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.
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.
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.
Happy New Year – Chinese Year of the Ox. One year ago the Covid19 virus had begun to become a worry but little did we realise how serious and widespread the pandemic would become. Life goes on…
2021 will continue to be challenging and a ‘new normal’ likely still to be dominated by Covid-19 mitigation. However, on a more optimistic note we have seen the inauguration of the Biden-Harris administration in the USA and the roll out of vaccines has begun.
By our very nature, we live for today and think about tomorrow and the next year or two, but rarely have a real long term perspective on life the universe and everything . Nature is long term, not years but decades and centuries. Looking back in time we can see many periods of natural change until human activity became an accelerator and the sixth era of global extinction is now in progress. In Year of the Ox it is appropriate to note that the ancestor of domestic cattle, the aurochs, survived until the 17th century. (Attempts to “breed it back” were made, notably Heck Cattle, but the aurochs is lost to us).
There are many high profile recently extinct species, the aurochs being one. There has been recent speculation that the thylacine in Tasmania, declared extinct in the 1930s may have survived with just a few individuals to this century. However, sadly it is clear many species are on the brink due to human activity.
There are some reasons to be optimistic – eg reintroduction of beavers in the UK, and bison in Europe, and a growth of interest and enthusiasm for ‘rewilding’.
Given a chance, time and positive action, nature can recover. The ‘lockdown’ year has enabled many people to appreciate their local environment more (although for others it has highlighted their lack of nature). The challenge is to move forward with a positive relationship with the natural world and not pursue damaging economic growth and exploitation of the environment. Now is the time to plant trees, to reduce resource use, to value nature and ‘ecosystem services’ such that it is not reasonable or economic to rebuild after covid19 with the same old system.
One lesson from the Covid19 era is to examine the effectiveness of messages in behaviour change and psychology. Simple, short messages, slogans and direct appeals to people’s own needs and motivations have proved effective. However, trust in the ‘messenger’ and the actions and behaviour of others have proved to be significant factors affecting effectiveness.
Whilst nature and the environment are carrying on ‘as normal’, access to the countryside has been restricted, so those in cities especially, have missed the country. Regrettably the evidence from 2020 is once access is permitted again, there will be a significant rise in littering and ‘bad’ behaviour from some people, and given international travel is far less likely, there is a real worry for managing and maintaining natural places at home with increased footfall.
In the UK, the closure of zoos, and lack of meaningful Government support, is a major issue – not just in terms of the operation of the zoos but in the delivery of their conservation, research and education work now and in future. Staff in charitable areas as well as visitor engagement have been made redundant, whilst high animal welfare standards are maintained. The public love zoos – visitor numbers are huge, 30 million visitors to BIAZA zoos in a normal year! And that is how zoos have successfully funded themselves and conservation for years – whilst museums for example, are core funded largely by local and national government. Zoos have helped the government achieve requirements under the Convention of Biological Diversity and supported curriculum learning without any government core funding. Hopefully, as we move through 2021 things will improve …
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.