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Education as a Tool for the Conservation of Wetlands – the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands

Volume 2 Number 1 - April 2005

Barrie Cooper




Résumé en Français

Resumen en Español

Wetlands are essential for biodiversity and people.  Covering about 6% of the world’s surface, they occur in every country, from the tundra to the tropics (Thorsell et al, 1997).  As well as providing freshwater for countless species of plants and animals, wetlands support large numbers of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrate species.  Wetlands also provide economic benefits, for example water supplies, fisheries, agriculture, timber production, recreation and tourism opportunities.  Wetlands are an important part of our cultural heritage, providing us with a source of inspiration and forming the basis of local traditions. 

Despite their enormous value, many wetlands are being damaged and destroyed because of pressure from people.  Threats from development for industry, housing, roads and marinas have permanently destroyed many significant wetlands around the world.  Other regular losses or damage of wetlands are caused through drainage and pollution.  They are one of the most vulnerable habitats on our planet and it is essential that we develop knowledge, understanding and action for improved protection and management of these fantastic places.  Wetlands provide excellent opportunities to educate schoolchildren, decision-makers and other target audiences.  Many of these sites are ideal for education programmes that can develop knowledge, understanding and action in support of nature conservation.  This article introduces RSPB’s approach to education in wetlands in the UK, with reference to some of its international education work. 


The RSPB is a member of a global network of organisations called BirdLife International.  Many of these organisations have education programmes linked to priority sites for biodiversity.  In many countries, internationally important wetland sites are designated under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.  The Convention's mission is ‘the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local, regional and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world’.  There are presently 142 countries that are signatories to the Convention, with 1389 wetland sites designated for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance.

Wetland Education Programmes

Wetlands can be excellent sites for education programmes aimed at schoolchildren.  They are habitats that provide relatively easy opportunities to see a variety of birds and other biodiversity.  Provided there is safe access, freshwater sampling is an educational activity that children of any age enjoy.  At RSPB wetland sites, we provide wooden platforms to enable children to investigate the fascinating web of life.  Identification charts, coupled with the expertise of our education officers, enable children to understand concepts such as food chains and adaptation.  We always ensure that there is a strong conservation message. It is important that a visitor to a wetland site understands that it is a fragile habitat that needs management and protection.  In my experience, many of the education techniques and activities aimed at schoolchildren are also effective when used with adults. 

Community Education Programmes

It is usually important to gain the support of communities around a wetland.  Through developing a community education programme, the key audiences can be identified.  These audiences can influence the management and protection of a wetland.  Decision-makers are obviously a key audience; but who are they and how can they be influenced?  In my opinion, an important audience is local schools and their students.  Schools are at the heart of any community and children can be effective communicators of conservation to other audiences.  I have been involved in several education programmes in England and overseas where children have been important ambassadors for conservation.  Two examples are included here.

The Ribble Estuary

The Ribble Estuary is a Ramsar site on the north-west coast of England.  It is one of the most important sites in Europe for migrating wading birds and wildfowl.  In the early 1990s, there were several threats to some key areas on the estuary.  Many of the decision-makers in one city were supporting the building of a bridge and a marina; these developments would have had a significant detrimental impact on key feeding and resting areas for migrating birds.  There was strong opposition to nature conservation by many of the decision-makers.  I approached some of the decision-makers to gain their permission for an education programme for schools to visit the estuary.  Some of the politicians thought I was crazy: “The only people interested in the birds out there, are you birdwatchers!” was a comment I will never forget.  “I disagree; I think schools will visit and I think local people and tourists may be interested as well” was my reply – it turned out to be a profound statement! 

I did get permission and so developed an education programme for schools to visit the estuary.  I also used a local building as a temporary classroom.  50 schools visited during the first three months of the project and it became an immediate success.  The programme was linked to the National Curriculum and included themes such as: adaptation, food chains, human impact on the environment and conservation.  Local people and tourists would often be interested in the work we were doing with schools and would listen to the dialogue between our education officer and schoolchildren.  We therefore decided to open a visitor centre and run a varied programme of events for families and adults, in addition to children.  This groundswell of local interest and support was significant for influencing political opinion.  The local decision-makers dropped their plans for the bridge and marina.  We had ‘educated’ them about the importance of the need to protect the site. They realised that there were sustainable economic benefits by having a Ramsar site within their boundaries. 

The quality of life for local people is another significant benefit.  Surely, it is better to be able to walk alongside a beautiful wetland full of biodiversity with flocks of birds calling in the background, rather than through a concrete jungle?  We need to start reaching more decision-makers to enable them to understand the importance of biodiversity.  They need to know how it benefits people economically as well as qualitatively. 

The programme has always been promoted as a partnership between RSPB, the local government and a water company that invested money for extra staffing and for improvements to the visitor centre.  Ten years after we started the operation of a small-scale programme for schools, the benefits are tangible.  Local hoteliers sought my advice to guide the development of weekend breaks that focused on birds and wildlife.  Research by the local government showed that local people and tourists rated this programme as the best attraction in the area.  The future for the birds and other wildlife of the Ribble Estuary is now more secure than it has ever been and education was a key tool in achieving this.

Morecambe Bay

This is another Ramsar site on the north-west coast of England.  Like the Ribble, it is also one of the most important sites for migrating wading birds and wildfowl.  The town of Morecambe was once a popular seaside resort.  However, during the 1970s, its popularity began to wane.  In the mid-1990s, the local government recognised they needed to take urgent action to change Morecambe’s image and to regenerate tourism and economic development.  As a part of this process, local planners invited RSPB to hear their plans to create a series of sculptures and other artwork themed to celebrate the importance of Morecambe Bay for birds.  The project started with input from RSPB and now a range of wonderful artwork has been created along the seafront.  This has made a positive impact on local people and tourists.  It is a unique and visually appealing approach to the celebration of an international wetland.  The tourist office was able to access external funding to pay RSPB to run an annual programme of events for children and adults.  The events were linked to the birds of Morecambe Bay.  The local hoteliers at this site also asked me to advise them about developing weekend holiday breaks for lovers of nature.

Teacher Training

When an education programme is targeted at schools, it can be beneficial to organise training courses for teachers.  The courses can include information about the site, ideas for programmes and projects in schools, training of environmental games and activities.  If the training is done in an interactive way, it can be very popular with teachers and make a significant impact with the implementation of the programme in the local schools.

RSPB’s International Education

There is insufficient space to go into detail about the full extent of how we share our educational expertise, but a few examples are provided here:

The Gediz Delta, Turkey

The Gediz Delta is a Ramsar site on Turkey’s west coast, close to the city of Izmir.  During recent years, a large part of the wetland has been reclaimed for the rapid development of factories and housing.  With support from the RSPB, the Turkish BirdLife Partner, Doga Dernegi, is now working with local decision-makers and communities to develop education and communication programmes around the delta.  Probably the only way to ensure the long-term conservation of this wetland jewel will be through effective education programmes. 

Capacity Building for Educators

It is important to share expertise in conservation education.  In my opinion, good ideas and activities are universal – they can be used in any country.  A training course I ran in Mongolia in 2003 is evidence that educators always appreciate good ideas for their programmes.  The course was located on the Mongolian steppe and involved staff from Ramsar sites in China, Russia and Mongolia.  The development of site-based and community education programmes was the priority for the training.  The sites have now started to develop their education programmes and some of the trainers are spreading the ideas to other countries including Kazakhstan and Japan. 

In the near future, BirdLife is hoping to develop a wetland education programme in some countries around the Mediterranean.  The programme will include the training of education officers and the implementation of an education programme at a selected Ramsar site in each of these countries. 


Education is a vital tool if we are to improve the long-term protection of biodiversity.  We have to reach out to key audiences, including decision-makers, teachers and children.  We need to take them on a fantastic journey of exploration to introduce them to the magic of the natural world.  Wetlands are one of the most vulnerable habitats on our planet; it is essential that we develop knowledge, understanding and action for improved protection and management of these fantastic places. 

Wetlands and botanic gardens are ideal sites to begin the education of decision-makers, schoolchildren, teachers and other target audiences.  They can provide the important staring point for people to begin the journey of understanding, support and action for the conservation of biodiversity.


Thorsell, J. Ferster Levy, R. Sigaty, T (1997), A Global Overview of Wetland and Marine Protected Areas on the World Heritage List, World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Cambridge, UK

French Résumé

Les zones humides sont essentielles à la biodiversité et aux hommes. Elles couvrent environ 6 % de la surface terrestre et sont présentes dans tous les pays, depuis la toundra jusqu’aux tropiques (Thorsell et al, 1997). Non seulement les zones humides fournissent de l’eau douce pour les plantes et les animaux, mais elles hébergent un grand nombre d’espèces. Les zones humides apportent également des avantages économiques, par exemple : pêcheries, production de bois et transport ainsi que loisir et tourisme (Ramsar, 2005). Elles constituent une part importante de notre patrimoine culturel, formant une base aux traditions locales et sont sources d’inspiration esthétique.

En dépit de leur valeur, beaucoup de zones humides sont endommagées et détruites à cause de la pression générée par l’homme. Il est essentiel que l’on développe nos connaissances, notre compréhension et notre action pour une meilleure protection et gestion de ces habitats vulnérables. Les zones humides présentent d’excellentes opportunités pour l’éducation des scolaires, des décideurs et d’autres publics cibles. Nombre de ces sites sont idéals pour des programmes d’éducation susceptibles de développer une attitude en faveur de la conservation de la nature. Cet article présente l’approche de la RSPB par rapport à l’éducation dans les zones humides du Royaume Uni, en faisant référence à son travail international lié à l’éducation.

Spanish Resumen

Los humedales son esenciales para la biodiversidad y para la gente. Cubriendo acerca 6% de la superficie mundial, ellos ocurren en cada país, desde la tundra a los trόpicos (Thorsell et al, 1997). Asi también como ellos proven  de agua fresca para las plantas y animales, los humedales soportan un numero grande de especies. Los humedales también proven de un beneficio econόmico, por ejemplo: pesca, producciόn de madera y transporte, asi también como recreaciόn y turismo (Ramsar, 2005). Ellos son una parte importante de nuestra legado cultural, formando las bases para la tradicion local y ofrecen una inspiraciόn estética.

A pesar de su valor, muchos humedales estan siendo destrozados a causa de la presion poblacional. Es esencial que nosotros desarrollemos conocimiento, entendimiento y acciόn para la protecciόn y manejo de estos habitat vulnerables.  Los humedales proven oportunidades excelentes para educar escolares, hacedores de decisions y otras audiencias. Muchos de estos sitios son ideales para programas de educaciόn que pueden desarrollar los atributos requeridos para la conservaciόn de la naturaleza. Este articulo introduce una aproximaciόn de la  Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPB’s)  para la educaciόn en los humedales en el Reino Unido, con referencia a algunos de sus trabajo educativo a nivel internacional.

About the Author

Barrie Cooper is the International Education Manager for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), The Lodge, Sandy, Bedfordshire, U.K. Tel: 01767 680551. Fax: 01767 692365. Email: Website: