Jamie Unwin is a conservation photographer, Wildscreen Exchange contributor and zoology student at the University of Exeter. After creating a highly successful film on elephant poaching in Malawi, Jamie enlisted the help of coursemate Hannah Pollock to create their own conservation organisation, Stand Up for Nature (SUN). SUN’s aim is to use education to bring about cultural evolution to conserve wildlife. Their first mission was to use a bicycle-powered cinema designed and constructed by Jamie to take this film to communities that had not yet seen the film.
The pair have just finished their first and very successful bicycle powered cinema project in Malawi, and over 6 weeks they reached over 14,000 people with the film and took 336 children into 6 protected areas to see their country’s wildlife for the very first time.
Jamie and Hannah have now returned to England and were keen to share their amazing experience with us.
Jamie – what was it like to return to Malawi?
J – Meeting all those people that I had spent many memorable moments with a year ago was special for me, last year was an eye opening experience and it provided me with an introduction as to what was really happening to Africa’s elephants. Tears of joy as well as moments of great sadness were shared with some incredibly inspirational people.
Hannah – what was it like seeing an elephant in the wild for the first time?
H – Having never seen an elephant in the wild before I was somewhat on a similar playing field to the children that we brought into the parks. Unfortunately, my first experience with a wild elephant was under the worst of circumstances, on Christmas day we received word that a poached elephant had been found and so we joined the ranger patrol as they went off to find it and establish a cause of death. As I witnessed my first wild elephant dead at the hands of a poacher it simply reinforced in my mind how important the project was and the true severity of the problem.
Thankfully I had further encounters which were incredible, the most memorable was when we were observing a herd of elephants playing in a lake. As we sat watching, 3 males decided to come and investigate us, we remained quiet and still as they approached so that they wouldn’t be startled. Deciding that we posed no threat and also that in fact we weren’t that interesting they went about stripping the nearby trees of their leaves and had lunch right in front of us.
Jamie – how did you feel when you joined the rangers during a night raid to catch a poacher?
J – No one will ever understand the real brutality of the situation in Africa unless you have worked with one of the rangers. They put their lives at risk day in and day out, to keep Africa’s wildlife safe.
Late one night we had a call from an informer that a poacher had been seen carving up bush meet. The land cruiser was quickly assembled with 10 rangers in full camouflage, I was placed in the back and told to make sure I had nothing that would omit light. I set to work duct taping all parts of my camera to make sure none of the dials or the screen would give any light signal which would alert the poacher of our position. We were dropped a couple miles from the poacher’s location, this is where our back up stayed in case we encountered trouble. We walked quickly and silently with nothing but moonlight guiding the way until Richard, the head ranger, signalled that we were nearly there, he discussed a quick plan with the rest of the men. I joined Richard’s group and we proceeded to walk quickly towards the suspect’s location (a small mud hut with a grass roof), one ranger had unclipped hand cuffs from his belt and held them open and ready.
Sat by a fire was a man cooking the legs of a bush pig, before anyone had time to react and with no exchange of words, the handcuffs were placed on the individual and he was lifted onto his feet and walked back the way we came. The rangers had already called for backup and as we reached the main track the land cruiser arrived and we swiftly piled into the back, poacher and evidence included. We then drove back to camp the interrogation began the following morning.
Hannah – due to the time constraints incurred by running the project over your Christmas holidays, was it fun to have a 19hour working day? Describe what an average day would involve?
H – We certainly worked long hours out in Malawi but this was essential as there was a lot to get done. A typical day would involve us waking up around 5am so that we arose with the sun ready to start the day. Daily activities included visiting schools to show the film and leading discussions, meetings and interviews with a variety of organisation representatives and figureheads, bringing the children into the parks, shadowing individuals and learning what work was being done by those at the forefront of wildlife protection and of course lots and lots of driving as we covered an extraordinary distance, most of which was off-road.
Most of our evenings over the six weeks were spent showing the film to communities – we would arrive around 6pm as the sun was setting and set up the bicycle powered projector then begin as soon as it became dark. The community showings tended to last longer as more people got involved and we kept them going for as long as there were questions/comments. By the time we returned to wherever we were staying that night and had cooked and eaten dinner it was usually nearing midnight.
From the second we arrived in Malawi we had every moment scheduled, we had one afternoon scheduled off in Mzuzu for travelling but upon being asked by a school student to show the film at his youth club we couldn’t say no. Seeing the response we got, the smiles on the children’s faces as they saw the wildlife and experiencing first-hand the warmth of the Malawian people was incredible. Malawi truly is the ‘warm heart of Africa’. I can safely say we all slept very well on the aeroplane home!
Hannah and Jamie – it’s sad to see so many conservation projects end once the project leaders have left the country, was this the case with yours?
H & J – The last thing we wanted was to just turn up in Malawi, stay for six weeks and then just disappear again with no long term plan in place, that wouldn’t have helped anything. In order to avoid this, we worked with local educators throughout Malawi, giving the communities a lasting figure head once we had gone. A wildlife guardian network was established, a proportion of which is being managed by ‘Children in the Wilderness’ and various ‘Wildlife Clubs’ of the Department of Parks. The story book ‘The Elephant and the Mountain’ was also given out to children to remind them of the wildlife they had seen. Most importantly the project has now been handed over to Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, the British High Commission have funded a similar bicycle powered cinema to stay in Malawi and the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust will be continuing to visit communities and schools to show the film alongside their outreach work. We hope to return in the future to see the project flourishing.
So what’s next?
H – Kenya! Jamie is already in Kenya filming for the next project and we aim to run the bicycle powered cinema across Kenya in August 2016!
The film can be viewed here.
Find out more about Stand Up for Nature on their website.