This June, my colleagues and I from Rutgers University and Universitas Nasional Jakarta launched a new study abroad program aimed at building bridges between Indonesian and American undergraduates, while teaching students about the myriad conservation issues and challenges facing Indonesia’s unique and endangered plants, animals, and ecosystems. This program was part of a USAID funded initiative to train Rutgers and Indonesian students together in tropical ecology and primatology. With 20 students in tow, we trekked from Java to Borneo and back over the course of three weeks, immersing ourselves in each of the local cultures and habitats we visited. One of themes of the course was the role of local communities in conservation. At each of our stops, there was an active conservation program engaging local stakeholders, but the degree of their involvement and impact varied; and students wondered about how people could be encouraged to “care” more about the nature they lived right next to.
This question led us to some lively discussions in which both Indonesian and American students shared personal stories about the development of their own “eco-consciousness”. For most, their interest in conservation was rooted in one or more first-hand experiences connecting with nature. Hearing the students’ stories reinforced one of my personal beliefs – that to truly appreciate and understand the natural world and our connection to it, one has to see it, feel it, and experience it. The nature we learn about in the classroom and from books is otherwise an abstract concept, and one that often emphasizes the division between humans and the natural world – culture versus nature, rather than part of it.
These experiences and observations inspired me to see what would happen if I brought a bunch of Indonesian school children to the forest. I’d already been teaching kids at the local elementary school near the Tuanan Orangutan Research Station about forest conservation over the last year, but we had never ventured into the forest together. So, this August I discussed the possibility of bringing the Tuanan Elementary School students to the forest on short hikes with the local environmental education program teacher, Ratna Wati. She was very enthusiastic about the idea, and promptly (once we had permission from their parents) hiked the whole class into camp early one morning. We started the day with a brief discussion about the ecology of peatland forest, and why it’s such an important ecosystem to protect. We also talked about the behavior and ecology of orangutans, and students learned about the family relationships among the orangutans at Tuanan, including the mother and daughter (Mindy and Mawas) we were going to follow that day. The students were engaged in the discussion, but I could tell they were eager to start our adventure together.
So once they were briefed on forest safety and etiquette, we suited up and headed out – me in front, Ratna in back, and the kids lined up between us in two neat rows with the “buddy system”. We had to take the long, slow, roundabout path to our destination, while we waited for an agitated flanged male to leave the vicinity of Mindy and Mawas. Even these gentle giants are sometimes known to throw branches and push over dead trees when stressed or disturbed, and we didn’t want to take any chances with the little ones. Besides, they were already terrified by his long calls – each one resulting in a chorus of screams, and the rapid formation of a tight huddle around me. While we waited for the green light from the research team that was following the orangutans, we wandered the trails in search of orangutan foods to identify and taste test. The kids really enjoyed this activity, eagerly grabbing for every leaf, flower, and fruit I picked up. But the amazing thing was how quickly they assimilated the names of these plants, and how excited they were to point out the ones they’d learned. They were really connecting with the forest, beaming with smiles and brimming with excitement – and it happened within a matter of minutes!
By the time we got to the orangutans, they were still excited, and really did seem delighted to see mother and daughter up close (especially when it was their turn to try the binoculars). But the orangutans offered little entertainment during their midday siesta, and when the kids started to get antsy, we decided to head home. On our return to camp, I spotted a giant millipede resting on a tree trunk, and gently picked it up to show the kids. They immediately panicked, screamed, and again moved into a tight huddle – only this time away from me. I calmly explained that this was a harmless creature, that its tiny mouth couldn’t bite them, and that its intimidatingly numerous legs actually provided a nice massage. With a bit of coaxing, the first kid approached to nervously just-barely touch the millipede, accompanied by a shriek of fear and excitement. Within moments, the rest of the children were approaching to try the experiment too – gradually extending the duration of contact with the massive arthropod, until they were ready to hold it themselves. They giggled and squealed with delight as its undulating appendages tickled their skin. It was incredible to see how quickly their fear vanished, replaced by curiosity, awe, and affection. As the kids headed home, I asked them each to draw me a picture depicting the day’s experience. Although a few drew orangutans, and some drew their friends, all but the youngest of them drew their up-close encounter with a giant millipede!
After the success of our inaugural run, we decided to try again, this time inviting more children and recruiting some of the local research team members to join us. Once again, the children filed into camp bright and early, and we started with a chat about peatlands and the orangutans – the veteran kids showing off their knowledge to the newcomers. And once we were in the forest, they were so proud to identify the trees we had learned on our last excursion. But they were thirsty to learn more, stopping at every other tree and liana to ask what it was. Some of their inquiries exceeded my own botanical knowledge, so I was grateful that two of the community members had joined us, and could pass on this local knowledge directly to the children. Once again, I was awed by the rapid transformation of the first-time kids: the forest had all at once evolved from an uninteresting, irrelevant, and scary place into one for exploration, discovery, and inspiration. We are very encouraged by these first two runs, and hope to implement regular forest trips into the curriculum, and to invite more children from additional communities to join.
My colleagues – Drs. Erin Vogel, Jito Sugardjito, and Suci Utami-Atmoko – and I were recently awarded a grant from the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund to support activities aimed at supporting environmental education and engaging the surrounding communities in conservation. We are very much looking forward to getting our hands dirty in the forest with these amazing kids! Stay tuned!