It’s not every day that one is welcomed to a school sporting event by a large, horned mammal dressed in a soccer jersey, but on a warm, sunny day in Mozambique’s southern city of Xai-Xai, I met a rhino called Xibedjana. From the spectators’ stand at the XIII National Festival of School Sports Games, opened by Mozambique’s president, Filipe Nyusi, I noticed the rhino dancing through a parade of students.
Dressed in the colors of the Mozambican flag, and with the words Protégé-me (Protect Me) across his chest, Xibedjana—which means “rhino” in the local Changana language—was stealing the show as he zigzagged through giggling students, parading his message proudly to the cheering crowd.
“Yes, we are here to play!” his big grin seemed to proclaim, “but let’s also use this as a time to reflect on our country’s wildlife and the importance of protecting our endangered animals.”
In recent years, the World Bank has been working closely with Mozambique’s Ministry of Land, Environmental and Rural Development, and others, such as the National Sustainable Development Fund (FNDS) and the National Administration for Conservation Areas, to promote conservation. It was financial and technical support from the Bank’s Conservation Areas for Biodiversity and Development Project (Mozbio) that enabled the Sustainable Development Fund to play a supportive role in the games.
I am thrilled to be invited to the opening ceremony as it gives me the opportunity to really experience how one of Mozbio’s key priorities—sustainable, socio-economic development through environmental awareness—is being implemented through the government on the ground.
Lands is one of three of Mozambique’s government ministries—plus Education and Human Development, and Youth and Sports—that has teamed up for the event, in the hope that by combining conservation with sport, students will develop positive associations with “the animals they share their home with.”
Just 20 wild rhinos left
Only 20 wild rhinos remain in Mozambique which, like neighboring countries, is struggling to curb both the illegal wildlife poaching that targets them, and the destruction of their habitat. But, amid hopes of re-introducing them to protected areas, the government has embarked on a campaign that aims to increase public awareness by tapping into the emotional appeal of rhinos and other species native to Mozambique.
It’s a strategy that’s been tried and tested around the world and one that I think many people, including myself, instinctively respond to. It is, after all, hard to turn one’s back on the happy-go-lucky Xibedjana. But will posting a few pictures of a friendly rhino make the difference between his survival and extinction?
Even after Xibedjana has left the field, his smile and message shine down on us from billboards. Clearly not the only one charmed by him, two boys beside me excitedly discuss the possibility of seeing a wild rhino on a school trip to the nearby Limpopo National Park.
One is adamant that they will come face to face with a real live xibedjana, while the other seems more skeptical, pointing out their low population and how difficult rhinos are to see in the wild. Despite living close to the Park, neither boy has ever visited it, and it is clear from their animated conversation that, until meeting Xibedjana, they had never given much thought to endangered animals or the importance of protecting them.
A generational approach
The Bank has been working to curb biodiversity loss in Limpopo with Mozbio since 2015, and while I’m already proud of the progress we’ve made, the students’ excitement boosts my confidence. “Raising the awareness of children is fundamental to our cause,” said President Nyusi, in his opening speech. “By creating a consciousness in future generations, we are helping to halt biodiversity decline.”
The games’ organizers are taking top sporting students to the Limpopo National Park to show them where rhinos come from and why it is so important that they and other endangered species are protected. But as I watch the sea of students displaying Xibedjana’s smiling face on their T-shirts, it is clear that even those not lucky enough to visit the Park may benefit from the spirit the games foster. When they return home, not only will they have tales of sporting wins and losses, but it is hoped they will bring with them a new passion for conservation and protecting endangered species, and stories of Xibedjana.