I had the good fortune of visiting Slimbridge this past November. The purpose of my visit was to understand in greater detail how a wetland centre works, how WWT has developed the wetland centre concept, what type of activities are carried out in order to give life to that concept and which are the particular characteristics that have made its centres so successful in educating people and creating awareness on the importance of wetlands. My experience far exceeded my expectations.
The first activity I witnessed was a local primary school class visit. The learning session started at the Peng Observatory, where the educational team introduced wetlands to the children by explaining how important they are for the humankind and for the varied bird species that visit Slimbridge every year, such as the Graylag Geese, the Shelduck, the Common Cranes, the Tufted Duck and the swans, some of which have returned to the centre for more than 17 winters, as in the case with Sandy, a female swan that each year migrates from Russia along with her lifetime partner and offspring. Later we moved to the cinema, where the kids watched a presentation on the migratory birds that visit Slimbridge, what routes they take and the obstacles and threats that put their migrations at risk. The activity ended up outdoors where the children were able to integrate their learning experience through play. Generally I consider these kinds of activities boring and that they underestimate children´s intelligence and motivation, however, I was amazed to see how creative and educational they were. The kids were having fun and interested in learning more about the subject.
Some of the other planned activities for the school group were: to visit a bird hide and the area where the resident flamingos live; learned how an old waterfowl hunting decoy works; and visited an old hunting cottage, where the pupils learned about the anatomy of some birds. After all this, they were also able to understand why places like Slimbridge exist and how important they are in protecting birds from human activities that threaten their survival. Lastly, the session concluded with a conversation with the centre´s CEO, Martin Spray, who told the children about the story of the WWT, Sir Peter Scott, its founder, and the special importance of Slimbridge, where Scott lived for several years and started his conservation work.
In the afternoon I walked around the wetland in the company of Chris Rostron, head of Wetland Link International at WWT, met the centre´s Consultancy team, and ultimately understood why this place works and is so successful in achieving the overall goal of a wetland centre: to bring people and wildlife together and educate them in order to make them into the main protectors of nature.
As the director of the Nature Sanctuary of Tunquen, a coastal wetland located on the central coast of Chile, I was stunned and inspired to replicate this model of wetland centres in my country. Although the environmental scenario in South America can be often daunting, when looking at examples like Slimbridge, its team engagement and passion, the creativity that shows in every single detail and the benefits that the centre provides to the wetlands at a local, regional and global level, I left Slimbridge with new energy just before coming home and getting back to my work. My challenge now is to infect not only my team but a whole community with this enthusiasm, and try to convey the message that a wetland centre like Slimbridge is possible for countries like ours as well.