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Education on Conservation in the Conservatoire National de Brest

Contributed by Loïc Ruellan, Conservatoire Botanique National de Brest, 52, Allée du Bot, 29200 Brest, France

The Conservatoire Botanique National de Brest, the first of its kind, owes its creation to its current curator, Jean-Yves Lesouëf. Working on the basic idea of cultivating the rarest plant species to avoid their complete extinction; in 1975 Jean-Yves Lesouëf brought together the Brest Urban Community Council, Brest Nature Conservancy Council and the French Ministry of the Environment to establish our garden.

Other identical bodies soon appeared across France. In 1988, the Ministry of the Environment decided to set up a national network of Conservatoires Botaniques and to formalise the role of these gardens. There are currently 8 such national gardens assigned the task of recording French flora, preserving in situ and ex situ threatened wild species and educating the public on conservation issues.

The National Conservatoire Botanique de Brest is situated in a narrow 2 km long valley, close to the sea and a town of 250 000 inhabitants. Threatened species, which are hardy in the Atlantic climate, are grown in the 22 hectare garden alongside indigenous and ornamental plants. Greenhouses enable us to cultivate and propagate threatened plants originating from different exotic locations. A small laboratory provides facilities for the processing and cold storage of seeds from species close to extinction.

With around 1500 threatened species under cultivation, Brest manages and maintains one of the biggest collections in the world of plants close to extinction. For almost twenty five years, the Conservatoire Botanique has taken part in, and led several operations to rescue plants from the brink of extinction, reintroduce plant species and manage threatened species in their natural habitat.

In the case of local species, we pursue a specific in situ conservation programme. On a national and international level, our garden, in partnership with other bodies, ensures the ex situ conservation of native species of the French Atlantic seaboard, Europe and the oceanic islands throughout the world, which also involves the cultivation of species from French overseas territories.

Alongside its in situ and ex situ conservation activities, the Conservatoire Botanique aims to raise public awareness of the need to protect our botanical heritage. Our organisation's collections, and its experience in the field of conservation, offer a wealth of material to draw upon for assessing the importance of protecting plant diversity.

Permanent educational coordinators were first employed in 1990, with an additional member of staff joining at the end of 1998. Our educational task involves a range of activities concerned with communication (liaising with the media, participation in conferences and the organisation of events within the garden), and teaching (conducting guided tours, devising educational tools, hosting touring exhibitions and taking part in educational projects with students).

Around 250 000 people come to our visitor centre every year to view our touring exhibitions which are concerned with aspects of the environment. As part of these exhibitions, we organise activities and events for students from the urban area on topics such as the recycling of waste and discovering the world of plants and animals. A small part of our programme therefore includes environmental education activities.

Our main task, however, is to raise public awareness of conservation issues through guided tours organised in the greenhouses and the garden and through educational materials that we produce.

In 1998, we organised events involving 7200 people, 4500 of whom enjoyed guided tours through the greenhouses. The majority (60%) of participants were pupils and students from nursery through to university level and the remaining 40% were adults who were both beginners and specialists.

We decided that, on these guided tours, we would always focus on the same topic, namely the conservation of threatened species, and that we would adapt the level of our presentation as required.

The guided tour of the greenhouses centres around the following four main themes:

  1. the comparison of the natural and artificial rhythms of plant species extinction
  2. the importance of protecting threatened species
  3. methods of ex situ conservation
  4. in situ conservation of endangered species.

In the course of the tour, we introduce endangered plants whose history provides a concrete illustration of each of these themes. We sometimes deliberately choose species which are not spectacular, but which are on the brink of extinction, in order to demonstrate that our selection of plants is above all carried out on the basis of rarity and not mainly for utilitarian or aesthetic reasons.

During the presentation, our aim is to make the public realise what is at stake in the protection of plant diversity and to put across a global message about species preservation. In addition, we try to make visitors receptive to our message by establishing a dialogue with them. People are encouraged to feel free to ask questions and to put forward their own views on the importance of the work conservation bodies are able to undertake.

This method is particularly effective with students and pupils as its helps us gauge the group's level of knowledge and adapt our presentation accordingly. This programme of activities is of particular use to biology teachers because it fits perfectly within the context of studying plant reproduction, species adaptation and evolution, human's influence on the environment and the preservation and sustainable management of biodiversity. At the end of the tour, we hand out educational literature to the teacher to enable him or her to explore these topics further with the pupils.

As an introduction to our greenhouse tour, we regularly devote part of the time to detailing our task of protecting indigenous flora and to dealing with the legal aspects of plant species protection in France. By introducing visitors in the greenhouses to exotic species on the very brink of extinction, we enable them to understand better why, in our own country, we must preserve and protect threatened plants.

Therefore, we also receive groups made up of local councillors, decision-makers, administrators and members of nature conservancy bodies who turn to us for a global account of plant heritage preservation.

We are also called upon by educational establishments to partner their educational projects. Thus, we have entrusted pupils with the care of endangered species with potentially healing properties, which they grow in their medicinal plant garden at school; on behalf of the Conservatoire Botanique. In addition, the pupils following a specialist course have taken part in recording the stations of a protected plant on a Breton island and others are twinned with a school in the Seychelles and exchange information about threatened plants from the Indian Ocean which we cultivate in our greenhouses.

We are also involved in the production of teaching tools which are used as support materials for our conservation education programmes.

In 1995, we laid out an interpretative trail in the greenhouses based on the conservation of threatened species, which has been used by over 30 000 visitors. We have an exhibition on the protected plants of Brittany, which we regularly put on display in our visitors' centre. In the garden, a circular walk enables our visitors to discover the endangered plants that we grow. Lastly, we collaborate on the writing of articles which detail the work of the Conservatoire Botanique and the programmes we run about species close to extinction.

As the Conservatoire Botanique exists in principle to preserve endangered species, the educators are not the only staff responsible for raising public awareness of conservation issues. In particular, the scientific and administrative personnel, in the course of their work, are also involved in raising awareness amongst specific groups of people.

Botanists estimate that one plant species in four in the world is threatened with extinction. Whilst it is a matter of urgency that conservatoires and botanic gardens work together to try to save some of these through cultivation, it is absolutely crucial that they combine their efforts to raise public awareness of conservation issues, if we are to ensure the sustainable existence of these species within their natural environment. Conservation education is therefore central to the global strategy adopted by the National Conservatoire Botanique de Brest aimed at successfully safeguarding plant diversity.