Specialist Assistance Grant – Annie Underhill

We were very pleased to award a Specialist Assistance Grant to Education Manager Annie Underhill. Annie had been asked to assist in the setup of a new and vital educational program between the Endangered Asian Species Trust (EAST) and their local schools near Cat Tien National Park in Vietnam. Here is what Annie had to say about her trip.

“Thanks to a Special Assistance Grant from the Jim Cronin Memorial Fund, I was very fortunate to spend a month working with the Endangered Asian Species Trust (EAST) planning a pilot education project to be delivered around their primate release site. EAST’s flagship project is Dao Tien Endangered Primate Species Centre, a 56ha island housing a facility dedicated to rehabilitating native Vietnamese primates rescued from the illegal wildlife trade. Since 2010 EAST have released over 80 primates back into Vietnamese forest, including pygmy loris (Xanthonycticebus pygmaeus), golden-cheeked gibbons (Nomascus gabriellae) and black-shanked douc (Pygathrix nigripes).

My task whilst in Vietnam was to assess the opportunities for education within and surrounding the charity’s planned release site and plan a pilot project.

To formulate ideas for the programme, I needed to gain as much knowledge as possible about EAST’s work, and better understand the area and needs of the local people. Despite having over seven years of experience teaching children and adults about primate rescue and conservation, I knew that this would pose a very different challenge. One of the biggest threats facing primates in Vietnam is illegal poaching for the pet trade, traditional medicine, and tourism; however, for many households, hunting puts food on the table or funds their children’s education, so I knew that this wasn’t necessarily going to be easy.

One of my first stops during my visit was the 8th Asian Primate Symposium in Hanoi, where I attended lectures about education programmes delivered by other in-situ projects and discussed the experiences with their representatives. Based on others’ research, it became apparent that my usual approach of visiting local schools and delivering one-off lessons or assemblies whilst proven to be interesting to Vietnamese children, it does not have a long-term influence on their behaviour or aspirations to contribute to wildlife conservation. Instead, we needed to devise a project where we provided beneficial skills to the community, which would also enable us to form a genuine, long-term relationship with an open dialogue about EAST’s work.

Once we returned to Dao Tien, Marina introduced me to K’huong in Ta Lai. Her father had previously worked at Dao Tien, and she had recently started running English classes for local children aged 8-13. Cat Tien National Park is home to Dao Tien and is a hot spot for tourists wanting to experience Vietnamese wildlife. Naturally, the area relies heavily on tourism to provide income, so K’huong recognised a need for children to learn English to help them secure jobs later in life. When we explained the reason for my visit, she invited me to join her English classes to help the children with their learning. When we compared schedules, it transpired that she was having to put the class on hold for two weeks while she travelled north. Sensing a great opportunity but wary of overstepping, I asked if she would be comfortable for me to act as substitute teacher for the fortnight. Thankfully K’huong was very enthusiastic about my offer, as it meant that the children’s classes would not be disrupted, and she felt that they would benefit from learning from a native English speaker.

There were classes every Monday to Friday from 5pm. The class was not affiliated with their normal schooling, but rather was an extra-curricular; and it never failed to impress me how many children would arrive ready to learn after a full day at school.

To begin with, I was a novelty for the children. A foreigner who always wore t-shirts emblazoned with pygmy loris or gibbons and, not being able to directly translate, made a clown of myself by acting things out and using games to communicate words and ideas. Parents would appear at different intervals, watching with bemused interest as they had heard laughter from their houses. I gave out pencils, rulers and learning resources stamped with the EAST logo and bearing images of the endangered species of Cat Tien.

Despite the difficulties of the language barrier, it soon became clear that the children were not just repeating what I had taught them, but that they had understood its meaning and could use it in context. It was also obvious that this model would be a perfect route for EAST’s education programme.

On K’huong’s return we discussed my experience with the class and specifically how the children clearly had a desire to learn. She told me how enthusiastic the parents had been at the opportunity for the children to learn such a valuable skill. Over the course of our conversation, we were joined by no less than 10 local women and their children. K’huong translated for me, and she told me, “They want to speak to you and ask you questions, but they cannot speak English”. I saw my opportunity and asked how she would feel about EAST volunteers helping with future English lessons in Ta Lai and if other villages might be interested too. Thankfully, she was thrilled!

At the tail end of our trip, Marina and I travelled to Ho Chi Minh City to run a stall at the British International School’s Christmas Bazaar. Whilst in the city, we met with Trish Galvin, a TEFL teacher with a wealth of experience of teaching English in Vietnam. We told her about K’huong’s English classes and how we wanted to provide help and set up more classes like it around the release site. Her enthusiasm for the project was palpable. I shared my experience of my time in Ta Lai, the resources available to the class, and our thoughts about the future of the project. Trish was able to help us develop a person specification for the volunteers we would need and offered to help the project in any way that she could.

So, a plan was formed. EAST would work with K’huong to identify other villages in the buffer zone that would be receptive to English classes – initially for children, but with a view for adult classes to be formed. EAST would find volunteers with the right credentials to work as English teachers for 2-3 months at a time, with Trish providing guidance and, when possible, teaching. Through this, the EAST team should become familiar faces within these communities, enabling us to open our dialogue about protecting native primates and our hope for the communities to be the guardians of those returned to the forest.

I would like to express my thanks to the Jim Cronin Memorial Fund for funding this project.  It was a true honour to work alongside the team from EAST and contribute towards their educational work and mission to stop the illegal poaching of native Vietnamese primates.”