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Building Community Conservation Success in Zimbabwe: Best Teaching Experience Ever.

By Dr. James Danoff-Burg, Director of Conservation 

Well! We just finished up the first of our three Building Community Conservation Success social science workshops here in Sizinda, Zimbabwe, near Victoria Falls and I am charged up! I have been teaching in a WIDE diversity of settings, locations, topics, and languages for over 30 years at this point, and I think I can say that this class was my best teaching experience ever! Awesome students, fantastic colleagues, excellent co-instructor (Katie Shaw, Conservation Social Scientist at The Living Desert), and lovely rustic field setting — all have combined to provide a rush akin to the best runner’s high that I have ever experienced! 

Our class here, hosted by the Painted Dog Research Trust (PDRT), had 28 participants in total. Folks came from universities (University of Namibia (UNAM), Augustana College in the US), federal agencies (Zimbabwe Republic Police, National Prosecuting Authority of Zimbabwe, and Zimbabwe Parks), non-profits (Painted Dog Research Trust, Sacramento Zoo), and for-profit businesses (Matetsi River Lodge and Matetsi Game Reserve). Quite a wide range of training, experiences, interests, and approaches to conservation.

When I say that it was rustic, I really mean rustic! PDRT, our host facility, is entirely off the grid, as is most of the country outside the main few cities. As such, all power was solar and all water came from the local catchment area. The internet was satellite and as such, ‘spotty’ was the word of the day. I did have lights, but no heat nor hot water — and it was CHILLY at night. Toilet facilities were, let’s say, more similar to camping than many are used to. That all said, it was an amazing experience to live in a beautifully constructed rondavel covered by a thatched roof, located in a lovely second-growth forest with diverse and active bird life with many dozens of species, and hyenas and jackals chirping and barking in the distance most nights. It was like the best, most comfortable, and enjoyable camping experience you may have ever had.

The teaching laboratory was a step towards an urban building but still not one you’d see in Palm Desert! Still, it was the setting for much hilarity, engagement, excitement, and activity for five plus days. The participants picked up the ideas and theories very quickly, even though my mode of teaching and ideas that we were sharing were both novel to all in the room. A professor from UNAM paid me the best compliment when he said that he wanted to borrow my student-centered and student-led style of teaching in his own work! We came up with over a dozen excellent research studies and surveys in total. 

Most importantly, on our post-course evaluations, out of a possible rating of 5, the participants answered 4.67 when asked if they planned to implement the study that they had designed, and even better they gave an average of 4.85 when asked if they were going to implement the skills that they learned in the workshop in their own future conservation work! We were also gratified that they rated myself and Katie with an average value of 4.81, with an abundance of extremely kind and complimentary comments. 

Reflecting back on the course, I cannot quite put my finger on any one reason why this experience was such an extremely positive one for me, and Katie too. Sometimes, enjoying eating perfectly spiced sudza and soy mince together under the stars, grilling parties with drinks and great food, early morning bird watching, joyous and insightful discussions, and perfect living conditions for that setting all combine to make you realize that you have just had a peak moment.

And, they seem to come frequently, particularly when you are in Africa, working with some of the kindest people you have met.

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