also, when surrounded by nature, and prompted with meaningful discussions, children discover the art of scientific enquiry.
To add to the thrill of sleeping in a tent and in middle of nowhere, we plan the activities in a way that helps the students explore and experience the surroundings to the fullest. An ideal day at the eco camps starts at 6 am with ‘wake-up’ workout. At 4,000 meters (13,000 feet), when we teachers are gasping for air, the energy of these young learners is really hard to keep up with. It’s more of a ‘wake-up’ work-out for us than for them!
After exercise, the students indulge in a hefty breakfast followed by the activities planned for the day. Some of the activities and games include “amazing animals,” a snow leopard quiz, using all five senses to experience nature, story-telling, bird-watching, and many more. The evenings are left free for some playing and running around. At night after dinner, we build a bonfire and use the opportunity to share experiences and sing and dance together. By 10 pm the students are all snuggled up in their tents.
During their time at camp, the students work individually as well as in teams and share their observations, learnings and reflections with each other. Within a short span of two days, most students start appreciating their surroundings and develop a curiosity to learn more. Students learn not only about wildlife but also the skills they can bring back home to help protect the fragile Himalayan landscapes. They learn how their community can play a role in conserving the beautiful snow leopard and its habitat.
Over the years, we have had a significant learning curve while conducting these camps. Each year we modify our module to find out what works with the students and what doesn’t. We strive to give our best to this process of unlearning and learning to make sure that our students get the best out of the camp. What was originally envisioned by Nature Conservation Foundation’s Dr. Pranav Trivedi (who developed the camps), is now carried forward by NCF regional staff and educators Kalzang, Karma and Dorjay. They have inspired many students to work towards conservation. For example, Pasang and Tashi, who as children attended the camps years ago, make time to come back to the camps every year to support our staff. Through the eco-camps, we hope that children will become socially and ecologically responsible citizens and will share what they have learned with their communities.
This year we had 390 student participants from 13 local schools attending the camps over almost a month of camping in Spiti and Ladakh. This is the highest number of participants we’ve hosted in any year since we began. Since the start of our camps we have engaged with over 4,000 young students from these regions. Come autumn, our teams are back in these schools conducting fun activities with the students as part of our conservation education program. Word gets around about this popular program with requests from school teachers from neighboring regions to start Himalayan Nature Clubs in their schools too—a testimony to the hard work and dedication of our local field team. We are excited to expand our engagement with local schools and teachers in the neighboring districts of Kinnaur and Lahaul, and our field team is busy doing the groundwork. With expansion to these new areas, and regular engagement with teachers and young minds, we hope to develop close ties with more educators and inspire more children to become “ambassadors” for conservation. The journey is long, but we have already begun!
We would like to acknowledge the Education Departments of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council and the Spiti sub-division granting us permissions to host our eco camps over the years. We also acknowledge the willingness of more than 40 local government and private schools and their teachers who have participated in our camps for many years.