Saving the forest leopards: inspiring environmental education at Glenwood House School

| June 24, 2014 | 0 Comments

By Clare van Rensburg

A band of blue-clad teenagers trek through the dripping forest undergrowth. They carry machetes, hammers and hi-tech camera equipment. The soil is coated with a carpet of slippery moss and dead leaves. In the distance, the majestic Outeniqua mountains peer over the clouds. The students dodge spider webs and fallen yellowwood branches and keep alert for snakes and wildlife spoor. They are on the trail of the Wilderness female leopard. Their task is to set up a stationary camera trap to capture an image of their elusive quarry.

Looking for leopards

This group of 20 students forms the core of the Glenwood House Environment Society. They are a student-driven club spearheading environmental change in a young independent school in George, Glenwood House School. The society’s motto is ‘Proterra’; they are ‘for the earth’. The society’s mission is to raise the awareness of environmental issues in the school and community – particularly the plight of the beautiful and mysterious local leopard, which has become the society’s mascot.

The school partnered with the Landmark Foundation1 in 2009 in an effort to raise awareness of the threat to local leopard populations. The threat to these animals is acute. “There are probably no more than 350 leopards left in the Western and Eastern Cape Fold Mountains areas,” says Monica Vaccaro, Landmark’s education officer. The leopards’ habitat has gradually shrunk and become more and more fragmented, while the big cats are under constant threat from farmers who shoot or gin-trap them in a mistaken bid to protect their livestock. “What these students are doing is part of a critical body of scientific research,” says Vaccaro, explaining that the Landmark teams have set up numerous camera trap grids in a bid to count and identify the leopard population in the area. The Glenwood students monitor the cameras and regularly give feedback to Landmark about the animals whose images they capture, including leopards and their prey. Such was the level of intrigue that the students raised funds and purchased their own motion detection cameras in 2012.

The group regularly places them in remote forest locations around the George and Wilderness areas. The cameras are triggered by motion when an animal steps into their field of view. They have light and motion detection sensors and can record thousands of images or video footage. This integrated project requires the students to service the cameras, test them, charge the batteries, select appropriate locations to set them up as well as collect and analyse the data and present feedback to the Landmark Foundation.

The students also have to deal with real-life research problems. Last year, one of the two cameras was stolen and damaged, so now they are very secretive about where they place the equipment. In addition, the students had to design and make lockable steel boxes to house the equipment. Despite these challenges, the project continues to flourish. As a teacher, I can’t think of a better way to teach students about scientific research and the power of citizen science.

Patience yields pictures

The students clearly enjoy their regular expeditions into the local forests to collect their data. They live in the hopes of spotting their leopard or her mate or cubs. “This is an experience you can’t get in school,” says Joseph Rautenbach, a Grade 10 student who has been involved with the project for the last two years. The sentiment is echoed by other students in the group.

“We get to be in nature and experience the outdoors,” says Anne Marais. “I love going to pick up the data from the camera,” says Johanna Rein. “We get to see the wildlife in our local environment, like the caracal and the small baboons that creep up to peep into the camera. We often have to spend time looking into wildlife books to identify mongooses, otters and genets.” The students agree that they would love to catch a glimpse of a leopard, but for now they are content with striking photographs and videos of her prey: bushbuck, bush pig, baboons, otter, genet, mongoose and duiker. “If her prey are here, then it’s only a matter of time before she steps in the path of one of our cameras again,” says club chairman Byron Raymer.

In 2010, the group had a breathtaking experience. They captured an iconic image of the local female leopard feeding on a kill with her two tiny cubs. This inspired the students to continue their dedicated work to conserve her habitat. They approached landowners and farmers in the George and Wilderness areas in a bid to secure her territory. The students regularly interview farmers to check if leopard and other predators have been seen on their land, and encourage them to employ non-lethal predator control. In addition, the Glenwood House students have accompanied Landmark’s biologists on fieldtrips to tag and collar leopards.

The students of the Glenwood House Environment Society regularly share the data from their camera traps with the entire school during assemblies. Jacome Pretorius is the club secretary. She explains how important it is to share this information with the whole school. “The other students are excited to see what game we have photographed; the videos are often hilarious,” she says. The group also shares their results on their own Facebook page for friends and family to see (https://www.facebook.com/#!/GlenwoodEnviro).

A wonderfully wild wetland

In addition to the Leopard Project, the school has also gained significant recognition for its wetland work. The students of the Glenwood House Environment Society created a diverse wetland ecosystem on an area of muddy grass on the school grounds in 2009. Over the last five years, this habitat has flourished and attracted many species of insect, six species of frog and a variety of indigenous birds.

The school wetland is fed by rainwater and fills and empties with the seasons. It holds back huge volumes of water from flooding the adjacent rugby pitch during heavy rains, and stores this water during dry periods. Wetland plants filter the water, trap sediment and add oxygen. The wetland also offers a place of shelter for a huge community of organisms. The Environment Society began the Glenwood House wetland project as an Eco-Schools project.2 Students from Grade 1 to matric helped to dig a huge L-shaped trench over seven metres long and seven metres wide. Indigenous wetland plants such as sedges, grasses, reeds, bulrushes, palmiet and arum lilies were donated by parents, and the wetland began to take shape. Watsonias, red hot pokers, sand lilies and other bulbs were later planted in the area surrounding the wetland, and insects quickly flocked to the marshy ground.

During an invertebrate survey conducted by the Grade 8 class in 2013, over 30 different insect species were seen. Tiny wriggling mosquito larvae and pond skaters were collected from the standing water using hand nets; the carnivorous dragonfly and damselfly were observed sunning their wings at the water’s edge. Students watched a water scorpion use its tail as a snorkel to suck in air from above the water’s surface. A giant waterbug was observed preying upon other tiny invertebrates. These members of the family Belostomatidae lay their eggs on the male’s back. They can grow up to four inches and even catch small fish! A fishing spider was seen lying at wait by the edge of the water and then sprinting across the surface of the wetland to catch its prey. Fishing spiders can even slide under the surface of the water, encasing their bodies in a slivery film of air to breathe while diving.

Four biomes home to an array of animals

Glenwood House students spent many hours planting four separate biomes surrounding the wetland to encourage further biodiversity. A fynbos biome was planted north of the wetland and includes members of the erica, protea and restio plant families. A succulent bank was planted to represent the plants of the Succulent Karoo biome. The bank contains many aloe species, spekboom, sour fig, vygies, pig’s ear and the rare haworthia.

A forest biome to the north and east of the wetland was planted with yellowwood, stinkwood, ironwood, keurboom, river bushwillow, karee and Cape fig trees during our annual Arbour Weeks. Collectively, the four biomes now occupy an area the size of a hockey pitch. Many terrestrial invertebrates have also been noted in these biomes, including several colourful ladybird beetles, elegant praying mantis, crane flies, grasshoppers, stinkbugs, crickets, butterflies, earthworms, centipedes, cockroaches and snails. Bees swarm around the red hot pokers in June and July.

These insect species act as valuable pollinators, decomposers, predators of smaller species and prey for the mammals, birds and reptiles that have occupied our wetland ecosystem. The wetland has become an essential foraging and breeding habitat for six species of frog. Raucous toads are commonly found along the bank of the wetland or in between the reeds. Cape stream frogs and clicking stream frogs have also made this area their home. A painted reed frog was noted in 2013. This year Jared Prinsloo, in Grade 8, discovered a forest rain frog, which had buried itself in the mud at the edge of the wetland. These round-bodied frogs have a small head and short legs. They have stubby toes with no webbing and digging tubercles on their heels. Unlike other species of frog, which lay eggs in water, rain frogs lay their eggs in burrows on the forest floor. The rain frogs are so called for the soft chirruping call they make during soft rain.

The wetland is often visited by birds including the hadeda ibis, red-knobbed coot, grey heron and spotted dikkop (spotted thick-knee). Tiny sunbirds visit the ericas to drink nectar from these tubular fynbos flowers. The wetland offers abundant nesting sites for four striped mice, which can be seen scurrying through the dried grass. And in March 2013, when students were working close to the wetland, a graceful green and yellow boomslang slithered past!

Glenwood’s insect hotel: an invaluable teaching and learning tool

In an effort to protect the wetland biome, the students avoid all chemical herbicides and pesticides. They pull weeds by hand and use bark mulch between the plants to keep weeds down. They don’t allow the removal of any wildlife from the area and avoid disturbing birds’ nests. The society does a regular litter ‘pick’ and have removed all the alien black wattle trees surrounding the biome.

The wetland is used as an outdoor classroom and the school has even hosted visiting lecturers from the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI)3 and the Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers (CREW).4 Glenwood’s latest addition was to build its own insect hotel. The refuge for invertebrates was built by Grade 8 students during a practical workshop in celebration of World Wetlands Day.5

The structure stands on the grounds of the school wetland and was made entirely of recycled materials. It consists of seven stacked wooden pallets with natural materials in each compartment. Decomposing wood will attract burrowing beetles, while damp carpet, dried grass, pine cones, corks, hessian sacks, bricks and bamboo will provide a habitat and nesting grounds for other insects. The wildlife stack will eventually harbour a number of beneficial insects, which may act as valuable pollinators of the flowering plants on the school grounds, as decomposers, seed dispersers and pest controllers. The exhibit will form a permanent teaching aid to students at Glenwood House School.

Student-driven environmental education

Over the past 10 years, the school’s Environment Society has rigorously maintained its Eco-Schools status, its wetland is flourishing, the leopard monitoring project continues to bear fruit and the whole school has been drawn into beach cleanups, seabird conservation and our recycling programme.

The school group continues to be involved in fundraising and awareness campaigns for rhino anti-poaching and Earth Hour.6 This year, over 30 indigenous trees will be planted on the school grounds as part of Arbour Week 2014.7 “This group of teenagers has done an enormous amount, often going way beyond the call of duty, to further conservation and environmental education in the Glenwood House School community,” says principal Dennis Symes. “They are showing us the power of student-driven environmental education.”

Clare van Rensburg is a natural science teacher and Glenwood’s Environment Society coordinator.

References:
1. See: http://www.landmarkfoundation.org.za/.
2. The Eco-Schools Programme is an international programme of the
Foundation of Environmental Education (FEE) and is active in 51
countries around the world. (Source: http://www.wessa.org.za/whatwe-
do/eco-schools.htm.)
3. See: http://www.sanbi.org/.
4. See: https://www.botanicalsociety.org.za/SiteAssets/Lists/News/EditForm/
Who%20are%20the%20CREW%20and%20why%20join%20them.pdf.
5. See: http://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/world/world-wetlands-day.
6. Earth Hour is a worldwide grassroots movement for the planet
organised by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
Earth Hour 2014 was scheduled for 29 March, from 20:00
to 21:30 during participants’ local time. (Source:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earth_Hour.)
7. See: http://www.gov.za/events/view.php?sid=41660.

Category: Winter 2014

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