Tag Archives: Conservation

StrategY & Sharing

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.

Normal Life ? Reopening

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.

Bluebells at Kinclaven Woods, Perthshire, Scotland, end of May 2021

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.

One of the workshops developed this year and delivered for FdSc students at Plumpton College

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.

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 🙂

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.

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.

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”


An Englishman Abroad – EAZA, Sweden

Every two years the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria [EAZA] have an education conference, and this March it was hosted by Skansen, Stockholm, Sweden.

nearly 200 delegates from 34 countries, EAZA Education Conference, Skansen, Stockholm

I have used the EAZA Education Standards in my work with Chimelong Group, in China, as a way of benchmarking and auditing their work, as well as in further developing their already good educational activities to an internationally recognised standard.

It was great to be able to attend the EAZA Education Conference and to both give a presentation upon my work in China, and a poster highlighting the use of ‘animal shows/performances’ as an educational tool. It was also good to challenge pre-conceived ideas some have about China, and to indicate how important it is that we engage and work to develop conservation education in China.

Skansen in Stockholm is a zoo – primarily for nordic animals, but also some tropical species and a new Baltic Sea Science Center – opening very soon. However, Skansen is also a historical museum, featuring many houses from across Sweden, showing different cultures and styles over the years.

The conference was attended by nearly 200 delegates from 34 countries – and it was great to meet up with old friends and make some new ones too. The networking of ‘educators’ is quite a loud occasion – we all like to talk 🙂 and also a very cooperative and supportive one. We learn from each other and share ideas and thoughts, and with the EAZA standards, which will be adapted to be world standards, we also have a mechanism for developing a professional and strong conservation education programme that is of merit and significance. I am hopeful that Chimelong zoos will lead the way on developing and implementing such standards in China.

The Conservation Education Family

Being a conservation educator can be challenging, sometimes it can seem a lonely path, especially in today’s highly developed and consumerist society trying to raise awareness, raise questions, challenge behaviour etc. And then being a conservation educator in a zoo or aquarium comes with further challenges, including some in other conservation groups that dislike the whole concept of zoos.  Thankfully, educators are happy to share, to work together for common goals, and to support each other. In the zoo and aquarium community we are lucky to have the International Zoo Educators Association (www.izea.net)

The IZE family is global and every two years meets for a conference to share, exchange ideas, and learn from one another. The 2018 IZE conference was held in October, in Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates. It was wonderful to see participants from all the continents (except Antarctica of course) and to hear speakers who were from Guatemala to Vietnam.  I was especially pleased to be at this conference, having been the editor of five issues of the IZE’s journal (2013-17), but also because 4 of my new colleagues from Chimelong Group, China, were also able to attend.

For me, this was also a return to the UAE after just over 20 years, having stayed in the ‘old’ Al Ain Zoo whilst volunteering at the National Avian Research Center and visiting friends. The new zoo features the amazing Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre, and a great new safari drive through. The SZDLC is noted as being the/or one of the first ‘sustainable’ building developments in UAE. Visiting the Emirates again, and in this era of environmental consciousness, it was striking to see so much development in the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and wonder how sustainable this ‘progress’ is, not least with the lack of much evidence of use of renewable energy.

Apart from visiting the Zoo (and an extra day visiting the wonderful Arabia’s Wildlife Centre and Wasit Wetland Centre in Sharjah), we also got to climb a sand dune, eat some wonderful food, try real Arabian coffee and of course eat dates and ‘experience’ the heat (around 37 degrees outdoors).

 

The IZE meeting is always a meeting of cultures and ideas, and this year was no different, and so it was great to experience Arabian hospitality whilst having opportunity to talk to people from China, USA, Brazil, Korea etc…  Whilst some of the conference was sharing “this is what we have done”, it also enabled consideration of such case studies for application in different situations, and there were presentations ‘asking questions’ and reporting on positive outcomes from campaigns and activities.  This year, as in previous meetings, thanks to IZE Institutional Members and the host’s support, a number of “sponsored” delegates attended and brought some great practice and ideas from the field to our attention.

The next IZE conference is in San Diego, USA, in 2020.

Chimelong, Guangzhou & Zhuhai, China – education development

Chimelong Group are the leading zoological organisation in China, currently operating 3 zoos: Chimelong Safari and Chimelong Birds Park in Guangzhou City and Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in Zhuhai (a couple of hours drive south, near Macau).  The Group also manages theme parks/resorts and hotels with the animal attractions.

I’m excited and pleased to be working for them, helping develop education strategy and programmes. They already do some wonderful work and have some great people.  The potential for conservation education and having an influence on people’s understanding of science and action for sustainability, is immense; not least with the millions of visitors to the zoos coming as tourists from other parts of China, as well as locally.

There are challenges of course, but to a large extent these can be seen as opportunities. The fact the organisation has a desire to strive for excellence and both improvement and development, are great platforms to work with. A bonus is that they are very successful and committing resources to enable activity and a quality visitor experience.

Many “in the west” are quick to criticise or jump to conclusions as soon as you say  China or Asia, whereas the reality here is that, yes there is room for change and improvement, but it is gradually being addressed and high standards achieved and aimed for. Indeed, many “western” zoos need to, and can do the same.

The worldwide appeal of zoos in all their forms (over 10% of world population visiting a zoo each year) is something, if utilised and developed, can be a huge force for conservation, and education engagement.  It’s great to be working in this field of activity. making a small contribution to a big effort.

Never too old – everyone can make a difference

Its great to work with diverse audiences, and to share my passion for the natural world and conservation. At a talk given for approx 150 members of U3A (University of the Third Age), I was asked do I “give such talks to inspire and enable young people, as everyone here is ‘old'”.  My response is yes, but also everyone is important and has a role to play in behaviour change and sustainable living – and grandparents and retirees are very important role models and people who have influence and impact. Education is for all and life-long.

It’s interesting to reflect that in general, all young children are excited by and curious about nature around them. Even with all the technological gadgets and games, children still find joy and wonder in seeing live animals and playing outdoors. At some point however, and often in those difficult “teenage years”, it seems the relationship with nature changes for many, and they loose the awe and wonder at the world around them – such as how wonderful and amazing a tree is; the diversity of animals and plants etc.  Then this interest is often rekindled when they become parents, and lost again as the child grows… and returns as a grandparent.

It may be ‘natural’ to have this up and down relationship with the world, but the risk and challenge is that our impact on life and the world around us, particularly in those periods we ‘loose the connection’ can be extreme as we get sucked into consumerism and stress of modern life.  The fact that companies still spend millions on advertising (often for things we don’t need or to make us buy one brand over another), shows that adults have power and can through their choices have impact affecting others. So in conservation education work and our wish to ‘change the world’ it is appropriate and desirable to focus on adults and rekindle that connection to nature and turn it to positive action that makes a difference.