Chief Executive’s Blog

April 18, 2014 § Leave a comment


It has been a whirlwind of a week at Edinburgh Zoo. Yesterday was the grand opening of our brand new meerkat enclosure, Meerkat Plaza, and I am delighted legendary Edinburgh author Alexander McCall Smith was present to officially open the enclosure. Alexander McCall Smith was born in Africa and is the author of the bestselling series No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, which is about Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s first female detective, among many other novels. He has also written a series of children’s books, about Precious as a child, which feature meerkats. Due to his wealth of experience on Africa and its culture, it seemed only fitting to invite him as our guest of honour.

Meerkat Plaza opening with Alexander McCall Smith - photo by Ivon Bartholomew

Meerkat Plaza opening with Alexander McCall Smith – photo by Ivon Bartholomew

The enclosure itself is located on the site of our old sea lion pool and is now home to our group of 10 meerkats. A wide open and natural looking space, the enclosure features many rocky outcrops for meerkat lookouts and sand for digging, while 20 metres of glass panelling allows visitors to come face to face with some of the Zoo’s most charismatic residents. The renovation has also allowed us widen the front entrance area of the Zoo and create an orientation plaza for visitors, with improved signage, carved meerkat benches and space for both animal talks and animal handling experiences. Meerkat Plaza follows on from the renovation of Penguins Rock and Koala Territory and forms part of the ongoing plans for the renaissance of Edinburgh Zoo. I hope you will all be as delighted with the new enclosure as I am.

Tian Tian by Ivon Bartholomew

Tian Tian by Ivon Bartholomew

Our giant pandas Tian Tian and Yang Guang have also kept us on our toes with the arrival of their annual breeding window. On Sunday we were able to confirm Tian Tian had come into oestrus and introductions were attempted in the morning but proved to be unsuccessful. Although giant panda behaviour expert Dr Wang Chengdong from the China Conservation and Research Centre for Giant Pandas (CCRCGP) was confident later introduction attempts would be more successful, Tian Tian’s hormones were falling too rapidly for us to wait and so we moved straight onto artificial insemination on Sunday afternoon. Both fresh and frozen samples of Yang Guang’s semen were used and the two pandas were back on their feet shortly afterwards. As giant pandas experience pseudo pregnancies and delayed implantation, it is very likely we will not 100% know if Tian Tian is pregnant until she gives birth. This is usually August to September but can continue much later, as we saw last year.

As a conservation organisation, we believe giant pandas are too important a species to be allowed to become extinct. Although the breeding window is incredibly brief, pandas are in actual fact not poor breeders, they existed on the planet for many millennia before man intervened and deforestation caused the increasing fragmentation of populations. Our partnership with the China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA) allows RZSS to bring our skills in genetics and animal husbandry to assist in ensuring a genetically healthy and diverse population exists ex-situ, as well as in the wild. We are also in the position to aid a fellow conservation body financially.

Furthermore, if we can successfully assist Tian Tian and Yang Guang to breed, we will be adding to the total number of pandas in zoos around the world and in breeding centres in China. The more there are, the greater and more diverse the gene pool is from which pandas can be selected for re-introduction. In the last two years, a male and female panda have been re-introduced into the bamboo forest reserves in Sichuan Province. They are being closely monitored using tracking devices so we will know if they survive, mate and breed, either with wild pandas or each other. It’s a slow process but the experience gleaned from experts around the world in caring for pandas in captivity has shaped the form of release and hopefully over time, more will be suitable for re-introduction.

Turkey vulture by Micky Reeves

Turkey vulture by Micky Reeves

Finally, next Wednesday 23 April, RZSS is hosting a free public talk – ‘Living with Raptors’. Taking place from 6:30pm at the Budongo Lecture Theatre at Edinburgh Zoo, the talk explores the human and wildlife conflict issues surrounding raptor conservation and includes special guest speakers David Doxford, CEO of Falklands Conservation, Steve Redpath, Chair in Conservation Science for Aberdeen University and David Sexton, Scotland Mull Officer for RSPB. No reservation is necessary and for further information please email our events team via

Economic advance is not the same thing as human progress.

- John Clapham, A Concise Economic History of Britain, 1957

Chief Executive’s Blog

April 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Welcome again to my weekly blog.

Dr. Jane Goodall with Gombe chimpanzee Freud © Michael Neugebauer

Dr. Jane Goodall with Gombe chimpanzee Freud
© Michael Neugebauer

This week I want to tell you about a very special Royal Zoological Society of Scotland talk taking place next month in conjunction with the University of Edinburgh and the Jane Goodall Institute. The amazing Jane Goodall herself will speak from the heart about the world of the Gombe chimpanzees, drawing on a lifetime of challenges and unique experiences that she has encountered first hand in the field.

Taking place on the evening of Thursday 1 May at Edinburgh University New College Assembly Hall, on Mound Place, Jane will share her thoughts on the illegal wildlife trade, her opinion on the future of chimpanzees in the wild, and her vision for the future of conservation. Jane will also offer her particular guidance on how as a world we should navigate the currents threats facing the plant and why she thinks there is reason for hope in these troubled times.

Glitter watches her sister Gaia fish for termites at Gombe National Park © the Jane Goodall Institute

Glitter watches her sister Gaia fish for termites at Gombe National Park
© the Jane Goodall Institute

If you go along, you can also hear all about the work of the Jane Goodall Institute that is dedicated to her pioneering research and spearheads projects to protect chimpanzees in their natural habitat. The Institute has also established innovative community-centred conservation and development programmes in Africa, and Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots is a global environmental and humanitarian youth programme.

Tickets cost £15 or £12 for students and RZSS members, and all we are delighted to advise that proceeds from the evening will be donated to the Jane Goodall Institute UK. Tickets must be booked in advance, so if you are interested visit

CapuchinwithOnionWith Edinburgh International Science Festival now in full swing, there are some fantastic events taking place around the city and of course at Edinburgh Zoo too. University of St Andrews researchers have been working our Discovery and Learning team to create an exciting exhibit entitled ‘Wild Medicine’. The exhibit will run at Edinburgh Central Library this weekend on 12, 14 and 15 April, before coming to Edinburgh Zoo on 16 April. Focused on how the animal kingdom uses its natural environment to help prevent and treat infection and disease, visitors to the exhibit will learn how chimps use rolled up leaves to remove gut parasites and how capuchins use smelly plants to prevent insect bites. They will also find out how honey bees treat fungal infections in their hives and why house sparrows have been seen adding cigarette butts to their nests. The exhibit will also feature a variety of human medications that have been derived from plants. At Edinburgh Zoo on 16 April we will then be delighted to demonstrate some of this live science to our visitors, free with Zoo entry. For a preview, take a look at this Monkey Medicine film

Finally, things are still on-track and looking very good with our giant pandas as Tian Tian progresses toward her breeding window. As soon as there is more news I will be sure to let you know.

Best wishes,

Chris West

Man has been endowed with reason, with the power to create, so that he can add to what he’s been given.  But up to now he hasn’t been a creator, only a destroyer.  Forests keep disappearing, rivers dry up, wild life’s become extinct, the climate’s ruined and the land grows poorer and uglier every day. 

~Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya, 1897

Highland Wildlife Blog – A Refuge for Wildlife

April 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

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

Many years ago I visited the now closed Crandon Park Zoo in Miami, Florida. I was taken around on a tour by one of the senior animal staff and at one point we arrived at what was a most amazing display of aquatic birds. This enclosure was designed to represent a very naturalistic coastal lagoon and there were around one hundred birds of different sizes and colours, feeding and milling about. I commented to my guide that this was a very impressive display and that the birds were in excellent condition. He responded by telling me that the dozen or so scarlet coloured flamingos were the only birds that were supposed to be there and that the rest of the ibis, herons, pelicans and gulls were all wild birds that had move in of their own accord.

Zoos are often seen as very attractive environments for wild species, due to the presence of undisturbed bits of habitat, ready availability of food, reduced inter-species competition and often a greater level of protection from predators. Towards the end of every winter, a range of wild bird species start to arrive at the Highland Wildlife Park and prepare for the breeding season.

The first to arrive are the bright red billed oystercatchers and the plume-headed lapwings. About a week ago there was a flock of about 40 lapwings grouped together on one of the grassy hillsides in the main drive-through reserve, displaying and preparing to pair-off for breeding. The oyster catchers only seem to congregate in larger numbers towards the end of the day, and usually by the polar bears’ pond; not the safest place in the world, but the lack of feathered bodies seems to indicate that they have sussed the speed of a big white bear.

Oystercatcher nesting in the car park by Jan Morse

Oystercatcher nesting in the car park by Jan Morse

Next to arrive are the little colony of about 20-30 black-headed gulls that nest in the pond next to the musk ox, followed by the flocks of greylag and barnacle geese. To confirm the beneficial conditions the Park provides for the birds, I have seen the number of barnacle geese expand from two pairs to about 35 individual birds since 2008. Occurring in much smaller numbers and a bit trickier to spot are the redshanks and for the first time in a few years, we had a pair of curlew in the Park in 2013.

Being situated across from Insh Marshes National Nature Reserve, one of Europe’s most important wetland sites, means that we provide an adjacent, extra safe zone for a range of bird species. We are probably especially important for the ground nesting species when unseasonably large amounts of rain results in excessive flooding on the Marshes. Our main drive-through area allows you to do your bird-watching from the comfort of your own car, plus there is the additional, unique opportunity of watching oystercatchers poking around for invertebrates at the heels of European bison.

“First published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald”.

Nest boxes visitors at Highland Wildlife Park

April 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

Blue tit - by Jan Morse

Blue tit – by Jan Morse

Spring has finally sprung at the Park and this is evident as the nest boxes that were created during our “Give Nature a Home” event with the RSPB in the October holidays now have a possible new resident – a common blue tit.

Blue tit - by Jan Morse

Blue tit – by Jan Morse

These little birds will nest in any hole in a tree, wall or nest box. They can also nest in more unusual places, such as letter boxes, pipes, etc. Hopefully we might see more birds using our nest boxes throughout the year.

Thanks to Jan Morse with her photography skills for catching our little visitor and to everyone who took part in the event.

Chief Executive’s Blog

April 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

Hello again,

Early next week we will have visitors coming all the way from the Budongo Forest, Uganda, to Edinburgh Zoo. Monday and Geresomu are field staff will be spending time in the Budongo Trail at Edinburgh Zoo and meeting our staff, volunteers and members.

The Society’s continuing work in Uganda inspired the construction of the Budongo Trail at Edinburgh Zoo, one of the world’s most innovative and interactive chimpanzee enclosures. It is currently home to 18 chimpanzees, the oldest being Cindy who was born on 15October 1965.

Budongo people - Photo by Florian Moellers

Budongo people – Photo by Florian Moellers

RZSS is the core funder of the Budongo Conservation Field Station in Uganda, where Monday and Geresomu work. With the original aim of studying and helping to conserve a group of chimpanzees native to the area, the project now also runs a successful ex-hunter scheme, which aims to dissuade hunters from setting snares which injure or kill chimpanzees, works to improve relations between the local community and forest managers and to educate communities about health care and the risk of tuberculosis transmission from bush meat.

Areas of research currently being conducted at the Budongo Conservation Field Station also include enhancing chimpanzee habitat protection in the face of forest degradation due to agricultural development; researching the primate roots of human language; and gaining a better understanding of the causes and implications of the recent decline in fruiting trees within the Reserve.

Undertaking education activities both at Edinburgh Zoo and the Highland Wildlife Park, our Discovery and Learning team also have 60 students from Sparsholt College taking part in a study tour next week.

Back out in the field, Arnaud our Latin American coordinator has returned from an action plan meeting of the Brazilian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (SZB) at Sao Paulo Zoo, where a detailed Action Plan for the future of SZB was produced. Arnaud will present the results to the assembly at the SZB conference in May.

Dr Helen Senn and our conservation science team are compiling the final draft of a Dama Gazelle Conservation Action Plan which is being sent to be translated into French next week; this is so it can be distributed in French speaking range states, such as Chad, where dama gazelle are present.

Karnali, male Bactrian camel by Alex Riddell

Karnali, male Bactrian camel by Alex Riddell

At the Highland Wildlife Park we have the possibility of camel and yak births, so for protective measures we have temporarily restricted the kiang herd to one side of the new entrance reserve walkway, as equids can cause problems when there are births to other species in the same reserve. We do not definitely know that any of the female camels or yaks are pregnant yet, but like the rest of our species in the Park, they show a strong seasonal tendency with the vast majority of births in the spring.

The Park is also waiting on the final health check result on the female European bison born in 2012 as she will be part of a group of females bred within the British Isles that will be shipped out to Romania.  These animals will augment an existing, small, reintroduced herd of bison in the Carpathian Mountains.

Finally, at Edinburgh Zoo we are one step closer to the giant pandas’ 36 hour annual breeding window. Working with endocrinologists from the Queen’s Medical Research Institute (QMRI) at the University of Edinburgh, who analyse daily urine samples taken from Tian Tian, we have been able to confirm the all-important crossover of hormones took place on Tuesday 1 April. The crossover occurs when oestrogen levels rise higher than progesterone levels and indicates that Tian Tian should come into oestrus within the next seven to 14 days. The science behind panda breeding season forms just one of many aspects of RZSS’s giant panda conservation and research project. As well as assisting with genetic and ecological research, RZSS also provides funds for work in the wild, such as the construction of bamboo corridors which allow many species, including pandas, to cross into previously isolated reserves.

Best wishes,

Chris West

“There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth.  We are all crew”

Marshall McLuhan, 1964

Penguin breeding season has begun

April 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

Gentoos_race_for_nestrings_1_webWith spring in the air it’s all go at Penguins Rock. Edinburgh zoo is currently home to 77 gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua). The colony consists of young chicks from last year to older birds like ‘Wuppi’ who is in her 30’s. Young and old alike there was excitement in the air when, at the beginning of March, the penguins were given the nesting rings ready for the breeding season ahead.

Dawn Nicoll, Penguin Keeper at Edinburgh Zoo said:

“Things were slightly different this year as for the first time the penguins were shut off from the nest site due to essential enclosure maintenance. All the staff were excitingly intrigued to see how the colony would react when then barriers were removed. When the nesting site, consisting of their nesting rings, was revealed they took it in their stride with the more confident birds entering first. The rest quickly followed and within the first few days most of the penguins had chosen their mate and their nest.

Gentoo nest building by Stuart McGeachie

Gentoo nest building by Stuart McGeachie

“Over the past few weeks the gentoos have been busy building their nests. This particular species do this by filling the nest rings with stones provided by the staff. This behaviour is part of the penguins courtship and reaffirms the pairs bond. We have seen old pairs reunite (penguins are principally monogamous) and new pairs form with the established pairs returning to the same nest ring of previous years. One of our nests even consists of a male/male pair which includes our leucistic penguin ‘Snowflake’.”

In the next couple of weeks we are hoping to see the first eggs being laid which will mark the start of a very busy few months at Penguins Rock.

Penguin fans can enjoy watching our colony of gentoos live on our penguin nest site camera.

Chief Executive’s Blog

March 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

Good afternoon

As we are about to move into April, I thought it might be about time for a giant panda breeding season update. As you may know, earlier this year we again began to collect urine samples from Tian Tian to analyse for two key hormones – progesterone and oestrogen. We’re currently just waiting for the all-important crossover of hormones in Tian Tian and then when this happens it means breeding is roughly seven to 14 days away. This week we moved to analysing Tian Tian’s urine samples each day, so it’s a case of watch and wait.

Students from Middleton Park School, Aberdeenshire, paid a celebratory visit to see the giant pandas this week after winning a schools’ competition organised by our Discovery and Learning team. The Beyond the Panda education outreach programme, which received funding from Jaguar Land Rover (China), ran in partnership with RZSS and the Confucius Institute for Scotland’s Schools (CISS), and involved primary students from schools across Scotland who are studying China as part of their curriculum. The students were challenged with creating a short story surrounding anything they had learnt about China, Chinese culture or giant pandas.

Middleton Primary School

Middleton Park School

Middleton Park School’s winning entry, created by its Primary 5 students, was a video called ‘From Aberdeen to China! Our learning journey exploring China’, which detailed the different ways the students learnt about China and its culture. It tied with an entry from Primary 5 students at Oakbank Primary School, Perth, which was a story called ‘The Panda with No Patches’. The winning entries will be translated into both Gaelic and Chinese and presented to the Chinese Consulate in Edinburgh.

We look forward to meeting Oakbank Primary School in May when they visit Edinburgh Zoo as part of their prize.

A young buff-checked gibbon at Edinburgh Zoo was the centre of attention this week. Now old enough to be away from the mother, the as yet unsexed youngster performed acrobatic swings across the enclosure for press photographers. Quite a bold character, its still golden hair made it quite easy to spot.

Photo by Katie Paton

Photo by Katie Paton

We have a very lively troop of six buff-cheeked gibbons at Edinburgh Zoo. Seventeen-year-old Lucy is the head of the troop; she arrived at the Zoo in September 2004 with her daughter Lea. Her partner Jon arrived six months later and they have had three offspring – seven-year-old Cheeky, three-year-old Lloyd and the newest youngster.

Baby gibbons are born blonde to blend into their mother’s hair and later turn black. Males then remain black throughout their lives, with the distinguishing golden cheeks that give the species their name. Females, however, then turn back to blonde at sexual maturity, and only have a black cap of hair on the top of their heads.

This week our conservation scientists Dr Helen Senn and Dr Rob Ogden are in Bodrum, Turkey. A project meeting funded by the European Union, the meeting is to evaluate the genetic input of the growing fish-farming industry on native fish in the Mediterranean.

Finally, I’m delighted to tell you that our members’ magazine, LifeLinks, has won a top award at the 2014 Institute of Internal Communications Scottish Awards. The magazine took home the Best Stakeholder Printed Publication. The 20-page online and print magazine is only available to members of RZSS and is produced three times a year. Content includes news, event listings and in-depth features on conservation and animals, as well as a dedicated page for children. For further information please visit

Best wishes,

Chris West

“I conceive that the land belongs to a vast family of which many are dead, few are living, and countless numbers are still unborn.”

Author Unknown


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 27,209 other followers