Conservation is about people, and a key part of SOS Grantee Wildlife Conservation Society's (WCS) work to save threatened coastal cetaceans in Bangladesh explains Brian D. Smith, WCS Programme Director. That entails reaching out to fishing communities in culturally respectful and interactive ways.
Early on in the project, Brian’s team realized that significantly reducing cetacean mortalities would require far-reaching and effective education targeting not only the participating fishermen but also the communities where they live. “We needed to build a strong constituency of community support”, he summarises.
With additional funding from the Foundation for the Third Millennium the project team convened a boat-based, interactive exhibition attracting almost 17,000 visitors in 15 local communities bordering the Sundarbans where the fishermen live. Many participants came from remote villages inhabited by coastal gill-net fishermen whose nets entangle and kill cetaceans in the Bay of Bengal.
The exhibition incorporated informative panels and interactive elements including life-size models of dolphins, games, a bioscope showing the live birth of a dolphin, and a showcase with dolphin bones, skulls and teeth.
All these materials provided visitors with visual and tactile experiences as well as an emotional connection to the globally significant cetacean diversity in their country’s waters – including both freshwater and marine cetaceans of priority conservation concern.
Groups of ten to fifteen visitors were guided by one of the seventeen university student interpreters who participated in an intensive two-day training workshop convened by WCS prior to the exhibition.
The outreach campaign included evening shows of our two internationally acclaimed documentary films in Bengali language Shushuk, Our Rivers and Mankind and Exploring our Waters.
Entry-exit interviews of almost 350 visitors indicated a substantial increase in their knowledge about dolphins and measures being taken for their protection. For instance, between the entry and exit interviews:
1. 69.5% of the interviewees understood that dolphins need to come to the surface to breathe, which increased to almost 100%;
2. 55.6% could describe some of threats to dolphins, which increased to more almost 90%;
3. 13.0% knew about laws prohibiting the possession of dolphin meat and oil, which increased to almost 95%;
4. 15.9% demonstrated knowledge about the diversity of dolphins in Bangladesh, which increased to 95%.
“We also learned from the exhibition that educational outreach for conservation entails much more than simply communicating knowledge about the biological importance of species and roles they play in healthy aquatic ecosystems”.
“It also requires capturing hearts, which can be seen in the smiles of the visitors who attended the event”. The overwhelmingly positive reaction to the Shushuk Mela from visitors of all ages and backgrounds is an inspiring story.
Through this interactive, boat-based exhibition WCS has achieved a measurable increase in the knowledge of local fishing communities about cetaceans and opportunities to save them while sustaining fishing livelihoods.
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