Yesterday was National Wildlife Day, created in 2005 and carried forward in the memory of animal lover and conservationist Steve Irwin. Irwin sought to educate the public, especially children, about conservation and endangered animals. FFT Fellow Leanne Mortell and her fellowship in South Africa perpetuates his dream. A kindergarten teacher at Bluff Elementary School in Claremont, NH, she shares below “A Day in the Life” of her Fund for Teachers fellowship volunteering with Wildlife ACT in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in Zululand, South Africa, where she learned data gathering techniques used to monitor endangered animal populations to create a science unit teaching young students the scientific method.
My fellowship to Africa in winter was more than I could ever imagine. I arose before sunrise, gulped down breakfast with a half cup of instant coffee and headed for the truck while loaded down with my camera equipment. Our troop of five volunteers climbed in, wearing multiple warm layers and wrapped in blankets. We headed off with our researcher to be in position before the sun rose to find some of the most endangered species of the animal world.
After six or seven hours of searching for and observing African wild dogs, lions, and cheetahs, we returned to camp for a few hours of food, rest and a review of photos taken from the morning jaunt only to return to the truck for our evening rounds. After dark enveloped us leaving us with no ability to spot any more animals, our troop returned to camp to cook dinner, do dishes and crash into our beds for much needed rest so we could be revived enough to do it all over again the next day. I did this routine for 2 weeks. I loved every minute.
The mammals I saw during our drives left me in awe. We tracked a pack of African wild painted dogs along dirt roads as they ran through the terrain on a hunt. We found lions resting near the road and observed them for hours as they slept. Elephant herds blocked the road in front of us as we traveled, allowing us to observe them closely as they fed. We watched rhinos feed with their babies beside them. A cheetah emerged from the grass and jumped on a tree beside our truck. We observed him for thirty minutes before he left to watch impala in the distance. Giraffes fed from the tops of trees, then silently,
with the grace of the finest ballerinas, slipped away.
Amazing; experience of a lifetime; a childhood dream come true. These words only scratch the surface of the emotions I felt during this fellowship to Africa. Populations of many African mammals are dangerously low. Through our morning and evening drives, I witnessed many of these species roaming freely in their natural environment while collaborating with researchers working to protect them from their greatest threat – humans. This work wasn’t glamorous, nor did it seem heroic; it was hard work under difficult conditions. Yet, these people were working at it every day, living on the reserve to gather needed scientific data. And their work is making a difference. Numbers of African wild dogs and white rhinoceros are slowly on the rise. Although cheetah numbers are down, our data collection will allow more to be brought into the reserve to aid in genetically diversifying the population there to continue to promote the species. The beauty of these creatures is beyond words and now, after my fellowship, thought of loosing them brings a rising panic from deep inside. However, the knowledge that there are teams of people working these long hours under tough conditions to prevent their extinction brings admiration.
I am inspired students to help students realize that we have a gift freely given to us and we need to learn all we can to protect it. To let them see the images of these animals through my photographs and bring them outside to their own piece of the world to see it’s beauty and teach them ways to learn about it, protect it, and love it as I do is a privilege.
I now plan to educate my students on authentic methods of scientific research. Bringing the classroom outdoors will expose them to learn about their own neighborhood in a new way and help them connect to nature. By providing them the instruction, modeling and practice they need to feel proficient at these skills will give them the confidence and desire to continue to learn and expand their knowledge.
Thank you, Fund For Teachers, for this rare opportunity. I will share with my students how to observe animals, record their numbers and learn ways to identify each one. I hope to instill in my students the desire to learn how to care for the land for the benefit of all and I look forward to sharing with my
colleagues about this amazing opportunity through your organization to learn in hopes that they will be inspired to apply for their own chance at an adventure.
Leanne has worked as an educator, occupational therapist and principal. She uses these experiences to reach out to all her students to inspire in them the quest of knowledge of the world around
them and to use their unique talents for the benefit of all.