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Conservation education - the value of training

Volume 1 Number 2 - October 2004

Jamie Copsey


Zoos and botanic gardens of the world are in unique positions to convey a conservation message to the general public.  Although we have developed new and increasingly sophisticated techniques for communicating our messages, this ‘education toolbox’ is not currently available to all.  The International Training Centre at the headquarters of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, Jersey Zoo, has been training overseas conservationists, many of them from developing country zoos, for more than twenty years.  One of the most valuable subjects for them has been Environmental Education Skills and Practice.  Such capacity building is also offered by BGCI and Kew through their education-focussed international diploma course.  Other zoos and botanic gardens have recognised the need to develop capacity within their colleagues worldwide.  However, gaps still exist.  One solution would be for zoos and botanic gardens to join forces to support the professional development of our contemporaries, particularly in the biodiversity-rich regions of the world. 


These visits by 6th formers were excellent.  They broadened the girls’ knowledge about the environment and sustainability issues.”  Another satisfied teacher leaves the Conservation Education Department at Jersey Zoo, the headquarters of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.  A glance through the visitor’s book strengthens the impression that Jersey Zoo can, metaphorically speaking, pat itself on the back for getting an “informal” conservation message across to its visiting public.  We know that through our public education programme learning has taken place; people are becoming more environmentally aware following a visit to the zoo (Muurmas, 2001).

What happens when they leave the zoo gates?  Does learning result in behavioural change?  A recent environmental awareness-to-action programme run by the Conservation Education Department, entitled “Cans for Corridors”, demonstrated the impact that an effective and focused education activity can have on changing our ways.  Through a series of interactive assemblies run by zoo education staff in Jersey schools, local children learnt about the plight of the black lion tamarin (Leontopithecus chrysopygus) in its dwindling Atlantic forest home of southern Brazil.  Furthermore they learnt about unsustainable use of resources, with the focus on aluminium.  The result of this has been that now more than 21 of the island schools have established can recycling schemes and have generated over £900 to buy over 3500 trees for biological corridors in Brazil linking up the tamarins remaining forest patches (Esson et al, 2002).

Zoo education

This success is not unusual; type in “zoo education” or “botanic gardens education” into your web-search and you will find pages and pages of sites that will lead you to some exciting and innovative new programme for raising awareness of environmental issues and species conservation.  Look more closely, though, at where these education programmes are happening and a pattern begins to emerge.  A disproportionate amount of activity is going on in the zoos and botanic gardens of North America and Europe. 

This pattern may be explained partly by the skew that exists in the distribution of the zoos and botanic gardens of the world.  Four out of the six countries in the world that hold 57% of the world’s zoological collections are within Europe or the United States.  Only ten countries account for 50% of the world’s botanic gardens, including the US and Europe (Stanley-Price et al, 2004).   But what about the remaining 1000 zoos and 1200 or so botanic gardens (Stanley-Price et al, 2004) that are spread throughout the world?  Many of them fall within the tropics where we also find the majority of species that, as conservation organisations, zoos and botanic gardens are intent on saving.  

Conservation and education

Increasingly we are aware of the need to focus our attention more on saving species in-country.  Reportedly over 400 botanic gardens worldwide manage areas of native habitat themselves, or work closely with colleagues in national parks and other protected areas (Wyse Jackson & Sutherland, 2000).  A study of British zoos by Stevenson (1996) found that over 69% (32) of collections that participated in the survey supported field projects to some degree.  To what extent though, do zoos and botanic gardens “leapfrog” their peers in biodiversity-rich countries to work directly with the species and habitats needing to be conserved? 

Read through the article text relating to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD, 1994) and one word that will keep appearing is “co-operation”, in particular with reference to similar organisations working in the resource-rich and biodiversity-rich countries of the world.  The recent launch of the Communication, Education and Public Awareness (CEPA) portal demonstrates the international belief that more needs to be done to support the development of more effective strategies to get our conservation message out and make sure it sticks. 

So what can or should zoos and botanic gardens be doing to support this drive?  They have the potential to “shape public opinion, to encourage sympathetic attitudes towards wildlife, and to educate the public about ecology, evolution, and wild animals” (Hancocks, 2001).  With approximately 500,000,000 people (roughly 10% of the world’s population) visiting zoos annually (IUDZG/CBSG (IUCN/SSC), 1993), they have clearly got a potentially valuable role to play in raising environmental awareness.   If we add in the numbers attending the botanic gardens of the world then together we have a vast captive audience.  Ironically at an institutional level it is the zoos of biodiversity-rich countries that stand out as being the places to reach the majority of these visitors.  Take China, for example, where over 40 million people pass through the country’s zoo gates each year (Waugh & Wemmer, 1994);  Zoológico de Chapultepec, Mexico City receives 5.5 million visitors alone; more than three times the number of people visiting London Zoo each year (1,225,000) (   

The global situation

Time to take stock:  we know that many zoos and botanic gardens in the resource-rich countries of the world have been developing new and innovative ways of conveying a conservation message, and have been honing their educational tools for many years; these same organisations are beginning to look beyond their gates to determine how best they can support species/habitat conservation; we recognise that zoos and botanic gardens have a potentially pivotal role to play in raising environmental awareness and pushing for behavioural change; finally, we know that at least the zoos of the biodiversity-rich countries draw significant crowds and therefore are ideal places to convey a large-scale conservation message.  The potential is there but in order to realise this we need to match up resources to where they are most needed.  It is perhaps time for those zoos (and botanic gardens) of the world with the experience and skills to focus more attention on building conservation capacity within their “peer” organisations of world’s most biodiversity-rich countries. 

At this point it is important to note that resources do not equate to effective conservation education and neither is it only the zoos and botanic gardens within the resource-rich countries that are effectively raising environmental awareness.  However, it is clear that there is an imbalance in the current capacity within the zoos and botanic gardens of the world to carry this message forward.  According to BGCI of approximately 1800 botanic gardens in the world only about one tenth employ education staff (Willison & Sutherland, 2003).  Based on a sample of 100 zoos from the International Zoo Yearbook, it appears as if education staff are present in a higher proportion of zoos than botanic gardens but still less than 50% would seem to have this resource (Olney & Fisken, 2003).  If zoos and botanic gardens are to realise their potential then they need to fill this gap.  More support must be given to those establishments that are best placed to raise awareness about the plight of endangered species within the countries of origin.  As Conway (1999) stated “We pay too little attention to 3rd World zoos located on the front lines of the Earth’s most biodiverse habitats”.  What are the “haves” doing for the “have nots” (Waugh & Wemmer, 1994)?

Training for conservation education at Jersey Zoo

Gerald Durrell was ahead of his time when he instigated the establishment of the International Training Centre (ITC) at Jersey Zoo over 20 years ago.  His aim was to create a “mini-university” for training conservationists from around the world, in particular from zoos, in order to equip them with the skills and understanding required to solve their own conservation problems.  Since this time more than 1100 graduates have passed through the ITC’s training programmes from over 110 countries.  Over 90% of these graduates are linked through the ITC Network, providing a virtual venue for discussions and problem-solving to meet the evolving needs in conservation.  The ITC’s courses in Endangered Species Management and Conservation challenge participants to critically analyze current biodiversity conservation issues and to develop appropriate solutions for tackling wildlife conservation issues in their own countries.  One of these solutions involves the ability to communicate a conservation message effectively to a range of audiences. 

The majority of trainees that pass through the training programme have not had any form of formal training in teaching skills or communication and yet they are on the “front-line” of species conservation, many of them coming from biodiversity-rich countries such as Madagascar, Peru and China.  Although an increasing number of the organisations from which we select participants do assert that they run education programmes, it is common for them to be run as part of a raft of responsibilities borne on the shoulders of just a handful of interested and able employees. 

One such able person is Uzma Khan, a senior education officer from Lahore Zoo in Pakistan.  Uzma is three quarters of the way through her Diploma here at the ITC and in her capacity as an education officer has found the education component of the course of particular relevance to her work in Pakistan.  Lahore Zoo receives 2.5 million visitors every year including over 1400 school groups, which may contain as many as 300 children in each one (Khan, pers. com.).  According to Uzma “there is no zoo in Pakistan that has an education centre and there is no regular, coordinated programme with schools that is run by any zoo”.   Conservationists such as Uzma have the drive and often the ability to run effective education and awareness programmes but they can gain much from exposure to and training in the theory and practice of teaching and learning.  Skills that Uzma and others are encouraged to acquire during their time on the ITC course. 

Such skills are not only of value to designated education staff but to anyone who has to communicate a message to an audience.  A study conducted by Esson (2001) demonstrated that presentation skills was the most valued part of the education module on the Diploma in Endangered Species Management (DESMAN) course, in terms of its use when the trainees returned home.  Conway (1999) identifies a need to target our message to “inform law-makers and government authorities”.  Clearly having a competency at presenting information to such audiences is of benefit to all.

Other organisations with the resources have established even more focused environmental education training courses.  Botanic Gardens Conservation International and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, have joined forces to create the International Diploma Course in Botanic Gardens Education.  A glance through the web page demonstrates the diverse range of topics that are covered providing participants with a sound and detailed understanding of the “tools” of the education “trade”. 

Only a handful of conservation organisations are in the fortunate position to maintain a full training department dedicated to supporting conservation practitioners worldwide.  However, many more can boast an effective and imaginative environmental education programme.  Both the zoo and botanic gardens communities are becoming increasingly pro-active in seeking ways of contributing to species and habitat conservation.  If we feel genuinely that both types of organisation are justified in their role as conservation organisations in particular through education, then we need to turn more attention to supporting our colleagues that have the species and habitats we are trying to conserve right on their doorstep.  The education toolbox is bursting with new techniques- let’s open up the box to all.

Parting remarks…

Having the opportunity to write this article has enabled me to think more critically about how the ex-situ conservation organisations such as zoos and botanic gardens operate.  This contemplation has not just made me question how we currently do things but how we could be doing things in the near future.  How often, for example do zoos and botanic gardens get together to cross-pollinate” ideas about conservation education in their different though complementary areas of work?  Zoo educators are increasingly trying to put their animals into context- what niches do they fill?  What other species do they depend on? What will happen if we take away the plants on which they- and we- depend?  From a botanical standpoint we are becoming more aware of the reliance of threatened plant species on the animals with which they co-exist- what will be the impact of the extinction of particular species of fruit bats, for example, on the trees that rely on them to disperse their seeds?  If we want to convey a holistic conservation message then perhaps it is time for zoos and botanic gardens to pool their educational experience and develop joint education strategies and most importantly export this “meta-tool box” to their colleagues elsewhere.  Is it time for an International Diploma Course in Zoo and Botanic Gardens Education?

What do you think?  Should we be collaborating more in the field of conservation education? 


Conway W. (2000) The changing role of zoos in the 21st century.  EAZA News 29, 8-13.

Esson M. (2001) Does conservation education travel well?  Transferring skills from Jersey Zoo to institutions in the developing world.  Dodo 37, 80-87.

Esson M., Hicks O., Wormell D. (2002)  Your cans can save the black lion tamarin.  Federation of Zoological Gardens Award, Education Category 2001/2002
Hancocks D. (2001)  A different nature- The paradoxical world of zoos and their uncertain future.  University of California Press, London England.

IUDZG/CBSG (IUCN/SSC), 1993. Executive Summary, The World Zoo Conservation Strategy; The Role of the Zoos and Aquaria of te World in Global Conservation.  Chicago Zoological Society, U.S.A.

Muurmans M. (2001)  Getting the conservation message across.  An evaluation of the animal talks programme of Jersey Zoo, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, Jersey UK Channel Islands, Unpub. Report.

Olney P.J.S., Fisken F.A. (2003) (eds.)  Zoos and aquariums of the world, in International Zoo Yearbook 38, Zoologial Society of London, England.

Stanley-Price M.R., Maunder M., Soorae P.S. (2004) Ex Situ Support to the Conservation of Wild Populations and Habitats: Lessons from Zoos and Opportunities for Botanic Gardens, in Guerrant E.O., Havens K., Maunder M. (eds) Ex Situ Plant Conservation Supporting Species Survival in the Wild, Island press, Washington DC, USA. 

Stevenson M.F. (1996)  The role of zoos in the British Isles and their survival into the next millennium, dissertation for MBA, University of Edinburgh, Scotland

Waugh D.R., Wemmer C. (1994) Training in zoo biology: two approaches to enhance the conservation role of zoos in the tropics, in Olney P.J.S., Mace G.M., Feistner A.T.C. (eds) Creative Conservation: Interactive management of wild and captive animals, Chapman & Hall, London, England.

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



Les zoos et les jardins botaniques du monde ont une chance unique de faire passer des messages sur la conservation de la biodiversité au grand public. Malgré que nous ayons développé de nouvelles techniques de plus en plus sophistiquées pour communiquer nos messages, cette ‘boîte à outils’ pédagogiques n’est pas accessible à tous aujourd’hui. Le Centre International de Formation, situé dans les locaux de la Fondation ‘Durrell Wildlife Conservation’ au Zoo de Jersey, forme des conservateurs venant de zoos de pays en voie de développement depuis plus de 20 ans. Un des sujets les plus utiles pour eux a été le module sur les compétences et pratiques de l’éducation à l’environnement. Le BGCI et Kew permettent également le développement de compétences similaires grâce à leur diplôme international centré sur l’éducation. D’autres zoos et jardins botaniques ont reconnu cette nécessité de développer les compétences de leurs collègues à travers le monde. Cependant, des vides existent toujours. L’une des solutions serait que les zoos et jardins botaniques mettent leurs forces en commun pour développer la formation professionnelle de nos collègues, en particulier dans les régions du monde riches en biodiversité.


Los zoos y los jardines botánicos del mundo están en una posición única para comunicar el mensaje de conservación al público.  Hemos desarrollado nuevas técnicas más y más sofisticadas para comunicar nuestros mensajes, pero esta "caja de herramientas educacional" no está a disposición de todos.  El International Training Centre (Centro de Educación Internacional) en la sede del Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, en el Zoológico de Jersey, lleva mas de veinte años educando a conservacionistas de otros paises, muchos de ellos de paises en vía de desarrollo.  Uno de los temas de mayor valor para ellos ha sido el de habilidades y prácticas medioambientales. Las mismas oportunidades para desarrollar capacidades también las ofrecen el BGCI y Kew a través de su curso de diploma  internacional con enfoque educativo. Otros zoológicos y jardines botánicos han reconocido la necesidad de desarrollar la capacidad entre sus compañeros a través del mundo. Sin embargo, aun hay huecos que rellenar. Una solución sería que los zoos y los botánicos unieran fuerzas para apoyar el desarrollo profesional de nuestros contemporáneos, especialmente en las regiones del mundo ricas en biodiversidad.

Jamie Copsey is Deputy Head of Education
Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, Les Augrés Manor, La Profonde Rue Trinity, Jersey JE3 5BP, English Channel Islands, British Isles.  Web: