de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2003). The Wild Side of London. LMD. October 2003. Page 164. Volume 10, Issue 03. ISSN 1391-135X.
Future of Sri Lanka’s game parks and nature reserves may rest on understanding how global metropolises attract and manage visitors.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne discovers a wetland refuge on the outskirts of London
A chorus of unmusical honks filled the air drawing our attention skywards. A skein of Canada Geese flew over grcefully. Their black heads stretched forward, wings scything through the air, with each bird keeping pace in a V shaped formation. In the distance, a bright streak of light was being painted across the sky as a high altitude jet left behind a vapor trail. An autumnal sun lit up the condensing water particles, leaving the vapur trail gleaming against an otherwise dull sky.
In the reed beds ahead of us, a small flock of Gadwall, a kind of duck, were busy feeding. The males had adopted what is known as ‘eclipse plumage, a somewhat drabber coat of colours than the summer coat they use to attract the females in summer. Neverthless the black rear ends of the males were adequate to separate them from the similar females. Howard Ginn who was with us set up his telescop for Amila Salgado and myself to study them. The Swarovski, one of the finest optical instruments around, lit up the Gadwall. Amila exclaimed and enthused about the fine vermiculations on the ducks plumage. Through the ‘scope’ they seemed to be at arm’s reach. A Great-crested Grebe had also shed its fine summer plumage and was now in drab, nondescript winter plumage. It had its head tucked under its wings and seemed to have drifted into lethargy aware thet the onset of autumn was only a few weeks away.
Looking around, we admired the reedbeds, the flowering rushes on the edges, growing with the Phragmite reeds. A few dragonflies hawked around the water. An Admiral butterfly, a striking insect in dark brown with bright red fringes, flitted by. A natural paradise, a wetland paradise. We could have been anywhere in the heart of the English countryside. But we were not. We were in the London suburb of Barnes. Across an artifially created lake, a tall row of brick clad houses, in an ealry 1900’s style, betrayed our location.
Between us and them, were grass and reed covered islands and mud scrapes.Wetland habitats made by man to introduce wildlife to a city of several million. Common Terns called indignantly to each other as they whirled over the water to return periodically to the safe refuges of ‘tern rafts’, artifical floating islands,placed in the water. The soft, piping call of a Greenshank, drfited over adding a touch of aural magic to the visual magic of a serene wetland.
I had come with Amila, to appreciate the work of the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT), founded by the legendary Sir Peter Scott. What they have achieved is remarkable and a case study for any nation wishing to develop eco-tourism. The Wetlande Center at Barnes is minuscule to the relatively large National Parks and Forest reserves found in Sri Lanka. But there is no shortage of lessons to be learnt in how to manage facilites for visitors.
Our learning began when we arrived at the busy underground station at Hammersmith. The WWT have worked with the transport sector in London to ensure that the wetland is a showpiece tourism asset not just in the UK, but in Europe as a whole. The public bus we boarded did a special detour to drop us off at the wetland center. On arrival, we were greeted by a huge car park, an additional washroom and toilet block near the bus stop and lockable cubicles for safely parking bicycles. ‘Visitor management’ was very firmlsy stamped across the whole site. What a contrast to what we expereince in Sri Lanka.
We entered the complex over a bridge which crossed a wetland. A few Moorhens, swam along, bobbing their tails and displaying the white on the undersides. A Grey Heron, stood sternly beside the water, gazing coldy at the water for any unsuspecting fish which could fall victim. A Magpie, in contrasting black and white, surveyed the reedbeds from a vantage point on the roof. A few visitors in wheel chairs were easily wheeled in and we followed later. Ticketing was a smooth affair with a computerised system. A well articulated guide map was given which showed the walking trails, bidwatching hides and other visitor facilities.
The wave of merchandisation which is sweepeing across all visitor centers in Europe and indeed in all parts of the developed world was obvious. You entered the wetland center through the well stocked and spacious shop. Retail therapy awaits every visiotr to any well manged tourist site in Europe. The Wetland Center was no exception. To use the toilets or the restaurant in the wetland center’s main complex, one had to go through the shop. A point which should not be lost on architects who will be involved in raising the standards at Sri Lankan visitor centers.
Books, magazines, souvenirs, prints, art and knick knacks were on sale. Merchandising is a key element of raising revenues for the WWT to fund its conservation work. Our first port of call was the restaurant. It was good enough to be situtaed in the streets of London or Colombo. A choice of specialty teas and cofees and a selection of hot and cold meals was available. The indoor seating area was not surpingly deserted in favour of the outdoor seating on a mild day. We sat under a wooden parasol on a boardwalk besides a reed fringed waterway. A curious Mallard (a duck) walked around inspecting us and no doubt expecting a few crumbs from my fudge brownie.
Visitors with time on their hand can visit the exhibition on the workings of a wetland, designed with young chidlren in mind. Upstairs was an intercative area for children who could play with models and fit animals together. A purpose built art gallery exhibited the work of wildlife artists. The art gallery here is worth a visit by itself as it provides Londeners a good opportuinity to view the work of some of the finest wildlife artists in the world. An optical shop housed the latest offering from the likes of Leica, Zeiss and Swarowski, offering temptation and a serious fincacial crisis.
In the courtayrd, people were gathering for a guided walk. A cluster of schoolchildren were being kept entertained by one of the volunteers who had them engaged in a project. This was a very people oriented place. Visitors were welcomed and were seen to be a crucial part of the research and conservation work undertaken by the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust. It was obvious that a lot of time and planning had been invested in recoginsing and catering to the needs of visitors. Nothing could be further from the chaos and lack of visitor orientation which happens in our national parks every long week end. Perhaps our people whould be sent to study visitor managemnent not in some glamorous and enormous overseas national park, but here in London. The revamped British Museum is another case in point. With a choice of restauarnts and cafes and shops, it has all the elements of a well designed and fashionable shopping mall. Neither is it short in the interpretation facilities offered to visitors. The future for Sri Lanka’s parks and reserves may lie in understanding how busy cities such as London attract, entertain and manage visitors.
The writer is the CEO of a wildlife and adventure travel company. He is the lead author of A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Sri Lanka (OBC) and A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka (New Holland). To subscribe to his free wildlife e-newsletter, e-mail him at with “subscribe wildlife news” in the message header.