A pioneering partnership is helping put conservation at the top of the agenda at a popular UK zoo.
Researchers from the University of York’s Environment Department have teamed up with Flamingo Land Theme Park and Zoo to form a unique research institute dedicated to conservation awareness and education.
The CIRCLE institute – Centre for the Integration of Research, Conservation and Learning – was launched at the North Yorkshire theme park in October 2010. Jointly funded by the University and Flamingo Land, it is playing an important role in protecting habitats and species both locally and internationally.
Its work so far includes helping to design and evaluate a new penguin pool, developing the conservation areas within the holiday park, and carrying out research on how best to protect Tanzanian rainforests.
The CIRCLE team is led by Dr Andy Marshall, Director of Conservation at Flamingo Land and Lecturer at the University of York, and is made up of four Research Interns and a Zoo Education Strategist.
Dr Marshall says: “The role of the modern zoo is constantly changing and evolving. At Flamingo Land we are helping to put together a scientifically driven management strategy for all our animals – 20 per cent of which are endangered or extinct in the wild - allowing them to thrive both physically and emotionally.
“We are also playing a significant role in conserving global biodiversity through our Udzungwa Forest Project, which involves working with local people and researchers in Tanzania to conserve threatened species and local habitats.”
The team’s support in protecting the environment both at home and on a global stage has already resulted in Flamingo Land winning a Gold David Bellamy Conservation Award.
Ross Snipp, Zoo Manager at Flamingo Land, said: “Our partnership with a top ranking university through the CIRCLE institute makes us unique as there is no other holiday park in the UK with its own research facility of this kind. Its launch has been a significant step forward for us, putting our conservation and research work onto a new level.”
Part of the CIRCLE team’s remit is to research animal behaviour. Wild schemes, such as giving big cats, chimpanzees and lemurs toys such as pumpkins to ‘carve’ at Halloween, have provided researchers with unique opportunities to study animal behaviour at close quarters. The activities have also proved a hit with animals and visitors alike.
The team is improving conservation education at the zoo by modernising its range of programmes, incorporating scientific theory as well as aspects of the National Curriculum. Cat Hickey, the Zoo Education Strategist, is funded through a Knowledge Transfer Partnership grant – a scheme where the University works with a business to improve its competitiveness. Recently she has been busy advising on signage and children’s education for the theme park’s latest attraction – Children’s Planet.
The CIRCLE Interns are also evaluating education programmes within zoo settings and researching zoo usage, for example, visitor numbers and aspects of the visitor experience such as sign usage.
Flamingo Land’s Udzungwa Forest Project based in Tanzania aims to break new ground for zoo-funded conservation by bridging the gap between research and conservation. CIRCLE is looking at how tropical forest animals and plants in the Udzungwa Mountains can be best conserved. The project aims to train Tanzanian villagers and graduates in ecological monitoring, improve resources and income in rural areas, and promote and advertise the exceptional beauty and biodiversity of the Udzungwa Mountains.
An important part of CIRCLE’s role is to involve the local community in native wildlife conservation. Earlier this year, an army of local residents and University volunteers spent a weekend helping park staff plant 2,000 native trees as part of a conservation partnership between the Woodland Trust and Flamingo Land. The woods will form part of the park’s conservation areas, which the CIRCLE team is helping to develop. An important initiative has involved planting cornfield flowers to help maintain seed stocks. Local birdlife is also being encouraged onto the site by putting up 45 bird nest boxes, including an owl box.