20 May 2016, Pillur: A Nature Education Summer Camp was conducted at Pillur on 13th and 14th May for children of indigenous communities residing in and around the Nellithurai and Sundampatti Reserve Forests. Conducted by Keystone and Nilgiri Natural History Society, the participants mostly comprised of children from the Irula community. The Irula tribes have always been an integral part of the forests of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, but the recent ‘development’ and changes in lifestyle are affecting the way they interact with the forest.

The majestic Bhavani river along with the forests and mountains formed the perfect backdrop for the camp. As the children were already endowed with traditional knowledge regarding medicinal properties of plants, bird and animal behaviour, and fishing practices, the program focused on emphasising on ecological concepts through games and educational activities.

The first day’s activities began at the Keystone Resource Centre in Kilsengalur Grama Vana Kulu in the Pillur village which lies behind the Pillur Dam. Around 13 children, ranging from ages five to seventeen participated from the nearby hamlets.

Visualising change

what children imagine their surroundings after 20 years
what children imagine their surroundings will be after 20 years

Each participant was given two sheets of paper and some crayons, and the task consisted of two parts. On the first sheet, they had to draw their homes and/or its surrounding environment as they saw it now. Some drew animals, birds and butterflies that they frequently saw in the forests, while some sketched the village with a few houses, cattle and their neighbours. The next part was to visualise what their village would look like after 20 years.

The participants’ drawings drastically changed. When they were asked to explain the two drawings, they were able to identify the changes happening all around them. They recognised that the water level was reducing, that the forests were being cut to expand plantations, and that more and more houses were being built to sustain the growing population. After lunch, the children were taken outdoors to play several games at a nearby ground.

Prey & Predator

In this game, the children played the roles of different animals to understand feeding stress, and the food chain within the ecosystem. The children were divided into two groups, ‘Frogs’ & ‘Snakes’. Some stones and stone fruit were kept in the middle of the ground which were ‘Food’ for the frogs. The aim of the Frogs was to hop to the feeding ground and ‘eat’ or pick up 3 stones, and make it back to safety, while avoiding the snakes. The Snakes were allowed to run, to capture the feeding frogs. This game put into practice the food chain and food webs that they learnt at school.

Distance & Direction

Gauging distance and direction
Gauging distance and direction

This game is designed to highlight the importance of distance and direction while navigating through the forest. Four children acted as the four ‘corners’ of a field and a fifth child was blindfolded and led into the field with the aim of touching each of these ‘corners’ to complete the game relying on verbal cues and directions from friends. In the forest, this would be a life saving skill to be able to navigate distances with the help of sound and a sense of direction.

The setting for the next day’s program was a hamlet of about 15 houses in Niradi village. A total of 18 children from Niradi, Kilpillur and Sithugunai assembled in a volleyball field along the banks of the Bhavani reservoir.

Dog and the Bone

Playing a variation of dog and the bone
Playing a variation of dog and the bone

This classic game was slightly modified to teach children about different animals and their food habits. The two teams of 5 each assigned themselves 5 different animals ‘Tiger, Gaur, Bear, Monkey and Leopard’. When their respective animal was called out the animal from both the teams had to seize the ‘prey/food’ woodstick in the middle of the field. The game was followed by a discussion on the different diets of each of these animals.

Storytelling & Interaction

Chandran and Rajendran from Keystone discussed different medicinal properties of plants and trees with some interesting inputs coming in from the children such as boiled guava leaves being used to mitigate toothaches. The group was also given interesting information about Pillur Dam and how crocodiles and the Sisi fish (one fish weighing more than 50 kg) used to be found earlier in abundance before hunting and habitat destruction depleted their number drastically. The children listened raptly and were very vocal in expressing how valuable their forest and river were. They appreciated that the natural treasures of clean water and air that they enjoy are far more valuable than any luxury that they could have bought. Chandran narrated a hilarious story about the adventure of four fools .

During the two days of fun and games, the children had absorbed a number of important learnings, the greatest of which was the understanding regarding the fragility of ecosystems and long-term consequences of human actions.