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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
Raptor Conservation Photography Workshop for Kids – Lake Naivasha April 24-25, 2009
Munir Virani — in East Africa Project    ShareIn November last year, I had the privilege of presenting a lecture entitled “The Raptors of Kenya” to participants of the Kenya Museum Society’s “Know Kenya Course.” This is held every year and is open to Kenyan residents and expatriates eager to learn about Kenya’s fascinating wildlife, history and culture. After my talk, I was asked by a lady if I would be kind enough to give a similar lecture to students of the International School of Kenya (ISK) in Nairobi. I can’t remember whether I said yes but I had a card thrust into my pocket and the next day received an email asking me what day would be suitable for me to give a lecture at the school. After corresponding with the school’s headmaster, we agreed that sometime in January 2009 would be better.

I recall being quite nervous when I arrived at the ISK, primarily because my two-year old son was up all night with an asthma attack but also because I had never spoken to ninth graders about raptors or any other subject for that matter. I envy people who give talks with a bird on their fist because an audience is simply fascinated by the sheer elegance and charisma of a raptor, be it a tiny goshawk or a massive eagle. As the technician set up the laptop and LCD for the talk in a rather fancy auditorium, I watched a group of students walk down the stairs to settle down. Many of them had earphones on which was the first thing that struck me (much to my horror). I am usually quite confident when I am presenting lectures on raptors but I couldn’t help feel the huge lump in my throat on that day. After a brief introduction, my first slide was of a Lanner Falcon in full stoop followed by another slide that showed it with a blood-stained face, tearing apart and devouring a pigeon. I could hear “wooows” in the crowd and turned to see faces glued to the screen in awe. By the time I got to pictures of enigmatic Crowned and Martial Eagles, the students were captivated. At the end they asked lots of (very intelligent) questions, which was highly encouraging. The question time had to be cut short by a planned fire drill. On my way out, Joe Hollenbeck, the headmaster asked me if there was anyway I could get the students involved in some real raptor work. I told him that I would think about it and get back to him.

After mulling over how I could get kids involved in raptor work without putting them in dangerous field situations (getting vomited on by vultures or clawed by eagles), I considered organizing a workshop on raptor conservation photography. Raptors and photography are my two passions and I was inspired after reading David Slater’s (a renowned wildlife photographer) website where he defines conservation photography as “a universally understood pictorial voice exclaiming not just the beauty of our world but its fragility and diversity as well. It's an introduction to those who have never thought about how wonderful and exciting our planet and its wildlife is, and hopes to convey some sense of empathy and urgency amongst its viewers to inspire them to act in their own ways to save threatened habitats.” If you look at some of the world’s successful conservation stories, the vast majority of them have been initiated by that one photograph that told a poignant story – whether they showed piles of dead vultures strewn in the jungles of India, grotesque images of poisoned lions across Africa’s savanna plains, or heart-rending photos of chimpanzees in cages, each image initiated some sort of conservation action.

Because it is the young generation of today that hold the key to safeguarding the world’s resources, or whatever is left of it, I could not think of a better way of involving ninth graders than to show them wild raptors in the field, the problems they face and how the students could photographically capture raptors and their habitats to spread the conservation message. With this concept in mind, and with the help of Jeannine Bock, a teacher at ISK, I organized a pilot workshop for eight ninth-grade students at the Elsamere Field Study Centre on the shores of Lake Naivasha. Located 100 km north-west of Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi, the lake and its environs have over the last two decades seen massive changes in land-use primarily as a result of human-caused influences. Water extraction to quench the thirst of a growing flower industry, destruction of the lake’s shoreline, overfishing, alien species introductions, a growing human population and the use of pesticides are some of the major problems affecting the lake and its biodiversity.

Raptors are top avian predators and hence they offer themselves as barometers of ecological health of ecosystems. The lake and nearby Hell’s Gate National Park provided an ideal setting for such a workshop which was entitled “Raptor Conservation Photography for Kids.” With help from reputed Kenyan wildlife photographer Teeku Patel, the ninth graders were given an introduction about the conservation problems affecting Lake Naivasha’s raptors such as African Fish Eagles, Augur Buzzards and Ruppell’s Vultures (extensively researched by The Peregrine Fund and the National Museums of Kenya). This was followed by a hands-on approach on basic photographic techniques and radio-telemetry.

Armed with this knowledge, the students got a rare opportunity to understand how photography plays a crucial role in achieving conservation goals. The students appreciated how photos depicting colonies of cliff nesting Ruppell’s Vultures in Hell’s Gate National Park and close-ups of ringed African Fish Eagles at Lake Naivasha were being used to collect scientifically sound data, critical in establishing population trends of these birds so as to monitor rates of decline. The students got down and dirty to take photos in the field and present their own perspective of how these could be used to achieve conservation. I was deeply struck at how much I learned from the creativity of the student’s photos. One showed a photo of a Rufous Sparrow on a whistling thorn tree at Hell’s Gate, which portrayed the intricate relationship and dependence of this bird on the tree as a nesting substrate. Another photo of a Malachite Kingfisher perched on a metal pipe with a background of plastic told a story of how fast we may be losing Lake Naivasha to the horticultural industry. Most of all, it was the sheer enthusiasm and willingness of the students to learn more about conservation and photography that made the expedition so gratifying. Jeannine Bock, the 9th grade accompanying teacher said, “the students were engaged and eager participants. They came away with a far greater understanding of raptors, conservation issues and photographic techniques. Even more importantly, they have a real desire to take this knowledge and pursue an avenue to effect change."

With young children being so dependent on cell phones, Ipods and shopping malls, it was refreshing to see these students exhibit genuine field enthusiasm, a keen eye for nature and a thirst to understand how conservation and photography can be linked to safeguard Kenya’s natural resources so that they can be protected. The old adage that “we learn so much from children” certainly holds as children see the world differently from us adults. They have creative minds with an ability to absorb information like sponges. The key is to transform their creativity through the lens to conservation ideals so that they can motivate those who are in a position to do so—politicians, private foundations, the general public and corporations are impacted by great photos by great photographers. While children may have not have state-of-the-art cameras, they possess originality and have the imagination to produce images that inspire. But they need direction just as the arrow needs a bow to hit a target. As conservationists and photographers, we have a moral obligation to impart our knowledge to the young generation of today. It is that ONE photo that can have more conservation impact that an entire library of scientific papers and survey data.

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