All posts by Stephen

2021 – NATURE LIVES ON

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).

Aurochs skeleton (AdstockRF)

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 …

Covid – an agent of change?

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 environment itself.

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 experience.

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… Lockdown!

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 suffer.

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 of most.

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 organisms.

Birnham Oak

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 🙂

Optimism in the face of adversity?

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.

DESMAN 2020 Participants, Jersey

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.

Hermitage Waterfall, Big Tree Country near Dunkeld, Perthshire

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’

Conservation crisis?

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… new opportunities.

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

e: zoostephen@outlook.com

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.

Introduction to Reptiles and Amphibians class

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.

Communicating Conservation

Whilst the UK is in the midst of a general election, its a good opportunity to reflect on what is genuine commitment and well-meaning promises or words and messages designed to deflect, garner support, or even deceive. In conservation behaviour change messaging we need to be wary of over-promising or misleading, however, we too are in the ‘business’ of generating interest and support and “evangelising” for the environment and conservation.

Combining our ‘education’ role with behaviour change outcomes is a cause to be optimistic. It is clear knowledge does not equate to change, however, if we utilise the emotions and personal connections, success is possible. Brilliant TV documentaries like Blue Planet II and the plastics issue, is a good example. It seems the environment IS now an issue within the UK election, with plastics and climate change in many people’s minds.

snow leopard cub (one of 3), RZSS Highland Wildlife Park, Nov 2019

Zoos have contributed to conservation in many ways, some breeding for reintroduction (although far less than many people may think), development of science and skills for both zoo and in situ work etc., but our education role is the clear hope for the future – but likewise needs to move beyond the short school visit lesson to a real development of environmental and nature understanding and direct action, and lifelong learning.

UK zoo & aquarium educators (and those around the world) are passionate, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and skilled, however, they are under-resourced and under-supported in the scheme of things relative to the importance of ‘education’. It has, thankfully, always been the case that zoo & aquarium educators share and learn from one another.

Zoo & Aquarium Educators visiting RZSS Highland Wildlife Park, Nov 2019

Some 30+ years after I attended my first UK zoo educator conference, it was great to meet up with some of the attendees to the 2019 BIAZA Education & Presenter Conference on their extra day visit to Highland Wildlife Park in the Cairngorms, Scotland. Whilst many of the day-to-day challenges are the same as they have always been, it is good that there is more and more focus on engaging people – of all ages, experiences and abilities – in nature and what they can do to address environmental issues, whilst loving the world we live in.

City of Bristol College (South Bristol)

At City of Bristol College earlier this month, it was great to spend a day with students raising their awareness and understanding, as well as helping them with developing skills in communication and preparing for careers in the ‘animal sector’. We need more good, passionate communicators to promote the ways in which the future of life on Earth can be contributed to and developed by individuals and not just dictated by political, commercial and ideological elites.

ZooStephen workshops and training activities are tailored to each college/course or zoo and available across the UK (and abroad) throughout the year. Contact zoostephen@outlook.com

We should never forget the reality of life and the way our society works (or doesn’t) and that, as campaigners such as Greta Thunberg have shown us, there is a need to challenge the ‘establishment’ as it currently exists with its reliance on ‘economic growth’ and consumerism. There is some cause for optimism, but as election campaigning shows us, people can have very fixed ideas, beliefs and opinions and don’t like them questioned or challenged.

U3A – Conservation for all generations & The Politics of Change

The University of the Third Age (U3A) in the UK is not a ‘university’ as such and is not a ‘hippy group’ but is an association for lifelong learning for those no longer in full time employment; largely the retired, ie the Third Age.

I have spoken to several U3A groups and it was great to be invited as the guest speaker at their open meeting, to my local U3A in Perth, Scotland, and to engage a audience of well over 100 in the topics of conservation, zoos, climate change and China.

The talk came just after the highly publicised Climate Strikes globally ‘led’ by Greta Thunberg, and the UN meeting in New York. The global ‘youth’ movement of passive protest, follows in the tradition of Gandhi, and is rapidly gaining support from all ages and sectors – and its success can be seen not only from the millions who marched, but also from the level of ‘negative’ comment and even abuse aimed at Greta and others. The ‘fossil fuel’ dinosaurs are threatened. So it was opportune, that part of my talk was to focus on the real and present danger that climate change represents for the world as a whole, but also for Scotland – not only wildlife impact but on our economy, our winter sports, our coastline and general well being.

Of course, there are opportunities too, in developement of green technology – and Scotland is doing very well on renewable energy generation, and has set an ambitious target of emissions reduction. I naturally talked about China too – again great ‘green technology’ but with their still growing economy, population and world trade – having a global impact that will continue to see negative climate change impacts – but proportionally perhaps less than western countries such as the USA and Australia.

Fundamentally though, conservation is about people – we are the reason conservation is needed and our emotional attachment to nature and to life is a key to unlocking some of the energy required to fuel to movement to change the way we live and exploit the resources around us. The ‘economic growth’ model is flawed – we can’t keep growing – the climate strikes movement is challenging society… and its not surprising its led by youth, as they do not yet have the unhealthy pressure or burden on them of the way our systems currently work. Why do people demand more pay… and when they get it, what does that mean.. more consumerism, higher prices for homes and healthcare, more cars… and that fuels demand for more pay.

The generation of the U3A members have seen many changes in their lifetime and not all these can be seen to be for the better. Whilst our political systems and governments procrastinate and argue, the climate crisis continues… whilst workers keep campaigning for pay rises and companies focus on over-rewarding their bosses and share-holders, the climate and environmental crisis continues to grow. The next generation are faced with a stark situation – follow in our footsteps and keep the ‘system’ and see the world begin to crumble and fail… or just as challenging (or more so), do things differently, over-throw the current model and begin a way of living that is focused on balance and redressing the problems of today… it’s a huge ask, but with Thunberg and others there is a hint that it may happen… and with our current politicians further evidence that the ‘system’ is broken and has to change.

Climate Change & China

To contact ZooStephen about training, advice, workshops etc email zoostephen@outlook.com

This summer has seen a lot of emphasis placed upon the environment in media and campaigns – whether this results in actual action (by politicians especially) is yet to be seen, but hopefully it indicates a wind of change.

ZooStephen has featured climate change in education activity for a number of years, however, this July, I completed the United Nations Climate Change Learning Partnership training course to equip me with even better understanding of the issues and potential to assist educational development in this field.

However, knowing about it is not enough – it’s important to encourage action that both mitigates and reduces climate emissions. The recent fires in Amazonia are but a small indication of how big a problem this is. It can be disheartening and overwhelming, so focus on what you can do and the more people who do that the more impact we have.

The impact of millions of people acting in particular ways can have a huge positive or negative effect. I’ve now worked with Chimelong Group in Guangzhou, China for over a year. Whilst their ‘zoos’ are very good, developing conservation and education is still relatively new – but I am excited by the prospect of being able to assist in delivering stories and messages to the tens of millions of people that visit the Chimelong sites. In time, there is opportunity to connect messages to actions, and promote more sustainable living and regaining harmony with nature. So climate change, plastic waste, resource use and wildlife conservation are all topics for behaviour change messages and activity.

Giving a talk (about chimpanzee behaviour) to visitors at Chimelong Safari, China

It was exciting and fun to get the opportunity in August to give a presentation on chimpanzee behaviour (including acting like a chimp, and chimp vocalisation) to thousands of visitors at Chimelong Safari as part of the Africa Discovery Show and a new programme of science communication. Definitely a ‘practice what you preach’ moment as well, given that in the evening I had around 50 keepers for a training session on giving such talks! And I was delighted that the next day the keeper presentation reflected ‘zoostephen’ training very well.

Training keepers at Chimelong Safari, Guangzhou, China, on presentation skills in the Africa Discovery Show arena

zoostephen@outlook.com

Graduation Time & Thanks

Summer has arrived, and with it comes the end of term and graduation for students across the country. Over the years, I have been involved with a number of FE/HE colleges and universities, in teaching, advising, assessing, speaking and doing workshops for.

Moreton Morrell College

In June I was pleased to revisit Moreton Morrell College, Warwickshire College Group, to complete my term as their Industry Advisor and to provide further feedback and advice and sit in on a viva exam on a Foundation Degree course.

It’s great when a student is able to talk through their dissertation project and answer questions about it – especially since a lot of work in the Animal Care industry does involve speaking to others and answering ‘random’ questions.

For many years I have also, and continue to be, involved with the DMZAA course operated for BIAZA by Sparsholt College. The Diploma in the Management of Zoo and Aquarium Animals, continues to be the leading ‘zookeeper qualification’ in the UK (and a few overseas sites), with over 1000 graduates with DMZAA (and its previous incarnation, ANCMZA). A good background and detail in the role and work of zoos and specialist areas with some taxa specific options provides a great “grounding” for zoo staff (and recently also volunteer keepers), combined with their in-work experience, that supports day to day work and career progression and development.

Andy Beer with Lynn Whitnall, Paradise Wildlife Park, at the DMZAA Assessor’s meeting in March

The success of DMZAA is in part the diversity of staff in zoos that are and have been involved in both writing and assessing the course, and to the students that engage with it each year. However, a very large part of the credit for DMZAA (ANCMZA) should go to Andy Beer, Sparsholt College, who has led the development and implementation of it from the start, and who officially retires this July.

Andy is known across the UK & Irish zoo community and abroad, and his drive, dedication and enthusiasm as well as commitment of time and effort, has supported the professionalism of zookeeping in the UK & Ireland and enabled some transfer of this to the Middle East, Latvia and France. Thank you Andy for all that you have done for zookeepers and zoos. It’s appreciated.

He will of course not ‘fully retire’ and will no doubt continue to support zoos and staff training and development. Thankfully DMZAA continues, and passes to his colleague Penny, and this national standard recognised keeper qualification will continue to be awarded and achieved by keepers to come. I look forward to marking more assignments each month 🙂

Doing a DESMAN – Durrell 2019

Conservation depends on people to succeed in the long term. Some of the people that can make a real difference are the attendees of the Durrell Endangered Species Management course [DESMAN] at the Durrell Academy, Jersey.

It was an honour and privilege to be invited to Jersey again this year to run my workshop on Conservation Education Principles and Practice for the 2019 DESMAN students.

The participants came from across the globe: Brazil, Cameroon, Canada, Indonesia (Sumatra), Madagascar, Mauritius, Mexico, Rodrigues, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, St.Lucia, & Tanzania; and were a great group to work with. Full of energy, enthusiasm and willingness to learn and engage.

Conservation education is FUN and is also fundamental to our understanding of nature and for enabling real connection and action for conservation. There are global, regional, national and local issues and contexts to consider, and so its great when participants can reflect upon what works/will be appropriate for their own setting and context. Whilst it is also great to be able to conduct my workshop in English for all these nationalities – although some aspects don’t require verbal language to understand 🙂

The ‘acting’ skills of the group were used to good effect in non-verbal communication exercises. It was also good to look at how Durrell currently communicate to their visitors at Jersey Zoo and for the students to examine and evaluate this. For example, the public talks and education service.

looking at “education resources” and teaching methods

Communicating conservation, engaging with all audiences, and instilling a wonder and enjoyment of nature all contribute to successful conservation activity the world over, and I was delighted with the feedback from the group, and hope they will make a difference in their future work.

The teaching method was very good, I appreciate it and it inspired me a lot.”
“… your way of teaching involving small activities is really good and I can use some of those activities with school children visiting my place of work back home”
“This is the most enjoyable and memorable workshop ever”