As the world met in Glasgow for COP26, and largely failed to make a big impact on the global climate crisis, I was in the heat of the United Arab Emirates. It was impressive, but likewise shocking from an environmental point of view, to see the modern city of Dubai from the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. The city pretty much didn’t exist 40 years ago and is still rapidly growing.
However, it was great to also go out into the mountains by Wadi Shawka in Sharjah Emirate, and enjoy an early morning hike (before it got too hot). Some wonderful plants here adapted to the arid conditions.
This was not a holiday trip. It was my second visit this year to Sharjah Emirate and work with the Sharjah Environment and Protected Areas Authority (EPAA) www.epaashj.ae on their very exciting new project, Sharjah Safari. This new innovative safari park has been 6 years in the creation and is nearing being ready to open. It will be the largest safari park out of Africa and in large part ‘mimic’ the African safari experience with guests guided in vehicles around on ‘game drives’.
Sharjah Safari will be a high quality experience with excellent animal welfare. Full details will be available once the Park is open, but for now it is largely ‘under wraps’. My role, which we first discussed back in 2019, was to advise and support the development of education at the Park and play a role in the training of staff. It was challenging to some extent with the heat, language and cultural differences, but exciting to work with an international team, and a large number of Sharjah Emirate ladies who will be the face of the visitor experience and education delivery.
I look forward to being able to see the Park once it is operational and see the staff at work after their detailed training programme, and I’m sure Sharjah Safari will be on many people’s ‘wish list’ for visiting once you hear about it in more detail and see images. However, due to the heat it will be closed in high summer, so best time to visit is likely to be October to March/April.
My zoo career began in Spring 1987 when I got a lucky break and a job as a Zoo Education Officer based on my enthusiasm and general knowledge – I was not qualified in biology or teaching at that time. Today, it is much more difficult to get that first, (and second), break and get into the profession. So I was really pleased to be part of the launch of the new Zookeeper and Aquarist Apprenticeship programme at Sparsholt College this August.
The 24 month Apprenticeship programme gives participants a structured and supported way of learning the practice of zookeeping /being an aquarist both in work and with ‘college’ sessions.
The course induction at Sparsholt involved Jo Judge, CEO of BIAZA outlining the importance of zoos and the role of BIAZA and outgoing course coordinator Penny, outlining the course and welcoming all the students. Penny had pretty much created the programme and coordinated the ‘subject experts’ that will deliver aspects of the work to be undertaken.
My role on the induction was to inspire and excite the new apprentices about the profession they are entering into and introduce the role of zoos, giving a historical perspective and some thoughts on the modern ‘keeper’. I also took the opportunity to talk about ABWAK, the UK & Irish Zookeepers association.
As Sparsholt has its own licenced zoo collection some time was spent outdoors looking at the centre, and undertaking a brief “browse identification” exercise. And students also got enrolled onto the college computer network to gain access to the online portfolio system that will be their record-keeping mechanism throughout the apprenticeship.
The group were great to work with at the start of their careers. All much younger than the 34 years I have worked in zoos! and most very recently enrolled in the profession. I wish the apprentices all the best for the course and their work, and look forward to further contact in future.
NEW beginnings don’t just come at the start of a career. As I write this I am about to travel to the UAE and do some on site work with the EPAA, on their amazing new Sharjah Safari with whom I have a consultancy contract. Its been a while in the planning, I started discussions with them back in April 2019, and of course covid got in the way and delayed things more, but I’m looking forward to seeing the site for real, meeting and working with team.
July saw my first face to face engagements for over a year!
ZooStephen Communication and Presentation Skills workshop was run at Woburn Safari Park in July for members of staff from different departments that had joined since April 2021. This full day workshop was designed to give a range of background to zoos, practical communication skills and consideration of customer care issues.
The group were great and we enjoyed activities from story-telling to tongue-twisters and most importantly the day helped build confidence in speaking to others. Covid restrictions had just been lifted in England, however, we maintained comfortable social distancing and optional mask wearing in the session. It was so much better than via online systems and great to properly interact and react to the group’s needs.
Being invited to be the keynote speaker, and run a workshop, at the first UK Animal Care Technician’s conference was the other highlight of July. This had been delayed for a year, so UKACT2020 became UKACT2021 and thanks to the hard work of Joe Cooke and team at Halesowen College, West Midlands, and the attendees from all over the UK, it was a great success.
It was wonderful to be able to speak on ‘education and collaboration’ to a room full of people, to react and receive reaction. My workshop on demonstration and presentation skills was to give a flavour of how technicians can better be prepared for and to support student learning and activities. With good weather we were also able to enjoy lunch outside and spend time looking at the animal collection at the college.
Animal Care Technicians in colleges are responsible for a diversity of animals, whose main role is to assist the training and development of those who wish to pursue a career in animal care. The animal collections in some colleges are licensed zoos, and species kept range from rabbits and goats to iguanas and lemurs. There are also good collections of invertebrates and some aquatics.
Zookeepers have had ABWAK (Association of British and Wild Animal Keepers) to help their networking, training and development, for nearly 50 years, UKACT is providing a great network, using a facebook group and now this first, day long, conference for the animal care technicians.
Fingers crossed with the roll out of vaccines and appropriate mitigation the worst of the Covid situation is over. However, I am mindful of the disparity in vaccine provision across the world. However, I am very pleased to have just taken on two international projects, more will be shared in due course – these are with the Environment & Protected Areas Authority (EPAA) of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates; and with Orangutan Haven (SOCP and YEL) in Medan, Indonesia.
Last year was challenging for all of us, however, it also marked the publication of the World Zoo and Aquarium Conservation Education Strategy [WZACES] – Social Change for Conservation, by IZE and WAZA.
Zoo and Aquarium educators across the world, including ZooStephen, were part of the discussion and sharing of practice for lead author Sarah Thomas (now at Auckland Zoo, NZ) to write this important and useful document – available free from www.izea.net (education tab)
To help everyone become familiar with, understand and implement the strategy – across the world and in many different contexts – IZE are running a series of webinars for each chapter.
I was delighted to be asked to be part of he webinar series and take part as a presenter on Chapter 4 – Applying Approaches & Methods in Conservation Education. Steffi John from Madras Crocodile Bank Trust presented on her great work in India, and we were joined by Mel, Akane and Brij with Sarah, in a panel session to conclude. Like the other webinars this available via YouTube https://youtu.be/eD1sdQr7MBE
As examples I focused upon my work on the interpretation and education plan for Budongo Trail, RZSS Edinburgh Zoo and with Chimelong Safari Park, China to illustrate the importance of deciding upon learning outcomes and applying these in practice.
The Zoo and Aquarium education community is great at sharing and learning from one another, so it was good to be involved in this activity. I am still learning after more than 3 decades working in this field.
What is normal? The pandemic and associated restrictions and mitigation over the past 14 months have changed ‘normal life’ such that some things will not return to the way they once were. This is no bad thing for some aspects, but operations in the education and tourism sector, including zoos and aquariums, has been especially challenged. Reopening has begun across many areas.
ZooStephen operations have been significantly affected and limited during this time. However, it has been opportunity to enjoy nature at home and on the doorstep. Also a chance to reflect upon what is important, to support others in their training and awareness, in encouraging access to the countryside (eg. as a Trustee of the Perth & Kinross Countryside Trust), and consider ideas for new developments.
The conservation work of zoos, which includes education, is directly funded from the operation of the zoo. In areas such as the UK where no state funding is provided, this conservation work has been funded by zoo generated income – largely from visitors. Limited resources have to be focused to ensure animal welfare, and so the education and conservation role has seen reduced support. Innovation such as online delivery and resources have helped – but do raise the question of how these are paid for and is it sustainable?
The USP of the zoo and aquarium is real, live animals. Seeing these through a screen and with an online ‘podcast’ or presentation enables access for many, but is missing the ‘real’ experience. So it is great that zoos and aquariums are now open again, and staff are beginning to get used to visitors sharing the sights, sounds and smells of the collection once more. Engaging people with conservation through education and activity on site is still challenging and social distancing, indoor mask wearing etc have to be accounted for in delivery and effectiveness.
The new normal is yet to be established. On site education programmes will adapt, which is great. However, we need to see how effective different methods are through evaluation exercises and thereby inform the establishment of the ‘new normal’ for education and conservation.
Delivering online lessons/training does work and ZooStephen has done some of this in 2020-21, however, I’m looking forward to real in person engagement again. The online approach is something to continue but to use appropriately and ensure its effective for the desired outcomes.
Connecting people to nature begins at home and in their local environment, whilst encouraging an understanding and awareness of the national, regional and global impact we have. Zoos and aquariums can be great conduits for this ‘big picture’ so it is hoped that reopening provides new opportunities to engage and inform, to inspire and excite and get people to continue to enjoy and respect nature, and ultimately to make a difference.
Happy New Year – Chinese Year of the Ox. One year ago the Covid19 virus had begun to become a worry but little did we realise how serious and widespread the pandemic would become. Life goes on…
2021 will continue to be challenging and a ‘new normal’ likely still to be dominated by Covid-19 mitigation. However, on a more optimistic note we have seen the inauguration of the Biden-Harris administration in the USA and the roll out of vaccines has begun.
By our very nature, we live for today and think about tomorrow and the next year or two, but rarely have a real long term perspective on life the universe and everything . Nature is long term, not years but decades and centuries. Looking back in time we can see many periods of natural change until human activity became an accelerator and the sixth era of global extinction is now in progress. In Year of the Ox it is appropriate to note that the ancestor of domestic cattle, the aurochs, survived until the 17th century. (Attempts to “breed it back” were made, notably Heck Cattle, but the aurochs is lost to us).
There are many high profile recently extinct species, the aurochs being one. There has been recent speculation that the thylacine in Tasmania, declared extinct in the 1930s may have survived with just a few individuals to this century. However, sadly it is clear many species are on the brink due to human activity.
There are some reasons to be optimistic – eg reintroduction of beavers in the UK, and bison in Europe, and a growth of interest and enthusiasm for ‘rewilding’.
Given a chance, time and positive action, nature can recover. The ‘lockdown’ year has enabled many people to appreciate their local environment more (although for others it has highlighted their lack of nature). The challenge is to move forward with a positive relationship with the natural world and not pursue damaging economic growth and exploitation of the environment. Now is the time to plant trees, to reduce resource use, to value nature and ‘ecosystem services’ such that it is not reasonable or economic to rebuild after covid19 with the same old system.
One lesson from the Covid19 era is to examine the effectiveness of messages in behaviour change and psychology. Simple, short messages, slogans and direct appeals to people’s own needs and motivations have proved effective. However, trust in the ‘messenger’ and the actions and behaviour of others have proved to be significant factors affecting effectiveness.
Whilst nature and the environment are carrying on ‘as normal’, access to the countryside has been restricted, so those in cities especially, have missed the country. Regrettably the evidence from 2020 is once access is permitted again, there will be a significant rise in littering and ‘bad’ behaviour from some people, and given international travel is far less likely, there is a real worry for managing and maintaining natural places at home with increased footfall.
In the UK, the closure of zoos, and lack of meaningful Government support, is a major issue – not just in terms of the operation of the zoos but in the delivery of their conservation, research and education work now and in future. Staff in charitable areas as well as visitor engagement have been made redundant, whilst high animal welfare standards are maintained. The public love zoos – visitor numbers are huge, 30 million visitors to BIAZA zoos in a normal year! And that is how zoos have successfully funded themselves and conservation for years – whilst museums for example, are core funded largely by local and national government. Zoos have helped the government achieve requirements under the Convention of Biological Diversity and supported curriculum learning without any government core funding. Hopefully, as we move through 2021 things will improve …
ZooStephen activity has been very restricted in these past
months. A time to reflect and consider what is important and think about what
future activities may be pursued. Everyone moved to ‘teaching online’ as the
new way of delivering education and I created a series of videos supporting a
programme of learning for remote delivery and variations of this resource will
be available to others.
A buzzword of the times is ‘zoom’, alongside Microsoft Teams
and Skype and my workshops and talks are available by online delivery. Whilst
effective, there is however, no replacing real experience and learning in the
It’s good that zoos, aquariums, wildlife sites, historic places
etc are now open /re-opening, but of course it’s a changed world for now, with
some of the important educational activities such as talks not being offered to
avoid crowd formation.
In 2021 ZooStephen will continue to offer training
workshops, advice and support and mentoring for educational activity both
online and in person, and continue supporting keeper training through DMZAA at
Sparsholt College, as well as other activity. I look forward to the opportunity
to help others in developing and delivering conservation education and visitor
Politics, People and Pessimism. Outdoor Opportunity &
Optimism – Covid reflections
The world stopped. Earth asked for a reset, for a new way, a
new normal. The deadly messenger was named Covid-19. It belonged to nowhere but
went everywhere. In places it met with coordinated, planned resistance but many countries ignored the
warnings until it was too late. Knowledge was shared but didn’t result in
immediate action and change. However, once the emotions were challenged with
death and fear, self interest, science and opinion pushed and government responded…
The global pandemic saw different levels of action and
commitment across the world. Some leaders acted swiftly and strong, others
delayed and dithered, some even rejected the facts and believed they wouldn’t
Stay Home – Save Lives. A slogan that was clear and
easy to understand. Support for ‘work at home’ and furlough schemes made it
easy for some. Others struggled. The self employed found themselves unable to
access help, then it came but not for all and not as fairly… whilst welcome, it
was constrained and caveats limited its ‘generosity’ based on a calculation from
earnings up to April 2019. And then…
many still had to work. The health and emergency services, food sales, transport,
zookeepers, farmers and more had to work on… a long list of people still
travelling about and having interactions, and the virus spread.
Meanwhile others locked themselves away, isolated, cut off.
Some families, especially those with younger children found new connections and
relationship, but it came with a cost… exclusion of the extended family.
Grandparents and the vulnerable especially were ‘shielded’ but by aiming to keep
safe, the cost to normal life and sharing with those who care was high. And the
death toll increased.
Strong, timely, focused and clear action resulted in
success… in New Zealand and some other countries such as Germany and Japan,
and China seemed to get it under control too. Noticeable in their failure
however, were Johnson (UK), Trump (USA) and Boslonaro (Brazil) – two of whom
are known to have caught the virus. Their own agendas’ influenced policy and
action to the detriment of many – and the death toll continued to rise.
In the UK, the devolved governments disagreed to some extent
with the Johnson approach, not least after the breaking of lockdown
restrictions by their ‘mastermind’ Cummings and his bluffing it through to the dismay
Time goes by… (the story, truth, half truths, and lies, will
be told and analysed in times to come).
Be Optimistic? However, one positive from the
situation for me and many others – take regular, local, outdoor,
socially-distanced, exercise. Being out in nature, and in my local area wasn’t
new for me, however I discovered a few more paths, saw a few different people
out and had some wonderful wildlife encounters – most notably with hares, deer
and red squirrels.
Nature thrived. My garden became a feeding station for at
least 2 pairs and 2 broods of blackbirds. One became quite tame, and demanding,
waiting at my door for food to be put out and the fledglings were emboldened to
come close. Allowing the weeds to grow, and having my wildflower pots, meant a
small space became a jungle and insect haven.
Once a little more travel was allowed it was great to
revisit Perthshire big tree country and the hills surrounding Perth too.
Revisiting the Birnham oak which most likely dates from the 15th
century and was certainly there when Shakespeare visited (and features in
Macbeth – Birnham wood). It’s amazing to think that it has seen the world
population rise from 450 million to near 8 billion, has lived through many
regional and global pandemics and has been home to thousands of other
Whatever happens with Covid-19, we know nature will survive
and if allowed to, will thrive. We have a great opportunity to re-connect
and value what is important, for that I am optimistic. However, the action of
politicians in power, and desire for return of ‘economic growth’, together with
the selfish behaviour of some – abusing the environment, littering and being
uncaring, are causes for pessimism and worry.
The post-covid19 world will be what we make it – the
challenge is we need social and behaviour change from government, business and
‘ordinary’ people. Self-interest and nationalism are however, emerging as
strong forces that are really difficult to challenge. Trump seeks re-election and
US First policy… Johnson sees Brexit and the rise of an independent ‘Britain’
as the future… China sees opportunity and remains controlling, but is also easy
to target in western society, and as for Putin and Russia, its hard to say…
An oak tree, a Douglas fir… a hungry blackbird, a ‘March
hare’ and grazing deer… that I understand and will continue to enjoy and
encourage others to do likewise 🙂
The world has a virus. Normal life is suspended… but nature continues.
These are very difficult times for many people. The efforts to control the spread of covid-19 ‘locking-down’ communities and countries has meant physical isolation and separation, not just from each other but also from nature. In some respects, nature is pleased with this – the levels of air pollution are down, spring breeding is less disturbed etc.
ZooStephen, like most self-employed service providers has almost shut down with huge loss of business and income – hopefully temporary; I have been able to continue some remote/online activity. One of my favourite training events, teaching on the Durrell Endangered Species Management Graduate Certificate (DESMAN) at the Durrell Academy in Jersey at the start of April was not possible. However, I was pleased to create a suite of online material, resources and video to enable the participants to undertake the ‘Education Theory & Practice’ module without my physical presence.
It was lovely to receive some feedback that even in this modified version, it was “amazing” “enjoyed” and a “favourite” part of the 12 week DESMAN course. The participants represent projects and activity from across the world including Madagascar, Indonesia, St Lucia and Brazil. Although I didn’t get to interact with them, I always feel more optimistic for the future of conservation when I work with these amazing people, who will make a real difference for nature, the environment and their communities in the years to come.
Back home, in Scotland, I am missing going out into the wider countryside and walking in the trees, mountains, coasts… at least I live in a semi-rural area and can enjoy the immediate surroundings of my village. It has in some ways been good to see local people also discovering the local environment for their occasional exercise – obviously maintaining social/physical distancing. Perhaps, once this crisis is abated there will be a new ‘normal’ and people will appreciate each other and the environment more.
At this time I am also really pleased to have just become a Trustee of the Perth & Kinross Countryside Trust www.pkct.org . I hope to help encourage and promote engagement in the countryside across my home county, from Big Tree Country to the Cateran Trail and more. I am optimistic that in Scotland, we will value our environment more and improve our relationship to nature & recognise its importance for health and well being. I also hope we will be supportive of a more sustainable and ecological lifestyle – that may be a challenge, but this is a great opportunity to try.
At the Birnham Oak, at least 600 years old, the last remnant of the ancient forest featured by Shakespeare in ‘Macbeth’
The start of the lunar new year – Year of the Rat – has seen dramatic events in China, and beyond. The Coronavirus Covid-19 is indeed serious, although in perspective, influenza (flu) causes over 500,000 deaths a year across the world.
China has taken drastic action to try and control the virus spread and at a time when millions of their people would have been travelling and visiting relatives. No doubt, many infected people did move before the restrictions, but it is admirable the degree to which business, leisure activities and zoos (including Chimelong where I act as education advisor, closing to visitors), have responded and taken commercial loss to support control measures.
It is quite likely the virus originated from the wild animal markets, and the trade in pangolins particularly is being identified. Maybe, this outbreak will bring action to address the wildlife trade, the disease issue is of course more likely in the poor welfare conditions of the markets. Changing a culture and historic way of living is a massive challenge, it can only be hoped that this outbreak provides momentum for change.
Two issues that the coronavirus does highlight globally are: human population and travel. Both are also massive influencers on climate change. We can mitigate against both, but the window of opportunity seems to be shrinking and its highly likely 100 years from now, many areas of the world and human society will be impacted (negatively). The bushfires in Australia give further evidence that we are not in control and it is arrogant to think we are. However, the response to this ‘crisis’ gives hope and optimism, and despite the ‘weird’ political picture in many parts of the world, public action and response is gaining momentum… let’s hope it moves faster than the damaging decisions of so-called world leaders.
I’m writing this on Darwin Day (February 12th – anniversary of his birth) and its good to remind ourselves of the influence and significance of the individual in science and conservation. But we shouldn’t forget Alfred Russel Wallace or the thousands of women in science that have not been given the credit or fame of Darwin. Even today, some individuals get a lot of recognition, Greta Thunberg is the leading example – and what a great role model for young people – but there are many others like her, and so we do have cause for hope.
However, the systems our world operates under are the ‘old world order’ and behaviour change on the radical scale needed is very challenging. Carbon neutral by 2050 (before ideally, 2045 is target in Scotland) is possible, but requires a different way of thinking and working. Having to replace my car, I looked at ‘green options’ – none were affordable for me, and the practicalities of charging points and battery life, using public transport are all unfeasible living in rural Scotland. Massive investment in ‘green’ living is needed… that means connected thinking and planning – the HS2 rail project in England is a classic example of ‘good idea’, done badly – and will not only use £100bn for benefit of a few, but will damage important habitats and not support carbon reduction.
It’s good to have the big picture, but can be overwhelming. The zoo and conservation community are acting, and supporting change, and we can only hope that this will have real impact, affect political and business decisions, and is a cause for conservation optimism.
Happy New Year, welcome 2020 (and soon to be Year of the Rat). ZooStephen is looking forward to more exciting, inspiring and educational activity in the year ahead – get in touch if I can help you with training workshops (eg presentation skills), lectures/talks, education programmes, interpretation, strategic review etc. Zoos (of all types and sizes), aquaria, museums, colleges, social/community groups etc
2019 concluded with another visit to Chimelong Safari Park & Birds Park, Guangzhou, China, and the great news that they have successfully achieved membership of WAZA, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the first in mainland China to do this. It has taken a lot of work by the team, developing new operational practices with animals, following international standards for education and overall continuous improvement and commitment to conservation and welfare.
Education at the parks is multi-dimensional and focused on diverse audiences, from pre-school to all school grades and of course general visitors across the generations. Work on setting desired outcomes and beginning to measure effectiveness has commenced and direct links to the school curriculum are in-built into the on site and outreach programmes.
I look forward to visiting Chimelong every few months in 2020 and helping them with the programme of continuous development and improvement and sharing this within and outwith China.
ZooStephen will also be involved in other activities through the year, continuing with DMZAA work at Sparsholt College and working (voluntarily) as a Trustee at Dudley Zoo & Castle. Meanwhile, I will still have some availability and flexibility for new work, as well as enjoying the great outdoors and especially my home country, Scotland.