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.

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


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