As the beautiful Autumn season arrives the felling of one tree – the Sycamore Gap at Hadrian’s Wall – filled news headlines and sparked anger, outrage and outcry. This senseless act should be a reminder that people are disconnected with nature and natural systems. At the same time many people care… but perhaps the sentimental affection for one tree is misplaced or needs some additional focus?
The Sycamore was ‘special’ because it stood alone as a feature of the landscape (possibly deliberately planted as such). There are many ‘special trees’. For me, and associated with the Perth & Kinross Countryside Trust ‘Perthshire big tree country’, the ancient Birnham Oak is special (and incidentally has some ancient sycamores near by). However, it is not alone, it exists in woodland on the banks of the River Tay, and further along is Neil Gow’s oak revered as the place the 18th century fiddler composed and played.
A tree is a ‘unit’ of a woodland or forest, a habitat. The outcry should be levelled at destruction of these habitats for human development (roads, rail eg HS2, building development, monoculture etc). Connection to nature can be ’emotional’ and ‘spiritual’, at the same time there is need for a regard to ecology and what is appropriate planting and management. However, encouraging more people to enjoy and access the countryside responsibly, hopefully re-builds connection and support for trees and ‘added value’ they give us.
Our connection to nature can also be promoted and enhanced through well designed and carefully thought out ‘experiences’ in wildlife parks. At Jimmy’s Farm & Wildlife Park near Ipswich there is a new ‘rare breeds farm’ area, through the native woodland – where some pigs can be seen – and to the fields (with rare breed pigs, goats, sheep, Suffolk punch horses, Highland cattle).
It was an honour to be asked to speak at the UK’s first KEEPERFEST event held at Jimmy’s Farm & Wildlife Park in early September. The event included talks from Jim Doherty, Adam Henson, Nick Baker and a host of ‘industry experts’, as well as practical workshops and stands.
The event nicely complimented the work that ABWAK have been doing for many years in helping keepers to network and develop their skills.
Over the summer I also wrote a short-course on Environmental Education for learndirect and this is available for people to study online as a validated 3 module short-course: https://www.learndirect.com/course/level-3-award-environmental-educator
Sharjah Safari is the world’s largest safari park outside of Africa and it has been an honour to play a small part in the educational development of this amazing Park which has just celebrated a year of operation.
Initial plans for the safari park were put into action around 8 years ago. I first heard about it a couple of years later and after putting forward thoughts on education and staff training in 2018-19, I became directly involved in 2021 and have just been out to Sharjah again for a couple of weeks to help review education work so far and encourage continued development.
The park is part of the vision of HH Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, ruler of Sharjah, who wants to protect the different environments of the Emirate, raise awareness and engage people in their local environment, culture and history of links with Africa. The design and construction was a huge undertaking overseen via the ruler’s office, the Environment and Protected and Areas Authority [EPAA], a team of ex pat staff, many of whom had been working with EPAA already and the expertise of zoo design consultancy company Maguari-One .
I have visited safari style zoos in Europe, USA, Asia and Australia and been to Africa (many countries) and led a safari in East Africa so my expectations for this development were flavoured by this. Sharjah Safari is the closest to a ‘real safari’ that I have seen and is truly a great achievement for all involved. Covering 8 sq km it is truly massive and divided into different habitat/geographic zones. The 100,000+ trees (many acacia) and landscape make it a realistic representation. The high standards of animal care and presentation of animals is also very natural and only in a few areas do you see fencing etc.
In 2021 I helped create the Sharjah Safari education strategy and was involved in supporting development of the education team and initial training of the team of Emirati guides and staff, but the park was still being completed and animals not yet settled in. Now this month it was great to see everything, animals out on the ‘plains’ and in the reserves and to be taken on safari. It is to the credit of the organisation that the safari park is not a “commercial theme park” and whilst visitors are catered for well, the safari experience is akin to the real thing, as you go on a driven tour in dedicated vehicles with a guide.
This visit I was pleased to see the education team have done lots of activities in year one, despite many challenges, and the guides are beginning to develop their abilities. A schools programme has also got underway very successfully and will expand. With the team we reviewed the strategy and areas of responsibility and discussed exciting plans for continued development. I was also pleased to work with some of the Emirati staff, including a few from other EPAA visitor centres.
At the same time on this visit I was delighted to be an invited guest at the annual Sharjah International Conservation Forum for Arabia’s Biodiversity joining guests who work across Arabia, and with the topic of ‘Genetics & Conservation’ the forum was led by former colleagues from RZSS in Scotland 🙂
Sharjah Safari includes representation of key African ‘zones’ – Sahel, Savannah, Serengeti, Kalahari, Ngorongoro and others that include giraffe (Moremi) and elephant (Niger Valley). The “Into Africa” first zone of the park includes a huge aviary, a representation of Madagascar and Aldabra, the Zanzibar village and a traditional African boma (farm), a view over part of the Sahel and an amphitheatre animal demonstration, and all this is accessible on foot with a basic ‘Bronze’ ticket (£9 ad/£3.40 ch). Silver or Gold tickets are required for the main safari drive around and special areas (and give access to Into Africa). The Silver ticket is safari by truck and a stop at the Safari Camp half way through. Gold is by a smaller ‘typical’ real safari luxury vehicle and includes a stop in the Serengeti zone as well (Silver: £27 ad/£11 ch; Gold £62.50 ad / £27 ch). Overall the experience can be 4 hours.
This February the weather included some rain before I arrived and an average temperature in week one of 24-26 C and in week two 29-33C. So it was nice to be hot but comfortable. The hottest months June, July and August can see temperatures of 45C+ at this time the park is closed. The irrigation systems and natural gravel bed mean the environment copes and animals have shade, water and appropriate care. The elephants that are here, for example, come from an arid area and are used to hot dry conditions but also have showers, shade and food supply through the summer. A calf was born recently.
Sharjah Safari shows that a really good visitor experience and good animal ‘exhibit’ and welfare can be created in the Middle East, given a large budget but careful consideration of the environment and design. The exciting challenge ahead is embedding the educational opportunities into the staff training, visitor experience, raising awareness, supporting conservation and behaviour change. I will be watching to see how this amazing place matures over the years to come.
Thanks to the Sharjah Safari team, EPAA and all those involved.
Another year has passed and we look forward to the next. 2022 was one of many contrasts, from heat wave to big freeze, the passing of the Queen, and prime minister to prime minister (and again). Of course the dreadful invasion of Ukraine by Putin will scar the year’s memory.
Thankfully there were some good things in 2022 – some reported in previous blogs. I was very happy to return to Durrell Conservation Academy, Jersey, in November to work with a new group of Diploma in Endangered Species Management (DESMAN) students from around the world. Participants this time were from Brazil, Montserrat, St Lucia, Indonesia, Colombia, South Africa, Costa Rica, Seychelles, Philippines, Tanzania and Papua New Guinea.
The enthusiasm and commitment of these students is always great and we had fun exploring theory and practice of conservation education. The weather (for me) was good, some rain showers, but generally mild, whereas the DESMAN group said it was too cold 🙂 Back in their home countries they will make a difference in a wide diversity of projects and conservation initiatives.
In December I had the honour of becoming the Chair of the Perth & Kinross Countryside Trust and was delighted to take part in a tree-planting with pupils from Kinloch Rannoch Primary School. The young trees (whips) donated by the Woodland Trust and also marking the celebration of the Queen’s Jubilee and now in her memory as part of the Queen’s Green Canopy, are part of our ‘Tree for Every Child in Perthshire‘ project. It was great to see the pupils enthusiasm as they all planted a tree in their local park. Great to think these trees will be there for their children to play around in years to come.
We are often faced with ‘negative’ and bad news stories, so the simple act of planting a tree is a positive conservation action that can make a difference, help in mitigation of climate change, encourage biodiversity and wildlife, as well as contribute to the community. Sowing wildflower meadows, having areas set aside in gardens etc are also to be encouraged.
With PKCT we are particularly focused upon people’s access and enjoyment of trees and the countryside, and Perthshire is a great area to get out and explore. I look forward to many days out and about across the county, the rest of Scotland and further afield in 2023.
Autumn has been stunning at home in Perthshire, Scotland and I have enjoyed seeing the trees and colours change as the weeks passed by through October especially. Being a Trustee of the Perth and Kinross Countryside Trust (PKCT) I encourage others to experience and explore this wonderful region and enjoy the great outdoors (at any time of year).
It was good to help represent PKCT on the ‘stand’ at Scotland The Big Picture conference held in Perth, featuring many case studies of rewilding and connectedness to nature. Whilst we have some wonderful wild outdoor spaces, its also important to acknowledge the landscapes that are artificially maintained, eg grouse moors and river systems where trees have been ‘taken out’ and of course there is now a good open discussion about the animal species that need to be in our habitats – beavers are back, white-tailed eagles, kites and ospreys are back… but what about lynx? wolf? bear? and others.
Autumn is always a time of change in nature and the beauty we see soon fades into the grey and more monochrome winter to come. I’m reminded that this time last year I was in the United Arab Emirates – where these seasons have no bearing, and I am thankful to be resident here, to experience all the seasonal changes, whilst able to visit other places with different climate and conditions.
COP27 in Egypt brings world attention to climate change once more, after what for the UK was an incredibly hot summer and may be the hottest year on record. However, the challenge of climate change is one that politicians and some companies still don’t recognise as critical to our future requiring action day on day, not just when media focus on a gathering to discuss it .. again! Autumn may well be very different in one or two generations time unless action is taken now.
Talking of politics… what on earth is happening? The UK is going through prime ministers and ministers like its just a game and this is no entertaining ‘game of thrones’ for the rest of us, it has had serious economic impact. The change we are facing is not one we expected even after the disaster of Brexit and challenge of covid or impact of the war in Ukraine. Many people, businesses and zoos face crippling rises in bills whilst other multi-nationals profits soar. Capitalism is broken and in its current incarnation is not a model for freedom and democracy.
ZooStephen activity has been ongoing but facing challenges too. In the last few months I have been doing a bit ‘extra’ on my voluntary work as a Trustee with both PKCT and the Dudley & West Midlands Zoological Society. It is an honour and privilege to be able to support and help these charities in their work and share some of my knowledge and expertise from the past 35 years working in conservation education.
I was also honoured to be asked to do a guest blog for Wild Welfare with my thoughts on education. Primarily I focused on the fact ‘traditional’ fact-based learning is not the approach we need to improve welfare and conservation, its more about emotional engagement https://wildwelfare.org/education-animal-welfare/
Meanwhile a new group of Apprentice Zookeepers began their course with Sparsholt College and I spent a morning with them in early October giving them an overview of zoo history, aims and objectives to welcome them to the course and profession. I continue to act as an assessor on the national zookeeper course DMZAA, and particularly being assessor for the Certificate version created for volunteer zookeepers.
This is indeed a time of change and challenge. It is uncertain what 2023 and beyond will have in store.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 17thSharjah 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.
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.
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.