Category Archives: Training & Development

Discovery & Learning in and for Nature in the 21st Century

Children today have a different outlook, expectations and lived experience than when I grew up through the 1960s and 70s. In some ways it was simpler – no mobile phones, computers or social media for a start, let alone just 3 TV channels – and even then not available 24 hours a day. However, I also remember the 70s oil crisis and ‘rationing’ of power, rise and fall of governments (although nothing like the political mess we have today), strikes and inflation.

It is too easy in a world of constant news and social media to dwell on the bad things, as much as they are of serious concern, thankfully nature is still all around us.  Despite some serious issues with exploitation of natural resources, climate change and human population growth, children (and all of us) can still enjoy the wonder of a dandelion, a tree, wildflowers, a blackbird, frogspawn and much more. 

Jimmy’s Farm and Wildlife Park [JWFP], Ipswich, Suffolk, offers engagement with life from farm, local and international species as well as opportunity to consider our relationship with nature. Farming with rare breeds and traditional methods reconnects people to where their food comes from and how careful stewardship of the land supports future generations and continuation of nature.

Jimmy’s Farm & Wildlife Park

Working with the team at JFWP we have created a new ‘Share the Good Life’ Discovery & Learning programme offering a diversity of workshops for all ages and abilities. Using the unique resources of the Park – primarily the animal collection and skilled team of staff – the programme enables groups to have a focused visit, supporting learning needs, but also encouraging enjoyment and experience of nature.

Jimmy’s Farm and Wildlife Park also has daily talks and activities for visitors and it was wonderful to provide enhanced presentation and communication training for the team over a week spent at the Park. Being a farm park and wildlife centre means the range of species and stories for public engagement is diverse, from rare breed sheep and goats to butterflies and lemurs. The connection between all is inspiring and exciting people about nature and our relationship with life on earth.

Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme – Orangutan Haven

On the other side of the world in Sumatra, Indonesia, an amazing new facility, Orangutan Haven, is nearing completion. The Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme [SOCP] with partners Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari [YEL] and PanEco funding have created a fantastic home for a number of orangutans that cannot be returned to the wild due to the injuries and trauma they have suffered.  See sumatranorangutan.org

Orangutan Haven provides a wonderful unique opportunity for public engagement and education and a window into the wider work of SOCP. The 48 hectare site in the forest but not far from the city of Medan, includes island habitats for the orangutans, some aviaries, an eco-farm and visitor facilities. I have helped them to create an education masterplan and supported the training and development of staff. The Haven will attract a diverse audience, but importantly this includes local rural and urban, subsistence and business, school and family, as well as some international visitors.

We talk a lot about behaviour change and conservation, especially in ‘western’ zoos’ programmes, and this is good but sometimes abstract. However, what makes the work of Orangutan Haven so exciting is that this is aiming to address things there ‘on the ground’ in the home habitat of the focus species with consideration to the actual needs and day to day lives of the local people and the big picture of forest conservation.

Osprey, Loch of the Lowes, Perthshire (female on post left, fledging chick on nest)

Back home in the UK, I was lucky to see the fledging of one of the osprey chicks at Loch of the Lowes this year and its been another great summer walking the hills, woods and coast. However, the summer has seen record temperatures and perhaps at last recognition that climate change is happening and could have serious implications. The risk of wild fires is high and made worse by the trend for disposable bbqs and at the same time, whilst its great people are getting out into the countryside, responsible use of and access to the outdoors is something people need reminding of or educating about.

As a Trustee of the Perth and Kinross Countryside Trust it has been very encouraging to see our new Discovery, Learning and Engagement activities get underway after funding from the Gannochy Trust and support funds from Forteviot Trust. From youth engagement activity to a free nature discovery pop up in Perth.

PKCT engagement activity in Perth

It would be great if the wonder and enjoyment of nature as seen by a child can be nurtured and retained through teenage years and adulthood, building a positive relationship with the world around us.

DURRELL’S ARMY & JIMMY’S FARM

After a couple of years (due to covid issues) it was a pleasure to return to Jersey and the Durrell Conservation Academy and teach in person on the Spring 2022 DESMAN course.

Spring 2022 DESMAN participants having fun in the ‘Discovery Centre’

I am always inspired and enthused by the wonderful participants on this 12 week diploma course and it is an honour to work with them, and teach for a few days at the Academy that I saw opened by HRH Princess Royal with Gerry & Lee Durrell, as the International Training Centre in 1984. This year the group comprised participants from: Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Indonesia, Madagascar, Monserrat, Nigeria & Scotland and for some of the time joined by a couple of Jersey Zoo education staff too.

“Learning by doing” is largely the approach I take (although lecture is part of the delivery), and the students all engage well – for some they get pushed out of their comfort zone but building confidence in new areas.

The garden at the Academy provides a great place for outdoor learning when the weather is nice 🙂
Acting as a means of communication / meeting a cockroach 🙂

The DESMAN graduates have significant impact in the field in their careers and are part of ‘Durrell’s Army’ enacting conservation and saving endangered species and places. My workshop is designed to help them develop their communication skills and recognise the value of education as a conservation tool with a variety of audiences. A lot of examples are packed into a few days, including looking at public engagement in Jersey Zoo and case studies from around the world. My aim is to inspire, excite and enthuse through active education, enabling them to apply ideas in their own practice in future.

Saddleback pig – created from the few surviving Essex & Wessex saddleback pigs in 1960s

Not long after being in Jersey I headed to Jimmy’s Farm & Wildlife Park near Ipswich. The park is a working farm with rare breeds as well as having a growing wildlife park featuring a diversity of species. Rare Breeds of farm animals represent the ‘traditional’ stock and as the name suggests are ‘rare’ – largely because commercial farming has concentrated upon a few core varieties. Jimmy’s has a wonderful restaurant serving quality ‘home grown’ free range meat and promoting sustainable agriculture and good welfare.

Jim Doherty bought the derelict farm in 2002 and this featured in a BBC TV documentary and he has done various TV programmes since. The wildlife park aspects began in 2016 and now the site is attracting around 200,000 visitors a year!

The excellent staff team at Jimmy’s provide a great visitor experience and I’m pleased to be helping them redevelop their educational activities – talks for the public and a new school’s (formal education) programme.

Being a farm and wildlife park presents great opportunities for engaging a diverse audience – and of course there is a big appeal to young children. However, the expanding wildlife park (includes tapir, macaque, camel, lemur, & zebra) and wonderful woodland area, provide potential with the farm for a meaningful consideration of our relationship to nature both local and global.

I look forward to returning to Jimmy’s Farm & Wildlife Park soon to support staff training and review the strategy and programme I have worked on for them.

Giving A Presentation :)

After 35 years working in conservation education I still enjoy giving presentations and helping others with techniques to improve theirs. In the modern age of Tik-Tok, Instagram and YouTube many have greater skills and effectiveness than me in those media. However, the face to face and “real” presentation is still a very important aspect of sharing our work and especially engaging with visitors.

It was an honour to be the first speaker on day 2 of the 2022 ABWAK Symposium attended by over 200 people and held at West Midlands Safari Park in early March. My talk “Arabian Giraffes and Indonesian Ambassadors” was an opportunity to share the great work of Sharjah Safari and Orangutan Haven whilst discussing the importance of public engagement and education in zoos.

Keepers are increasingly involved in direct visitor engagement and ‘education’ activity. I was therefore delighted to be asked back to Longleat Safari Park to run ‘Presentation and Communication Training’ for small groups of keepers and safari tour guides. Many of the staff there interact with guests on site, give talks and tours and of course some are ‘famous’ through appearances on ‘Animal Park’ on TV.

I was pleased to work with some who had been at Longleat several years as well as those who joined in the past 12 months. Through a day of activities and information, participants are encouraged to understand what the desired outcomes are and ways that they can enhance their communication skills to be most effective. I particularly enjoy using a diversity of techniques from acting to tongue twisters and it usually gets a smile or two from participants. The philosophy of learning by doing is central to the approach, and it is known that ‘doing something’ is more memorable and likely to have impact.

Seeing animals for real is core to the zoo and aquarium experience. Our exposure to TV and media may bring wildlife stories to our living rooms but this is largely passive. However, the zoo visit can also be passive, and so needs to have focused opportunities and interaction. The role of all staff, from the entrance to the shop, is important in contributing to the message and story. Keepers are a critical part of the experience and our visitors look to them for information and engagement.

The professionalisation of keepers in the UK and Ireland has been promoted by ABWAK throughout its 48 year history and it’s good to see that public engagement is now considered core to many keeper jobs. There are various routes into the profession, and a variety of courses and qualifications. For many years I have been involved in the Diploma in the Management of Zoo and Aquarium Animals (DMZAA) and its volunteer-keeper version CMZAAV, run by Sparsholt College for BIAZA. In the ‘modern’ (and covid) world we can effectively utilise online systems to support learning, so it was good to be guest speaker on a webinar for DMZAA / CMZAAV students, giving them background on zoos and education and pointers on successful assignments.

Giving a presentation is and should be something we enjoy and in so doing we can contribute to sharing our passion, enthusiasm and excitement for wildlife, nature, wild places and conservation.

2022 – Africa in Arabia & More

A belated Happy New Year and Year of the Tiger. Here’s hoping that 2022 is a healthy and successful one.

After the impact of covid-mitigation measures and various factors affecting delivery of projects over the last two years, it’s great to see the year kick off with some good news. It is wonderful to report that on February 17th Sharjah Safari opened. This amazing huge safari park (8km2) brings Africa to Arabia and has taken nearly 7 years to create. The park utilises the natural environment at Al Bridi Reserve, Al Dhaid, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, which has many acacia trees and gravel beds with natural aquafers. Further trees have been planted and suitable environments for the animals created.

Well done and congratulations to the team involved in creating this remarkable project – primarily the team from Sharjah’s Environment and Protected Areas Authority, EPAA (includes many staff members from Europe, southern Africa and elsewhere with great wildlife experience) and design team Maguari-One Zoo Consultants. The park fulfills the vision of His Highness Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi.

I was fortunate to have a very small part in this massive project, helping the education team develop their strategy and plans, whilst also assisting the training of Emirati staff to guide visitors. I look forward to visiting again at some point in future now the Park is open. If you are planning to go to UAE and visit this unique attraction, be aware ticket numbers are limited and the Park will be closed in the hottest months of the year.

(pictures from Sharjah Safari)

Meanwhile IN CHINA, Chimelong Group with whom I have worked since 2018 but covid has prevented further visits are opening their multi-million, world’s largest (370,000 m2), new Marine Science Centre and Leisure Complex at Zhuhai next to Ocean Kingdom. I saw the building in construction – it is truly immense, and the photo makes it look like something from Star Trek. It’s a very ambitious project aiming to link marine education and science with wow visitor experience and featuring many marine species.

However, SOME CLOSING NEWS

Sadly at the same time, Bristol Zoological Society have now announced the official closing date for Bristol Zoo, Clifton, as September 3rd. This historic site – the oldest zoo in the world not in a capital city, opened in 1836 – will partly be developed into a residential site, with some of the gardens remaining. Sadly many staff jobs have gone already and some animals will no longer be kept. The money raised will go to expansion of sister site ‘Wild Place’ to be the ‘new Bristol Zoo’ in South Gloucestershire. I spent a large part of my career at Bristol Zoo (1989-2003) helping develop the education department and involved in various exhibit design projects, so this is personally sad news too. As I write this further sad news comes from the International Centre for Birds of Prey (ICBP) in Gloucestershire that has now closed its doors. Jemima Parry-Jones’s work will continue with birds at a new site not open to the public.

LOOKING FORWARD – I am happy to be preparing for a variety of events in the next weeks, from ABWAK to Staff Training at Longleat and DESMAN22 at Durrell in Jersey, as well as further voluntary work in my Trustee roles with Perth & Kinross Countryside Trust and Dudley & West Midlands Zoological Society.

ON TOP OF THE WORLD – UAE 2021

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.

In the mountains by Wadi Shawka, Sharjah, UAE

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.

Such great feedback on ZooStephen workshop, (1=not much to 3 = very much)

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.