Chief Executive’s Blog

August 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

Dear readers,

This week, I wanted to tell you a little bit more about the work of one of our resident veterinary surgeons, Romain Pizzi.

Romain Pizzi, Veterinary Surgeon

Romain Pizzi, Veterinary Surgeon

On Wednesday evening, BBC programme “Operation Wild” gave a first-hand insight to some of Romain’s recent surgeries. Viewers watched with bated breath as he performed ground-breaking keyhole surgery in Laos on moon bear Champa who was constantly in pain from fluid building up in her brain. It’s always interesting to think about how surgeries are performed in such remote locations – as in this case, unstable conditions need to be adapted to and it’s always a case of thinking on your feet! A tube was successfully implanted into her brain which drained the excess fluid into her abdomen. After her recovery, it was fantastic to see her reunite and play with the gentleman who rescued her as a three month old cub. Back in London, Romain took on the delicate task of investigative keyhole surgery on a Galapagos tortoise. Unable to drill through the shell as it would take years to repair, the tortoise was placed onto her side and the surgery was explored through the side of her leg.

Even though he’s officially on holiday, Romain is still a very busy man. He’s currently at Chanchung Zoo in the Jilin province in the North of China where he, alongside the University of Edinburgh and Animals Asia, are teaching zoo veterinarians from the Chinese Association of Zoo Gardens (CAZG). More than 70 vets attend this biennial conference which helps improve the knowledge and clinical skills of vets working in zoos across China. This year, one focus was to teach the use of thermal imaging to assess dental and arthritis problems in zoo elephants. Romain also spent time in the Southwest of China at the giant panda centres in Dujiangyan and Bifengxia which are run by the Chinese Centres for Research and Conservation of Giant Pandas (CCRCGP). Here, as part of the joint research agreement between RZSS and CCRCGP, he investigated potential benefits of minimally invasive surgery on giant pandas both at the centre and in the wild.

Velu with mum Heleen in Budongo Trail

Velu with mum Heleen in Budongo Trail

This week at Edinburgh Zoo, we were delighted to see our chimpanzees all together again as new mother Heleen and eight week old son Velu were welcomed back into the troop. After his birth, we slowly integrated Heleen and Velu back into the main chimpanzee group – starting first with other females and her closest male allies before slowly building up to where we are now. Velu is a French word for hairy and if you manage to catch a glimpse of him, which is quite difficult as Heleen cradles him very close to her chest, you will certainly be able to see why!

Chief Executive’s Blog

August 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

Hello again,

As you may remember, in April we had two very special visitors who travelled all the way from the Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS) in Uganda to spend some time at Edinburgh Zoo. RZSS is the core funder of BCFS and I am delighted to give you a little update on what has been happening out in Budongo Forest over July.

EX-hunter with goats

EX-hunter with goats

Two more Veterinary undergraduate students from Makerere University were stationed at BCFS for the whole month where they got first-hand experience in monitoring chimpanzee health and behaviours, conducting laboratory procedures and learning about conservation. BCFS were also busy implementing the first phase of the Alternative Livelihoods Programme, a partnership with charity Village Enterprise whose mission is to equip those living in poverty with resources to create sustainable businesses. It targets vulnerable groups and villagers, including hunters, widows and low income earners, around Budongo Forest Reserve and introduces training in enterprise development, conservation values and household sanitation. The beneficiaries chose goat management and growing onions as their enterprise choice for the year and I am looking forward to sharing with you their progress. As part of the support, BCFS also conducted livestock treatment during the sessions and over 800 domestic animals were treated through five villages.

Photo by Kevin Schafer

Photo by Kevin Schafer

Meanwhile, out in Brazil, the RZSS is working to help zoos fulfil their potential role as conservation institutions. In March this year, RZSS helped fund a workshop to create an action plan for the Brazilian Zoo Association. Now, our giant armadillo project has launched a National Armadillo Conservation campaign in partnership with the Brazilian Zoo Association. We have made lots of materials, games, videos, stories and information so that each Zoo can create their own activities. A web site has been created and we hope to translate all the materials to English and Spanish. Zoos in Brazil receive 20 million visitors each year and partnering with them is a great way for the project to reach out to people throughout the country. This partnership also helps create an in-situ / ex-situ conservation link between zoos and field projects.

And of course, as I’m sure you are all aware, there was a lot of excitement at the giant panda enclosure at the start of the week after the announcement that Tian Tian is pregnant. We all have our fingers/paws/hooves crossed it will be third time lucky and tests indicate that she may give birth at the end of the month. Of course, it is still early days and like last year, the late loss of a cub is unfortunately still entirely possible. In the meantime we endeavour to help Tian Tian be as comfortable as possible which (as she is showing sensitivity to noise) includes closing the panda enclosure. We are also looking forward to welcoming our Chinese colleagues next week who will be helping us prepare for the birth. Exciting times!

Highland Wildlife Blog – Reindeer Round-up

August 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

By Douglas Richardson, Head of Living Collections, RZSS Highland Wildlife Park

Last year the Highland Wildlife Park had nothing short of a bumper breeding year with tiger cubs, lynx kittens, a red panda kit and European bison calves produced. Of the species that could potentially breed, 77% did, which is a pretty remarkable annual percentage for any zoological collection. 2014 is giving all the indications that it is going to be similarly bountiful with three Japanese macaque monkey babies, two Mishmi takin, two markhor goats and three snowy owl chicks, amongst others, being born and reared so far. But we have one species that has frustrated us annually, and 2014 is no exception, and that is our forest reindeer.

Our forest reindeer are the only examples of their kind in the UK as all other reindeer in this country are the domestic variety. The forest subspecies is a genuine wild animal that is taller and certainly less tractable than their domestic cousins. It is also a highly threatened form with only two small wild populations in Finland that are well protected and an unknown but decreasing number over the border in Russia. This reindeer is also the subject of a European Zoo Association breeding programme and so was an apparent perfect fit for our wildlife park.

Forest reindeer by Jan Morse

Forest reindeer by Jan Morse

There are a number of captive herds throughout Scandinavian and other northern European zoos, and they all seem to do well, except ours. We had some issues with disease and diet when we first imported the animals, but we got past those hurdles and all our individuals are in very fine condition, except for the lack of calves each year. The only calf we have produced was born in 2009 and only lived a week.

I have had numerous conversations with the programme’s coordinator who is based in Nordens Ark, a Swedish zoo that is very similar to our park, and one of our hoofed stock keepers has taken a special interest in the species in an effort to try and solve the problem. Our latest theory is that because our two females did not produce calves for a few years, their reproductive systems have now shut down; in many species that would normally produce young every one or two years, a long break in breeding can cause permanent sterility in the female. In an effort to get things going, we have recently imported two young females from Nordens Ark to revitalise our herd and possibly trigger our resident females back into breeding condition. We have currently mixed together all four females and the two adult bulls, who both currently have massive, velvet covered antlers, to see if any preferred groupings materialise prior to the rut in September.

Many folk think that breeding animals entails just putting a male and a female together and allowing nature to take its course. That sometimes happens, but often success requires some subtle tweaking and creative husbandry. Hopefully if our approach is correct, this time next year we will have our first healthy forest reindeer calves.

This piece was first published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald.

Chief Executive’s Blog

August 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

Science summer school at HWP

Science summer school animal behaviour monitoring at HWP

Another successful Summer School finished up last week, however the busy summer period for the Discovery & Learning Department is still in full swing. This was the first week of two for the Science Summer School at Edinburgh Zoo, following on from two weeks at Highland Wildlife Park. The same programme structure is used at both locations, yet details are customised for each. The course revolves around two projects and is for young people aged 16 – 18 years old who have a keen interest in zoology.

The first is an investigative project where they are given a selection of three animals currently not in the collections and are asked to recommend which one animal would be the best suited addition by presenting their findings on the Friday. The project starts with a talk from the head of living collections who discusses the considerations made before introducing any new animals, then students jump straight onto computers and into books and commence their research.

Science Summer School - camera trap setting

Science Summer School – camera trap setting

The second project is a first step into animal research. Students attend talks and classes which allow them to gain practical experience in scientific fieldwork. They set night vision camera traps (apparently foxes, magpies and even badgers are our regular night time visitors) and even have a hands-on class with one of our veterinary surgeons who teaches how to perform basic suturing (albeit, on chicken fillets) and dissect a salmon. Observation of animal behaviour is another key component of this project, and the young people have the unique opportunity to study this first hand.

I always find it fantastic to see such enthusiasm from the students when they’re removed from the classroom environment and working independently out in the field – I often overhear them discussing observations and watch on as they scribble down notes, sometimes whilst even on their lunch breaks! It’s truly a great first leap into zoology.

14_6_27_rhea_Chick4At both Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park, we are all watching with delight as the first borns of this year’s summer breeding season grow up. The gentoo chicks are beginning to be moved to the penguin crèche where they can be seen learning to swim and dive, some with a bit more natural elegance than others. The two oldest Darwin’s rhea chicks moved to the orchard paddock this week and seem to be enjoying running round their huge new home, and the attention from living on the East Drive. The five otter pups are also getting braver and are beginning to be seen more often. At the Park, the baby Chinese goral has become more visible – like red deer calves, they initially stay hidden for the first 2 – 3 week before actively following their mother. The muskox calf and his mother have now been introduced to the bull and all three animals are now permanently kept together.

On the topic of births, a final note has to be mentioned about giant panda Tian Tian. As the coming weeks are critical for her – we predict this is when implantation could occur and pregnancy may begin – and in response to her sensitivity to noise, we endeavour to create the best environment for her by deciding to close the indoor show dens of the panda experience. Both pandas’ outdoor viewing areas will remain open during this time. I do apologise for any inconvenience caused, however trust you understand the decision. A full update can be found here

Our children may save us if they are taught to care properly for the planet; but if not, it may be back to the Ice Age or the caves from where we first emerged.  Then we’ll have to view the universe above from a cold, dark place. 

~Jimmy Buffet, Mother Earth News, March-April 1990

Chief Executive’s Blog

July 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

This week I wanted to tell you about developments taking place with some of the carnivore young born this summer at the Park.

Last month on 15 June our red pandas at Highland Wildlife Park gave birth to twins. Now almost six weeks old, we picked one of the very few wet days we have had to see if allowing visitors’ access back into the viewing area for the red panda would be disruptive to the adults and their young.

Red panda cub by Alex Riddell

Red panda cub by Alex Riddell

These twins are the second successful red panda birth to mother Kitty. Last summer Kitty reared a single male cub named Kush, who was recently sent to Curraghs Wildlife Park on the Isle of Man as their new breeding male. Kush was the first red panda to be born in the Society’s animal collections in 13 years. It is unusual for red pandas to produce cubs on consecutive years, so this is a very strong indication that our enclosure, diet and husbandry regime is perfect for our animals.

Douglas Richardson and his team choose a wet day on purpose in the hope that there would be fewer visitors and so it would make it easier for us to monitor and close the area again if needed, but oblivious would be one way of describing the animals’ reaction to the reappearance of visitors. With carnivores, and indeed many other animal groups, keeping disruption down to a minimum and privacy at a maximum can be essential when raising young.

Red panda cub by Alex Riddell

Red panda cub by Alex Riddell

The kits are still not visible to the visitors unless mum is transferring them to one of the other nest boxes, which is normal behaviour for the species, but at least the adults can be more readily viewed again. The cubs should shortly be sexed and named, and will soon start to be more visible to our visitors.

We have tried a similar approach with the northern lynx as the female is currently rearing her third set of twins; she normally has them in the bushes at the front of the exhibit, so the Park always ropes this area off. A short while ago she moved them into the shed at the side of the enclosure and then to the secluded area at the rear, near the Pallas’s cat exhibit.  She seemed pretty calm and the kittens were just starting to show themselves and our excellent animal team removed the temporary barrier. Like the red pandas, no obvious changes in behaviour other than the two kittens becoming more and more visible were seen. Then, the other day, the team were delighted to see all five lynx (dad, mum, big sister from last year and the new twins) come down to the front when the keepers were putting the food in – a very exciting development!

Sometimes a much more cautious approach is needed though, in particular with our adult female Pallas’s cat and her six kittens in their special off-exhibit facility. This is only one of three or four captive litters born globally this year and ours is the largest. The species’ vulnerability to toxoplasmosis is at the heart of our carefully planned husbandry protocol, and although we are not quite out of the woods yet, it certainly is looking very good.

When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world 

~ John Muir

Gentoo breeding season at Edinburgh Zoo

July 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

By Dawn Nicoll, Senior Keeper, Penguin Section

We are now in the middle of summer and things have definitely been hotting up at Penguins Rock.

Gentoo chick by Dawn Nicoll

Gentoo chick by Dawn Nicoll

In the month of April we saw some of the first eggs laid by our breeding gentoo penguins. Our penguins become dedicated to their nests and eggs working as a close pair to protect them. Taking turns, the male and female sit tight on their two eggs keeping them warm under their brood pouch. Throughout the space of 36 days they gently turn the eggs aiding the full development of the baby penguin inside.

By May, we saw some of our first chicks hatch out to join the colony. Starting at a tiny 96 grams they gain roughly 10% of their body weight a day, with such a steep growth rate it only takes two months for our chicks to reach 4.5kg and be ready to leave their parents.

Watching the nest site at this time is both rewarding and entertaining. Every day the chicks are growing, learning new behaviours and becoming increasingly independent. Our older chicks are now taking an interest in swimming and building up their confidence with the water by practicing their snorkelling techniques.

In the wild gentoos would crèche their chicks together while they go out to fish. This helps the chicks to become less dependent on their parents and learn to defend for themselves. Here at Edinburgh zoo we replicate this stage in their development by moving them into our smaller enclosure. In this crèche environment the chicks learn to take fish from the keepers and master the art of swimming in our smaller pool. Currently we have four of our 10 chicks in the crèche and the other chicks will follow soon.

Don’t forget you can keep up with all the action on our Penguin Cam.

Chief Executive’s Blog

July 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

Well Edinburgh Zoo is just finishing week three of Summer School, with one more week to go. Summer School is one of our Discovery & Learning team’s busiest times of the year and we are extremely proud of what we can offer children during the school break.

Down in the Jungle was this year’s theme, we have a new one each year, and the team has done an amazing job of decorating our Discovery & Learning building to look the part. A local studying artist has created a detailed animal mural to adorn the entrance way and the corridors are done up to look like the youngsters are walking through jungle terrain.

14_07_18_SummerSchool_DoorMural_kp_smlEach year we have 400 places across four weeks (100 slots per week) for children aged six to 15. Divided into four different age groups, children learn about the natural world in a fun and interactive way with our education officers. Summer School activities include animal handling, drama, games, arts and crafts, scavenger hunts, storytelling and more. The older children will spend time learning about animals, enclosure design and do more in-depth learning.

Each age group will get the chance to create an enrichment device for an animal. A bit like a toy, the enrichment is for the animal to essentially ‘play’ with and offers them a variety of stimulation. Here are some of our jungle themed enrichment devices made by some of our different age groups.

14_07_18_SummerSchool_enrichment_kpHere’s a quick link to one of our senior education officers at RZSS explained more about one of our previous Summer Schools with a Down Under theme

RZSS has also just completed our first offering of a new education programme called ZEST CWR (running 5 May to 10 July). The course was opened up to young people (17-21yrs) across Scotland and launched by Angela Constance MSP and Cabinet Secretary for Training, Youth and Women’s Employment. By working in partnership with Skills Development Scotland we designed the programme for candidates that were not currently in education, employment or training (NEET’s). The adapted ZEST programme offered six places at Edinburgh Zoo, as well as two places at the Highland Wildlife Park. All participants had the opportunity to achieve the Skills Development Scotland’s Certificate of Work Readiness (CWR).

Also at Edinburgh Zoo this week, a very colourful Mindanao bleeding heart dove has arrived in Brilliant Birds and we shortly hope to find it a mate. Dillon the three banded armadillo has moved into Brilliant Birds too; he has a large open enclosure in the corner of the attraction. A really popular individual, Dillon has been with us for some years taking part in animal handling sessions and the hilltop shows; however this is the first time he’s been on public display. Very lively, you are likely to see him scurrying around and exploring his environment.

Still with the Zoo, our rockhopper penguins are now back in the main enclosure – some of you may know they go up to an enclosure further up the hill for breeding season as the birds have previously bred very successfully at this location. The ten new gentoo penguin chicks from this year’s breeding season will shortly go into the penguin crèche away from their parents to learn skills like independent feeding, swimming and grooming.

Flamingo_nest_1In some mixed news, there was a Chilean flamingo egg laid one morning, but unfortunately the birds accidently cracked it by the afternoon. This is actually still a really encouraging sign and we are hopeful for more eggs. Breeding season for the Zoo’s 34 Chilean flamingos started in late spring when the bird keepers built “mud pie” nests to help stimulate courtship behaviour, such as head flagging, wing saluting, vocalising and aggression between competing males. Around 25 nests were created, each ranging in shape and size. In case you are passing the enclosure to the right of the main entrance and spot two eggs sitting rather proudly on top of two mud pie nests right now, they are actually fake and are just there to offer the birds encouragement! We hope to have more of the real thing shortly.

Finally onto staff news, two of our trainee keepers are now fully qualified as zoo keepers. RZSS has a 99.99% success rate that we are extremely proud off. Come September another seven trainee keepers start their course, so we wish them the best of luck. Michael Livingstone, one of our panda keepers, is also off to China next week to the Bifengxia Panda Reserve to work with pregnant pandas and cubs. This is the first trip to China for Michael, with his panda colleagues visiting last year. I hope to be able to share some of his experiences and photos from his trip with you here.


The gross heathenism of civilization has generally destroyed nature, and poetry, and all that is spiritual

~John Muir, letter to J.B. McChesney, 19 September 1871



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 29,533 other followers