Imagine living on the edge of the most beautiful park in the world but never having set foot inside it?
This is the reality faced by many of South Africa’s poorest communities who live on the borders of national parks and wilderness areas. Many of them have never seen a lion or an elephant in real life.
As a specialist in education, Mike Kendrick is working to change that. Founder and instructor at Wild Shots Outreach, Mike works to educate young people from disadvantaged communities in conservation by taking them into game reserves and engaging them using a camera as a medium.
By taking kids from local schools on the outskirts of the Kruger National Park, South Africa’s largest wildlife conservancy and home to the Big Five, Mike hopes to inspire an appreciation for wildlife and create career aspirations and pathways for the young students.
“The kids I teach tell me that you can only go to the Kruger if you drive a 4×4 and tow a trailer,” says Kendrick. “Sadly, that is the impression among communities living alongside the country’s most iconic National Park that is there for all South Africans to enjoy.”
With poaching at epidemic levels, Kendrick recognizes the growing need to engage young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds living close to wildlife areas. By making wildlife not only accessible but unlocking potential within young individuals, he hopes to see more local communities working in the conservation industry.
We chatted to Mike about how his program has been going over the last 18 months and the results he is seeing.
Tell us about your background?
I am a teacher by trade and have always worked in areas of social upliftment. I’m originally from the UK, but came to South Africa six years ago where I managed the Second Chance Matric Centre in the Cape Flats. More recently I moved to Hoedspruit where I have combined my three passions: conservation, education and wildlife photography.
Where did the idea for Wild Shots Outreach come from?
My wife and I run a wildlife photography conference called Wild Shots. We’ve never been able to find a South African person of colour to speak at the conference, which I found strange. When we moved to Hoedspruit, I became really concerned when I found out that the people in the lower income communities such as Acornhoek nearby, had never actually been to the Kruger National Park, which is right up the road. I really want to try and put that right.
Tell me about the impact of this experience on the kids after taking them into the wild?
I have run the program 22 times to date, and I’ve had 214 young graduates go through the Wild Shots outreach program. I’ve seen kids develop an understanding or an interest in conservation, wildlife and in tourism. But I’ve also seen things I couldn’t have predicted such as a boost in their self-esteem and their self-confidence. I’ve got kids who are still in touch with me today. I’d like their experiences to have a legacy and to offer them further opportunities into careers in wildlife and ecotourism.
Why is a camera such a beautiful vehicle for this?
It is certainly a vehicle because it keeps the kids engaged. It’s a new skill that they’re picking up. I teach them creative photography, so we are not using automatic settings here. We are using aperture and shutter speed all the time, which also keeps them engaged.
Photography provides a way for people to express themselves and the beauty of digital photography is that you get immediate feedback. The kids can see whether they have a pleasing picture or whether they can go back and improve on it if they want to. As a teacher, it’s great to be able to see whether they’ve picked up the skills, using the settings correctly, or whether they’ve picked up the compositional skills I’m trying to teach them. The best part of all is that you’re able to celebrate. I can go to the next workshop with each child’s best image from the previous workshop and praise them and boost their self-esteem that way.
What impact has that praise and sense of achievement had on the children you teach?
The teachers that I work with report that the children’s academic results improve. I think that’s because they suddenly gain self-confidence and they realize they can achieve. This feedback for me is always reaffirming. I tell them, if you can pick up photography at this level with a digital SLR, then you can gain any new skill.
What is your vision for this project and the children you teach?
The ultimate vision would be to have some of my graduates go through and become qualified with careers in tourism, wildlife conservation, photography or any combination of those. That would be my dream.
How can people help and get involved?
We’d love more people to get involved. We’re always looking for funding, and we’re always looking for cameras. We leave a secondhand camera in each school so the kids can continue to use the skills that we’ve imparted on them. We are also always looking for new outlets, and we want to work with new groups of underprivileged children.