Journey to the jungle

PUBLISHED: 10:42 12 February 2009 | UPDATED: 11:39 28 February 2013

A lizard at the rainforest

A lizard at the rainforest

Tessa Harris treks into deepest Berkshire to discover a whole new world <br/>at The Living Rainforest

The gently rolling countryside around the small village of Hampstead Norreys, near Newbury, may be an unlikely place to find some of the world's rarest plants and animals, but then you wouldn't expect to find a tropical jungle in Berkshire either! And yet The Living Rainforest attracts 75,000 visitors a year to its flagship site. The majority come from within an hour's drive, but around 20 per cent come from much further afield.

"It's not uncommon for teachers and schoolchildren to travel up to three hours each way on school trips here," says Karl Hansen, The Living Rainforest's director. "This is because there is no other teaching resource quite like it in the UK. We also attract school group bookings from mainland Europe in the school holidays."

The Living Rainforest, or TLR, is, indeed, the only UK rainforest centre where visitors can see both plants and animals from the world's disappearing jungles and is run as a charity. "This allows visitors to get a much better feeling for what a real rainforest ecosystem is like, compared with a traditional zoo or botanic garden," explains Karl.

The charity's vision is to inform, educate and inspire people to live more sustainable lives. It uses its visitor centre to explore the links between rainforests, people and nature through education, conservation and sustainable living.

But just how did this unique venture take root in such an unlikely place? For many decades, the site was home to one of Europe's leading orchid nurseries, Wyld Court Orchids. In 1991 a conversion began, led by the philanthropist and former head of Russell and Bromley shoes, Keith Bromley. In 1993, a new rainforest visitor centre opened to the public, Wyld Court Rainforest, featuring plants and animals from the world's threatened rainforests. In 1996, the centre was donated to the World Land Trust and in July 2000, it was passed on to TLR, an independent educational charity.

Over the last decade the project has grown enormously, thanks to numerous grants that recognise the importance of its conservation and educational work.

"The educational aspect is key, although we approach education in a somewhat unconventional way," says Karl. "Each year, we welcome over 18,000 children on National Curriculum-linked school tours. I expect that most Berkshire parents will have heard of us from their children! "

So, as they wander around the two large hot houses that are home to more than 650 plant species and 50 animals species, visitors come face to face with rare and exotic animals such as the dwarf West African crocodile, the ever-popular Goeldi's monkeys, toucans, tortoises and even a giant bird-eating spider.

There's an aquarium that's home to piranhas and a giant lily pond that supports numerous species of fish

and water fowl.

Expect the unexpected, too, as giant butterflies flutter overhead, lizards peer coyly around branches or brightly-coloured birds pop out from behind bushes.

While the accent is very much on educating people and, in particular, children on the value of the rainforest to the world's eco system, TLR also plays a role in conservation and breeding programmes.

Rare and endangered animals include the Malagasy Teal, numerous frog species, such as the poison dart frog which produces toxins powerful enough to kill 150 humans, the Goeldi's monkey and the dwarf West African crocodile.

Says Karl: "We participate in international breeding programmes for the Malagasy Teal and Goeldi's monkey and we work on ex situ frog breeding programmes. As far as the monkeys are concerned we liaise with an international stud book keeper at Illinois Zoo and we send them out to other collections in order to keep their gene pool healthy."

TLR also helps communities abroad with breeding programmes. The legal farming and export of animals can benefit developing countries, providing a sustainable income for local people. The butterflies, for example, at The Living Rainforest are bought from a butterfly farm at the edge of a Costa Rican forest.

There is, however, an enormous illegal pet trade, where, sadly, 90 per cent of all animals smuggled into this country - many of them in suitcases - are found dead. For those that survive, a return to their native environment is out of the question, so the TLR often steps in to offer homes to a variety of exotic creatures, such as lizards and turtles.

"We sometimes get calls from HM Customs at Heathrow asking for help," says Karl. "We tend to take

care of rescued reptiles in this way - many of them are lizards, such

as chameleons."

For those interested in botany, TLR is a veritable treasure trove. Says Karl: "When Kew Gardens closed its Aroid House, we inherited much of that collection. This is a very demanding family of plants to grow because of the constant need for high temperatures and humidity, but we're well placed to do that here."

Other very rare plants include the Marquesas Palm - only 12 mature specimens are left in their natural habitat - and the Philippine Jade Vine.

TLR's other leading role, both nationally and internationally, is in helping to reduce the carbon footprint of commercial greenhouses through improved dialogue and information exchange about building design and the adoption of renewable energy heating technologies. The charity also launched the Trust for Sustainable Living with a series of specialist conferences exploring the concepts of 'sustainable food' and 'green greenhouses'. It offers positive and practical support to individuals, groups and companies who want to reduce their own carbon footprints.

"We work with a diverse group of universities, NGOs and other organisations in the UK and overseas. Our partners include the European Commission and Millennium Commission, agricultural scientists at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and the renewable energy experts at TV Energy," says Karl.

Volunteers from varying backgrounds are welcome at the centre and there are currently 30 active helpers in addition to those who participate in regular corporate volunteering days for local companies, including Vodafone.

By providing a forum for like-minded groups, the charity believes it will contribute to a society-wide change in values towards sustainability. It particularly targets existing audiences such as schools and families with young children, including mother and toddler groups, to achieve the maximum educational impact possible.

Says Karl: "I know that when people come here they are touched by what they see. School children's eyes are opened up to the wider world and they learn that everyone can do their bit to help the environment. One step at a time, we can make the changes which are needed to protect the future of the planet."

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