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.

Chief Executive’s Blog

October 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

Baginda - Sumatran Tiger

This week we announced the big cat strategy for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and I would like to take this opportunity in my blog to talk in more detail about it.

As you may know, various new species are entering and leaving the collections at Highland Wildlife Park and Edinburgh Zoo. The existing Big Cat Walkway at the Zoo is to be demolished later this year as it dates back to the 1920s and it is part of the original Zoo design. RZSS would prefer to develop enclosures more in-keeping with a 21st century conservation charity. We looked at the option of further modifications and expansion to them, but in the end felt removing the existing infrastructure was the only sensible option.

I will be very sad to see animals like the jaguars, Mowgli and Rica, leave Edinburgh Zoo. They are a species I love and they both have great characters, but their enclosure has come to the end of its lifespan. The creation of a new state-of-the art facility would cost a very significant amount, likely millions of pounds, and we have to be realistic; we believe that money has to be spent on updating infrastructures across the Zoo – for example for the sun bears and the rhinos. The jaguars will go to a new home with enclosures and possibly other partners so as to create an environment more conducive to their breeding.

With regard to Edinburgh Zoo’s Amur leopards, it was recommended at an earlier point in time by the relevant overarching species breeding programme that they move separately to other collections with new potential mates, as they had proved incompatible as a pair. This is a common occurrence in big cats and the female left earlier this year. It will be a new pair that makes their home at Highland Wildlife Park. The male Asian golden cat, will be moved to an off show area within the Zoo until a new home is found.

We are very excited about the new developments at Highland Wildlife Park – the new snow leopards and a brand new pair of Amur leopards – who will both hopefully breed. Private funding has been specifically directed to the Highland Wildlife Park for these species. The Park has the space and the topography to enable the best housing of the leopards in a first class fashion; it will give us the best chance of aiding the future of both species.

Back to Edinburgh Zoo’s cats, Roberta the Asiatic lion is slowly settling in after her arrival last week and has not yet been introduced to Jay. We hope they will form a breeding pair when they both fully mature. Tibor, the male Sumatran tiger, is another distinctive face we will all miss, but we have to go with the recommendations of the over-arching breeding programme and form a new pair with a new, more compatible male. We look forward to early confirmation as to when our new male is arriving.

We are in the initial stages of exploring the next generation of cat development at Edinburgh Zoo; potentially planned for 2016 and likely involving small cat species and/or a larger spotted cat species. This is still in the early stages though. Cats are really popular with our visitors and members, so we would love to bring them back in greater quantities to the Zoo, whilst working with the space and funds we have at our disposal. We will look to fundraise in the future.

I am also pleased to share with you other developments planned for Edinburgh Zoo. In the near future, we will be creating two new visitor experiences – a lemur walkway and a wallaby walkway. Other likely developments are turning the duck pond into an otter walkway. As you can see, there is a theme of immersing visitors in our experiences!

At Edinburgh Zoo we have an exciting diversity of species and so the challenge is to make sure they are all looked after in facilities that reach – and where possible surpass – contemporary standards, while maintaining a range of taxa. Quality of life must remain important, rather than simply the quantity of species and specimens. Our focus must also be more interactive, engaging areas with presenters and much improved interpretation which tells the story of our science based conservation work.

Plans are also being developed to introduce a new transport solution (an addition to the well-received mobility vehicle) which will enable visitors to travel to the Hilltop to ‘start’ their visit, adding value to the visitor experience and improving accessibility. It is intended that this new facility will be in place at some point in 2015.

Well I leave you with my extra update and hope our plans are welcome additions to both Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park.

Going Wild about Scotland through September

October 15, 2014 § Leave a comment


Wild about Scotland Blog – September 2014

We’ve done it! Our first month on board the ‘Wild about Scotland’ educational bus has been a success! 11 schools and two other venues visited. 782 people engaged with and 1,028.7 miles of scenic Scottish roads travelled!

The specially designed interactive classroom, developed by RZSS’ Discovery and Learning team and brought to life through a partnership with Clydesdale Bank, has already been to six different local council areas. Fun and games have been had both in the classes and on the journey itself – we’ve returned with smiling faces and a few tales to tell!

The transformational makeover of the bus donated by Stagecoach, from School bus to Wild about Scotland bus, funded by Clydesdale Bank.

The transformational makeover of the bus donated by Stagecoach.
From School bus to Wild about Scotland bus, funded by Clydesdale Bank.

During September Driver Dave manoeuvred his way through the tightly packed streets of Edinburgh and Glasgow, cruised through East Lothian and Fife, then up to Aberdeenshire before taking on those winding Highland roads. The eye-catching bus stopped at 11 different schools and even managed a couple of pit stops at Highland Wildlife Park in Kincraig, near Aviemore, and Simpsons Garden Centre in Inverness – turning a few heads on the way.

Left: Our wonderful Wild about Scotland Bus team (L/R Jamie, Lyndsay and Driver Dave). Right: Wild about Scotland Bus crosses the Bonar Bridge, Sutherland.

Left: Our wonderful Wild about Scotland Bus team (L/R Jamie, Lyndsay and Driver Dave).
Right: Wild about Scotland Bus crosses the Bonar Bridge, Sutherland.

RZSS Education Officers Jamie and Lindsay, and the ‘Mini-beast’ lesson developed by RZSS, were given the thumbs up by children. Here are what some pupils said:

“You made graphs sound fun! The bus is awesome!” 

“It’s nice to learn about local and Scottish animals and mini-beasts”

And they were even awarded A+’s by teachers!

The best part was “the knowledge of instructors and ability to engage pupils”

“Very well-planned and resourced session”

We even helped a few schools work towards their Eco-Schools Green Flag status, an award which recognises work the school does to protect the environment, because of the great links to biodiversity, conservation and Scottish nature around which the lesson plans are structured.

On our visits some pretty interesting little critters have been discovered in the school grounds. Each month, Brodie the Beaver who is the bus mascot, A.K.A. Brodie the Roadie, will paw pick his favourite ‘Mini-beast of the Month’ from all the insects which have been caught throughout the month. There’s been 23 mini-beast lessons so far, so let’s take a closer look at Brodie’s pick for this month:

MiniBeasts‘Mini-beast of the Month’: Glossy woolly bear caterpillars 

Discovered: By pupils at Hilton of Cadboll Primary School near Tain, Aberdeenshire.

Well done guys, for finding these mammoth beasts!

BrodieKnowsBestBrodie Knows Best! Top Tip from September 

Help encourage mini-beasts to live in your garden by placing twigs under trees or on open soil – a mini-beast hotel for creepy crawlies!

Our Wild about Scotland Bus has also been delivering drop-in sessions and here it is at the Highland Wildlife Park with pupils from Elgin Academy who took the opportunity to come on board when they visited the Park

Wild about Scotland is on Social Media and we’d love you to connect with us and share your thoughts and images about our project and Scottish biodiversity…

Twitterlogo@WildaboutScot     #WildaboutScotland       #RZSS


Bus Driver DavidFrom the Driver’s Seat….

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

“This month I thought I’d begin with a little bit about our bus for starters… it started out life in 1996 in Falkirk and was then used for many years on the roads of Kilmarnock, ferrying children to and from school. Stagecoach donated the bus to us earlier this year and it went all the way down to Blackpool for its makeover into our ‘Wild about Scotland’ bus that you see today. I couldn’t resist getting this photo of our lovely new bus by the Blackpool tower before I headed back to Scotland!

Before we visit your school, I first have to check my handy AA Trucker’s Road Atlas to do my route planning. Having a tall (14 feet 6 inches) and heavy (12 tonnes) bus means I have to avoid all the low bridges and roads with weight restrictions. This often means it takes longer for the bus to get to you than our support vehicle does with the rest of the team. Each day I’m out on the road I have to begin with my early morning checks of the bus to make sure she is ready to go…that includes checking the tyres, lights and indicators, mirrors and windscreen and making sure the bus is spick and span for the first school children to get on board.

Chief Executive’s Blog

October 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

I returned from my travels earlier this week to lovely news about some of the most popular arrivals at Highland Wildlife Park this year. Scottish wildcat kittens, Vaa and Gynack are six months old tomorrow and are now around half the size of their mother. Each month they are gradually becoming more independent and are picking up all the natural behaviours shown by parents Betidh and Hamish, particularly at feeding time.

14_5_16_Wildcat_2_jpBoth parents are considered to be of ‘high purity’ in terms of their lack of hybridisation with the domestic cat. We understand this from results of a DNA test recently developed by RZSS, as part of the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan (SWCAP), which now allow us to distinguish animals with a high level of hybridisation. The SWCAP is backed by a wide range of partners in government and NGOs and RZSS has a key role in the programme to lead on genetic management, animal husbandry and to inform and engage the public through the presence of cats at Highland Wildlife Park. The animals on display at Highland Wildlife Park are of varying levels of ‘purity’ as all Scottish wildcats might now be hybridised with domestic cats to different degrees. Animals in the captive breeding programme that show very high levels of hybridisation have been neutered and are on display in zoos around the UK and playing a very important role in Scottish wildcat education – the responsible thing to do to prevent further dilution of this great native species.

Last week, Edinburgh Zoo welcomed Dr. Arnaud Desbiez, RZSS Latin America Coordinator and Dr. Fred Baweteera, Director of the Budongo Conservation Field Station who, I have been told, gave a couple of enlightening talks. Arnaud gave an overview of the RZSS Giant Armadillo Project in the Pantanal in Brazil as part of last week’s adult education class on mammals and as mentioned in my last blog, Fred spoke at an information evening about a trip to Uganda.


Students from Lasswade High School

I’m delighted that tomorrow RZSS, in partnership with Jaguar Land Rover China, will be giving ten local children from Lasswade High School in Midlothian the trip of a lifetime! They are jetting off to the remote Bifengxia Panda Reserve in the Sichuan Province of China as part of the RZSS Giant Panda Project. At the Reserve they will see some of the newest giant panda cub arrivals and hear more about conservation efforts to combat the decline of the species. The school children will conclude their trip by heading to the contrasting, metropolitan city of Shanghai for an exchange with Chinese families. 14_09_04_ChileanFlamingo_chick_kp_1_webWe must also remember that it’s rainy season in China; the pupils are well prepared for a little downpour and are bringing RZSS and Jaguar Land Rover China waterproof jackets especially for the occasion.

Back in Scotland, if you are planning an autumnal walk through Edinburgh Zoo I recommend your first stop is at the flamingo enclosure where you’ll be able to spot five chicks, varying in height and age, amongst the long legs of their parents.

A September to remember. An October full of splendor. A November to treasure.

~La Prevenchere

Giant Armadillo Project Update

October 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

From Arnaud Desbiez, Conservation Project Manager.

On the 29-30 July the Giant Armadillo Project (RZSS) and the Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative (IPE) held a workshop to address the threat that roads in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul are posing to biodiversity. The RZSS and IPE conducted a one year study monitoring the species encountered on the three main roads twice a month. These roads cover over 1000km in the whole state and the results were horrifying, with 1,124 carcasses of medium to large mammals found.

Ten most common species encountered on the roads between April 2013 and March 2014

Species Found Total
Crab eating fox 286
Six banded armadillo 252
Giant Anteater 136
Southern Tamandua 120
Capybara 108
Nine banded armadillo 82
Tapir 36
Racoon 30
Deer 16
Coati 14
Total 1080
Giant anteater

Giant anteater

During the workshop over 30 participants gathered together including NGOs, universities, the animal rehab center where the injured animals are taken to, firemen, environmental police and a company that will be building a new road. Most importantly, the meeting was supported by the Center of Road Ecology located in the University of Lavras.

As a result of the workshop a group called Estradas Vivas MS was created and a proposal is being written to continue the work started by RZSS and IPE. Furthermore the consortium that will be building a new road in the state will use results from the study to apply mitigation measures, such as creating tunnels under the new road for animals to use. New radars are also being deployed on one of the roads monitored, to try and reduce the speed of the vehicles traveling along it. The group will work hard so that results from this project are translated into policy change and that the mitigation measures are taken.

Giant Armadillo (Priodontes maximus) Wild, Pantanal, Brazil

Giant armadillo by Kevin Schafer

If you would like to help to support the RZSS Giant Armadillo Project in the Pantanal, Brazil, why not join us on Friday 3 October for the Ugly Animal Preservation Society comedy night.

Cute and cuddly animals get all the attention – so it’s time to redress the balance and things are guaranteed to get ugly as six comedians each champion a different endangered animal that challenge the laws of attraction to the very core! Profits from this event will go to support the RZSS Giant Armadillo Project and Regional Coordinator, Arnaud Desbiez will be joining us for this event.


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