How a Harleston headteacher’s bird conservation efforts are helping poor people in Africa

PUBLISHED: 11:52 16 November 2012

Harleston Primary School headteacher Roger Walsh with pupils at St Martin's School in Kartong, in The Gambia.

Harleston Primary School headteacher Roger Walsh with pupils at St Martin's School in Kartong, in The Gambia.


From wading with crocodiles to removing bloodthirsty leeches and dodging the beak of a Senegal parrot, a Norfolk headteacher’s bird conservation efforts in Africa have brought him some startling experiences – and are now helping some of the world’s poorest people.

Roger Walsh, who runs Harleston Primary School and is a birdringer in the Thetford-based British Trust for Ornithology, will soon be heading back to Kartong in The Gambia with vital medical supplies for villagers living near the BTO’s only bird observatory outside the UK.

“I didn’t know what I was going into, and now I’ve been out there I’ve seen how much people need,” said Mr Walsh, who first visited the village last December. “People cook over fires and use machettes to chop wood, so there are a lot of injuries and they need really effective medication but they don’t get it.

“Medicines are available but they are so expensive that most people just can’t afford them – there’s a medical centre in Kartong which sells aspirins at about £2 each, which is way beyond the income of most people out there.

“There was a disabled girl there with no wheelchair, so she hardly left her home and had to drag herself around with her hands. It was heartbreaking.”

Now, with the help of Harleston’s pupils, parents and teachers, Mr Walsh is collecting everyday items such as aspirins, paracetamol, toothbrushes, baby Calpol, ibuprofen, Savlon cream, first aid equipment and other basic medical supplies to be handed out free from the Kartong Bird Observatory (KBO), which now doubles as a medical centre.

The KBO – which is run by Colin Cross, who is originally from Thetford – overlooks a former sand mine and, since mining stopped, areas have filled with water during each rainy season and created one of the best birding sites along the coast of The Gambia. Birdringing began at Kartong in 1996 with the pioneering work of Mike King and John High. Then a team of ringers from the UK established the permanent ringing station.

The results of the research is shared with the Gambian Department of Parks and Wildlife Management and other interested parties.

Mr Walsh, who will be heading out to Kartong in the spring half-term holiday, said: “It all began as a research project to investigate some of the UK species that winter in Africa and in particular those that are declining and to preserve the habitat that these species need.

“When the observatory was set up, it became clear that there was an issue with habitat loss because of deforestation and zealous trapping of wild birds.

“But you can’t just go in there and tell people who have so little that they can’t cut back bird habitats to grow crops or that they mustn’t eat the birds.”

So efforts turned to education, explaining to local people the importance of sustainability and to see birds as more than just a food source – keeping chickens instead, for example – and the project grew from there.

“My skill is working with schoolchildren, so I do some birdringing with them and explain why it’s important to look after the birds and their habitat,” added Mr Walsh.

He is also collecting pens, which are hard to come by in Kartong, and football shirts – “the young men love them” – and the school has shipped over eight old laptops that had since been replaced with more up-to-date versions.

“It’s now really a project to help people, but the birds benefit too,” added Mr Walsh.

Harleston Primary also now has a link with St Martin’s School in Kartong and, as a result of the trip, has been able to twin with another local school in the area, the Needy Nursery School.

Currently only one in 10 children can make the move from primary to secondary education simply because they cannot afford the uniform, so all money raised from a talk being given by Mr Walsh this month will be used to sponsor children in these two Gambian schools.

The talk, A Gambian Evening, will take place at Harleston Primary School on Thursday, November 29, at 8pm. Entry £3. Tickets available from the school office, 01379 852302 or 853211.

Harleston Primary’s eco-rangers are still collecting supplies, so call the school office if you would like to donate something.

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