Every year I teach an undergraduate course in community conservation. Students from Princeton and Columbia spend ten days in the field studying a problem and writing their papers and taking exams. It’s a module of a much larger course and to some this might seem like just a course to get an easy A and boost your GPA. To get an A my students don’t have to cram, memorize or read tons of papers. They have to work hard though because we are dealing with real life problems, not theories and experiments.

We are in Amboseli at the beginning of what looks like a very serious drought. Human Wildlife Conflict has become one of the biggest threats to human life and property in the area and is said now to be contributing significantly to poverty. Violent clashes between elephants and people have led to deaths – last year 12 people were killed in this area by elephants including a woman and a child. Many more elephants were killed in retaliation or by management to calm the community.

Why this problem has become such a crisis is the subject of my course, and finding solutions to the problem is one of the main purposes of this course.

This year, the international students from Princeton and Columbia Universities are joined by Kenyan students and engineers. The first day was a gentle introduction to the issues. Students met the warden of the park who gave a brief history and background followed by a list of major challenges. He lamented all the problems, the challenge of stopping warriors from killing elephants, the cattle invading the park, the headache of elephants raiding farms.

Then they drove off into the rural landscape to a village made up of dome shaped mud huts to meet and chat to women. In only an hour they heard about the challenges of surviving in this harsh environment. Lions raided this homestead and took two cows just weeks earlier. The women said they were helpless. Then they visited a school of 762 children learning under tough conditions – the school has no water, electricity or food. The girls sat at the back and the tables were turned, we were the source of fascination.

Looking at the expressions of the international students and I see that it was a baptism by fire. First reactions? I asked over dinner

“I was really uncomfortable”,

“I hadn’t read the materials and didn’t expect this”, 

“I knew we were doing innovations on Human Elephant Conflict but I didn’t know we had to meet and talk to the women or go into a classroom”,

“Do I have the right to peek into the lives of other people?”

Hmmm it sounds like a litany of complaints but getting out of our comfort zones on day 1 is the perfect way to start the course! Suddenly they realise that this is not just a course, this is a personal journey where every student can contribute meaningfully towards positive change in this community. All the students rushed off to read the materials and prepare for day 2.

Now they understand why my grading system is so weird – I reward students for curiosity, resourcefulness, collaboration, and innovation.

I left my exhausted students and returned to my tent. Sitting just outside my door was a tiny owl. Kenyans believe that a visit by an owl is a sign of an imminent death. But I prefer the Australian Aborigine belief that owls are the spirits of women and so are sacred.

Tomorrow we meet elephants and learn about the poaching crisis … it is going to be another emotional journey.