Chief Executive’s Blog

November 21, 2014 § Leave a comment


Beaver Kit by Phillip Rice

Beaver Kit by Phillip Rice

This week we were delighted to welcome, after five years of study, the publication of the Scottish Beaver Trial scientific reports by Scottish Natural Heritage. The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland was a key player in the trial which was a partnership with Scottish Wildlife Trust and was hosted by Forestry Commission Scotland. The Scottish Beaver Trial was the first ever licenced mammal reintroduction in the UK. European beavers were reintroduced to the Knapdale Forest, mid-Argyll after they were hunted to extinction there 400 years ago. The key findings of the reports will be presented to the Scottish Government to enable a Ministerial decision about the future of beavers in Scotland to be decided in 2015. The five year trial included 11,817 hours of scientific monitoring fieldwork which varied from tracking the beavers to water sampling and has engaged almost three million people about beaver ecology. In 2013, we were honoured that the project was named ‘Best Conservation Project in the UK’ by BBC Countryfile magazine.

greatgifts_relatedAs the weather begins to get colder, it signals that the festive period is nearly upon us. Next week, on Wednesday 26 November, the first Christmas shopping night will be held in the gift shop at Edinburgh Zoo. Children of all ages will be able to meet Santa in his grotto and a truly festive environment will take over the whole shop as there will be carol singers, food tastings and special discounts. More information can be found at:

During winter at the Zoo, our popular Animal Antics hilltop show is replaced with an activity in a warmer location and this year our presentations team are running storytelling sessions in the Rainforest Room of the Education Centre. I don’t want to give everything away, however it is an enlightening story with an important conservation message; it follows the journey of Chi Chi the giant panda as he travels through the mountains of China in search of more bamboo because his food source has declined. The story is a reflection of the actual conservation work taking place out in China.

Lasswade High School - China Trip with Jaguar Land Rover China

Lasswade High School – China Trip with Jaguar Land Rover China

Also earlier in the week, I was pleased to sight photos from the recent trip to China by school pupils of Lasswade High School, an experience which I have covered quite closely in previous blog posts and was made possible through a partnership with Jaguar Land Rover China. It is my pleasure to share a couple of these with you.

Lasswade students seeing a giant panda

Lasswade students seeing a giant panda

If you are visiting Highland Wildlife Park, look out for the young capercaillie who went on show last week.

Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher.

~William Wordsworth

Going Wild about Scotland through October

November 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

It was a second month of success for the ‘Wild about Scotland’ education bus!

Last month the specially designed interactive classroom, a partnership with Clydesdale Bank, made its way up to the Cairngorms, also fitting in trips to schools in the Central Belt and Stirling.

During the October holidays the bus visited Highland Wildlife Park, where it parked up for a full week. With the Cairngorms as a backdrop, the bus opened its doors to visitors of all ages to drop in and experience the unique learning environment.

Equipment for the Dam Building Challenge

Equipment for the Dam Building Challenge

Over 300 visitors to the Park took part in our ‘beaver dam challenge’. With a bundle of twigs, a shallow tray and a jug of water, the challenge was to see which dam could hold back the water for the longest – a smaller scale version of some of the activity that the re-introduced beavers have been getting up to in the Knapdale Forest, Argyll. The fun challenge was used to highlight The Scottish Beaver Trial – a partnership project between RZSS, SWT and Forestry Commission Scotland. We hope visitors were able to learn more about the life and work of beavers and how important they are as nature’s environmental engineers.

During the rest of the month, the bus visited 14 schools, even helping six of these schools work towards their third Eco-School Green Flag. At these schools in particular, the ‘Wild about Scotland’ lessons were a welcomed addition to the curriculum already in place, allowing pupils to relate what they are learning in the traditional classroom environment to Scottish conservation.                                                                                                         

Here are some quotes from teachers this month:

“Our current P4-7 learning context is ‘pollution’ so the sessions fitted well.”

“One of our class topics is Australia – it was ideal to compare animals in each country.”

“It was great to see our outdoors used so efficiently!”

Even though the nights are getting longer, leaves are falling and winter has arrived, there are still a few of the more resilient mini-beasts roaming through the gardens. This month, bus mascot Brodie the Beaver has paw picked this creepy crawly as his ‘Mini-beast of the Month’:

Centipede‘Mini-beast of the Month’: Centipede 

This little critter was discovered by pupils at Buchanan Primary School near Loch Lomond.

Did you know that in order to grow, centipedes shed their hard exoskeleton? Pictured here is one that was found emerging from its old exoskeleton.

BrodieKnowsBestBrodie Knows Best! Top Tip

Brodie the toy beaver is the bus mascot and helps children learn all about beavers and their habitat

Did you know that by building dams beavers can actually help reduce the risk of flooding lower down in river systems? They moderate the flow of water and can also benefit biodiversity by raising the water table locally, creating small wetland areas.

Bus Driver DavidFrom the Driver’s Seat….

Each month our ‘Wild about Scotland’ bus driver David gives you a wee insight into what it’s like to drive our double decker the length and breadth of Scotland.

At the bus wash!!

At the bus wash!!

“The wet weather of Scottish winters has begun, but you certainly won’t see any muddy footprints on the bus! Apart from driving the bus, it’s also my responsibility to make sure the bus is clean and looking it’s best before the children hop on board. At the end of the day and between every lesson I spend ten minutes sweeping and mopping both floors of the bus, and of course the spectacular waterfall staircase. I also make sure the outside of the bus is clean too so that when I am driving past people on the street they can appreciate the beautiful photos of Scottish wildlife which decorate the bus – you may be surprised to find out that I even take the bus through a bus wash from time to time!

I have to be very careful when driving the bus into school car parks – sometimes it can be a little bit of a tight squeeze! When I arrive outside each school I park up the bus then rummage through my tool box to find my trusty measuring tape. I then measure the distance between the gate pillars to make sure they are over 9 foot apart. The bus is 8 foot wide (not including the mirrors) so I know that if I swing the bus round to be square on then I can just squeeze through the gates. School gates aren’t generally built with the access of a double decker bus in mind! The strangest place we have had to park up this month, due to not being able to fit on the school grounds was on our visit to Deanston Primary School near Doune. Local Deanston Distillery offered up their car park and we were able to host the lesson there.”

Top Tweets from October:

‏@CorntionPrimary1 – Cornton Primary School, 21 October – “The Wild about Scotland bus are visiting P5 and 6 this week!

@deanstonmalt – Deanston Distillery, Oct 22 – “@WildaboutScot our pleasure, great to see you and be able to support. Not often we have a ‘Wild Bus’ in the car park! #wildaboutscotland”

In reply to:

@WildaboutScot – Wild about Scotland, Oct 22 – “Massive thanks to Deanston Distillery @deanstonmalt for letting us use their car park! #wildaboutscotland #rzss”

@p45_boreps – Primary 4/5 at Borestone Primary School, Oct 25 – “A hint for pupils wondering about Tuesday’s surprise. We’re on the map. 4 days to go. #excited @WildaboutScot

@p45_boreps – Primary 4/5 at Borestone Primary School, Oct 28 – “I can identify different species and present data in a graph. Thanks @WildaboutScot P4/5 and P7 loved it.”

The bus at two of Stirling’s famous landmarks – Stirling Castle on the left and the Wallace Monument on the right.

The bus at two of Stirling’s famous landmarks.
Stirling Castle on the left and the Wallace Monument on the right.

Twitterlogo@WildaboutScot     #WildaboutScotland       #RZSS


Chief Executive’s Blog

November 14, 2014 § Leave a comment


First of all I would like to give you a little update from Arnaud Desbiez, RZSS Latin America Coordinator who is stationed in the Brazilian Pantanal. I last updated you in my blog of his work on the Giant Armadillo Project in August and since then the Giant Armadillo Project team has run two field expeditions to monitor all the animals which we are following. One of the main tasks of the October expedition was to fit a GPS tag on 16 month old giant armadillo Alex who we have been following through camera traps since his birth and was the first ever photographed baby giant armadillo in the wild. On the final night of the expedition, the team successfully fitted a GPS tag on Alex which will enable us to continue to learn more about him as he becomes more independent from his mother. This addition means we are now monitoring a total of seven giant armadillos through a combination of cameras and telemetry – a record for the project!

Giant Armadillo Baby Alex 2013 by Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project

Giant Armadillo and baby Alex by Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project

RZSS veterinary surgeon, Romain Pizzi, was also in Brazil this week. Romain is in Rio Grande do Sul, one of the Southern states, where he is teaching wildlife surgery to Brazilian veterinarians. I am sure it will prove to be a valuable teaching experience for all and will help build and enhance the capacity of the veterinarians.

Gentoo penguins

Gentoo penguins

Back in Scotland, I’m sure you have all seen the recent Christmas advert for John Lewis. A realistic CGI penguin plays the starring role and we were honoured that the penguins at Edinburgh Zoo helped inspire the advert; the advert’s production team spent a day in May observing the behaviours of our penguins as they waddled and porpoised through their state of the art enclosure. At Penguins Rock this week, keepers have heard visitors discuss the movements they can see within of our colony and relate these to some of the behaviours of Monty the penguin. It is wonderful for us to watch as members of the public get excited about observing natural behaviours of animals.

Arctic Fox with winter coat by Alex Riddell

Arctic Fox with winter coat by Alex Riddell

At Highland Wildlife Park, Arctic foxes Elf and Kilian have donned their winter coats as their fur has turned white and become denser. This is a natural annual transformation which not only helps protect them from the cold of winter, but also camouflages them in their native Arctic landscape.

We are currently hosting three students from the University of Edinburgh who are studying for an MSc in Science Communication and Public Engagement as part of an eight week placement for their course. The students are based at Edinburgh Zoo and have been concentrating on gaining visitor feedback on some of the interpretation throughout the site. I’m looking forward to hearing their findings which I trust will prove insightful and refreshing. They have also had the opportunity to meet with staff across numerous departments which has enabled them to get a broad overview of RZSS and all the jobs involved.

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

~Nelson Mandela

Chief Executive’s Blog

November 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

Red November may sound like the name of a horror movie or a particularly gruesome historical happening, but it is actually a fantastic conservation event organised by the British and Irish Associate of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) to celebrate the significant contribution of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List in guiding conservation action and policy decisions over the past 50 years.

Scottish Wildcat by Alex Riddell

Critically Endangered, Scottish Wildcat by Alex Riddell

Both of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s animal collections at Highland Wildlife Park and Edinburgh Zoo are developed under the guidance of the Red List and our primary focus is often on species classed as Vulnerable or worse. The IUCN Red List has also had a positive impact in regenerating the wild populations of threatened species.

As the name suggests, Red November is taking place across the entire month of November, and the Highland Wildlife Park has set a conservation challenge for visitors, inviting them to solve clues across the Park and be rewarded with interesting facts about some of our species. Extra talks from our keepers will focus on the individual Red List classifications of animals – with categorisations ranging from Least Concern to Extinct in the Wild, with Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered and Critically Endangered in between. The presentations will also explain the threats to each animal’s survival and hopefully inspire action and discussion towards biodiversity conservation.

As an added bonus, the driver of any red cars during November will also be given free entry to the Highland Wildlife Park.

Our discovery and learning team have been in Skye and Fort William this week with our excellent Penguins to Pandas and Beyond the Panda educational programmes. The team have carried out 42 sessions between August and now, with many more due before the end of term.

Earlier this week Marty the Amur tiger featured in an episode of ‘Vets: Gach Creutair Beo’. A Gaelic series, viewers are taken on a journey across Scotland following vets as they tend to animals from small, to large, to the very wild. In this programme vets met Marty when he had toothache earlier this year and filmed how we treated and helped him.

Aubrey Manning OBE

Aubrey Manning OBE

Finally, we have the next in our new series of Tribal Elders lectures coming up soon. RZSS is pleased to present an evening with Professor Aubrey Manning OBE as the second inspiring address Tribal Elders: Words of Wisdom lecture series.

Recognised as one of the country’s leading authorities on animal behaviour and professor at The University of Edinburgh, Professor Manning is a committed conservationist and I am looking forward to hearing him distil his collected lifetime wisdom. His keynote speech is a challenging and thought-provoking message that explores how humans treat the planet, use finite resources and the effects of the ever-spiralling population growth.

Taking place at 7pm on Thursday 13 November in Edinburgh Zoo’s Budongo Lecture Theatre, tickets are free and available by emailing

“Look into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”

~Albert Einstein

Chief Executive’s Blog

October 31, 2014 § Leave a comment


As I’m sure you are all aware, today is Halloween and it would be only fitting that it is the theme behind my blog post this week.

The Mansion House, which originally belonged to the Macmillan family stands in the centre of the Zoo and with its Scottish Baronial styled architecture and over 200 years of history, it is the perfect picture for ghost stories. Although I’ve no spooky experiences to share myself (well, yet!) many colleagues across the Zoo like to remind me, particularly at this time of year, that this house where I sit and write to you all is almost certainly, haunted. To put these rumours to rest, on All Hallows Eve 2012 we opened the creaky old doors to a ghost hunter and spiritualist who took guests on a tour of the house and used technical equipment, such as night vision cameras and electric magnetic field meters, to uncover any paranormal activity. I can assure you that my mind was not at ease after hearing the findings of the night…



Of course, the Mansion House isn’t the only part of the Zoo creeping through the night, we have a few nocturnal animals in our collection including douroucoulis, also known as night monkeys, and pygmy slow loris who all live in the small monkey Magic Forest exhibit. In keeping with the Halloween theme, we also house a few animals which, although very subjective, visitors often describe as “scary” looking. A regular recipient of this label and Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red List, is our flock of 14 Waldrapp ibis. If you’ve not already spotted them in the trees at the Duck Pond, these birds have long glossy black feathers, piercing black beady eyes and electrifying hairstyles. I will leave it to yourself to decide if this “scary” status is a compliment or not. I’ve also heard reports from both staff and visitors alike that a couple of wild, red eyed albino squirrels also make the Zoo their home.

Waldrapp ibis

Waldrapp ibis

Halloween is a great excuse to get creative with the enrichment our animals receive. To celebrate Halloween this year, keepers stuffed pumpkins with meat and insects as part of the daily feed of our Oriental short-clawed otters. As they are naturally inquisitive, all 15 otters, including the five pups who were born in June, came out of their dens to take a closer look. I hear the pups quickly grabbed some meat before running back to the safety of their heated dens to enjoy their breakfast in peace.

Oriental short-clawed otters with pumpkins at Halloween

Oriental short-clawed otters with pumpkins at Halloween

Tomorrow, Saturday 1 November, members of the public will be given the opportunity to celebrate Halloween by building enrichment items for many of the animals we have here at Edinburgh Zoo, including the squirrel and capuchin monkeys and the sun bears. In addition to making your own items, it’s a wonderful opportunity to engage with keepers to learn about the importance of animal enrichment and the behaviours it stimulates. There will also be special enrichment given to the various animals throughout the Zoo including a whole carcass feed for the Egyptian vultures. More information about the day and a timetable of the day can be found here.

Up at Highland Wildlife Park the annual stag rut continues and I hope that at some point over the next few weeks we will know which one of our stags will be in control of the herd.

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.

~Albert Einstein

Chief Executive’s Blog

October 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

Hello readers,

Last week I wrote in more detail about the Big Cat Strategy. On Wednesday evening myself and Darren McGarry met with many of RZSS’ invaluable Volunteers to discuss the details of this Strategy further. The evening proved a very useful opportunity for sharing information and comment. We spoke about the sadness with which we have come to the careful conclusion that we must remove the Big Cat Walkway and it was agreed by attendees that we must first be guided by what is best for our cats. The fact that they will be going to world class EAZA zoos with modern enclosures was welcomed. We also talked about the current financial picture for RZSS and the exciting projects we have planned to develop the visitor experience at both Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park. We listened very carefully to the enthusiastic feedback from the evening and are looking forward to sharing and discussing ideas with our Volunteers on a regular basis in the future.

On the topic of new developments, if you have been into Edinburgh Zoo this week I’m sure you have seen that the new meerkat house is really beginning to take shape and I believe this will prove a fantastic addition to Meerkat Plaza.

Purple pincher crab

Purple pincher crab

This Sunday is the final day of the very popular Creepy Crawlies event which has been held daily for the past two weeks from 9am to 3pm. The enriching and entertaining display has taken over the lecture theatre in Budongo Trail at Edinburgh Zoo. It’s wonderful to see children of all ages immersed in the area and engaging with our extremely knowledgeable staff and Volunteers who are on hand to talk about the huge contribution these little creatures make to the planet. Some of the children were even listening and learning with a slimy giant African land snail in hand! Other animals on display which you may not have seen before include death’s head cockroaches, a Mexican fire leg tarantula, purple pincher hermit crabs and, my personal favourite, an orchid mantis which, if you’re able to spot this delicate little creature, you’ll easily understand where it gets the name from.

Orchid mantis

Orchid mantis

Up at Highland Wildlife Park, the annual red deer rut is ongoing and there has been a change in direction – Zeus has taken control of the herd as Atlas, who has been in charge over the last few weeks, has been ousted. The spectacle is a great display of the strength and the – sometimes forgotten – aggression of Britain’s largest land mammal.

We are pleased to hear that the pupils from Lasswade High School have returned safely with glowing reports of their trip to China. Organised by RZSS and supported by Jaguar Land Rover China, the pupils visited Bifengxia Panda Reserve where they saw lots of pandas in various stages of their life, including the Reserve’s newest panda cubs.

We do not see nature with our eyes, but with our understandings and our hearts.

~ William Hazlitt

Highland Wildlife Blog – Small Fish Creating Waves in a Big Pond

October 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

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

Highland Wildlife Park is part of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, the owners of Edinburgh Zoo. Both collections are members in their own right of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), the important regional body that oversees all the coordinated breeding programmes. After I started at the Park I received the results of a study that measured every member’s contribution towards species management. A minimum ideal score was calculated for your zoo, with Highland Wildlife Park’s contribution falling somewhat short; we were determined to improve our standing.

Red Deer Stag by Alex Riddell

Red Deer Stag by Alex Riddell

In the last week of September each year, EAZA holds its annual conference. This year it was in Budapest, a beautiful city and home to one of the oldest zoos in the world. For the five days of the conference there are sessions with formal paper presentations, but the vast majority of the activity is taken up with individual, concurrently running workshops and committee meetings. Members are brought up to speed on the activities of all the breeding programmes, training sessions are held to acquaint new members, and some older ones, with some of the software that allows us to scientifically manage our animal collections and there are attendees from zoo regions outside of Europe as we are increasingly trying to manage highly threatened species at a global level. EAZA has been developing strong working relationships with our opposite numbers in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the world’s most important conservation body, and as well as providing them with specialist help, the zoo community is now one of the biggest donors to conservation in the wild.

Bison bull by Alex Riddell

Bison bull by Alex Riddell

So what was Highland Wildlife Park’s contribution in Budapest? Two posters and a video were presented on novel husbandry research to enhance infant survival rates of Pallas’s cats, a feisty kitty from central Asia, as well as an update on the coordinated breeding programme we manage and the support mechanism we have established for Pallas’s cat researchers in the field. Updates and recommendations were discussed for the takin, a large goat-like beast from the eastern Himalayas, and European bison breeding programmes we manage. Four separate presentations were given to explain how we will be able to exchange animals and manage threatened hoofed mammal breeding programmes with our colleagues in North America and Asia; currently we cannot import hoofed mammals from Asian zoos. We chaired a session that oversees all the wild goat and sheep breeding programmes, an increasingly threatened group of mammals, and we were asked to contribute to a policy session that was to address the problem that hybrid tigers present to tigers of known origin. Advice was sought of us on a wide range of topics from Amur leopard enclosure design to how an American institution may be able to get fresh blood for a large captive herd of Nilgiri tahr, an odd hoofed mammal from southern India. I think it is safe to say that we have increased the wave height in our pond.

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


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