'‘Has the importance of money, income and image muddled the fundamental goal of just standing up for nature?’'

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By Stephen Le Quesne

TWO events this week have caused me to question the state and role of wildlife charities in society today. Is it time we question their purpose? Or even their impact or image?

How do you write an opinion piece on a place or institution that you do not want to anger? Or upset? About somewhere which evokes many positive memories? It is a conundrum.

During the past week animal welfare at Jersey Zoo has been in the headlines and how they may be, slowly but surely, walking away from Gerald’s legacy, his beliefs and ethos. Where is the fine line between respecting and honouring legacy but not being so rigid that you become relics yourselves?

Luckily for me, there was also a news story regarding the RSPB and how they backtracked from a social media post where they accused the UK government of being dishonest. This I find fascinating as what they were saying was essentially true but, due to pressure, they quickly issued an apology.

Has conservation become too corporate? Has the importance of money, income and image muddied the fundamental goal of standing up for nature?

Firstly, Jersey Zoo. The Zoo sent out a statement from their board of trustees, in response to a letter posted on social media that detailed animal welfare concerns relating to a few of the animals there. It is not helpful or useful going into the exact details, but I found the language of the statement quite interesting. It was a little aggressive, especially when it stated that the board ‘deplores malicious or ill-founded accusations against individuals’.

From what I have read they do not appear to be ‘malicious’, just concerns from an ex-employee. Even though the way the concerns were publicly raised was not perfect, the concerns are genuine, and they are not alone in their worries.

Secondly, the RSPB issued a public apology regarding a post on Twitter (now called X), which outright called the current UK government liars. A bit harsh? Maybe. But what they said was essentially true as the government had backtracked on previous promises about environmental regulations, claiming that they had done more when, in reality, they are planning to scrap water-pollution protections with regard to new building developments. There was considerable support for this outburst, and a relief that finally a wildlife charity had called out what was happening.

However, an apology quickly followed and what came to light was the influence of an RSPB trustee in relation to the apology and their current and previous links to the UK government.

Muddied waters and a situation which leaves questions. It is essential that the organisations who are here to protect and be a voice for wildlife are allowed to be so. One could argue that they have stayed quiet for too long.

The impression that stays in my mind from these two events is that the environmental and conservation charity sector are in unclear waters and may be distant from the reality of things on the ground, of the feelings and needs of the public. I know that this is a general statement, but it feels as if both organisations have started to lose their identity, the essence of their mission.

For several years now, my main worry has been how distant wildlife charities are to the public and to the day-to-day lives of people who take no interest in nature. Do you think they are out of touch? It is up to every individual who is reading this to decide for themselves. More than likely, some in the environmental sector will say I am wrong, some may even say I have a point, but I really think there is something here to focus on.

We have an issue of how conservation and the environment are still on the outskirts of society, not integrated with how we live our lives. There is also the increasing impression that they are more aggressive and vocal when defending their image and standing, rather than exerting political pressure or taking a stand on a particular subject.

There are many who feel that wildlife NGOs should not be political, there are charters that may prevent them from being so, but perhaps those times of watching from afar have passed. The natural world is dying, and other groups are asserting political pressure.

I realise I am saying all of this from the outside and I do not know the exact details, but what I hope I can comment on is the impression and overlying message of the responses to what has happened. It is right to ask questions here, to question the direction, especially as it concerns a subject that is very close to my heart and one that impacts us all.

  • Stephen Le Quesne is a naturalist, conservationist, forest school leader and nature connection advocate.

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