Sometimes the best way to engage communities in conservation action is through a technology that has existed for thousands of years: art.
The Saiga Conservation Alliance (SCA) pioneered an innovative idea to get children actively involved in conservation and learning about the nature that surrounds them. They took something that’s usually seen as a negative—children watching cartoons—and turned it into a positive force for conservation education, by creating an animated cartoon, titled Steppe Tale II. The kids were involved in every step of the process, from drawing the individual frames, doing the voiceovers, and post-production. Along the way, they learned about animals native to the steppes of Uzbekistan, including the saiga. The film was very well received, winning the Golden Loon award at an international film festival where it was shown to hundreds of people. To celebrate the victory, SCA organized an art gallery, displaying the work of students from two local schools who had participated in creating the cartoon. The gallery featured original stills used in the film, as well as work inspired by it. Teachers, family, and friends showed up to give their support to both SCA and the kids, as well as government officials, the press, and members of the Academy of Science. The gallery opened up a discussion about saiga and conservation in general, instilling a passion for saving animals in everyone involved.
When Andean Cat Alliance (AGA) surveyed three Chilean villages that bordered cat territory, they found something startling, very few of the villagers had even heard of the Andean cat. These same villagers have participated in harmful “predator roundups”, killing animals they perceive to be threats to their livestock, which have often resulted in killing Andean cats—the same cats that villagers know almost nothing about! It was clear that the community had to become engaged in conservation and to understand how rare and special the cats were, and that’s where the idea for a series of murals was born. Murals allow for a lot of audience participation, and with their large ‘canvas’ size, they can be seen by everyone in the village. The process of creating art is one that unifies, and visuals are a language that everyone can understand. Local artists designed the murals, but it was the schoolchildren who actually did the painting, carefully creating colorful, vivid depictions of native Chilean landscapes and animals in three schools in the region. Surveys conducted when the murals were finished found that local awareness of the cats had greatly increased. Working with other practical outreach programs, from corral improvements to livestock guardian dogs, AGA hopes that the murals will bring an increased awareness about the cats that will help to ultimately eliminate the predator roundups, leaving the Andean cats safe to roam once more.
Conservation doesn’t always have to be flashy to successfully engage the community. Sometimes the tried and true— paintbrushes and canvas—are the best way to reach out. With a little out of the box thinking, everyone can walk away having learned something important about preserving the environment they share.