Cameron Stephenson, Public Affairs Advisor at Chester Zoo, writes about why zoos and aquariums belong at the heart of politics…
“Why is a zoo at conference?”, has possibly been the most asked question over the few weeks when delegates visited Chester Zoo’s exhibition stand and found our team, joined by staff from BIAZA, ZSL and RZSS, putting forward the importance of the sector to politicians.
The answer was broad because the work of zoos and aquariums is so wide reaching. So much of what we do is about answering the question, what do we want our society to look like? We want nature to thrive and this underpins everything else: clean air, clean water, sustainably sourced food, well-being, and culture.
Zoos and aquariums are inherently part of an optimistic view of, and path towards, the future. That is why our organisations are inherently political and why we attended the Labour and Conservative party conferences.
Of course, the shorter answer was “Use Zoos.” – our expertise can help Government to achieve access to nature targets, can help the UK to tackle its position as the most nature depleted nation in the G7, and can help policy makers perfect their ideas through consultation with our sector.
Over the duration of the party conferences, we made these points as we engaged thousands of attendees, including Ministers, Members of Parliament, local councillors, prospective parliamentary candidates for the upcoming General Election, and representatives of other environmental NGOs.
Party conferences are always slightly odd places, and whilst the food is always beige, the refreshments always warm, and the conclusion of fringe events almost always “further discussion required,” – this year’s exhibition halls were full of eye-catching stands and causes. It was particularly fantastic to see nature getting a thorough outing with stands from our friends at WWF, RSPB, the Woodland Trust, and others.
With so many voices in the room, we knew we needed to capture the attention of conference. This is why we brought with us Raya, a model of a life-sized Sumatran tigress – who is currently living at Chester Zoo.
Alongside other props, Raya brought to life the vitally important conservation work of zoos to save endangered species, not least because – we estimate- that there are more MPs in Westminster than Sumatran Tigers in the world.
On top of this Raya enabled us to talk to delegates about sustainable palm oil, deforestation, breeding programmes and more.
As well as our eye-catching tiger, our exhibition stand also featured Chester Zoo’s work closer to home. The Nature Recovery Corridor project in Cheshire shows what zoos can do to improve the lives of residents and their access to nature, at the same time as restoring habitats for local wildlife. This project has recently been shortlisted for the Great British Wildlife Restoration Award – for which MPs and Peers will vote to decide a winner.
Alongside our exhibition stand Chester Zoo also sponsored a panel discussion at both major party conferences. These standing-room only events saw zoos speak alongside politicians about the biodiversity crisis and what needs to be done to save nature. BIAZA zoos are experts on these matters, and it is right that this expertise is recognised within the political landscape.
Conference requires months of work, from concept to logistics and then execution, but not only did all this effort culminate in engaging countless policymakers, it also saw Chester Zoo take home the highly competitive top prize at the Labour party conference for best exhibition stand – something I’m personally very proud of.
So, as strange as some might find it for zoos to be involved in politics, our future as institutions is decided by politicians, and the nature we rely on, and help protect, is dependent on policies set by politicians. Therefore, it’s clear that zoos and aquariums cannot afford to sit out of politics.
If you’re interested in getting more involved in reaching out to politicians, drop a message to the BIAZA or Chester Zoo team. Together we can make a huge difference.
By Cameron Stephenson, Public Affairs Advisor at Chester Zoo
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