Can urban residents become conservationists?

Here's an email from "bass-playing birder" Nigel Birch, sent to Oriental Bird Club group, evidently responding to message from a birder wondering about publicising birds in urban areas.

Worthwhile, I think: to me, we need strong conseration ethos, yet how to create this when so many people now live disconnected from nature?

I was intrigued by your musings as they touch on something I have been thinking about a lot recently as I prepare a talk on birdwatching (specifically the role of the amateur) for local young people in the city where I work.

First I would say, don't worry. You have excellent credentials - a year and a half of looking for information you can't find seems an excellent qualification for asking the questions you pose!

The root of the problem it seems to me is that in the West - particularly the UK (which has a long history) the US and western Europe there is a history of amateur ornithology and awareness of birds - define it how you want, but I would add from the little old lady feeding the ducks in the park through to the dedicated hobbyists and 'twitchers' who birdwatch in their spare time and have developed an impressive knowledge of their neighbourhood's, region's and country's birds.

Some of this activity is recorded into county and other Reports, and is also channelled into scholarly professional research via surveys, etc organised by the professional bodies like the BTO and the RSPB in the UK. In addition local groups like the one I was a member of in the UK increasingly carry out their own local surveys and go beyond reports into mapping distributions, population trends, producing Atlases, etc. This means that there is a wealth of information for potential authors to draw on in writing the 'Where to watch...' type guides.

Elsewhere in the world (including where I am currently based - south China) this tradition is non-existent. Birds may feature in the local culture - but often only registering as cultural icons (eg Cranes), food, pets or pests. What ornithology does is exist has until recently been solely professional. It's interesting that you should pick Keoladeo to contrast with the dearth of information in your region, because my recollection is that this was set up initially as a hunting area under the British colonial rule.

What I think your experience reflects is that as new reserves have been established in this region and as tourists have come, the publications and the focus is on the more spectacular aspects - big cats, game animals , scenery - rather than on other parts of the wildlife - for example birds. I think in turn this reflects the background of those involved in the promotion, the interests of the majority of visitors and local population.

In short, the published information reflects the areas where there are rare species because that is where birding tourists from the west have gone, or where conservation efforts have been concentrated (and publicised). In contrast, elsewhere, there are no little old ladies feeding ducks in the park, no people putting out peanuts for the garden birds and few local birdwatchers watching and reporting on their local patches.

Result: information on the sites holding the rarities, but little about what visitors (or indeed locals) might expect to find in their parks and if they have them, gardens.

So in answer to your last point maybe yes, you should think about writing 'Birding from my balcony'. And you should try and find like minded local souls who can go out with you and between you get enthused about what's around you. There are some groups already - they should be encouraged.

Often the interest of a foreign visitor helps raised their profile amongst local people and politician who might start thinking that maybe there's something in this after all. In Oriental region I think we have a particular part to play. We only have to look at Saemaengeum to see what ignorance and apathy in the majority of the population can do when coupled to the greed of property developers and speculators. Or visit wildlife markets to see the scale of the trade in wild caught birds and other animals. And it will only get worse if we do nothing.

According to the UN next year sees a landmark in human history - for the first time more people will live in cities than in the countryside. Whole generations will be growing up who won't have seen the stars, whose only exposure to greenery will be manicured parks and gardens, often devoid of any wildlife.

How can they be expected to protect the wild places and their inhabitants, or to understand how their lifestyles (eating habits, pet keeping, etc) affect the world they live in but can't see? How can the politicians who will come from these backgrounds be expected to give wildlife a high priority when few of them understand or appreciate the issues now?

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