Military Lend a Hand to Create New Female Polar Bear Enclosure at Highland Wildlife Park

September 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

Ten days, 60 military personnel, 2,240 hours of labour and 615 tonnes of timber and stone later, all in preparation for approximately 250 kilos of female polar bear. The 71 Engineer Regiment and a contingent from the South Dakota National Guard saluted goodbye to Walker and Arktos as they handed back a brand new walkway and female polar bear enclosure to Highland Wildlife Park.

HWP_Army_Build_PolarBearPondSteven Plowman, Highland Wildlife Park Property and Estates Manager, said:

“I was approached by the military personnel to see if we could offer them a task for their operatives; they were looking to do practical engineering work within the local community that allowed them to create something permanent for people to enjoy for many years to come. A win win for all. As a conservation charity we are also delighted to receive the donation (worth an amazing £45,000) of the military’s experience and labour. Incredibly, each post hole is dug by hand with fencing shovels and then the posts themselves are loaded onto army vehicles and taken out to the site of the new development.”

Douglas Richardson, Animals Collection Manager for the Highland Wildlife Park, continues:

“We are delighted to be welcoming a female polar bear to the Park next spring. It is still to be agreed exactly which female will arrive in the Highlands, but we hope to have confirmation shortly. The female will remain separate from the males, as she would in the wild, and during the breeding season we will introduce her to one of our males – likely Arktos to start with as he is the older of our boys. The two will spend some time together and we hope nature will take its course.

Arktos by Alex Riddell

Arktos by Alex Riddell

“The last time polar bear cubs were born and reared in the UK was in 1992.  Creating an environment that will allow such an event to happen again will be incredibly positive for the Highland Wildlife Park and confirm that our unique approach to this threatened species’ husbandry – which will mirror what happens in the wild – is correct.”

The new enclosure will feature a pond for the female to splash and play in and plenty of natural ground for her to run and roll around on. In addition to the main enclosure, adjacent will be a smaller holding enclosure, also featuring a pond, for when the male comes to visit. The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland have a history of designing state of the art polar bear enclosures that meet the animal’s needs to the highest level possible. Animal experts from the Park have since been invited to consult and advise on other polar bear enclosures both in the UK and around the world.

Also in development is a raised walkway through the vicuna enclosure. The viewing platform will wind up the hill to give a panoramic view of the female polar bear enclosure and also provide disabled access to visitors.

Walkway by Alex Riddell

Walkway by Alex Riddell

Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Mifsud RE, Commanding Officer of 71 Engineer Regiment said:

“This project, involving a blend of Reservists from 71 Engineer Regiment, Regular Sappers from our partnered Regular unit in Kinloss and military engineers from the South Dakota National Guard, provides an excellent opportunity to showcase the depth and diversity of skills required to plan, resource and deliver an ambitious project in such short time. It provides vital training for the Regiment’s role on future operations. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to work with the Society again; this sort of work develops individual trade skills; inspires my soldiers and generates an enormous amount of interest from those who seek to add a new dimension to their lives as a Royal Engineer Reservist.”

A ‘handing over’ ceremony between the Park and military personnel took place on Wednesday 17 September, where Daska Mackintosh, Head of Operations and Visitor Services at Highland Wildlife Park presented military representatives from both sides of the Atlantic with specially commissioned commemorative polar bear prints.

Handing over ceremony by Alex Riddell

Handing over ceremony by Alex Riddell

Second in Command of the 71 Engineer Regiment, Major Darren Keogh was presented with a large print of Walker to be displayed in their Leuchars headquarters in Fife. The contingent from the South Dakota National Guard received four smaller prints that will travel to various towns throughout South Dakota which are local to the units.

Helping the Arabian Sand Cat

September 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

Sandcat APMPworkshop group photo 2

Dr Helen Senn from the RZSS WildGenes laboratory, based at Edinburgh Zoo, attended a meeting at Al Ain Zoo (@AlAinZooUAE) in Abu Dhabi to advise on a conservation breeding programme that is being set up for the Arabian sand cat through the newly formed Arabian Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZAA). The sand cat lives in the deserts of Arabia and can survive for months without water. Thick fur protects its paws from the baking ground and it makes burrows in the sand to cope with the extremes of midday and night-time temperatures. It is the only species of cat to inhabit true desert. Due to the large amount of development across the Arabian region populations of this species are likely to be in decline in the but very little is known about them. The WildGenes laboratory has been collaborating with Al Ain Zoo on the genetic management of sand cats since 2013, on projects that aim to improve their captive management and understand more about this cat in the wild.

Highland Wildlife Blog – Climate Change and Snowy Owls

September 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

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

As with animals like our European bison, snowy owls have been a feature of the Highland Wildlife Park since it opened in 1972. Historically the species figured in the list of Scottish wildlife, but although a single individual was photographed on the Cairngorms last year, the last time there was a wild breeding pair within the UK was on Shetland in 1975.

Snowy owl

Snowy owl by Jan Morse

Although there had been some breeding behaviour over the years at the Park, no chicks were ever reared and it was not until 2011, following a number of changes to the birds’ enclosure, that we actually reared a snowy owl chick. Having a chick hatched and reared, especially as it was a first for the Park, was a pretty special event for us, but of minor importance in the wider zoo community. However, as snowy owls have generally been quite prolific in zoos, I thought it may take some time to find a good home for our first home-grown chick, but a good location was quickly found. In 2012 we did not rear any, but as we had moved them to a new, larger aviary, it was not surprising that the move probably disrupted their breeding pattern.

Snowy owl chick by Alex Riddell

Snowy owl chick by Alex Riddell

In 2013 we reared two chicks and I did advise the keepers that it may take some time to find good homes for both birds, but as it turned out, I could have placed even more snowy owls with relative ease. Shortly after moving the 2013 chicks to their new homes, I was speaking with a colleague from a specialist collection in the north of England who has much more extensive experience with owls, and I told him of my surprise at being able to place snowy chicks easily. He then told me that they had stopped trying to breed the species at his facility as in recent years they had lost all the chicks to avian malaria.

Avian malaria surfaced significantly in the UK in the 1990’s when it was the cause of a number of high profile deaths of penguins in zoos in the very south of England; one zoo lost virtually their entire flock. It was certainly not an issue for snowy owls back then and certainly not in the north of England. I then started to look at the international zoo animal data bases to see who was doing what with snowy owls, and sure enough, our success, although not unique, was certainly rarer than I had imagined.

It is often stated that major weather events could be signs of climate change, and certainly there is growing evidence that they will become more frequent or occur in locations that have no history of such events. But the signs are more likely to be an accumulation of small changes that will add-up to provide the evidence. Migratory birds arriving early, nesting patterns changing or snowy owls not breeding in zoos in the north of England may be as indicative of climate change as excessive rain or more violent storms.

This piece was first published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald

Chief Executive’s Blog

September 12, 2014 § Leave a comment


Simon Girling, Head of Veterinary Services at RZSS, recently gave a presentation at the annual European Wildlife Disease Association conference here in Edinburgh. We were delighted Simon was asked to speak. Simon spoke to the audience about veterinary health screening checks he carried out on water voles as part of a captive breeding programme. The Water Vole Species Survival Plan is an overarching UK reintroduction programme, and as part of this RZSS has ensured captive water vole populations are viable for release and will not pose a threat to native wildlife, further developing scientific knowledge on water vole health and welfare. If you would like to find out more, please visit

Budongo by Florian Moellers

Budongo by Florian Moellers

I often write about the work of the Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS) and we are extremely pleased to offer RZSS supporters the chance to go on a “No Limits” safari to BCFS in the heart of Uganda. It is an amazing opportunity to witness first-hand the incredible work carried out by staff and discover part of Africa few others are able to experience. Keen travellers will be able to accompany field station assistants as they monitor the wildlife in the forest, including chimpanzees, and help with the local community projects RZSS is involved in. Any surplus income generated after costs are covered will go towards RZSS’ vital work in Budongo.

In partnership with Aardvark Safaris, other activities of the ten day trip include gorilla tracking through the Bwindi forest, a tour through the Queen Elizabeth National Park which is home to tree-climbing lions and a host of other magnificent creatures.

Edinburgh Zoo will host a free information evening on Thursday 2 October with Praven Moman, a Ugandan born pioneer of great ape eco-tourism, and Dr Fred Baweteera, Director of the Budongo Conservation Field Station.  Tickets for this talk are free with drinks and canapés served, but space is limited so please RSVP to

Finally, if you are up at the Highland Wildlife Park, I recommend going to see the northern lynx twins, who at just over three months, can be spotted exploring their enclosure. They have also started to practice their pouncing at feeding time; great natural behaviour that is fantastic to observe.

Northern lynx cub by Alex Riddell

Northern lynx cub by Alex Riddell

I am also off on a few family travels of my own, so shall be back in a few weeks; until then enjoy the amazing wildlife at Edinburgh Zoo and the Highland Wildlife Park as we enter the autumn months.

“Everyone must take time to sit and watch the leaves turn”

Elizabeth Lawrence

Chief Executive’s Blog

September 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

As some of you may know, I spent an earlier portion of my career at Chester Zoo. It was refreshing and entertaining to watch a history I am so familiar with being loosely retold in the new BBC drama Our Zoo. In keeping with the theme of zoo enclosure history, I thought I would take this opportunity to tell you a little bit more about the history of the enclosures here at Edinburgh Zoo.

Edinburgh Zoo opened in 1913 by founder and respected Edinburgh lawyer, Thomas Gillespie who had a passion for animals. Almost unheard of in the day of Victorian menageries with bars and cages, Gillespie’s design for the Zoo had been inspired by Hamburg’s ‘open zoo’ by Carl Hagenbeck. Edinburgh Zoo was then created with large open enclosures, using ditches and moats to separate the animals from the visitors – this new approach was revolutionary for its day and nothing of the like had been seen in the UK before. I believe Chester and Whipsnade, in 1931, were the first non-urban zoos with larger enclosures in country surroundings.

We continue to constantly re-evaluate and adapt our animal enclosure to ensure they cater for the animal’s needs. Our most recent enclosure redesign, Meerkat Plaza, opened earlier this year. It has the same enrichment opportunities as their previous enclosure, yet is more reflective of their natural habitat and is a wonderful greeting point at the entrance to Edinburgh Zoo. Some other exciting developments have been Penguins Rock, the panda enclosure and the Budongo Trail. Over the past 101 years, Edinburgh Zoo has evolved into the more modern site it is today, yet hints of its Victorian character are still visible. I trust many more exciting developments and enclosure redesigns will take place as the Zoo continues to mature.

Searching for a giant armadillo

Searching for a giant armadillo

As almost a continuation of the previous blog, I would like to highlight some recent work of Arnaud Desbiez, RZSS Latin America Coordinator stationed in the Pantanal in Brazil. I have spoken before in my blog of his work on the Giant Armadillo Project.

During an August expedition, Arnaud and his core team were joined by veterinarian trainee Henrique Guimarães Riva and the Curator of Zoological Operations at Busch Gardens Tampa, Rob Yordi. They were also joined by extra special guest Gaia, a young female Belgian shepherd dog, and her trainer Mariana Faria Correa. Gaia was taking part in a pilot study of dog detections of giant armadillos to help us locate members of the elusive species. She had been preparing for her first expedition since April; this involved training that familiarised the dog with the scents of the Pantanal, for example sand upon which an animal had urinated.

Mariana and Gaia

Mariana and Gaia

Work started slowly with Gaia as she had been trained to find scents, not occupied burrows, and had a little bit of difficulty distinguishing between fresh and old scents. Gaia would react to scents sometimes 50 meters from the burrow and then expected a reward; however Mariana would patiently have her find the burrow before rewarding her with a play session. Gaia made a lot of progress during the expedition and every day got better and better as she began to understand what was expected from her. Gaia also had to learn how to walk in this new environment and how to recognise giant armadillo signs. The learning curve was steep, but great progress made.​

After a few days of training, Arnaud, Rob and Mariana went to look for Don (a male giant armadillo) to help train Gaia. On the way to find Don, a familiar character who could be relied upon to help train Gaia, the team stumbled upon a fresh feeding burrow around one kilometre away from his burrow. This scent was given to Gaia to see if she could take the lead and find Don. She rose to the challenge and swiftly picked up the scent, but went off in the opposite direction to Don’s location. The team followed as Gaia walked from one murundum island to another – islands of cerrado vegetation with a termite mound in the middle that are found in the scrub grasslands. The team came to an old burrow and to their surprise; right behind it was a beautiful fresh sand mound and a freshly dug occupied burrow! All in all, a very promising experience with Gaia.

And finally, you have probably seen the news that giant panda Tian Tian is now past her due date and the scientific evidence suggests that this may be bad news. She is still displaying some of the behaviours of a pregnant panda, but the scientific data from the urine analysis of her hormones is becoming more atypical. We hope to be able to update you further, either way, next week.

If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago.  If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos. 

Edward O. Wilson

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!

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