Last year was challenging for all of us, however, it also marked the publication of the World Zoo and Aquarium Conservation Education Strategy [WZACES] – Social Change for Conservation, by IZE and WAZA.
Zoo and Aquarium educators across the world, including ZooStephen, were part of the discussion and sharing of practice for lead author Sarah Thomas (now at Auckland Zoo, NZ) to write this important and useful document – available free from www.izea.net (education tab)
To help everyone become familiar with, understand and implement the strategy – across the world and in many different contexts – IZE are running a series of webinars for each chapter.
I was delighted to be asked to be part of he webinar series and take part as a presenter on Chapter 4 – Applying Approaches & Methods in Conservation Education. Steffi John from Madras Crocodile Bank Trust presented on her great work in India, and we were joined by Mel, Akane and Brij with Sarah, in a panel session to conclude. Like the other webinars this available via YouTube https://youtu.be/eD1sdQr7MBE
As examples I focused upon my work on the interpretation and education plan for Budongo Trail, RZSS Edinburgh Zoo and with Chimelong Safari Park, China to illustrate the importance of deciding upon learning outcomes and applying these in practice.
The Zoo and Aquarium education community is great at sharing and learning from one another, so it was good to be involved in this activity. I am still learning after more than 3 decades working in this field.
What is normal? The pandemic and associated restrictions and mitigation over the past 14 months have changed ‘normal life’ such that some things will not return to the way they once were. This is no bad thing for some aspects, but operations in the education and tourism sector, including zoos and aquariums, has been especially challenged. Reopening has begun across many areas.
ZooStephen operations have been significantly affected and limited during this time. However, it has been opportunity to enjoy nature at home and on the doorstep. Also a chance to reflect upon what is important, to support others in their training and awareness, in encouraging access to the countryside (eg. as a Trustee of the Perth & Kinross Countryside Trust), and consider ideas for new developments.
The conservation work of zoos, which includes education, is directly funded from the operation of the zoo. In areas such as the UK where no state funding is provided, this conservation work has been funded by zoo generated income – largely from visitors. Limited resources have to be focused to ensure animal welfare, and so the education and conservation role has seen reduced support. Innovation such as online delivery and resources have helped – but do raise the question of how these are paid for and is it sustainable?
The USP of the zoo and aquarium is real, live animals. Seeing these through a screen and with an online ‘podcast’ or presentation enables access for many, but is missing the ‘real’ experience. So it is great that zoos and aquariums are now open again, and staff are beginning to get used to visitors sharing the sights, sounds and smells of the collection once more. Engaging people with conservation through education and activity on site is still challenging and social distancing, indoor mask wearing etc have to be accounted for in delivery and effectiveness.
The new normal is yet to be established. On site education programmes will adapt, which is great. However, we need to see how effective different methods are through evaluation exercises and thereby inform the establishment of the ‘new normal’ for education and conservation.
Delivering online lessons/training does work and ZooStephen has done some of this in 2020-21, however, I’m looking forward to real in person engagement again. The online approach is something to continue but to use appropriately and ensure its effective for the desired outcomes.
Connecting people to nature begins at home and in their local environment, whilst encouraging an understanding and awareness of the national, regional and global impact we have. Zoos and aquariums can be great conduits for this ‘big picture’ so it is hoped that reopening provides new opportunities to engage and inform, to inspire and excite and get people to continue to enjoy and respect nature, and ultimately to make a difference.
ZooStephen activity has been very restricted in these past
months. A time to reflect and consider what is important and think about what
future activities may be pursued. Everyone moved to ‘teaching online’ as the
new way of delivering education and I created a series of videos supporting a
programme of learning for remote delivery and variations of this resource will
be available to others.
A buzzword of the times is ‘zoom’, alongside Microsoft Teams
and Skype and my workshops and talks are available by online delivery. Whilst
effective, there is however, no replacing real experience and learning in the
It’s good that zoos, aquariums, wildlife sites, historic places
etc are now open /re-opening, but of course it’s a changed world for now, with
some of the important educational activities such as talks not being offered to
avoid crowd formation.
In 2021 ZooStephen will continue to offer training
workshops, advice and support and mentoring for educational activity both
online and in person, and continue supporting keeper training through DMZAA at
Sparsholt College, as well as other activity. I look forward to the opportunity
to help others in developing and delivering conservation education and visitor
Politics, People and Pessimism. Outdoor Opportunity &
Optimism – Covid reflections
The world stopped. Earth asked for a reset, for a new way, a
new normal. The deadly messenger was named Covid-19. It belonged to nowhere but
went everywhere. In places it met with coordinated, planned resistance but many countries ignored the
warnings until it was too late. Knowledge was shared but didn’t result in
immediate action and change. However, once the emotions were challenged with
death and fear, self interest, science and opinion pushed and government responded…
The global pandemic saw different levels of action and
commitment across the world. Some leaders acted swiftly and strong, others
delayed and dithered, some even rejected the facts and believed they wouldn’t
Stay Home – Save Lives. A slogan that was clear and
easy to understand. Support for ‘work at home’ and furlough schemes made it
easy for some. Others struggled. The self employed found themselves unable to
access help, then it came but not for all and not as fairly… whilst welcome, it
was constrained and caveats limited its ‘generosity’ based on a calculation from
earnings up to April 2019. And then…
many still had to work. The health and emergency services, food sales, transport,
zookeepers, farmers and more had to work on… a long list of people still
travelling about and having interactions, and the virus spread.
Meanwhile others locked themselves away, isolated, cut off.
Some families, especially those with younger children found new connections and
relationship, but it came with a cost… exclusion of the extended family.
Grandparents and the vulnerable especially were ‘shielded’ but by aiming to keep
safe, the cost to normal life and sharing with those who care was high. And the
death toll increased.
Strong, timely, focused and clear action resulted in
success… in New Zealand and some other countries such as Germany and Japan,
and China seemed to get it under control too. Noticeable in their failure
however, were Johnson (UK), Trump (USA) and Boslonaro (Brazil) – two of whom
are known to have caught the virus. Their own agendas’ influenced policy and
action to the detriment of many – and the death toll continued to rise.
In the UK, the devolved governments disagreed to some extent
with the Johnson approach, not least after the breaking of lockdown
restrictions by their ‘mastermind’ Cummings and his bluffing it through to the dismay
Time goes by… (the story, truth, half truths, and lies, will
be told and analysed in times to come).
Be Optimistic? However, one positive from the
situation for me and many others – take regular, local, outdoor,
socially-distanced, exercise. Being out in nature, and in my local area wasn’t
new for me, however I discovered a few more paths, saw a few different people
out and had some wonderful wildlife encounters – most notably with hares, deer
and red squirrels.
Nature thrived. My garden became a feeding station for at
least 2 pairs and 2 broods of blackbirds. One became quite tame, and demanding,
waiting at my door for food to be put out and the fledglings were emboldened to
come close. Allowing the weeds to grow, and having my wildflower pots, meant a
small space became a jungle and insect haven.
Once a little more travel was allowed it was great to
revisit Perthshire big tree country and the hills surrounding Perth too.
Revisiting the Birnham oak which most likely dates from the 15th
century and was certainly there when Shakespeare visited (and features in
Macbeth – Birnham wood). It’s amazing to think that it has seen the world
population rise from 450 million to near 8 billion, has lived through many
regional and global pandemics and has been home to thousands of other
Whatever happens with Covid-19, we know nature will survive
and if allowed to, will thrive. We have a great opportunity to re-connect
and value what is important, for that I am optimistic. However, the action of
politicians in power, and desire for return of ‘economic growth’, together with
the selfish behaviour of some – abusing the environment, littering and being
uncaring, are causes for pessimism and worry.
The post-covid19 world will be what we make it – the
challenge is we need social and behaviour change from government, business and
‘ordinary’ people. Self-interest and nationalism are however, emerging as
strong forces that are really difficult to challenge. Trump seeks re-election and
US First policy… Johnson sees Brexit and the rise of an independent ‘Britain’
as the future… China sees opportunity and remains controlling, but is also easy
to target in western society, and as for Putin and Russia, its hard to say…
An oak tree, a Douglas fir… a hungry blackbird, a ‘March
hare’ and grazing deer… that I understand and will continue to enjoy and
encourage others to do likewise 🙂
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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 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.
“When you have confidence you can have a lot of fun. And when you have fun you can do amazing things.” (Joe Namath, former American football star and actor).
I enjoy communicating and I have great fun when I teach and help others to develop skills for presentations and talks. It is especially satisfying when you can help those who believe they can’t do it or are really not confident to do it. Sometimes it is about ‘pushing’ and almost ‘forcing’ but the context and environment needs to be supportive and understanding. So it was a pleasure, at the end of June, to engage with a diverse group of keepers and the education team at Drayton Manor Zoo in a workshop to support their engagement with visitors.
Some of the group were very confident and “up for it”, whereas others were clearly uncomfortable and not keen because of lack of confidence and experience. However, step one achieved – they were there. Step two engagement and activities for a few hours. Step three – as part of a group giving a presentation to each other – success! Next steps are to practice, work with colleagues, and engage with visitors.
My presentation and communication workshop is adapted to suit each group and situation and so it was great to have a really positive response from the Drayton Manor Zoo staff no matter what their initial feeling or experience, and that confidence was built and will develop further within the team.
The zoo is at an exciting time in its history and has long term development plans, which are great to hear about. And of course, with the added attraction of the theme park and ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ the potential for public engagement with a diverse audience within the zoo at Drayton Manor is significant.
Following my day at Drayton Manor it was a pleasure to return to Longleat where I conducted similar training over a year ago. I returned to visit the park but primarily to attend the ABWAK Symposium. The staff team at Longleat were brilliant and their confidence in both visitor and conference delegate engagement was superb. Here is another collection that has very large visitor numbers and a diverse visitor experience. The ‘safari’ and ‘animal adventure’ have come a long way in the park’s 50 years+ and its very exciting to see the latest news that Longleat is to house a couple of wombats and 6 southern koala, from Cleland Wildlife Park in South Australia, in a new facility (opening in 2019).
Drayton Manor and Longleat are very different but both ‘zoos’ to watch and to visit, and both have very large audiences from diverse backgrounds, thereby having potential to take conservation and conservation education to the masses – and to have fun too!
It has been well known for years that zoos across the world attract hundreds of millions of visitors a year. Indeed, the estimate is at least 10% of the world’s population a year visit zoos and aquariums. The opportunity this provides for education, conservation and environmentalism is therefore unparalleled.
Most people think of the zoos of Europe (EAZA) and North America (AZA) and indeed some of them are leading the way and also provide access to large audiences. There is also innovation and great work coming out of Australasia and South America. Africa remains dominated by the ‘wild’ experience, but now also has some good examples of zoo/aquarium activity.
However, where are most of the world’s people? Asia. There have long been zoos and aquariums across this continent and the majority of them have been perceived and labelled as ‘mediocre’ or poor. There are however, some good examples from Hong Kong to Japan. Meanwhile, mainland China – population 1.4 billion! – is not generally thought of in the ‘west’ as having leading zoos and aquariums.
I was delighted to visit and experience for myself a leading light, and rapidly changing and improving zoo in Guangzhou, China – Chimelong Safari & Chimelong Birds Park. The potential and opportunity here is immense with millions of visitors a year and many of them coming from across China, not just local. The standards of animal husbandry and enclosures here, exceed those of many western zoos, and a programme of continuous improvement is active and noticeable. The visitor experience is also of a high standard and education activity is now also underway, alongside engagement in conservation. I have always believed that zoos should be encouraged and supported to improve – and when they demonstrate positive movement, congratulated.
Meeting the staff at Chimelong, despite my lack of Chinese, was a pleasure. Thanks to having a brilliant translator and educator to help me, I was well looked after and able to deliver a ‘training’ talk and discover and discuss the activities underway. The positive direction the organisation is heading to and the action already taken, demonstrate that the potential to educate, influence and encourage behaviour change in millions of people, is real and achievable.
Chimelong is a beautiful place, tropical, and has some great species too – including the only giant panda triplets, but also golden monkey, elephant, koala, snakes, giraffe, waterfowl… etc. The birds park, nearby, has an amazing show/demonstration with flying birds. Well worth a visit.
There is hope for the future. Conservation is often depicted as a battle and struggle, full of responding to ‘bad news’ and events – which undoubtedly it is. However, we should also be optimistic and celebrate the good news and success stories too. No conservation project, no matter how well conceived, planned and intentioned, will fully succeed unless it has the support of the people. Thankfully there are some amazing, inspiring and dedicated people around the world, working to conserve, protect and develop our understanding of nature. Some of these people are the participants in the Durrell Conservation Academy DESMAN course.
It was an honour and privilege to be invited to speak and lead a few days workshops for the DESMAN in Jersey once again; the third year I have done this. My education and communication ‘course’ was well received and I thoroughly enjoyed engaging with this year’s students who came from: Armenia, Brazil, Canada, China (Hong Kong), India, Nigeria, Samoa, St. Lucia, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Sumatra, & UAE.
Whilst, I was able to inspire and enthuse the participants and demonstrate a diversity of communication and education techniques, I was also inspired and enthused by them too. It’s always good to meet people who are committed to, are doing and will do, great work and to be a small part of their development and conservation activity. Their feedback was also very much appreciated, with some great comments, such as: “thank you for making it so fun, informative and inspiring”; “I got many new experiences about new techniques of education and awareness programmes – very useful”; and “inspired me to do more in the field of conservation education and community conservation”.
It was of course also great to return to Jersey Zoo, HQ of Durrell and enjoy time in the Zoo – not least the brilliant bat flight enclosure – which in itself has a great community and recycling story in its construction. We also enjoyed reviewing and critiquing the education for visitors, by observing talks, signs and discussing education programmes. One of the great aspects of the DESMAN is that the diversity of participants may have specific field projects and focus, but they get to understand endangered species management in general and the multi-faceted approach needed for conservation to succeed – including through education and communication.
I am optimistic that this year’s DESMAN participants, along with previous students, WILL go MAD and Make A Difference!
Thanks to Durrell Conservation Academy and to the participants and staff. (Links on social media twitter: @ZooStephen and featured on @Durrell_Academy and on facebook.)
The Zoo is a great educational resource – for schools, colleges, uniform groups, general visitors… However, it takes planning and preparation to maximise the effectiveness of the resource for different users and learner needs.
In the UK (and Europe) it is a requirement of licensing for zoos to contribute to conservation through education and membership of the national and international associations, BIAZA and EAZA requires zoos to meet, and ideally exceed, education standards they set.
Through my career it has been a pleasure to have been involved in helping zoos and the community with improving standards and developing new and effective educational engagement. Recently I have been delighted to be working with Belfast Zoo to help them develop new strategy and programmes to exceed the standards and set new levels of educational delivery and achievement.
We now have a new education strategy, and through this winter period work is underway on a new education programme. The Zoo, situated to the north of the city on ‘cave hill’ is a wonderful site, they have a good mix of species and has great potential to act as a centre of excellence for Northern Ireland.