TThe Ako Project, conceived in 2006, is the creation of six
illustrated storybooks on the adventures of young lemurs of six
different species in Madagascar. Each book has goes with a
poster on the very different habitats of the six lemurs. The
Project involves and aids primary school teachers in Madagascar
through the École Normale Supérieure. Its focus is in Madagascar
but with educational outreach in England and the USA. UNICEF
prints 15,000 of each book, and 6,000 of each poster for
Malagasy schools. The Lemur Conservation Foundation and Durrell
Wildlife Conservation Trust sell the first two books in the USA
Malagasy children have almost no materials available about their
natural heritage. Only 10% of the country has natural forest
remaining. Few Malagasy have ever seen a lemur in the wild, let
alone on television or in a book. Those few do not know that
different animals live in different parts of the country or what
these might look like. The goal of the Ako Project is to enrich
empathy for and knowledge about the extraordinary biodiversity
These are not textbooks! The stories are meant to be exciting
and beautiful— with teachers’ handbooks in preparation in
Madagascar and the United Kingdom on how to use stories to teach
science. School workshops in Madagascar began in 2008, and
culminate in a teachers’ guide due to be ready for the school
year of 2011-2012.
The American Journal of Primatology May 2010 Conservation
Education issue featured an
article by Francine Dolins, Alison Jolly, Hantanirina
Rasamimanana, Jonah Ratsimbazafy, Anna Feistner, and Florent
Ravoavy called "Conservation Education in Madagascar: Three Case
Studies in the Biologically Diverse Island-Continent."
The cover shows Malagasy children in their classroom reading the
Ny Aiay Ako book.
The posters are as detailed
portrayals of each of the six different habitats. These
will be real teaching tools with more and more to discover as
children look closer. Each shows the differing landscapes
with inset regional species of plants and animals. The posters
are matched to the storybooks with text in Malagasy and English.
The posters will also be sold in the UK
as art works. A1 size, laminated, just light enough to roll in tubes for shipment
Supported by McCrae Conservation and Education Fund and UNICEF
Janet Robinson has been commissioned by the McCrae
Conservation and Education Fund to produce the
posters, aided by students from the École Normale Supérieur. She
will paint or draw posters with realistic depictions of
landscape, plants and animals. They can be used to teach
geography and ecology, supplementing the more emotional appeal
of Ross’ watercolors.
Dr. Alison Jolly, author. Studying wild lemurs
since 1963. Taught at Cambridge, Sussex, and Princeton.
Eleven books (7 on Madagascar), 100-odd academic and popular
articles, 18 TV programs. Email:
Dr. Hantanirina Rasamimanana, Malagasy author: École
Normale Supérieure of the University of Madagascar: Field
research on ringtailed lemurs, founder member Malagasy
Primatological Society. Many school-teachers and graduate
students of Madagascar are her ex-pupils so she is at the
intersection of research and education.
Deborah Ross, artist: Published in Natural History
Magazine, The New Yorker, New York Times, Harper’s Magazine.
Graphics for Bronx Zoo, Brooklyn Zoo, Dallas Zoo and Long Beach
Aquarium. Watercolor workshops at School of Visual Arts, Walt
Disney Feature Animations, DreamWorks, Pixar, and Cal Arts, and
for Malagasy villagers at Kirindy and Tampolo Reserves.
Melanie McElduff, designer, Chermayeff and Geismar
Studio design firm. She designed Ako and Bitika and will ensure
that the series continues with the same high standard and visual
EDUCATIONAL SUPPORT AND ASSESSMENT
Education workshops on the Ako Stories began in 2008, under
the direction of Dr. Hantanirina Rasamimanana of the École
Normale Supérieure. It was quickly clear that
teachers had little or no training in biodiversity education.
They said, “what if the children ask questions? We will have no
answers.” (See Amer. J. Primatology article for results.)
With a grant from the Liz Claiborne Art Ortenberg Foundation,
Dr. Rasamimanana’s team is producing a teacher’s guide, field
tested by rural teachers, and due for the 2011-12 school year.
Primary School Languages Coordinator,
Brighton and Hove School District, UK. A multicurricular project
on language teaching combined with literacy, science and
cultural outreach, using the Ako books.
Department of Psychology, University
of Michigan Dearborne. Organized an international workshop on
Conservation Education using primate flagships at the
International Primatological Congress, Edinburgh, 2008, and
innovating an Ako-based project in Michigan. firstname.lastname@example.org
The books are storybooks, each with a named hero or heroine.
Although checked by experts for scientific accuracy, they are
meant to be fun or touching or scary, not overtly educational.
Ako the Aye-aye (his name means Echo) is a playful little
aye-aye. His species is solitary so he can only play with his
mother’s tail. He finds and loses a brown lemur playmate, and
eventually is hanging by his feet when he forgets to be scared
of humans. Visitors to the reserve see him playing and
stop being scared of the ill-luck supposed to be brought by
aye-ayes. This book is set in the east coast littoral
forest with coconut and travellers’ palms.
Bitika the Mouselemur is a baby lemur of the smallest species
in Madagascar. (Bitika means Tiny.) She ventures out of the nest
and meets lemurs of other sympatric species which make her feel
smaller and smaller and smaller, Then she saves her
mother’s life from a white-browed owl. She ends up feeling like
the biggest lemur in all Madagascar! Bitika is set in the
western baobab forest of the Menabé.
Illustrations from Ny Tsididy Bitika
Tik-Tik the Ringtail is for older children aged 8-12.
Tikitike means “explorer” in Malagasy, or “Let’s go” in
ringtailed lemur sounds. An adolescent male ringtail is
confronted by growing up in a species where females are totally
dominant, and young males emigrate to different troops. He
leaves his mother and sister’s troop to travel alone through the
forest. He spends months trailing another troop and trying
to approach a beautiful female. In the end she comes into
oestrus (suddenly smells absolutely wonderful).
challenges the dominant male and wins. He has grown up;
the beautiful female thinks so too. In the story 11
different ringtail social calls are presented in context so that
if you read the book aloud the children can click, meow, purr,
howl, squeak, shout war-cries, and give alarm calls. Tik-Tik is set in the spiny forest of the south.
Furry and Fuzzy the Red Ruffed Lemur Twins: two infants are
parked by their mother in a liana tangle high in a rainforest
tree on the Masoala Peninsula. They are visited in turn by
mother, father, and aunt. Rain becomes a cyclone.
The branch breaks. They fall in the night by a forester’s hut
that also loses much of its thatched roof. Twin children want to
make pets of the baby lemurs. Their mother wants to cook
the lemurs, but the father says they must be returned to their
own family—“What if a family of lemurs found you and wanted to
make pets of you?
The final two books are about a sifaka living among 100-foot
karst pinnacles who leaps to safety from a hungry fossa.
The indri No-Song in learns to sing with her family in their
hill forest of cliffs and waterfalls. Each member takes a
different role in the chorus—this is new science, in
collaboration with Viviana Sorrentino.
The books are being distributed by Durrell Wildlife
Conservation Trust, by the GERP (Groupe d’Etudes et de Recherche
sur les Primates, the Primatological Society of Madagascar), by
members and alumni of the Ecole Nationale Supérieure, and by the
Lemur Conservation Foundation (Tampolo Reserve).
Many other conservation education projects exist in Madagascar.
The Ako project would be pleased to work with any of these,
supplying books, learning lessons from each other, and
collaborating rather than competing for funding.
Ako and Bitika are available at $12.00 or £6.00 each from
The Mrs. Trimmer Moment?
Children’s books about animals in Madagascar and the West
Literacy in Madagascar began with English missionaries in the
19th Century. Education was codified under French
colonialism, 1895-1960. The French philosophy was that children
of France and the Empire should study a single curriculum.
This in theory gave each an equal chance at the best possible
education for a civilized view of the world. History began
with “Our ancestors the Gauls”, biology with grapevines and
rabbits. If a Malagasy teenager reached lycée level
biology he or she might learn there were unique animals in
distant parts of the French Empire.
The first attempt I know of to provide materials on Malagasy
wildlife in Malagasy was a pamphlet-book, Zavaboary Malagasy,
written by J. ANDRIAMAMPIANINA in the late 1950’s, funded by
Survival Anglia. This was never distributed.
The second attempt was proposed by myself in 1964, approved
Minister of Education, M. BOTOKEKY, and produced as a series of
8” x 11’’ cards with black and white drawings of a mammal or
bird and a few relevant facts. It was printed and sold
from ORSTOM in the Tsimbazaza Zoo, in French, and funded by the
New York Zoological Society. These reached some high
school and university teachers. The cards remained almost the
only such materials available for the next twenty years.
An earnest attempt by myself and Guy RAMANANTSOA in 1979 at
brokering a school textbook failed completely in the prevailing
political climate. The other materials I know of were a
series of matchbook covers, with matches too expensive for
peasants to buy (circa 1975), and a poster proposed by myself,
painted by Steven Nash, and printed by the Wildlife Preservation
Trust in the late 1980’s. The poster did reach many lycées
and hotels, largely through being sold for payment at Tsimbazaza
Zoo. In the late 1980s Barthélémy VAOHITA of the World
Wildlife Fund produced a set of children’s reading books called
Ny Voary, which are (at least in theory) distributed to all
primary schools. They have never been incorporated into
the official curriculum, however. They succeed in
expressing interest and empathy with nature through poems and
stories but are little related to Malagasy wildlife and contain
some strange mistakes.
Since the growth of the conservation movement after 1990 many
NGOs have undertaken to combine community education and
children’s education. WCS, Durrell Wildlife, and Bat
Conservation Int’l have important programs focussed on their
local conservation areas within the huge island. WWF
publishes a magazine of comic strips called Vintsy which reaches
high schools throughout Madagascar, along with Vintsy Clubs of
interested teenagers. Vintsy is sold at a heavily
subsidized price rather than given away. A new
single-issue comic Arovy fa Harena has just been printed for
use around Lake Alaotra—its hero is the bandro, the Lake Alaotra
bamboo lemur wearing a red scarf and talking with a gang of
children. This is produced by a Malagasy NGO which is
welcome local involvement.
However, these efforts are either localized to specific
target communities, and/or still seen as foreign to the local
scene. There is nothing like our western approach to fill
a baby’s cot with cuddly animal toys and start reading
picture-books as soon as it can talk.
This attitude did not always exist in the West, either!
The first book taking the point of view of wild animals in order
to teach children empathy for other creatures was written in
1786 by Mrs. Sarah Trimmer. It became known as the History of
the Robins, and stayed in print for 125 years. Her book is
still readable today: although the children’s mores have
changed, the robins’ have not. A cock and hen redbreast
attempt to raise four nestlings: Dicky, Flapsy, Pecksy and
Robin. The parents teach them how to find food, how to
fly, about predators, and particularly that some humans may be
trusted but most cannot be.
Meanwhile a human mother tells her son and daughter they may
feed the robins crumbs but should not cage them or destroy
nests. The book is remarkable for its balance. Animals
should not be put before humans, but one must be aware of their
feelings. Of course you may sweep cobwebs out of your house, but
you should not destroy spider-webs outdoors—indeed, you should
try to imagine with “microscopic eyes” what labour has gone into
Mrs Trimmer was a formidable author and educationalist whose
timing was exactly right. She wrote at the end of the
Enlightenment and the beginning of the Romantic era, when Europe
was developing empathy with much of nature—and even campaigning
for other people, the black slaves on whom so much European
profit was based. Following Rousseau, attitudes toward
children changed to think they deserved children’s books and
toys at their own level, not just miniatures of adult goods.
At the same time many in society grew richer, and thus able to
afford books and toys specifically for children.
In the West we now share a culture of animal stories for
children. Of course there had been stories about animals
which personify human traits since Aesop in the 6th C BC.
However, after Mrs. Trimmer come biographies of individual
domestic animals (Black Beauty, Lassie Come Home) and tales of
heroic wild creatures (eg. by Kipling, Jack London, Earnest
Thompson Seton and Bambi as written by Felix Salten).
Early in the 20th Century we have cute semi-animals (Peter
Rabbit, Winnie-the-Pooh.). Then come ultra-cute wild
animals in the Disney tradition, notably Bambi and the Lion
Real lemurs are quintessentially cute wild animals. A
quick count gives at least twelve children’s books on lemurs
currently in print in English. Let me single out The
Adventures of Riley. Riley carries the imprints of most major
conservation organizations, including WWF, CI and WCS. It
is impeccably scientific with cartoons and quotes of many
wildlife research scientists. It is politically correct
with a Malagasy camerawoman leading two American children,
though there aren’t any Malagasy camerawomen. The children
wear US field gear beyond the dreams of almost any Malagasy
child. The American-oriented text about helping to make an
exotic wildlife film is integrated with the pictures—it could
not be translated into any other language, let alone Malagasy.
I would argue that it is possible that Madagascar will soon
reach a “Mrs. Trimmer Moment.” Incomes are finally
beginning to rise after the slump from 1970 to 2002.
University-trained elites are now well aware of conservation and
its potential to aid their country. The good work of
Ny Voary, Vintsy, and the focused NGO community education
projects have laid a groundwork of knowledge. The Ako
books, and with luck many others by other people, now have a
chance to be bought (with heavy subsidies) as objects which
people want for their own children. The accompanying
teacher support programs will spread the word that wildlife is
actually attractive and fun for its own sake, and that lemurs
and other animals have feelings and fears much like ourselves.
We may be misjudging, since many Malagasy have far more pressing
concerns than reading a children’s book, however lovely the
pictures and engaging the story. But if indeed this is the
Mrs. Trimmer Moment, Ako and friends should be ready for it. Alison Jolly