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Calculating extinction; finding ways to get children thinking

‘The sixth mass extinction is already underway’ the Guardian reports. ‘We only have 20 years to halt it’ the Telegraph adds. A new study by the University of Lund, Sweden, and the University of British Columbia, Canada has advised that the best ways to reverse the impact we are having on the planet is to stop using air travel, to give up the car, have fewer children and switch to a vegetarian or plant-based diet. Trading tumble dryers for hanging clothes out to dry and switching off lights are also factors that we can contribute, to do our bit.

It’s great when these stories come back around and remind us to think about our impact on the planet, but to me, nothing says it better than the incredible documentary; Racing Extinction. Now that the initial hype of a documentary release has died down, I found myself wondering about the impact of the school resources that I worked on whilst at my previous job at Discovery Education. Do they still have the same momentum without the film release? Because they need it!

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Educating children is the key to improving the condition of the planet for future generations. Giving them the chance to see the mistakes of the generations before them, and empowering them to not only avoid those mistakes, but improve upon them, is an incredibly powerful tool.

For this reason, when I was approached through my job at National Geographic Kids to suggest a challenge for gifted children, as part of Potential Plus UK‘s 50th anniversary, I felt it was a good opportunity to think about what the last 50 years that the programme has been in existence have meant for natural history.

Creating a Maths challenge, I suggested a method for estimating the amount of species decline, which included researching the rapidly increasing rate of extinction — and looking ahead over the next 50 years to estimate how many more species we are likely to lose if things don’t change.

The challenge was included in the ’50 Challenges for 50 Years’ Book, which was launched on the organisation’s Family Challenge Day and given to the gifted and talented children to try at home with their family.

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Check out the challenge on Potential Plus UK’s website, and give it a go yourself. As well as testing your maths skills, I’m hoping it serves as a humbling opportunity to see the need to protect species — and the consequences we may face if we don’t.

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Time to teach Natural History classes? Calls for a new GCSE

There’s nothing like waking up to sunshine creeping through the window and the sound of early morning birdsong.

I love the hustle and bustle of chaotic London; it’s become my home over the last four years —but when it comes to downtime, I only want to get back to nature.
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April has been a wonderful month. It began with a week-long trip to the countryside; no phones, no internet, not even so much as a SatNav or a watch!

Now, I’m usually someone who loves technology — my job in children’s educational media is so dependent on sharing information online, and of course I love my gadgets for blogging — but making a deliberate effort to put all that aside and make room for nature is also really important to me.

I grew up in Thetford, East Anglia, so am well-versed in exploring the early signs of spring in the trees and plants of Thetford Forest. I kicked off last April with a trip to Scarning Dale, near to Thetford, and loved it so much that I had to return again this year.

A truly idyllic setting, it provided the chance to watch the birds through the window, to see tadpoles hatching in the pond at the bottom of the garden, and to take the relatively short trip to the North Norfolk coast to see colonies of Atlantic grey seals lazing at the sea’s edge with their growing young.

The changing attitudes to Natural History study

To lose myself even more in my countryside surroundings, I prepared for my trip by visiting my local secondhand book shop in London, which has one of the best Natural History sections of any book shop I’ve known!

I picked up a book called ‘Animal Lover’s Book’ by Enid Blyton, thinking that her comfy — somewhat twee — writing style that I remembered from my childhood would provide just the right level of cosy nostalgia for a trip back to where I grew up.

The book is a complete gem! Beautifully illustrated, full of information on British wildlife, quaint poems and boasting ‘full colour plates’ mixed throughout its chapters; there’s a kind of charm that’s hard to find these days.

Printed in 1957, it was of course wonderfully dated, in just the way I was looking for, but one of the things that really struck me was the level of effort and detail that had gone into providing additional information for children wanting to learn more about British wildlife.

“I am sure there will be children who want to know a few more technical details than are given in the main story,” assumes the author, “and these notes are mainly for them.”

I’m trying to imagine seeing something similar in modern day children’s books.

The author goes on to provide further facts and illustrations of every animal included in the book; badgers, foxes, mice, newts, lizards, deer, rabbits, hares, moles, shrews, etc, etc.

The illustrations show male and female sketches of the species’, and information includes everything from the family names of each species to the number of subspecies belonging to those families that reside in Britain. Pretty impressive for a children’s storybook!

My trip down memory lane brought home the changes in attitudes towards the natural world even more, when I returned from my holiday to read a Guardian article published at the start of April, which highlighted the view that:

“a majority of children no longer climb trees or play by streams and ponds, have become largely unfamiliar with even common wildlife, and are leading enclosed lives that are potentially harmful for their emotional and physical development.”

The article draws attention to a recently launched petition calling for the development of a GCSE in Natural History, referencing the fact that words such as ‘acorn’, ‘adder’, ‘ash’, ‘beech’, ‘bluebell’, and ‘conker’… (the list goes on), have been removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary to make way for words such as ‘analogue’, ‘broadband’, ‘bullet-point’, and ‘chatroom’. My, times really have changed since Enid Blyton wrote that book!

Calling for a Natural History GCSE

The petition, started by nature writer and radio producer Mary Colwell, emphasizes the UK’s outstanding nature writing, art, poetry and film, and how integral to our culture and heritage this has been.

Of course, I completely agree with the concept that “it is vital to understand the contribution nature makes to our lives physically, culturally, emotionally and scientifically both in the past and today”, as written in the petition’s blurb.

natural history GCSE petition

It reminds me of working with Discovery Education to promote the incredible documentary Racing Extinction. After working with a team to edit the film into manageable, self-contained clips suitable for classroom projects (mainly aimed at secondary school students; i.e. those preparing for their GCSEs), I delivered an assembly to primary school children to introduce them to some of the endangered species present within the documentary.

A simple set of questions where pupils had to choose the correct answer between ‘manta ray’ and ‘polar bear’ provided a great ice breaker for getting pupils to think about the environments that these animals might live in and the characteristics / adaptations they may possess.

Kate on Conservation racing extinction assembly

To focus on British wildlife, as well as the exciting exotic animals seen in Racing Extinction, I invited Dominic Dyer of Born Free Foundation to talk about the wildlife that children can experience in their own daily lives. And it captivated them.

The experience of directly educating children in this way about the incredible natural world around them really cemented in me the desire to continue working in children’s education.

I have been fortunate enough to spend the last six months doing just that — creating primary school resources for National Geographic Kids, including a wealth of material about animals and the natural world.

These free lesson resources provide information about wild animals from across the globe, and I really hope that they are able to one day contribute to a stronger Natural History study within the school curriculum.

Nat geo kids website animals resource

If you would like to sign the petition to see a Natural History GCSE introduced into the school curriculum, please follow the link here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/176749

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A compassionate voice to educate

I first met Sharon Bull at a march against the Taiji Cove dolphin slaughter in early 2015. I admired her for standing in front of the huge crowd, gathered in Trafalgar Square, and speaking so passionately, poetically and unashamedly about her journey to becoming a wildlife campaigner, and why ‘compassion’ to others – albeit human or animal, has become her key to inner happiness.

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It was quite an honour to be asked to share a guest blog post on her website, A Compassionate Voice.

Admittedly, it was hard for me — as someone who knows a little about a lot of wildlife-related issues (or perhaps even, a bit about a few…) — to choose a viable topic.

I know I have a lot to learn, and I’m genuinely excited about doing so! In fact, all learning excites me, so education became my starting point…

My Guest Blog started a little like this:

The biggest battle a conservationist or animal rights campaigner has to fight is against ignorance; sometimes well intended ignorance at that. I say that not with anger, or jest, or any hint of superiority; I say it because it’s the straightforward truth.

I say it because I’ve spent most of my life being both well intended and ignorant.

A more important point to focus on however, is how to improve education and access to information to empower people to learn what the bigger picture looks like (often related to money, politics and corruption) behind some of the commonly acceptable practices that involve animals.

I am fortunate enough to work in part of the Discovery Communications family; which, at the end of last year, released the incredibly thought-provoking documentary; Racing Extinction.

Racing Extinction takes a candid look at the threat of the Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction, and the global warming conditions that are likely to ignite it.

By looking at the historical scientific evidence that caused the previous mass extinctions (including the most infamous; the dinosaurs), film maker Louis Psihoyos (Director of The Cove) suggests that our planet’s current rise in temperature means we are sitting on a ticking time bomb.

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By examining issues such as the carbon emissions of farming and city traffic, the environmental impact of overfishing and the rise in the ocean’s acidity levels, Psihoyos sets about finding ways to reduce humans’ impact on the planet, and effectively slow down the clock that we started.

So what does this have to do with ignorance? Read the full post here to find out!

 

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Introduction to Wildlife Photography Day Course — Woodbury Wetlands

Sometimes, to really fall in love with nature; to understand and appreciate it, we need to see it, beautifully framed and thoughtfully presented.

It’s great to read a dramatic, well-researched, personality-led article in the likes of say, National Geographic magazine, but when that article is teamed with a bird’s eyes view of arctic wolves on the hunt; red blood penetrating thick white snow, or a herd of wildebeest scrabbling up the muddy edge of a river bank, frantically seeking a sure spot for their feet to fall, to avoid the the snapping jaws of a crocodile… then the story really comes to life.

National Geographic magazine is one of my favourite sources of photojournalism. Such magnificent storytelling visuals, particularly their abundance of wildlife photography, not only connects audiences with natural history, but also serves as a last frontier for recording near-extinct, species; as proven by Joel Sartre’s Photo Ark project (featured in the Oscar-nominated Discovery documentary, Racing Extinction).

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The power of photography in these such cases cannot be contested. I love photography, and ever since visiting the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the National History Museum earlier in the year, I’ve been inspired to get back in touch with using a camera and my own desire to dabble in some amateur wildlife photography.

Shooting on a Nikon D80, and occasionally an iPhone, I have joined a social media group through my work (I work for Discovery Education by day), called Discovery Shutterbugs. It’s a fantastic place to share some of my shots with my colleagues, to receive tips and advice, as well as some much needed constructive criticism!

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I’ve managed to fit in a few ‘nature days’ since moving to London in November. Earlier in the year, around Easter time, I stayed at a beautiful cottage with my partner, in a place called Scarning, in Norfolk. Set amongst the idyllic grounds of Scarning Dale estate, we stayed in the quaint Rose Cottage, which had visits from wildlife everyday, and I took the above selection of photographs, which I have since shared on Discovery Shutterbugs, and on my Wildlife Photography page on this blog.

When I’m not able to escape to the country, I have been finding places of nature to relax in around the City, my favourites being Ravenscourt Park (which is on my doorstep), St. James’s Park and the beautiful, expansive Richmond Park.

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After spending a few months reacquainting with my camera, I enrolled on my first ever camera course: An Introduction to Wildlife Photography. Obviously the title sounded entirely my cup of tea, but also, the day’s course would take place in an area of London I’d never been before; Woodbury Wetlands, and is associated with an organisation that (for my shame) I know little about; London Wildlife Trust.

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Woodberry Wetlands is an incredible patch of land, a short walk from Manor House tube station. The reserve stretches 17 hectares and encompasses reed-fringed ponds and dykes that are abundant with wildlife, including birds and waterfowl, bats and amphibians.

According to its website, “Prior to the building of the new river and reservoirs, the Woodberry Down area was in fact not a wetland at all! On the crest of a hill, the area is rather known confusingly known as ‘down land’, hence the name Woodberry Down. 600 years ago the was rolling grass meadows, pastures for cattle and small woodlands, probably home to dear and wild boar, as well as a number of small hold peasant farmers.”

The reservoirs now on the site were constructed in 1833 to meet the growing demands for drinking water in the then suburban London ‘towns’ of Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill. By the 1950s, the reservoirs and New River were being treated with chlorine and sodium phosphate gas to ‘clean’ the water, resulting in them being devoid of any wildlife. By the early 1990s, Thames Water put the Stoke Newington reservoirs up for sale, and after a long campaign by local residents to stop them from being filled in, the reservoirs were saved and wildlife began to thrive as chlorine and sodium phosphate ceased to be used to clean the water.

Woodberry Wetlands was constructed this year and the Stoke Newington East Reservoir was opened to the public for the first time, by Sir David Attenborough, on the 30th April.

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Upon finally discovering and taking my first look around this beautiful setting, it was time to begin the course, run by Royal Photographic Society associate Penny Dixie. An incredible photographer, Penny used examples of her own fantastic work (well worth a look!) to explain camera basics; such as shutter speeds, aperture, white balance and controlling your exposure using histograms.

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Naturally, being a day course, it was a bit of a whistle stop tour of the basics, but few of us in the room were competent enough to need or desire any more than that; most had either heard of some of these controls, experimented with them occasionally, or were so out of practice that a good refresher was needed. I fell into the latter category.

But after a good morning of classroom-based theory, we were ready to try out some depth of field work, and sent out into the reserve to complete the following tasks:

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The results of my day’s work (all very proudly shot with my camera set to manual!) are shown below, please click on any of the images to enlarge. I’d love to know what you think, or any tips or hints you’d give me for improvement. I’m really hoping this is the start of a very rewarding learning curve for me!

The Introduction to Wildlife Photography Day Course will be running again in August I am told, so keep an eye out for information here.

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The ultimate race against time…

Today, the force of nature documentary that is Racing Extinction gets its UK dvd release.

I know I’ve raved about Oscar-nominated Racing Extinction on this blog before, but I have a special attachment to it, having worked on the Discovery Education school resources to accompany the film, and therefore having been invited to the UK premiere.Racing Extinction dvdRacing Extinction takes a candid look at the threat of the Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction, and the global warming conditions that are likely to ignite it.

By looking at the historical scientific evidence that caused the previous mass extinctions (including the most infamous; the dinosaurs), film maker Louis Psihoyos (Director of The Cove) suggests that our planet’s current rise in temperature means we are sitting on a ticking time bomb.

Racing Extinction

By examining issues such as the carbon emissions of farming and city traffic, the environmental impact of overfishing and the negative change to the ocean’s acidity levels, Psihoyos sets about finding ways to reduce humans’ impact on the planet, and effectively slow down the clock that we started.

‘Better to light one candle than curse the darkness…’

Racing Extincition comes with a very important and empowering ethos — that by working together to make change, we can all play our part in reversing some of the damage and destruction our planet has faced.

It is perhaps this message of hope, and the practical suggestions that we can ‘StartWith1Thing’ to really make a difference, that has made the film so popular. After being aired on the Discovery Channel across the globe, Racing Extinction became the most watched documentary of the last three years!

racing extinction quoteI recently had the opportunity to deliver a whole school assembly on the #StartWith1Thing movement, joining with one of the partners of the film: the Born Free Foundation, to inspire the next generation of ‘wildlife warriors’.

Assembly Claires CourtOne of the things that makes me so passionate about the Racing Extinction film and movement at large, is the time and care it has taken in using the opportunity of the documentary release to educate.

There are many things that I, myself, discovered for the first time while watching and researching this film (I’ll avoid giving too much away here, though), and by helping to create school resources that fit into the secondary school level National Curriculum, I felt like Racing Extinction is really making a difference.

For those who are interested in how Discovery is using Racing Extinction in the classroom, an on-demand virtual field trip is available here:

Racing extinction virtual field tripThe hour-long lesson fleshes out some of the important and relevant issues raised in the film, and challenges students to consider three areas where they can make a change, by asking:

What do you consume?
What do you dispose?
How did you consume your energy?

Racing Extinction is available to buy or download here.

racing extinction dvd package back

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Inspiring the next generation of wildlife protectors

Last week I had the fantastic honour of representing Discovery Education (for whom I work whilst wearing my 9-5 hat), in a special Racing Extinction assembly delivered to 300 young people at Claires Court Senior Boys School in Maidenhead.

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As part of my role at Discovery Education, I worked on the school resources for Racing Extinction – sub editing the content of all the lesson plans and presentations that supplement our chosen clips from the documentary. I also sub edited the descriptions/blurbs that went with each of the clips and the marketing material and public site, too.

2I knew that some of the assembly audience would have used these in their classes, but for those who weren’t entirely familiar with the documentary, I began the assembly with a trailer, before going on to explain that I’d actually spent time out in South Africa, at game reserve called Shamwari — to help work on conservation issues faced in the wild.

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For this particular talk, and given that I wanted to focus on the content on the actual Racing Extinction documentary, the main body of my presentation was about two specific animals – the polar and the manta ray.

I divided the room in half (a little trick given to me by Will Travers), with one side of the room representing the polar bear, and the other; the manta ray. I then read out 10 facts, asking students to declare whether the fact I had given was about their animal, by way of a show of hands.

The idea was to dispel myths and insert knowledge.

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Facts:

  1. The normal life expectancy of this animal in the wild is 40 years = manta ray
  1. The average weight of this animal is 1.4 tons = manta ray
  1. This animal mainly eats seals, which they catch using their remarkable sense of smell = polar bear
  1. This animal’s natural predator is the killer whale = manta ray
  1. There are 20,000-25,000 of these animals remaining in the wild = polar bear
  1. Global warming – resulting the rise of sea levels, sea temperatures and acidity of the sea has affected the availability of this animals main food source = both
  1. Climate change is currently the greatest single threat to this animal = polar bear
  1. Hunting by humans is a big threat to this animal. In the early days, they were hunted and killed so that the oils could be extracted from the body = manta ray
  1. This animal has international protection after CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) listed it in their appendices in 2013, meaning that their trade is heavily restricted = manta ray
  1. Finally, this animal shares its habitat with Ships and tankers of all kinds. Most of these ships use something called heavy fuel oil — meaning the animal is at great risk from leaks or spills which would be catastrophic to its environment = polar bear

I was surprised (and delighted) to see how well received the game was, and how much the students both engaged and considered their answers.

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As Born Free Foundation was a partner of Racing Extinction, working with Discovery to promote the film, I asked their policy advisor Dominic Dyer to join me as a special guest, speaking about important wildlife issues at home and abroad, the influence of films such as Racing Extinction, and how the young people in the room are the ones with the knowledge and the power to reverse some of the mistakes made by their parents’ generation.

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Thank you kindly to Claires Court School for inviting us along and for all the positive feedback we received! And thank you to Dominic for providing such fantastic and inspiring call to arms.Assembly Claires Court

Learn more about Discovery Education’s Racing Extinction resources here.

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Conservation: the cons, count downs and continuations

Unsurprisingly, BBC Wildlife magazine is a favourite of mine.

I’ve long enjoyed the columns and comments from BBC animal activist favourites, such as Simon King, Chris Packham and formerly Bill Oddie.

imageIn the summer, I read the magazine’s list of Britain’s top 50 conservation heroes with much interest and curiosity, furiously researching the names I hadn’t heard yet. I even managed to get my prized copy signed by number 4 on the list, Sir David Attenborough.

imageAttenborough found himself two places behind Chris Packham, who sat in 2nd place. A regular on Springwatch, a vocal opposer of the abuse seen on television shows such as I’m a Celebrity Get Me out of Here!, and a staunch campaigner against the bird hunting season in Malta, Packham seems to represent a great example for the generation who will eventually step into the giant footsteps of the likes of Attenborough and list-topper Jane Goodall.

imageBut something didn’t sit quite right for me.

In the very same issue, which contained bold statements from Sir David (he suggested that human beings are a plague on the planet), Packham is given an entire page to air the comparatively main stream and highly anti-conservationist view that zoos work well to educate the masses.

Zoos. Work well. To educate the masses?

10410128_321599458004605_7335837426737654323_nAs someone who KNOWS, first hand the damage that zoo environments inflict upon animals and the hard work that organisations such as the Born Free Foundation have to do to reverse just some of less-long lasting psychological effects these creatures are left with (and sadly most of the damage IS long-lasting and irreversible), I couldn’t believe Packham could advocate such things?!

Until I read his admission that his wife runs a zoo.

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Within his own blurb, on the same list that places him as the 2nd greatest conservation hero at present, Chris is quoted as saying “The worst are those putting the ‘con’ in conservation; organisations that care more about blindfolding their members than making a real difference.”

imageWould that not be zoos then, Chris?

I’ve written before about the way that zoos and safari parks are unquestionably entangled with education, and how, perhaps, it’s about time that relationship is subjected to a little questioning after all; and so, I felt that rather than repeat myself, I should shed a little light on where we could be focussing our conservation efforts instead.

Did you know that there is not one sustainable shark fishery on the planet? Why does education not teach us that? I never learned it from a zoo either.

shark fisheryOr that we’ve lost over half Africa’s lions in last 30 years. If we carry on at this rate, the African lion will be wiped out in 35 years.

So what can we do to enhance children’s education that’s not just a trip to the zoo to understand the relative scale of an adult male lion, regardless of environment and lack of opportunity to exercise natural behaviours?

imageTeach the message of Racing Extinction for a start. The documentary is already making its way into classrooms up and down the country, alongside various classroom resources and teachers’ aids, and in my (independent) opinion, that’s progress.

imageSecondly, we could improve schoolchildren’s knowledge of the work that’s being done to counteract some of the problems being faced in the natural world.

Will Travers joined a host of special guests at the London premiere of Racing Extinction last month, and discussed his own involvement in these areas…

This is exactly the kind of thing we could do with starting a conversation on.

Will Travers is the President of Born Free Foundation, which he founded with his mother, actor Virginia McKenna and father Bill Travers 30 years ago, and so his involvement is hands on. But there is also the important fact that everyday people are tackling conservation issues in everyday ways.

IMG_0118Just before Christmas, I joined the final 2015 instalment of the ongoing demonstrations against Taiji Cove.

This time, over a hundred people gathered outside the Japanese Embassy for most of the day and evening of the 18th December, culminating in a Racing Extinction-style building projections, in what could be seen as a call to arms for the next protest.

imageI will be joining this movement on the 16th January, alongside others who feel they want to make a difference (come say hi if you find yourself there – it’s open to anyone!), because the big changes really can start with ‘the little people’.

imageContinuing to look ahead to January and beyond, I will be focusing my attention on studying the concept of “StableCon” (Conversation through Stabilisation), so please keep an eye out for further info on this – perhaps most excitingly, however, I have joined Born Free’s Activate team, so perhaps my writing will begin to have wider impact (one can only hope).

But before I depart to pastures new in 2016; let me leave you with this one thought – A wildlife hero of mine once told me that to make the biggest impact on the issues faced in conservation and the natural world, all we’d need to do is have a conversation. If we talked to three people, and they in turn talked to three people, and each of those three talked to three more people – we could reach the ears of the whole world with 103 conversation starters. Whatever I do in 2016, I hope to be one of those conversation starters… Who’s ready to be one of the other 102?!