How do you teach children about nature conservation? Wild magazine editor Romi Boom reached out to a small West Coast community by telling them about “The dog and the tortoise”. A story for kids of all ages, it’s even better than a fable.

On the West Coast, less than a kilometre from Bird Island – a conservation hotspot where thousands of Cape gannets flock to breed – are two primary schools where the learners have scant exposure to nature. The challenge was to appeal to children ranging in age from six to 14, and to find a topic that would be familiar to their frame of reference.


Pictures by Romi Boom

My audience at Lamberts Bay Primary School comprised grade 1 to 7 learners. They loved to hear about the sniffer dog Brin and the special tortoise that she was saving from extinction. “What does the tortoise look like?” and “Did she eat the tortoise?” were some of the questions from the floor.

At PW de Bruin Primary School, principal Samira Appels requested that I introduce grade 8 and 9 learners to nature conservation as a career option. Surprisingly, very few of them had ever given it a thought, despite growing up on the doorstep of one of just six breeding colonies of Cape gannets on Earth. A bird lover’s paradise, this CapeNature reserve is also an important nesting and roosting site for a variety of other seabirds, such as Cape cormorants and kelp gulls.

A fine balance

Beginning with the basics, the children had to learn that nature conservation was about balance. Too few of one species, too many of another species, and the fine balance would be disrupted. What is that all about? We as humans should not take more than our fair share and we should take care of everything in nature. “Surely not snakes,” someone said with a shudder. “Indeed, snakes too,” I pointed out, “because they keep rats and mice under control.”

Via worms in the soil, via frogs and birds, we progressed to the story of Brin, the sniffer dog, who is doing her bit to help save nature. With a total population of only 2,000 to 3,000, the geometric tortoise is critically endangered. While not all of us can become a dog handler, we can make a difference by keeping nature clean.

The take-home message about litter

  • Balloons can be blown 500km by a strong wind. When animals swallow burst balloons, they can suffocate or the balloons can get stuck in their intestines.


  • Chewing gum that is discarded on the ground can get stuck in animals’ feathers and fur. This impedes their movement.
  • Fishing line can get caught in birds’ feet or even amputate them. If birds use fishing line as nesting material, it can strangle the chicks.


  • Rusty tins can cut animals, and their heads may become stuck when they try to lick out the contents.


  • Glass shards in the veld will cause wounds that may become septic and poison animals from within.
  • Glass bottles lying in direct sunlight may cause veld fires, just like a magnifying glass enables you to burn into wood.
  • Plastic is the biggest culprit and when ingested by animals, they will die. Annually more than 500 billion plastic bags are used throughout the world, and as a direct result, at least 100,000 mammals and birds are killed unnecessarily. For those of us who live along the coast, it is especially important. Whales, turtles and marine birds think plastic in the ocean is food. When they swallow it, they feel full and will consequently die of hunger.

A final thought

Pick up rubbish. It may mean the difference between life and death. The best test of a person’s character is what you do when nobody is watching.