For kids in the Kyrgyz Ala-Too mountains, summer holidays usually mean helping around the house, herding livestock, and learning for the next school year. They may live in the middle of a thriving ecosystem that is home to stealthy snow leopards, impressive ibex and awesome argali – but they rarely have the opportunity to study these animals, learn about them, or even just spend a leisurely day out in nature enjoying its beauty.
For five girls and three boys from Shamshy village, however, this summer was a bit different. They attended the Snow Leopard Trust’s and Snow Leopard Foundation’s first-ever Kyrgyz eco camp at Shamshy Wildlife Sanctuary. During a fun, action-packed three days, these boys and girls got to accompany rangers on their patrols and joined researchers in their search for wildlife.
“These kids live in the middle of nature, but many of them are disconnected from it, or even view it as a threat”, says Kuban Jumabai uulu, the Director of our local partner organization, Snow Leopard Foundation Kyrgyzstan. “Most of them never see a snow leopard or a wolf, but they know that these predators sometimes attack their families’ livestock, and they learn to fear them.”
The eco camps are designed to change such perceptions, and rekindle children’s connection to and love for nature. Developed in India by our partner organization Nature Conservation Foundation, these camps have become a popular educational tool across several snow leopard range countries. While the program looks a bit different in each region, the camps all share a common approach: they boost kids’ knowledge about the fragile ecosystem they live in, and they allow them to experience nature and their role in it with all their senses through games and playful learning exercises.
In Shamshy, Kuban and his team first talked to the participating children about the wildlife in and around Shamshy, showing photos and videos of birds, fish and mammals. Then, one of the rangers helped the kids build their own birdhouse, which now hangs in a tree near the Shamshy cabin and will provide food for the area’s birds in winter
When the birdhouse was completed, the team took the kids on a hike out into the wild! There, the kids scanned the steep cliffs for ibex with spotting scopes and took photos of the animals and plants closer to them with cameras.
“We took the kids to one of our camera trap sites, where we had photographed a snow leopard last winter”, Kuban says. “When we showed them the photos from the very spot they were standing in, you could really feel the excitement!”
One more highlight would follow shortly thereafter: While the rangers, along with the three boys and four of the girls, were scanning a promising-looking slope for wildlife through their binoculars, one girl was looking the other way.
“Suddenly, she started shouting excitedly”, Kuban recalls! “Ibex! Ibex! And sure enough, up on the cliff’s edge, a big male ibex had appeared, its majestic horns visible even to the naked eye. She was so happy and proud!”
It was a fitting end to three action-packed and fun days. “When it was time to leave, the kids all begged to stay one more day”, Kuban says. “But we had to bring them back to their families!”
Later this month, Kuban will visit the children’s schools in and around Shamshy. During these visits, he plans to sit down with the eight eco camp participants and find out how their views about wildlife have changed thanks to the eco camp.
Our eco education work in Kyrgyzstan is generously supported by David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation and Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo.