‘Wildlife’. ‘Nature’. Do we understand what those words mean? If not, and I think that’s the case, we had better be careful how we use them.
A few days ago, somewhat tongue in cheek, I posted my version of the Top Ten UK Wildlife Experiences. Today I Googled that term – and got a lion! This is TalkTalk – the mobile phone company – offering advice on wildlife experiences. I don’t know what they know about that but I bet they know loads about mass markets, leisure and words. So their definition of wildlife experience is instructive.
Three involves animal-related transport – horse riding in the Brecons, llama trekking in Northamptonshire, husky doggsledding in Norfolk.
I have suspected for some time that what my friends in the nature conservation movement mean by wildlife and nature is very different from what their visitors, and more particularly their non-visitors, understand. Talk Talk seems to be telling me I am right.
And this matters because? Certainly not because I have any problem with any of the tourism businesses on the list, some I have visited , others I think I would enjoy (especially husky dogs in Norfolk!). It may matter because it shows a gulf in mindset.
It suggests again that for many people contact with nature can mean petting a llama or seeing a captive crab. Which is fine but it does not connect with nature conservation, the desire to maintain spaces and places for non-human species to live wild and free. It may mean too that when a nature reserve offers a ‘wildlife experience’, the promise may be misunderstood by new audiences and the experience may therefore underdeliver. It increases my concerns about the quality of the wild tourism experience and the temptation (not always resisted) to over- and misleading selling of unpredictable nature.
Maybe more than that, I am saddened because this list focusses on animals captive or domesticated, docile, predictable and packaged. It takes the wildness, the wildnerness, the chance, the chaos and unpredictability out of the experience.
It therefore heightens the challenge for people who want to communicate the beauty and wonder of wild nature. For people like me, who want to believe that if people can just see it they will be converted, and will care. It suggests that a red-breasted goose in a pen may be all the red-breasted goose we need.
Therefore it worries me. And not only because I spent last week writing about the international conservation efforts to save this most splendid bird for the London Wetland Centre.