Daktari Bush School: making dreams come true

| March 17, 2014 | 0 Comments

As children, we all dream of pursuing exciting careers when we grow up.

Alittle girl named Michele, growing up in France, watched a television programme called Daktari about a family in Kenya who nursed injured wild animals, and vowed to do the same one day. Her dream came true when, as an adult, she met Ian Merrifield.

Having grown up in the African bush and qualified as a game ranger, his special interest was the care of orphaned creatures, from bushbabies and wounded birds, to giraffes, elephants and lions. “We met on a game reserve in South Africa,” remembers Michele Merrifield. “I assisted in the hand-rearing of an injured baby zebra and then an orphaned wildebeest, and two little warthogs whose mother had fallen victim to a pride of hungry lions. I was hooked!”

Dreaming of Daktari

The couple spent a year-and-ahalf living and working at Tshukudu Game Lodge before opening a pub and restaurant near Hoedspruit in Limpopo. Their dream was to save enough money to start up a wildlife orphanage and, five years later, having raised enough financial capital, they sold up and started the non-profit Daktari Bush School on a 700- hectare private game reserve not far from the Kruger National Park.

“The name ‘Daktari’ means ‘doctor’ in Swahili, and seemed a fitting tribute to both my childhood fantasy and the realisation of my adult dreams,” says Merrifield. Their first step was to create a refuge at Daktari for animals orphaned and injured on the nearby game reserves. “These animals are examined by a specialised vet and recover at Daktari before being rehabilitated back into their natural habitat. If that is not possible, they are kept at Daktari, where they will be looked after and play an essential role in our education programme.”

Teaching children about the environment

The programme targets Grade 8 students at Ramatau, Lepono, Finale, Mahlamela and Nareng – public schools in the area. “Before they met us, most of the local children had never seen a giraffe or a lion, and had not developed any emotion towards animal welfare,” observes Merrifield in her unique way.

“Although they live near the Kruger National Park and several private nature game reserves, access to these places is out of these children’s reach, but wildlife is their heritage too! Poaching and habitat destruction are a reality and have a farreaching detrimental impact on the environment. It is essential for conservation that future generations are educated about the necessity of protecting of the environment.

We also want the children to be able to secure good employment one day, and nature reserves and game lodges offer plenty of job opportunities.” Daktari’s curriculum has been designed by both Merrifields, and eight local staff members and international volunteers help to run the organisation.

“Most of our funding comes from the volunteers, who make a donation to Daktari as compensation for the teacher training and animal care experiences they are getting. We are also funded by generous corporate and individual donors,” says Merrifield, who explains in detail how the money is spent.

Academic classes and ecology

“Every Monday, Daktari collects eight to 10 students who attend the schools we’ve mentioned from their villages for a five-day visit. The children start each day by doing chores, which include disinfecting and cleaning the camps and feeding the animals.

“Structured lessons are supplemented by oneon- one sessions with a volunteer teacher. This individual attention enables students to make great progress, especially in subjects in which they have difficulty. Working individually with international volunteers also increases the children’s self-confidence. During the one-onone lessons, we focus on core school subjects such as maths and English.”

After academic lessons, ecology comes to life during the daily Daktari bush walks, says Merrifield. A qualified field guide takes the children out to look for animals tracks and to discuss trees, birds and other flora and fauna, while continuously underlining the importance of a balanced ecosystem and environment. “These issues are emphasised again during our evening ‘Respecting the Environment’ discussions and ‘Cycles of Life’ follow-up lessons,” she stresses.

Animal knowledge and employment opportunities

Animal knowledge is an equally important part of the Daktari education programme. “Each child focuses on an animal being cared for at Daktari; he or she can form a bond directly with that animal during the learning process. The children present their findings to the class, sharing their knowledge with their peers,” says Merrifield proudly.

She’s just as proud of the Daktari module titled ‘Employment Opportunities’, which focuses students on their future goals. “They are taught about ecotourism-related job opportunities, one of the best local sources for good employment. We also take them to a game lodge, where they are taken on a game drive, and can explore all of the career opportunities offered by the lodge.”

Caring about teens and the country

There’s a relationship based on mutual care for the children between Daktari and the local schools, which requested the creation of a ‘Teenage Issues’ module. Explains Merrifield: “It deals with relationships, substance abuse, safe sex and respect. It’s designed to help children transition into adulthood.”

At the end of each five-day cycle, the pupils are required to decide what they can do to help South Africa, Merrifield tells us. “Each child comes to understand that they have a role to play in making our future brighter. Together, they brainstorm about what we should improve about South Africa and what actions each of them can take to achieve that goal.

Before they leave, each child receives a laminated certificate to remind them of what they have learned at Daktari and what they have promised to do. Each week, the child who has made the most progress is given an indigenous tree to plant at his/her school and will be taken to the Kruger National Park for a day.”

Outreach has an impact

Living in the bush doesn’t mean a slow pace for the Merrifields. They’ve just developed a Daktari outreach programme to complement the education initiative. An outreach manager is charged with guiding children in the surrounding villages to care for the environment. “This enables us to extend Daktari’s reach and to impact a larger population.

We want children to be eco-stewards in their communities.” The impact is already being felt, reports Merrifield, citing a letter she received from a local reserve manager called upon to help farmers from a nearby village deal with a female cheetah that was killing goats to feed her young cubs. “Children in the village – Daktari students – were able to persuade everyone that it wasn’t necessary to destroy the cheetah to solve the problem.” In addition, many children who’ve undergone a Daktari experience have gone on to establish wildlife clubs at their own schools.

These stories confirm for Merrifield and her team that the Daktari model can be used anywhere there is a need to protect the natural heritage of South Africa, and where local populations are deprived of access to national parks and reserves. And at ‘base camp’, plans are afoot to upgrade and extend facilities. “Our international volunteers are crucial to our survival,” remarks Merrifield. “They’re very special people who contribute love and expertise generously, but we also rely on their financial contributions. “As long as Daktari remains sustainable, our projects will continue to flourish. This means we’ll be able to make many more dreams come true.”

Contact the Merrif ields at info@daktaribushschool.org or visit their website at www.daktaribushschool.org.


Category: Autumn 2014

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