Creating ex-situ conservation gardens in schools and the wider community

Andrew Smith

Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens, Queens Domain, Hobart, Tasmania 7000, Australia

Education is enshrined in the mission statement of the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens (RTBG), which is as follows:

The RTBG's Community Education and Training Service has identified three program streams to support the mission of the Gardens: environmental education, horticultural training and community awareness. Audiences and programs have been identified for each stream.

This paper concentrates on the environmental education stream and how the programs within this stream support the plant conservation programs undertaken by the Gardens. The inclusion of education within the overall program recognises the need for an integrated approach to conservation. Integration occurs at a number of levels. Firstly, the need to research, propagate, replant and educate. Secondly, the need to integrate across governments, non-governmental organisations and the general community, and thirdly the need to work in situ and ex situ. The integration of all these elements should result in the successful conservation of plant species.

By way of introduction the conservation programs conducted by the Gardens will be briefly introduced. Firstly, the Gardens collect seeds and cuttings from the wild and propagate the material in the nursery.

Some of the resulting plants end up in the Tasmanian Section of the Botanic Gardens, where approximately 600 species are on display, including around 80 of the state's 150 or so threatened species. Site interpretation for this section highlights the Gardens' role in plant conservation. Because of size restrictions, the main purpose of the Tasmanian section is to raise public awareness of native species and the conservation issues associated with them, rather than to act as a collection for ex situ conservation purposes.

Other plant material is collected as part of recovery plans for endangered species. This program, carried out in conjunction with the National Parks and Wildlife Service and members of the Australian Network for Plant Conservation, aims to propagate endangered species and return them to the wild, thus ensuring their survival in situ.

In conjunction with the Department of Roads, the Gardens also provide a Roadside Rescue Program, where plants threatened by roadworks are collected and propagated and then returned to the new roadside once the roadworks are completed.

The RTBG sees its horticultural expertise as one of its main contributions to plant conservation. However, this work is all being done as intensive care at the bottom of the extinction abyss. It is treating the symptom rather than the cause. In almost all cases of plant endangerment, the cause can be traced back to human choices and behaviour.

It is therefore necessary to work at the 'top of the cliff' to prevent species from falling over or, more accurately, stop them being pushed. This means that there is a need to raise people's awareness of their responsibility in creating a threat to plants, and their responsibility to act personally to repair the damage. The education service at the RTBG sets out to achieve this by working to raise awareness and concern, encourage changes in behaviour and provide opportunities for personal action. Two outreach programs conducted by the Gardens (GreensC'ool Program and the Botanical Guardians) aim to address these issues.

The GreensC'ool Program

The aim of the GreensC'ool Program, which may extend over 18 months with individual classes, is to:

Following the introductory sessions of the Program, students collect seeds from the wild, sow them, grow them and plant them out in their school grounds. They record provenance, collection and planting information. This information is then recorded at the Botanic Gardens, in effect becoming an extension of the ex situ collection held in the Botanic Garden. The Schools' collection then becomes integral to conservation studies for many years afterwards. The Program has not been limited to school grounds; students have also assisted with the return of plants to the wild.

The horticultural component of the GreensC'ool Program provides an opportunity in a very direct and hands-on way. Schools are provided with encouragement, support and guidance to create ex situ gardens of endangered species within their school grounds. The species used are those identified in species recovery plans and so extend the scope of those plans. When possible, plant species originally present in an area are used, providing the added incentive of restoring the species to its past range.

At the completion of the GreensC'ool Program, students have come to understand the importance of plants as the foundation of all life, are aware of the plight of plant species and their responsibilities in this process, and have realised that they as individuals need to act. They have been given the opportunity to personally make a difference by assisting in the saving of species, by repairing the damage of the past and ultimately determining the type of world they wish to inherit.

A number of schools and students have undertaken this Program. Armed with their new conservation awareness, they have gone on to develop recycling programs, composting programs, install water-wise irrigation systems, participate in power-saving plans, adopt local parks and waterways for repair and cleansing, question excessive packaging, go green shopping and generally walk softly on the earth.

The Botanical Guardians

Like the GreensC'ool Program, this new network has been developed to provide two important outcomes; an informed community and an involved community. The Botanical Guardians is aimed at the general community. To get the message out to as many people as possible, the Gardens joined with three existing community-based networks (the Understorey Network, the Threatened Species Network and the Australian Network for Plant Conservation) to produce a quarterly Botanical Guardians newsletter. This newsletter has the advantage of not only letting people know what is going on with plant conservation generally, but also allows the three active groups to let each other know what they are doing. Because many people were found to be members of several of the groups, this system also cuts down the number of newsletters produced.

The second component of the Botanical Guardians is a membership database which records the ways in which individuals would like to contribute to plant conservation. These may include:

Government departments, such as the Botanic Gardens, Parks and Wildlife Service and Department of Forestry, have access to this information and are therefore able to easily contact and involve locals when they are working in the field. Justification for this program can be seen from a letter sent by the first member to join the program. Richard Burns wrote 'The reason I want to be involved in the Network is so I can find out what is going on, to meet like-minded people, and to get involved in the practical work of community involvement in rare and threatened plant conservation. I would like to be asked to do something '. The commitment required from the Gardens education service to ensure the success of these programs is significant, requiring, in relation to the GreensC'ool Program for example, several contacts with each school class over a period of up to 18 months. These contacts include introductory sessions in the Botanic Gardens, field trips to collect seed, sowing and planting in the schools, and in some cases helping students design an endangered species garden. It often requires work with all the teaching staff and ground staff of a school to explain the project to and encourage the commitment of the whole school. These sessions sometimes include parent groups and school management councils. However, the end result is worth the effort. It is inspiring to witness the change in attitude and behaviour of students over this extended time, and the physical improvements to their environment.

This commitment must be reflected in how the Gardens allocate resources and staff to the education service. The RTBG commits only around 5% of its total budget to education, despite identifying it in its mission statement as a primary role of the Gardens. Unfortunately this undercommitment is representative of many, if not most, botanic gardens around the world. Despite this, botanic gardens are carrying out some effective and imaginative educational programs. The effort is worth it, these programs can make a difference, attitudes and behaviour will change and are changing. As a result of this type of work the Gardens believe that there are now fewer species stepping to the edge of the extinction abyss than if these programs were not provided. Members of the community want to be involved in the process, and must be involved, if the work is to continue after the scientists and education officers move on to other projects.

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