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Habitat-Based and Story-Driven

Volume 1 Number 27 - December 2003

Graham Phelps & Anne Scherer





While the Alice Springs Desert Park can be said to operate as a botanic garden, zoo, natural history display and a cultural centre, the description does not present the total picture.  It is a fully-integrated environmental education facility that takes an ecosystem approach to display and interpretation and an education approach to conservation.

The Desert Park displays the flora of Central Australia in three replicated habitats that include not only the flora but the fauna, the geology and the landforms of those habitats.  The interpretation of these habitats also includes human aspects of the desert ecosystems, both indigenous and non-indigenous.

The Desert Park’s ‘habitat-based, story-driven’ approach maximises its potential to help visitors to understand, enjoy and become excited and passionate about the Australian deserts.  This enables the park to most effectively share environmental messages with its visitors that extend beyond the walls of the park itself.

The International Agenda for Botanic Gardens in Conservation (Wyse Jackson & Sutherland, 2000) lists three main elements of the global mission for botanic gardens in conservation:
  •     Conservation
  •     Research, monitoring and information management, and
  •     Education and public awareness.

The Alice Springs Desert Park as a locally focused environmental display, incorporating a botanic garden, conducts and supports in situ and ex situ plant conservation and research; but its primary approach to being an effective conservation institution is through its role as an environmental education facility. The Desert Park uses the terms ‘environment’ and ‘environmental’ to encompass both the natural and cultural which are intimately interlinked.

Public environmental education is the essential underpinning for both community action for conservation and for the funding of the conservation and research activities of conservation institutions (Hamilton and Phelps, 1992).  Botanic gardens world-wide attract more than 150 million visitors each year (Wyse Jackson & Sutherland, 2000) and this represents an enormous opportunity to influence public attitudes towards conservation and to stimulate community support and action.

The Alice Springs Desert Park takes a ‘habitat-based and story-driven’ approach to display and interpretation, which we believe maximises the Park’s environmental education potential.

Habitat-based means that the Park displays the flora of its local environment in carefully created habitats.  These replicate those that visitors experience in the ‘real world’ of arid Australia outside the gates of the Park.  Careful attention is paid to ensuring that plant associations and communities are accurately replicated and that the associated landforms and soils are appropriate.  Further, the fauna of the habitats is also displayed in context as part of this integrated approach.  The interpretation of these habitats takes a whole of system approach that incorporates living (eg. botanical, zoological and human) and non-living (eg. geological and climatic) elements and highlights the connections and interdependence of these elements.

The story-driven approach is fundamental to the Park.  The Desert Park’s Master Plan, prepared in 1994, clearly highlighted the Park’s role as an environmental and cultural interpretation facility and an Interpretation Plan developed in 1996 became the prime determinant of the collection plans and of display policy and practice.  Both of these documents continue to provide the direction for the Park.  Park design, species selection, display methodology and interpretation techniques are predicated on their ability to enhance the Park’s ability to deliver its interpretive aims.

The importance placed on interpretation of the arid environment, as a conservation tool and the desire to reach as many visitors as possible, is demonstrated by the variety of media used to tell stories.  These include traditional signs, film, interactive displays and an audioguide, but perhaps the most powerful and effective story-telling technique that the Park uses is a comprehensive daily program of face-to-face interpretation delivered by full-time professional guides.  All of the techniques used, and particularly the guide presentations, accommodate different learning styles and knowledge levels.  The integrity of the cultural interpretation is ensured by the close working relationship the Park has with the Aboriginal owners of the Park’s land, and by employing local Aboriginal people who are able to interpret indigenous use and management of the Australian arid zone from their own cultural perspective.

By adopting the ‘habitat-based and story-driven’ approach and by displaying and interpreting the desert ecosystems in their entirety including both biotic and abiotic elements, the Desert Park is an exemplar of the BioPark concept proposed for zoos, botanic gardens and museums by Robinson in the mid-1980s (Robinson 1987, 1988).   Robinson postulated that the traditional separation of zoos, botanic gardens and natural history and cultural museums into separate institutions had resulted in a corresponding reductionist presentation of the environment to the visitors to these institutions.  This reductionist approach did not present the environment as people encounter it in the real world and failed to show the inter-relatedness of all elements of ecosystems and therefore limited the environmental education successes of those institutions.  The Desert Park was conceived as an amalgamation of a botanic garden, zoo and museum that would overcome these problems and provide an effective environmental education facility.

The recent International Agenda for Botanic Gardens in Conservation itself reflects the way in which botanic gardens are moving away from the reductionist approach to environmental, or more accurately botanical, presentation and interpretation.  For example, in the section on Public Education and Awareness, which covers more than a page, the words plant or plants are only used twice whereas the words environmental or environment are used dozens of times.

Although the Alice Springs Desert Park has received widespread acclaim from within its industry, the success or otherwise of the Park as a public environmental education facility for conservation is still to be fully tested.

The Alice Springs Desert Park is just six years old and is comparatively small on a world scale.  Although its annual visitation numbers are 80,000-90,000, it reaches a very significant portion of its local audience, attracting approximately 30% of local residents and 30% of tourists to the area each year.  The Park’s reach into the local schools is even greater with 100% of local schools and over 30% of regional bush schools visiting the Desert Park each year.  The Territory’s Department of Education, Employment and Training has recognised the environmental education potential of the Park by locating one of its Environmental Education Curriculum Support Officers actually in the Park.

Monitoring of visitor responses to the Park through surveys, visitor books, interviews and anecdotal feedback from local teachers and Parks and Wildlife Rangers indicates that the visitors are responding positively to the BioPark approach and are recalling the key environmental messages that the Park presents.  This is highly suggestive that this particular 'habitat-based story-driven' environmental display is achieving its aims of being an effective public environmental education institution.  Further research will continue to monitor the Park’s progress.  By utlitising the powerful combination of the audience reach of botanic gardens and the effectiveness of the BioPark model of environmental display and interpretation, botanic gardens such as the Alice Springs Desert Park are able to be significant forces for conservation in their local and wider communities.


Hamilton, G. and Phelps, G.R. (1992)  Zoos and Conservation Education. International Zoo Yearbook  31:97-98.

Phelps, G. and Richardson, M. (1998) Planning Living Collections from Scratch.  Australasian Regional Association of Zoological Parks and Aquaria/ Australasian Society of Zookeeping Conference Proceedings 86-90.

Robinson, M.H.  (1987)  Beyond the Zoo: The Biopark.  Defenders of Wildlife Magazine 62 (6)10-17.

Robinson, M.H.  (1988)  The Once and Future Zoo.  American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums Regional Conference Proceedings, 315-22.  Wheeling, W.Virginia.

Wyse Jackson, P.S. and Sutherland, L.A. (2000)  International Agenda for Botanic Gardens in Conservation. Botanic Gardens Conservation International, U.K.


Le Parc du Désert d’Alice Springs peut être considéré comme un jardin botanique, un zoo, une exposition d’histoire naturelle et un centre culturel, mais cette description reste incomplète. C’est un dispositif d’éducation à l’environnement complètement intégré basé sur une approche de l’écologie du milieu en ce qui concerne la mise en scène et l’interprétation et une approche éducative en ce qui concerne la conservation. .

Le Parc du Désert présente la flore du centre de l’Australie en trois habitats reconstitués, comprenant non seulement la flore mais aussi la faune, la géologie et les paysages de ces habitats. L’interprétation de ces habitats prend aussi en compte les aspects humains des écosystèmes du désert, tant indigènes que non indigènes.

L’approche « basé sur l’habitat et guidé par une histoire » optimise le potentiel du lieu pour aider les visiteurs à comprendre, prendre du plaisir et à s’intéresser et se passionner pour les déserts d’Australie. Cela permet au Parc de donner à ses visiteurs des messages sur l’environnement beaucoup plus efficaces et qui se répandent bien au-delà des murs du Parc.


El Parque del Desierto de Alice Springs se puede decir que opera como jardín botánico, zoológico, exposición de historia natural y como centro cultural, pero estas descripciones no presentan el cuadro total. Es una facilidad de educación medio-ambiental totalmente integrada que ataca a la exhibición y la interpretación desde un punto de vista de ecosistema y a la educación con una postura medio-ambiental. El Parque del desierto presenta a la flora de la Australia central en tres hábitats re-creados que incluyen no solo a la flora sino también a la fauna, la geología y el paisaje de estos hábitats. La interpretación de estos hábitats también incluye aspectos humanos de los eco-sistemas desérticos, tanto indígenas como no-indígenas. El principio basado en los hábitats, impulsado por las historias, realiza el potencial de ayudar a los visitantes a comprender, a disfrutar, a excitarse y a generar una pasión por los desiertos australianos. Esto permite al parque compartir sus mensajes mas efectivamente con los que lo visitan, y llevarlos mas allá de los limites del propio parque.

About the Authors

Graham Phelps is Park Manager for the Alice Springs Desert Park, PO Box 2130, Alice Springs NT.  0871. Tel: (08) 8951 8788 Email:

Anne Scherer is Environmental Education Curriculum Support Officer for the Department of Education, Employment and Training, which is based at the Alice Springs Desert Park. Tel: (08) 8951 8718 Email: