Welcome to our sixth write up in the Ethical Kollektiv’s Ethical Business Series, where we share the stories of some incredibly driven humans who have committed to running their own for-purpose businesses that are having a positive impact within our community.
During the first lockdown, we were fortunate enough to visit Victoria's newest wildlife and eco-tourism park, Wildlife Wonders on the Great Ocean Road. A project that we instantly fell in love with spearheaded by none other than Lizzie Corke OAM and her team at The Conservation and Ecology Centre of The Otways.
In 2000, Lizzie co-founded the Conservation Ecology Centre in order to develop and deliver solutions to the most urgent conservation challenges in the Otways. She works to facilitate this important work by leading a team committed to effective conservation and through organisational development, building partnerships, and engaging the community.
Ecotourism plays a critical role in the CEC’s funding and engagement programs – the Centre established the Great Ocean Ecolodge in 2004 (Winner Victorian Tourism Awards for best new development, recognised by National Geographic Traveller as one of the 25 best ecolodges in the world). Lizzie is currently also working the development of a new social enterprise ecotourism venture ‘Wildlife Wonders’ on the Great Ocean Road. Designed by Brian Massey, the Art Director of The Hobbit and Landscape Designer of Hobbiton, Wildlife Wonders will provide outstanding opportunities for conservation and sustainable economic development in the region.
Lizzie is the recipient of the Banksia Foundation 2005 Prime Minister’s Environmentalist of the Year, and was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2020 for service to conservation and the environment. She has previously served as a Director of Ecotourism Australia and as Chair of the Corangamite Catchment Management Authority Community Advisory Group.
We were fortunate enough to receive a guided tour of the park by Lizzie followed by a bit of a chat about the new project:
Lizzie, give us a short background about Wildlife Wonders
Lizzie: Wildlife Wonders is a beautiful eco-tourism attraction on the Great Ocean Road just outside Apollo Bay. It offers a 75-minute guided walk through the magical Otways bushland, where our visitors discover lush tree-fern gullies, eucalypt woodlands and spectacular ocean vistas.
The conservationist guide shares the secrets of the bush and the plants and animals who call the Otways home. There is also a great café showcasing local produce, and a shop filled with perfect gifts for nature lovers.
All the profits from Wildlife Wonders go directly to the Conservation Ecology Centre, working to conserve the unique Australian plants and animals across the Otways.
What drew you to this location?
Wildlife Wonders is perfectly located alongside the spectacular Great Ocean Road, in the heart of the Great Otway National Park, overlooking the magnificent ocean. It is only 5km from the centre of Apollo Bay but feels a million miles from anywhere. When we first saw the property we knew it was a magical place that would work perfectly for our purpose.
Now it hasn’t all been fun and games, running an eco-tourism project scheduled to launch in mid-2020....then lockdown has come about.
To be real about it, what impact did that have on the team and how did you work through that as a collective?
It certainly has been an interesting time! Of course, we feel so fortunate to live in a country that has prioritised community health, but the pandemic and the resulting lockdowns and the closed borders caused significant challenges during the creation of Wildlife Wonders, and they continue to impact upon the organisation now.
Everyone demonstrated extraordinary resilience and loyalty to complete the project – we minimised people onsite which meant our little team worked incredibly hard. Our Creative Director, Brian Massey, was unable to visit from New Zealand for most of the last year of construction, so he worked with the site team via Facetime as they all strived to bring the vision to life. They certainly did an extraordinary job.
We are also extremely grateful to the many funders of the project. As schedules and forecasts were disrupted (over and over again) they remained steadfast.
Now that Wildlife Wonders is open we are working alongside other attractions and industry bodies in the region to navigate a visitor market that does not include international tourists.
We are all finding this a difficult situation but we are very grateful to our wonderful local
community who have provided such great support and are helping to ensure a successful opening period.
How do you keep up with it all, stay sane and stay focused?
It has certainly been a big few years – my role has included overseeing the ongoing operation and growth of the Conservation Ecology Centre as well as the creation of Wildlife Wonders.
There have definitely been some very challenging moments and many times where I’ve needed to be in two or three places at once! I am inspired by the amazing team that I work with. This irrepressible team of staff, volunteers and supporters are so deeply committed to the conservation of the precious biodiversity of the Otways region that it is impossible not to be swept along by their enthusiasm and dedication.
We have looked after each other and looked out for each other in ways we could not have anticipated pre-Covid.
Now that you are open and ready for visitors, what are some key measurements/metrics you have in place to determine the success of Wildlife Wonders?
As a social enterprise, Wildlife Wonders has a big job! As a ‘For Purpose’ project it needs to perform on many different levels.
Financial metrics are critical as Wildlife Wonders must generate a surplus in order to provide reliable funding for conservation projects. However, that’s only the beginning of the story.
It is also important for us that Wildlife Wonders engages visitors with the natural world and instils a sense of connection with nature and wildlife – we want their visit to be the beginning of a lifelong journey with the Conservation Ecology Centre, with the fascinating nature and wildlife of the Great Ocean Road and with the natural world globally. We also have a number of stakeholders to consider who might not traditionally be recognised in ‘business metrics’ – for example, the experience of the resident wildlife, their health, welfare and the state of their habitats are all things we monitor closely.
So yes, we need to create an income, but we also intend to inform, educate and inspire our visitors, especially the younger people who are, after all, the ecologists of the future.
These days, it’s easy for children to become disheartened, disconnected and frightened about the world. The problems are huge, but we can all work together to solve them.
Only by reconnecting children to the natural world, by allowing and helping them to become a part of it from an early age can we turn fear into determination and lethargy into empowerment.
What’s next on the horizon for CEC, Wildlife Wonders and Lizzie Corke?
There is a lot on the horizon!
The Conservation Ecology Centre’s programs are expanding rapidly at present to investigate and address biodiversity challenges across the Otways region – more projects, with more partners, across greater areas.
We generate knowledge to nurture Country – building understanding and improving land management for better conservation outcomes - it is an approach that depends upon strong collaboration and respect and I am excited about the role that CEC plays and will continue to play in leading and facilitating this. Wildlife Wonders has successfully navigated its first couple of months of operations and I am delighted that the visitor experience has been so well received (Trip Advisor and Google
reviews are great!).
We are very much looking forward to international borders reopening as
soon as it is safe to do so. The wildlife of the Great Ocean Road is so precious and we can’t wait to share it with the world.
I’m looking forward to being a part of it all, working with our wonderful, visionary Boards, our talented team and our passionate community in the most beautiful place on earth.
Every day I learn something from them all. Healthy ecosystems are vital for our planet’s future and success requires our combined efforts and contributions to conserve and support threatened species and the ecosystems they depend upon. It’s exciting to be a part of it.
As with all of our amazing guests, we like to gauge your top tip for anyone looking to start their own business?
I think it is very important to really understand your strengths and your agenda and make sure you are using these in the best way for the purpose of your business or organisation.
If you can get this right everything is exciting – even when it’s hard.
Surround yourself with people you trust – you need people who will help you push the
boundaries but will help you.