Marine Preservation / Science and Communication / Scientists in Action!

Children-Driven Conservation: A Shark Sanctuary on Bonaire

(Originally posted on Adventures of Serenita)

“Children are our future.” We have all heard this phrase describing the importance of educating children (usually with the hope that they don’t make the same mistakes we did), but on Bonaire, children aren’t only the future of humankind, they are the future of our oceans. During my time on Bonaire, I had the amazing opportunity to work with the STINAPA Junior Rangers, a youth program focused on the conservation of Bonaire’s natural resources. In light of the recent announcement of a shark sanctuary on Bonaire, I would like to share my most memorable experience working with this inspiring group.

logoThese local children, ranging in age from elementary to high school, take time out of their afternoons and weekends to participate in this program. They learn about both marine and terrestrial ecology and conservation and also gain SCUBA diving skills. But this is not just a typical after-school activity. “Junior Rangers” is not just a cute, outdoorsy club name like “Boy Scouts” or “Girl Scouts.” These children are actually being trained to be the next generation of marine park rangers charged with protecting their island’s marine ecosystems and resources. When you look at them, you are looking at the future of marine conservation on Bonaire.

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Driving around town, you can hear their voices on radio commercials explaining the importance of seagrass beds and coral reefs. You can see their faces on informational posters around local establishments. You can see the children themselves along the water participating in weekend beach clean-ups. They weren’t doing these things for some type of credit or reward, but because they understood the critical importance of conservation. Bonaire was the only home they knew, and they were passionate about protecting it. Maybe it would be easier for the human population as a whole to be more conservation minded if we could see our entire home in just a couple hours by car. I guess it is easier to forget that this planet is the only home we’ve ever known too…

I had the privilege of working with the Junior Rangers when they visited CIEE Bonaire for weekly activities to learn about various marine ecology and conservation topics. I remember preparing for that first lesson, bracing myself for the challenge of keeping the attention of young children participating in an activity that wouldn’t earn them a grade or couldn’t result in any disciplinary action. I’d presented to American middle school classes before; I was ready for the madness. And I was shocked. These children were all genuinely eager to learn and participate. Some, not yet in high school, already knew and understood more about the ocean than some of the undergrads in the Marine Ecology course I TA’ed at UNC! (No offense, I know some of you really only cared about getting into med school).

Teaching the Junior Rangers about trophic cascades.

Teaching the Junior Rangers about trophic cascades.

My most memorable experience with the Junior Rangers was during their annual debate. This year’s topic: Should there be a shark sanctuary on Bonaire? Along with Angelo Villagomez from the Pew Foundation, a few CIEE colleagues and I developed a three week curricula on shark biology, ecology, and conservation to help the Junior Rangers prepare for this debate. At the end of the last lesson, the room was full of voices vying for attention as all of the children passionately discussed the benefits and challenges of conservation strategies including community education, nurseries, and fishing regulations. It took several minutes to get their attention and remind them to save some for the debate! They were clearly ready.

On the day of the debate, Angelo, my CIEE colleagues, and I judged and moderated the event as the Junior Rangers impressed us with their knowledge and well-crafted arguments. Both the pro and the con team brought up important points about this potential sanctuary that could directly affect their island and their lives. I had the honor of concluding the event and both congratulating the Junior Rangers on their successful debate, as well as reminding them that this was not just a hypothetical issue, but a topic currently being discussed for their island. To make this even more “real”, Angelo shared the following video clip: the inspiring story of how the children of Saipan were instrumental in the development of a shark sanctuary around their island, the second sanctuary in the world.

A heavy silence buzzed around the room until a small voice broke though with, “We could do that.” Suddenly, a palpable excitement spread as each child added to a growing list of who they should send their letters to. They made plans to use one of the older member’s film experience to make their own video. It was as if a fire had been lit. They saw what a small group of island children could accomplish and decided they could do the same. They were ready to use what they had learned to make a real difference. Watching all of this unfold truly gave me chills. This was what community-driven conservation looked liked, or more importantly, children-driven conservation.

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