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Soccer for Sokake: saving a species with interpretation and soccer.

Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to unite people in a way little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand.

--Nelson Mandela

We generally think of interpretation and sports from the angle of interpreting a museum, stadium, team, or sport. Rarely do we think of using sports to interpret wildlife conservation issues. Yet, as I discovered through Soccer for Sokake, it does provide the perfect interpretive vehicle for creating change.

In November 2014, staff from Utah's Hogle Zoo (UHZ) left for Lavanono, Madagascar, to begin a multiple-year project called Soccer for Sokake--the local name for the radiated tortoise, Astrochelys radiate. This beautiful tortoise is a flagship species endemic to the island of Madagascar, but it is critically endangered due to overharvesting for the bushmeat and pet trades. It is estimated that between 50,000 and 250,000 tortoises are harvested each year. At its current rate of exploitation, the radiated tortoise will be extinct in the wild within the next 20 years.

This tortoise is one of Hogle Zoo's major conservation species. In conjunction with the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), Hogle Zoo staff participates in population surveys, supports graduate researchers, and has built conservation centers for confiscated tortoises. We have also launched a public awareness and education campaign in 11 villages in Madagascar. The goal is to increase understanding of the cultural and ecological importance of the tortoise and the current protection and conservation needs of the species.

These villages play critical roles in the conservation and reintroduction strategy for this species. Soccer for Sokake is part of this education campaign.

POETRY in Motion

Although I hadn't played soccer since high school, my skills as a Certified Interpretive Guide made creating a successful program possible. I started with Wren Smith's POETRY (Purpose, Organized, Enjoyable, Thematic, Relevant, and You) approach to interpretive communication.

First, the program needed to serve a purpose--and support the mission and goals of the zoo. UHZ's mission is to nurture respect and appreciation for the natural world by providing diverse educational, recreational, and conservation opportunities. The purpose of Soccer for Sokake is to increase awareness of and commitment to protecting radiated tortoises and their ecosystem among the people of the villages--especially the kids, who are the future stewards of their homeland.

In Madagascar, soccer is played everywhere--on fields in the cities, on beaches along the coast, on the edges of the rainforest, and in the heart of the spiny forest. The fields are rarely lush and green, but they generally are flat(ish)--many are lined with cactus and zebu, native cattle. When you see the players, few have shoes, yet they kick and chase handmade balls with skill and joy across the rocky ground. Each of the 11 villages that are critical to the survival of the radiated tortoise has a passion for soccer and none of them has the equipment to play.

Soccer became the relevant and unifying thread that could link our goals and objectives to needs of the villages. We were fortunate to partner with the One World Play Project, which produces the world's most durable soccer balls. With their buy one, give one program, we were able to bring these nearly indestructible footballs to the spiny forest to kick off Soccer for Sokake. The hard work of multiple Eagle Scouts collecting used soccer equipment, and a grant to purchase the uniforms and missing equipment filled 10 large duffel bags destined for Madagascar.

You may wonder what the links are between soccer, interpretation, and tortoise conservation. They have much in common: they are grassroots activities; the players and audiences are passionate; they require teamwork, specific skills, and understanding; and they all lead to a successful outcome for those involved--whether people, animals, or ecosystems. Using soccer as a delivery method, we could interpret the importance of tortoise conservation, as well as positive attitudes towards wildlife and the spiny forest ecosystem of Madagascar.

The next step was to get organized and create the actual interpretive part of the program. First, I needed to know my audience. We were piloting the program in Lavanono, a village at the southern tip of Madagascar. I would be working with 22 coaches--adults selected by the president of the village--and more than 200 kids ages 4 to 16. The participants spoke only Malagasy or French. I speak English only. Most of them had never played any form of organized soccer, and the majority had never left their village, nor had they seen many of the animals they would be learning about.

The children would be divided into 10 teams. Each team would have a team mascot, also selected by the village president. The mascots included turtles, tortoises, snakes, lemurs, kingfishers, and turkeys. Two additional coaches were skilled soccer players and would help me and the TSA staff implement the soccer skills. Before our arrival, the village had chosen a site and cleared it of cactus and other vegetation to create a soccer field.

After reading Soccer for Dummies multiple times, I developed my theme, goals, and objectives. Because most of the students I would be working with had never been to school, I knew that the program needed to be enjoyable if I were to keep the children's attention. The program's theme, "Together, we can make a difference for tortoises, people, and their ecosystem" was incorporated into each activity, skill, craft, and lesson.

Keeping in mind the different learning styles, the students would participate in several soccer skill-building opportunities, lessons about radiated tortoises, and learning about the other team mascots, games and craft stations over the course of three mornings. In the afternoons, the teams would play soccer in a round-robin tournament. The final two teams would play on the fourth day at the Tortoise Tournament. To evaluate the effectiveness of the messaging and attitude change, we gave a pre- and post-assessment.

The Tortoise Tournament would be a community celebration. The teams shared knowledge about their mascot animal, its importance to the ecosystem, and how they planned to protect it. Then, the final game was played. The event culminated in an awards ceremony, recognizing every child participant and the coaches, followed by a meal with the entire community.

Madagascar Mania

As we all know, the interpreter is the difference between success or failure in a program. In this case, the ability of the interpreter to communicate the messages of the program to translators and coaches was the difference. Soccer for Sokake began with a training day for the coaches. Imagine the scenario: 22 people who do not speak your language staring at you, and two translators who have not had time to fully digest the materials you have developed waiting for you to speak.

I panicked for a moment. How was I going to impress upon this group of people that I wasn't just someone from another country telling them what to do? Would they understand that we were a team-that if we worked together we would make a difference? And then I did what we all do--I took a deep breath, smiled, and introduced myself, then made sure their basic needs were met and began my presentation.

To break the ice and help the coaches understand how important each part of the ecosystem is to its survival, I had developed a tug-of-war game. The coaches were divided into two teams. Each person represented a part of the ecosystem, from the water to people. We started the game with equal sides and then, one by one, pieces of the ecosystem were removed, until only one person was left, pulling against the healthy ecosystem. At that moment, we became a team, united in the effort to make a difference to radiated tortoises. In fact, at times, the team literally became united, as using glue dots to make crafts was a new and sticky perspective for the coaches. In the middle of the soccer-skills training, we even received a blessing from a sokake. As the teams worked to protect the goalie--a coach dressed as a tortoise--a real one made its way out of the bushes and calmly strolled across our training space!

The next three days proved to be as uniting as the first--literally and figuratively. The kids were enthusiastic participants and the coaches amazing interpreters. On the final day, each team came dressed in their new soccer uniforms, embodying the qualities of their mascot animal. Each team held a banner with its personal pledges to protect its mascot and the sokake. One by one, each team made its way to the front of the community and shared through song, dance, and poetry its knowledge about its wildlife heritage and their commitment to conservation.

Then it was time for the Tortoise Tournament, featuring the Maki (ring-tailed lemurs) against the Sokake. No, we didn't rig the teams for the final game. Nor did we play a role in the winner--the Sokake team! We did, however, prove Alexandra Grace's words to be true: "Even the smallest feet have the power to leave everlasting footprints on the world." Together, through soccer and interpretation, we can make a difference for sokake, people, and their ecosystem!

Chris Schmitz is the education curator at Utah's Hogle Zoo, a Certified Interpretive Guide, and a Utah Master Naturalist. Contact her at
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Author:Schmitz, Chris
Publication:Legacy Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 2015
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