“There was a lot of difficulty at the beginning, but my greatest satisfaction was when the pupils asked me what we would be doing next. That showed me that we had got that creative energy flowing inside them,” proudly stated Aleksandra Đurić Karaklić, biology professor at the Josif Pančić Gymnasium secondary school in Bajina Bašta, when explaining the process of creating the ‘Mini Tara Garden’ in the schoolyard.

This secondary school is part of the first generation of the WWF Nature Academy, intended to bring together pupils and teachers from schools near protected areas. The goal is to work together with protected area management to stimulate creative ideas on how to protect the environment surrounding them.

The Academy begins with a one-week training session at the Petnica research station, where most activities are conducted outdoors, and participants obtain basic knowledge about the natural, cultural and historical values of the protected area. Upon returning to the school, teams are formed with other teachers and pupils wanting to get involved in the project, which is the first of its kind in Serbia.

“We began this project with a visit to Tara National Park. During the tour, we analysed the flora of Tara, and together with the protected area managers, selected the species that we would plant in our Mini Garden. The pupils were taught how the plants grow, how they are planted and transplanted. They also helped to till and weed the garden,” said Aleksandra.

She explained that the Mini Tara Garden was designed to simulate the geological substrate of the Tara region. “We tried to create the most typical plant communities, so we have mixed forests of fir, beech and spruce, as the dominant species on Tara, and mixed forests of white and black pine, which are represented at Kaluđerske bare. Other plants we planted were gentian, peonies and irises,” she said, describing the plants surrounding us in this small outdoor classroom, with specific teaching materials in the form of the actual plant life characteristic for the Tara region. The pupils themselves are responsible for maintaining the garden, which also helps them to develop work habits.

Third year pupils, Jovana and Matija, shyly described the design process for the Mini Tara Garden, not wanting to take all the credit for the results of the work by multiple pupils and professors who joined the team upon returning from Petnica.

“I never had any idea about all there is at Tara, even though I regularly came here to ski with my parents when I was younger. I am part of the biology section, and at the WWF Academy, I learned about all the protected plants and animals on this mountain, and what this means to our region and to all of Serbia. For example, Serbian spruce grows here, which can no longer be found anywhere else in the Balkans,” said Jovana Katanić.

For Jovana and her peer Matija Žuža, staying after school was not a problem. There are happy that once they leave the school, they will have left something behind, and they are pleased to see pupils from other schools coming to visit the Mini Tara Garden. Matija said that only after getting involved in the project did he begin to notice the nature surrounding him, especially during walks through Tara. But he has also started to notice problems.

“I have come to realise why this area is protected, there is definitely a reason. We need to take more care about how we act in nature, and towards nature. I often see garbage while I’m walking, and I think that people are not ecologically aware. I have begun to scold my parents and others if I see them throwing garbage onto the street or anywhere else,” explained Matija.

“I’m sad to see that Tara is becoming increasingly urban, with more and more weekend homes. It’s starting to look more like a city than a national park,” commented Jovana.

It was not by accident that they decided to name their project team ‘Keepers of Tara’. They shared the knowledge they gained at Petnica with younger pupils, who will continue to care for the Mini Tara Garden, and in so doing will come to realise the wealth of nature surrounding them.

“The benefit of the school is that it has become a part of the whole WWF story, as a large nature conservation organisation. Our efforts have been positively received from many different sides. Many parents, representatives of the local authorities and the national park all attended the opening of Mini Tara Garden. We have always worked closely with the national park, and now we are recognised as a partner,” stated professor Aleksandra.

Ranko Milanović, head of the Tourism and Education Department at the Tara National Park Public Institute agrees with her. The park donated the saplings and created the necessary tables for the Mini Garden.

“We donated the necessary materials for the school, while our park staff worked together with the pupils to design the garden and plant the saplings. Cooperation with local schools is a strategic focus for us, as young people are quicker to accept and master new knowledge and ideas, and to enthusiastically share them with their surroundings. In the future, this will result in better connections between Tara National Park and the local population and will improve public understanding of the issues involved in nature conservation,” stated Milanović.

Building strong connections and good cooperation between protected area managers and teachers and pupils is one of the primary objectives of the WWF Nature Academy. In the past two years, 20 schools have passed through this programme, becoming protected area ambassadors.

Each of the schools and its projects has contributed to promoting the protected areas and their managers, and the idea that nature is the best classroom.