Report on interpretation workshop at Binna Burra, September 2016

Report by Maree Kerr and Ronda Green on:

Enjoyable, Memorable, Meaningful: Using Wildlife Tourism to Do it All”

Workshop organised by Wildlife Tourism Australia Inc., with keynotes and main organisers of structure and content Drs Betty Weiller and Rosemary Black

Held at Binna Burra, Scenic Rim, Southeast Queensland,September 2016

See photos of workshop here

Interpretation of nature is a kind of nature education of a type that deepens understanding and enhances appreciation. It adds value to tours and destinations, and if well done can considerably add to visitor satisfaction.  It can also be important for explaining how visitors should behave to minimise their impacts during their visit, and to deepen their understanding of nature generally and sometimes also of conservation issues.

The idea of this workshop was to discuss wildlife interpretation (especially face-to-face) which is:

  • enjoyable – so that visitors  will be receptive to the interpretation and will also be likely to recommend the experience to others and perhaps make repeat visits themselves, and of course most who go on holiday do so with an expectation of enjoying themselves 
  • memorable – emotionally and/or intellectually engaging, so that visitors will remember not only the experience but at least some of what they learned about the wildlife (after all, why go to the effort of preparing interpretation that everyone forgets as soon as they leave?). It doesn’t need to be total recall, but if a few main points that sink into long term memory it can make the effort worthwhile.
  • meaningful – telling people not to get close to the wildlife and not feed them without further explanation is not always effective.  If they are told the effect of population explosions of fed currawongs on nestlings of other species they prey on, or the importance of allowing exhausted seals to catch up on their sleep before needing to head back to the sea and hunt once again for themselves and their pups, they may be more likely to comply with the regulations. If it can go beyond this, so much the better: prompting people to be so fascinated by wildlife they will make the effort to find out more, and to support conservation initiatives such as reducing the use of plastic waste that kills marine animals.

Betty Weiller and Rosemary Black were invited by Wildlife Tourism Australia Inc. to conduct a 2-day workshop exploring how to make all this happen

Why are you here?

Participants were asked their reason for attending, and responded:

  • Important for their jobs (or getting a job)
  • Networking
  • Rediscover passion
  • Desire to hear about recent research on what works and what doesn’t
  • Ideas for starting a business
  • Realising things not to do
  • Imparting conservation values
  • Use of story telling in interpretation
  • Incorporating theatre into interpretation
  • Soaking up info (like a sponge)
  • Enhancing interpretive skills
  • Learning something new


Techniques for effective interpretation (from our keynotes and delegate discussion):

  • Telling stories, which gives personal connection and helps to make things memorable
  • Humour can be inclusive, emotionally engaging and memorable
  • Enabling discovery and exploration (facilitation) – eg touching artefacts, tracks and scats
  • Hands on, finding things, involving people, engaging senses
  • Getting to know the visitor – asking questions, engaging, making it relevant to them, enabling two-way communication
  • Spreading knowledge
  • Imparting values
  • Enabling Participation – active involvement
  • Sharing passion and knowledge, assisting reconnection to nature, raising awareness, sharing conservation values

Principles of interpretation (keynotes)

Stakeholders include tourists, tour operators, government, managers and land owners

Studies on why visitors want interpretation suggest:

  • Visitors want role models for children, enhanced experiences,
  • Business operators- giving value for money, providing good experiences, increasing conservation / ecological values
  • Park Managers: critical to manage visitors: educate visitors and minimise impacts, foster knowledge and appreciation of environment, build support for agency


Some resources:

  • Sam Ham 1992: Enjoyable, relevant, organised, thematic (EROT)
  • Davidson and Black 2007 : 9 principles for successful cave interpretation
  • Skibins, Powell and Stern: (review) 17 interpretation best practice principles from interpretation text
  • Weiler and Black 2015: 7 principles from tour guiding research


  1. Interpretation happens via a diversity of enjoyable communication approaches, activities and experiences
  2. Communicating accurate fact-based information that both facilitates understanding and provokes thinking and meaning- making (don’t avoid controversial subjects)
  3. Interpretation designed to promote the use of two or more senses
  4. Interpretation designed to facilitate individual or group involvement, contact or participation
  5. Communicating the relevance of an object, artefact, landscape or site to visitors (including communicating in a culturally relevant way)
  6. Communicating by way of a theme or key message development/ thematic interpretation (what is the take home message?) (call to action- change attitudes- change behaviour)
  7. Interpretation that makes people feel empathy or emotion (feeling)


Making interpretation enjoyable for wildlife tourists

Why make it enjoyable? How are your tourists different to students?

  • They are non-captive – they pay attention because you make them want to, not because they have to
  • External rewards are not important
  • They expect an informal atmosphere and a non-academic approach
  • Will switch attention if bored
  • You have to make it enjoyable

How do guides do this?

  • Is this just natural or are there techniques?
  • Is it being spontaneous, or should you plan what you are going to say and do?
  • Is it possible to be genuine with your emotions when you (the guide) see the same thing very day? (emotional labour)

Making your guiding enjoyable  (keynotes)

Verbal language based techniques eg

  • Consider using simple language
    • “Groups of plants” rather than “plant communities”
    • “Plants left behind,/remaining” instead of “remnant vegetation”
    • (one delegate pointed out this needs to be modified for different audiences)
  • Focus on individuals
  • Link science to human beings
  • Show cause and effect
  • Use examples and comparisons
  • Use language and humour that is familiar
  • Use comparisons and analogies
    • e.g. compare gestation period of whales to that of humans
    • Analogies – show many similarities of the thing you are talking about to something familiar – eg rainforest and pharmacy
    • Bush tucker- medicine etc
    • Compare to something familiar, e.g. when growing a vegie garden, need to prepare soil – Aussie bush does this too
    • Size- a whale is 17km long- that’s about as big as this boat
  • Show cause and effect 
    • e.g. There’s a sand filled ashtray out there for your convenience. We do ask you, please, never ever throw out your butts. They can kill our dolphins…
  • Tell stories
    • If you are a good story teller, use your skill on something relevant to your tour – you can even read a story
    • You can tell story that happened before
    • Use story telling techniques – eg A long time ago, some people brought in an animal that changed the continent for Australia’s wildlife – the fox…
  • Focus on an individual animal
    • Baim, the story of a rescued baby orangutan
  • Bring in the threats later, after conections
  • Don’t be too heavy on threats if talking to children too young to know about the disappearing rainforest or likely to be too upset by stories of animals dying …
  • Non verbal techniques
    • Smile
    • Use body language
  • Use technology – eg binoculars
  • Use visual and other sensual aids and props
    • Photos, diagrams, maps charts
    • Audio- recordings
    • Get the people to feel the vegetation and hear the animals. And relate to people who came here first (Indigenous)
    • Use a variety of hats to put on when you are talking about events and characters from the past
    • Tape recordings of whale songs
    • Laminated historical charts or newspaper articles
    • Etc
  • Make it relevant
    • Use language and ideas appropriate to what group already know
    • Make the level depth and detail (breadth) appropriate to your group
    • Connect to what your group cares about, and their values
  • Use language that is culturally and socially acceptable and appropriate
    • e.g. Eye contact
  • Use the word ‘you’

Delegates watched a DVD on spotlighting tours before a group discussion on techniques

Playful approach to interpretation (Ronda Green) 

Play is not just a human activity: it is a natural behaviour of many mammals and birds, and used as an  indicator of good health (physical and psychological) in captive settings. Play = well being. Enrichment at zoos includes providing opportunities to play

True ecotourism includes good interpretation. Tourism is a form of play, and should be enjoyable. Playfulness can also enhance readiness to learn. We need just the right amount of arousal – too much overloads the senses, too little leads to drowsiness and boredom. 

Playfulness can also help associate the natural environment with enjoyment and pleasure

Some techniques:

  • Treasure hunts (look under a tree with koala scratches for next clue)
  • Jokes? Perhaps better an amusing anecdote Pranks?
  • Nature games
  • Guessing games
  • Wildlife puzzles
  • Role play  – eg make a nest using only using a finger and thumb, similar to the bill that birds use to make nests or bowers.
  • Magic! Wow factor! Experiences that invoke magic- glow worms, story telling around a camp fire, seeing animals from a hide, etc
  • Trivia questions

Have fun with your interpretive activity!


Jayne Fenton Keane Queensland Museum- Inspiring Australia

Science touring – How do we go forward to connect science and wildlife tourism? 

How can wildlife tourism be part of science tourism?

What would your pitch look like?


  • We need to get across environmental science to tourists of different backgrounds
  • Citizen science and Volunteerism – using guests to collect useful data is a  win – win situation. Partnerships can be forged between universities, tourism operators and national parks
  • Volunteers need to feel their contribution is helping
  • To get funding for a science project, we need to ensure quality science. Real scientific outcomes are needed
  • Charismatic scientist champions can inspire and educate
  • Some researchers are not experienced in talking to the general public. Tour operators can help them communicate effectively
  • Scientists and tour operators need to share same language
  • Tour operators are facilitators, communicating science


Common threads when discussing enjoyable interpretation:

  • Emotional response
  • Privilege
  • Intimate
  • Good stories
  • As guides we don’t always have to say something, sometimes we can let experiences happen


Memorable Wildlife Interpretation

Interpretation is more than entertainment

Presentations by keynotes:

Applying all 7 principles (as above) will make interpretation both enjoyable and memorable, and it is especially useful to develop themes. Communicating themes is major way of impacting:

  • Attitudes
  • Memory retention
  • Ease of following ideas
  • Focus. Narrowing your focus and make your job easier
  • Making it purposeful/ meaningful
  • Making people care
  • Helping people understand


A theme can be thought of as a story with a moral r take-home message. It should be possible to express it in a complete sentence with a subject and a verb

Examples of themes could be:

  • Anything that threatens wildlife threatens you (topic: inter-relationships of species)
  • Wildlife is vital to health of forests (interconnectedness of nature = topic)
  • Wasting paper wastes habitats (topic- waste)
  • Humpback whales are …
  • Everyone needs and benefits from rainforests

A theme should be introduced at the beginning, then threaded throughout the experience and reinforced at the end. Thematic interpretation is like threading beads

References to thematic interpretation

  • Ham, S.H 1992 Environmental interpretation: a practical guide…, (book) and
  • Ham, S.H. (2009)From interpretation to protection – is there a theoretical basis? J. Interp Research 14(2): 49-57
  • Pastorelli 2003 Enriching the experience: an interpretive approach to tour guiding (book)
  • Tilden, F 1957 Interpreting our heritage (book)
  • Interpretation Australia website

Themes on longer period tours are more complex, but there could be an overarching theme, with individual sub-themes per day.

We do not have to change what we see, only the way we see it.

We all have our own world paradigms.

Principles of creative thinking: (Pastorelli)

  • Momentum
  • A desire to seek alternatives
  • Removing the context of right and wrong
  • Removing the concept of failure
  • Accepting that some techniques might appear foolish

Techniques for creative thinking:

  • 60 second plunge
    • Choose our focus
    • In 60 seconds write down as many one word associations as you can
    • Momentum
  • Brainstorm tree
    • Start with a central idea eg building
    • Choose a number between 4 and 8. Use this number to come up with one word associations
    • For each find another one word associations
    • Eg if five, then twenty-five associations

Developing your theme in 3 easy steps

  1. Select your general topic and use it to complete the sentence “Generally my presentation is about … ” (e.g. humpback whales)
  2. State your topic in more specific terms: e.g.  “Specifically I want to tell my audience about how hump back whales communicate”
  3. Now express your theme by completing the following sentence “After hearing my presentation I want my audience to understand that humpback whales use communication for different reasons.”

Kirin Apps Humans in the cage: Exploring the white shark cage diving experience

Human dimensions of shark tourism- can tourism help shark conservation?

Biggest challenge to shark conservation: negative perception. Interpretation can assist in changing negative attitudes through dispelling myths.

To study this, we need to study not just the sharks but also people, so surveyed participants in cage diving tours in South Australia

Burley is deployed. Tethered baits draw sharks closer to cage. 6-8 pax. ~45 minutes in the cage.

Cannot talk under water: experiencing the shark. Time stands still. Not possible to interpret during this.


  • Most enjoyed the experience, but there was little or no education or interpretive program in place, apart from a couple of laminated papers about sharks and a couple of i-pads to flick through
  • 95% enjoy learning while on holiday – expect interpretation. 75% of pax want to learn about sharks
  • Typical white shark cage dive tour: no interpretation was offered before reaching island, jus briefing then on safety.
  • There were no dedicated tour guides on sharks, but most visitors wanted an interpretive guide
  • Some would like an app
  • There is thus an unmet demand for education about the sharks en route to or after the cage experience


So how does it score?

  • Is it enjoyable? 99%
  • Is it memorable? Yes
  • Is it meaningful? No.

In summary:

  • Controversial activity. Behaviour impacts to sharks? (are they behaving normally?)
  • Virtually no conservation messages or education offered
  • Profits drive the industry
  • Conclusion: Education and interpretation could improve visitor experience

Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection. (Freeman Tilden)


Barry Davies of Gondwana Guides led an early morning birdwatching excursion


Making it Meaningful

Using interpretation to make experiences meaningful- (keynotes)

Tassie Devil interpretation at Healesville

  • Pilot study- cash & in-kind contribution from Zoos Victoria
  • Focus on values: influence on engagement and behavioural intention
  • Tas Devils selected as focus species: challenge of DFTD (tumour- non-anthropogenic threat)
  • Links to interpretation and “CUA” philosophy (Connect, Understand, Act)
  • Interviews were conducted with34 visitors


  • All staff care for nature and see extinction prevention everybody’s responsibility
  • Visitors were more likely to see it as government responsibility
  • Challenges of exhibiting/ creating engagement included
    • The animals are nocturnal, and in the past were asleep much of the day
    • Visitors looked for aggressive behaviour
  • Visitors were supportive of extinction prevention, mostly because they want their grandkids to see them (anthropocentric) but some also mentioned toes in important ecosystems
  • Visitors supportive of how the animals are kept/ exhibited
  • Visitors were positive about keeper talks, and engagements with other staff
  • Signs read by only 10 – 15% of visitors
  • Visitors have low PCBI for Tassie devils and many stated they had already supported tass devils
  • Although they paid an entrance fee, some put a few coins in the donation box
  • $50 emerged as an upper level for individual visitor donations
  • Most likely PCBs is liking a post on FaceBook
  • Most would talk to others about issue if it came up in conversation but not initiate conversations on the issue
  • Most would share pictures (but reflective glass presents a challenge)


Needed or desirable:

  • More research
  • More opportunities
  • Training and use of volunteers to talk and interact with visitors at the exhibit
  • Behind the scenes visits or night visits as reward for donations
  • Drill down into engagement with stakeholders
  • Use of CCTV of insurance population


“I saw the sign: Modifying behaviour at a seal watching site” (Leah Burns)

Research questions:

  • Can signs influence behaviour?
  • Do different signs influence behaviour differently?
  • As a side line, how long do people read signs for?

Experimental Scenarios:

  • No signs
  • Minimal signing – say what not to do but not why
  • Informative signs – e.g. “Don’t do this because it disturbs seals”.

Each sign scenario up for a specific length of time, and ~ same number of people, and observed human behaviour in approaching path and seal-watching zone. .


  • People did read them
  • Group size made a difference to behaviour: Single or couples were more passive. Bigger groups and with children more active, pointing, noisier.
  • More informative signs were more effective or the same as less informative signs, so may as well give information.
  • If people had read the signs, they would pass info onto other people if they observed misbehaviour.

Caveat: people coming on this path were already interested in seals and had to make an effort to be there, so findings may not be readily transferable to other situations.

Liz Hawkins ‘Interpreting whales: Filling the gaps in interpretive guiding on cetacean watching tours’

The whale-watching industry is a diverse industry: swimming with whale or dolphin, feeding, captive animals, watching from boats

The focus here is watching from boats

$30m industry in Australia, with 1.6 m visitors in  2009, providing a more lucrative, sustainable and eco-friendly industry than whaling was.


  • Benefits: – employment, economic contribution, improved infrastructure.
  • Negatives: Uneven economy – seasonal.


  • Benefits– no killing. Conservation, increased awareness of whales – indirect conservation.
  • Negatives: animal disturbance. Habitat degradation.

But there has been little real research.

What is the real benefit? What is best practice to ensure benefits and reduce negatives?

Developing best practice protocols: for managers and operators should include:. 

  • Education and interpretation (for operators)
  • Create realistic expectations
  • Trained staff
  • Educational material on board

Do operators have tools in place to give messages on conservation?

Methodology: Forestall (1993) model. 

Findings of the study:

  • Only 40% of 20 tours had messages relating to threats and conservation.
  • Only 20% included take home conservation message.
  • Most guides were not formally trained in guiding nor had backgrounds in marine science, ecology or science.
  • Training is not currently on offer for guides. Yes, interested in training, but not if they have to pay. (Government should pay).

The industry is not regulated. Operators are not licensed.Needs economic imperative, or legislative regulation. Eco- certification only for those in best practice.

Filling the gaps

  • Provide opportunity for training
  • Promote best practice
  • Bring out best practice
  • Development of a guide and operator training program specifically for the whale watching industry



Saving wildlife habitat one toilet role at a time: Wipe for wildlife (Betty Weiler)

Despite environmental interest among the public, this has not generally transferred into environmental action – e.g. using recycled toilet paper.

We need to understand underlying values, and attitudes of consumers of toilet paper, and  designed and evaluated a series of communication campaigns aimed at fostering pro-environmental behaviour of zoo visitors.

Part 1: Identifying, prioritising and selecting a behaviour.


  • Behaviour needs to be amenable to persuasion
  • It needs to be achievable in context of a one-off zoo visit
  • What to visitors want to be asked to do
    • New or novel behaviour?
    • Something easy to do?
    • High in response efficacy?
    • On site behaviour
  • Facilitators guided group discussions towards consensus of behaviours
  • e.g. beads from Africa (from collecting snares and converting to jewellery) sold to raise $$ for anti-poaching projects can be purchased at the zoo, 

What determines or influences people’s current behaviour

  • Attitudes toward the behaviour – is it a good thing to do
  • Subjective norm – who would approve or disapprove – intention to do – actual behaviour
  • Easiness to do (eg is it easy to find recycled toilet paper?)
  • Attitudes- underlain by beliefs


  1. Identify all beliefs of audience
  2. Which beliefs predict behaviour
  3. Measure belief strength and compare between doers (compliers) and non-doers (non-compliers) or intenders and non-intenders

Everyone knows recycled paper is good for the environment, but this does not predict behaviour.

Other beliefs affect intention. Need to influence these other beliefs (perceptions).


  • Recycled paper is not more expensive.
  • It is just as soft these days.
  • It is as strong.
  • You will feel good if you buy it.

The Wipe for wildlife communication campaign.

  • Pledge at roll of honour and website
  • Volunteer guided walks and touch tables
  • Summer school holiday program activities
  • Shop display
  • Zoo friends via News Paws
  • Keeper talks
  • School Packs
  • Posters and banners in the zoo grounds and in the public toilets
  • Tactile tactics- sculptures


Assessing impact on beliefs, intention and behaviour

  • Entry questionnaire    n = 275
  • Exit questionnaire        n= 308
  • Follow up questionnaire       n  = 93
  • Early campaign
  • Later campaign


  • 14% visitors were aware at entry
  • All beliefs improved from entry to exit
  • Follow up: purchase: 22% to 47%
  • 31% switched to buying recycled toilet paper as result of campaign
  • Later campaign: 31% to 53%
  • 22% switched to buying recycled toilet paper as result of campaign

Why limited success?

How many is too many? Weiler Reference. 7 different messages is too many.


Dean Hogg from Binna Burra took delegates for a walk on the Bellbird Lookout track  after lunch.

Points raised in Discussion groups

Group Discussion: Getting attention, getting information across

  • Charismatic guide on short easy walk or adrenalin-raising experience
  • Questions, games
  • Geocaching
  • Fluker posts: engage in activity, adding to databases
  • Close approach (with due care) to animals
  • Slideshow of nature photos then let them head out to take their own
  • Apps of local bird calls
  • Give accurate information
  • Scavenger hunts
  • Use humour
  • Sensory overload
  • Give them a challenge

Group  discussion: guiding people of different age groups and backgrounds

  • be sensitive to the age group when discussing conservation issues: don’t frighten or distress
  • find where they are from and what they have experienced
  • engage, allow to touch things
  • tell stories
  • be aware of attention spans
  • be aware that urbanites may be fearful of nature

Group Discussion: leading a group from China

  • Use multilingual signage, and plenty of pictorial
  • Communicate with group and their translator before they arrive, give lots of information
  • Learn a few basic phrases in Mandarin
  • Give plenty of opportunity fro photos
  • Highlight rare and unusual animals and plants, photos of which  are likely to be shown to friends and relatvies back home
  • When speaking, speak slowly and address the group, not the translator
  • Be friendly and relaxed, make them feel welcome
  • Mention things relevant to Chinese culture
  • Include interactive, tactile experiences, not just passive listening

Debate: Animal Feeding

  • For: “The benefits of feeding wildlife in a guided tour environment outweigh the costs. 
    • We are faced with so many environmental problems, don’t have time to do everything ideally, and if getting people to feel more strongly about animals by close encounters at feedng stations, this shoould be part of what we do
    • close encounters and interaction heightens the emotional experience
    • people want to feed, so structured feeding with good interpretation gives an opportunity, better than just letting it happen
    • bringing animal up close facilitates some kinds of information about them
  • Against: “All the benefits are for the people, the costs are for the animals”.
    • various negative effects: overcrowding of animals, alteration of  natural behaviour, spread of disease, favouring some species over their competitors
    • some animals become nuisances, even dangerous
    • people may get the impression (especially if not familiar with the language) it’s okay to feed in other places where it is not appropriate

Summary (keynotes and delegate discussions)

Important for visitor satisfaction

  1. Wildlife in natural setting
  2. Interpretation via a diversity of enjoyable communicative approaches, activioties and experiences (personal stories, relating)
  3. Communicating accurate fact-based information that facilitates understanding and provokes thinking and meaning making (what you can do to conserve, simple actions)
  4. Interpretation designed to use two or more senses (touch, hearing, etc)
  5. Interpretation to facilitate individual or group involvement, contact or participation
  6. Communicating the relevance of an object. Artefact, site in culturally relevant way
  7. Communicating through thematic interpretation
  8. Interpretation that creates empathy or emotion – privilege of being able to see wildlife , baby wildlife
  9. Wildlife interpretation – post visit. Follow up resources.

Web based techniques and reason to care: Ballantyne and Packer 2010

What makes a good wildlife encounter?

  • Intensity, naturalness and uniqueness
  • Connection, authenticity, surprise or novelty of wildlife experience
  • Positive visitor interactions lead to mindful, satisfied and conservation oriented visitors. Animal attributes, surprise encounters, natural environments and new animals are key features of best or most satisfying wildlife tourism experiences.


See photos of workshop here

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