A study will help zoos, nature reserves, field studies centres, museums and schools work together to help protect endangered species. Bernard Adams reports
How good are you on bio-diversity? Try this: Q. Do only birds have feathers? A. Yes. Feathers are the one special thing that makes a bird a bird. Or this: Q. Do only birds fly? A. Flying doesn't make a bird a bird. Bats fly.
These are just two of the hundreds of biodiversity facts visitors can discover at Drusillas Zoo Park at Alfriston in Sussex. Drusillas is one of dozens of sites being visited by a team preparing a report on bio-diversity education for the Council for Environmental Education.
The report will be published in the autumn as a guide to good practice for the providers of biodiversity education - zoos, botanic gardens, wildlife reserves, museums, field study centres and the like. The report is part of the CEE's strategy for increasing public awareness of biodiversity. After the Earth Summit of 1992 the Government prepared an action plan which was followed by the UK Biodiversity Report last December. The CEE is pleased that almost all of the recommendations it made have been included in that document.
"Education and public awareness," says CEE policy research officer Margaret Fenely, "are integral to the whole process of action on biodiversity. This is the message we've tried to put across to the Government. In any action plan - for example, to save a species - education is vital if lasting change is to be achieved."
So how will this latest CEE report help teachers and pupils spot a useful place to visit to further their biodiversity education? David Elcome is its author. He wants to help a diverse band of providers get across the basic messages about biodiversity in a coherent and interesting way. He wants them to "explain what it is, how we humans depend on it, how it is threatened by, for example, global warming, and how we can begin to achieve the ultimate goal of sustainability" .
"What I'm looking for," he says, "is a teaching or interpretative programme that captures interest and enthuses or inspires. The key to this is a hands-on element - direct involvement by the participant of whatever age. The provider needs to be an enthusiast - someone who is prepared to consider people and their needs as well as the environment in all its biodiversity."
Drusillas Zoo Park is likely to get good marks for its contribution to biodiversity education - even though neither word is much mentioned on the site. It has developed over six decades from a tea shop with animals into what has been described as the best small zoo in the country. So what does it teach the 300,000 who visit every year?
Its owners have made "low tech, kid-powered" education" a prime objective. As soon as you step through the turnstiles the concept of evolution is brought to life with a mixture of print and real animals. Simple text (and touch-pads for the visually impaired) lead you forward from the primeval slime to reptiles (a snake flicks a lazy fang at you on the other side of comfortingly thick glass).
Then come birds - with tactile skeletons helpfully embedded in the wall beside the cages - then dinosaurs (text only). Next the earliest mammals (tree shrews lark about as an illustration), then primates (tiny, appealing geri and cappuchin monkeys), and finally a large mirror with the bald text: "You are looking at the next stage of life on earth - man."
Everything happens at the right height for three to 12-year-olds, the numerous fact flaps are endlessly tempting (Q. Do only insects have antennae? A. No. Woodlice do). For children there are lambs to fondle, pigs to marvel at, a chance to nudge and wink over pooh and penises as the monkeys perform their high-speed trapeze.
There are guides for school parties as well. Andrew Bagnall, an ex-teacher who is now a permanent employee at Drusillas, is taking around a party from the New Life Christian School in Croydon, Surrey. He tells them, very quietly, about the serval cats - how fast they can run over a short distance and how in a single jump they can bag three birds from an ascending flock. He explains how cats are really only sprinters - dogs are much better over long distances. Then he takes them on to the highly threatened lemurs of Madagascar with their graceful striped tails.
Not all providers of wildlife experience are of this quality educationally. Some are primarily tourist attractions where the gawp factor can predominate, where sensation ("aren't sharks frightening?") tends to win over education.
The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust's new Discovery Centre at Washington, Tyne and Wea, offers another example of how biodiversity can be addressed. The centre is surrounded by 102 acres of wetlands which contain 80 different species of birds. Indoors children (and adults) can progress around the centre, starting with models of how wetlands evolved from coral reefs and mangrove swamps. Then come two tanks filled with live samples of the fish that swim in the nearby river Wear. Next, a stage-by-stage account of the development of the duck egg, at the end of which younger pupils get a chance to sit in one of the largest ones.
Visitors are encouraged to use a microscope and examine the hugely magnified picture on a screen; made aware of how many animals' futures are threatened by human activities - such as handbag making; and helped to discover what unlikely foods the wetlands provide (marshmallows and cran-berries are two).
Doug Hulyer, of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge, Gloucestershire, is the chair of the 20-strong CEE working group that commissioned the report. He stresses the diversity of the institutions involved in biodiversity education. "Zoos go down one road, museums another, nature reserves a third," he says. "What we want to achieve is a bit of cross-fertilisation between all these different organisations. Individuals who work in very small sites will benefit from having the larger picture and examples of good practice laid out in the report."
CEE:Tel: 0118 9756061 Drusillas Zoo Park, Alfriston, Sussex. Tel: 01323 870656 The Discovery Centre, Washington, Tyne and Wear. Tel: 0191 416 5454