NGOs are go in Asia15th Mar '16
British not-for-profits and charities have a part to play in the Asian story. Hazel Davis meets the consultancy meeting the soaring demand for birdlife parks in China
Company: WWT Consulting Trading in: China, South Korea, Laos, Africa, South America, Europe Sector: Environmental
“There were plans to open 2,000 more. There has always been a Chinese cultural affinity with water”
Before he died in the Antarctic in 1912, Captain Robert Falcon Scott wrote to his wife asking her to “make the boy interested in natural history”. The boy was his only son, Peter, who fulfilled his father’s wishes and in 1946 set up a conservation charity, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT).
The UK trust now has nine wetland centres in the UK, where birdlife flourishes, and in 1989 it set up WWT Consulting to meet the demand for advice from around the world.
The not-for-profit consultancy, previously called the Wetlands Advisory Service and based in Slimbridge in Gloucestershire, home of the first UK wetlands centre, does everything from direct conservation work to commercial projects.
In 2006 it worked on the 64-hectare Hong Kong Wetland Park, a sanctuary for 254 species, including endangered birds such as the Chinese pond heron and the black-faced spoonbill.
The project, says WWT Consulting’s associate director Dr Matthew Simpson, “was basically recreating the London Wetland Centre in Hong Kong”. WWT’s London site, in Barnes, has ponds, lakes, gardens and play areas as well as more than 600 animal species.
This led to work on other important projects in the region, including Shishou Milu for Père David deer in central China, the vast and well-preserved Fujin Wetland Park on the Russian border, and the newly created Tongli National Wetland Park, near Shanghai. This sits between two large lakes and comprises fish ponds, market gardens, a forested area, a former rice paddy and designated aquaculture areas. It has also worked on projects in South Korea and Laos.
As dwindling resources and environmental damage force the Chinese government to pay more attention to sustainability and conservation, opportunities for companies and organisations such as WWT and WWT Consulting are increasing.
Dr Simpson says: “WWT has always had a very good relationship with the state forestry administration, which is responsible for wetlands, and we have signed a memorandum of understanding with them promoting mutual support and co-operation regarding wetland conservation work.”
Wetland parks are a great tourist attraction for the Chinese, thanks to the Hong Kong Wetland Park, which drew more than one million visitors last year. “The latest I heard,” says Dr Simpson, “there were plans to open 2,000 more. There has always been a Chinese cultural affinity with water.”
All WWT Consulting’s profits go back into the trust, but operating as a consultancy has advantages. Dr Simpson explains: “Some countries are much more familiar with working with an NGO [non-governmental organisation, which are neither part of government nor a conventional business] and in other parts of the world [such as China] they’re much happier working with a company, so we can go in as part of the organisation or the company, depending on circumstances.”
The consultancy employs 12 specialists, ranging from ecologists and education specialists to designers. It offers ecological surveys and assessments, habitat design and management, visitor-centre planning and design, and wetland treatment systems to improve water quality.
For promotion, it draws on the might of WWT’s marketing department and outsources marketing services and other services within China. It works mainly in response to requests in China, having built relationships with potential partners all over the country.
The company also works regularly with a trusted group of Chinese translators. “Translation of the technical side of things is very important for us,” says Dr Simpson, “and we have fallen foul of this in the past, so we have a group of people we work with regularly.”
Making such relationships is vital for a not-for-profit business, says Dr Simpson. He believes it is harder for NGOs to bid directly for government contracts. “Working with partners on the ground is really important. We travel to the country at least four or five times a year, depending on the project.”
This is likely to increase and there are plans to set up a permanent office with staff in the region. This will make it easier to apply for larger projects, something that has been a problem in the past, thanks to lack of resources.
“We have had some payment issues,” Dr Simpson explains. “With a lot of regional governments it’s illegal to make payments internationally, so they have to pay through an intermediary.” The lengthy approval process makes it hard to get a Chinese bank account. “But we finally have one now, which has made things a lot easier.”