June 30, 2015 § Leave a comment
I start my blog on a sad note this week, as we unfortunately received news from the Giant Armadillo Conservation Project in the Pantanal that Alex, the young giant armadillo that Dr Arnaud Desbiez and his team have been following since his birth nearly two years ago, has recently passed away.
Arnaud found Alex in one of his mother’s old burrows with injuries indicative of a puma attack, the only animal capable of causing such damage to a giant armadillo. Alex managed to escape the predator, but unfortunately his injuries were too severe and he died two days later. The entire Giant Armadillo Conservation Project team are upset and saddened by Alex’s death. They have been monitoring him closely for nearly two years and have gained extremely valuable information and research from the young armadillo. Before the Giant Armadillo Conservation Project not much was known about giant armadillos and Alex has been fundamental to the research into this fascinating species. His life and interactions with his mother had been carefully documented and he showed the project that parental care in giant armadillos was much longer than ever imagined.
Pictures of Alex were featured in numerous media worldwide, including the BBC and National Geographic. He was an ambassador for his species and he will be missed by the entire team. His death has highlighted the battle these rare ancient creatures face for survival, as well as the importance of long term studies to help us understand and conserve these creatures. There is still so much more we need to learn about giant armadillos, but the team are very grateful for all the insights Alex has provided into the life of these remarkable animals.
Elsewhere, in our WildGenes lab at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, we are saying goodbye to our placement student Jo who is returning to her studies at Cardiff University. Over the last year she has assisted the WildGenes lab with numerous projects and has also completed a successful research assignment on the taxonomy of sand cats. We will be welcoming another student to the lab in September.
The baby chimpanzee at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, Velu, has celebrated his first birthday this week on Wednesday 24 June. Velu is quite special as he is the first chimpanzee to be reared successfully in Scotland for 15 years and his first birthday is in the same year as the 10 year anniversary of RZSS’s work with wild chimpanzees at the Budongo Conservation Field Station in Uganda. Velu is a pure Western chimpanzee, an underrepresented subspecies of the common chimpanzee, although all chimpanzees are classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
Velu is now a toddler, learning how to walk and play, and he is starting to eat small amounts of solids. He never wanders far from his mother Heleen, as chimpanzees are completely dependent on their mothers for a few years. He will start to explore more independently when he is two years old and will only wean from his mother’s milk between three and four years old.
At RZSS Highland Wildlife Park, meanwhile, we have had a number of new births, including European elk twins, Turkmenian markhor kids (including a set of twins), Himalayan tahr lambs, five red deer calves, Bukhara deer calf, lynx kittens and a muskox calf. The arrival of all these new-borns is wonderful news as some of these species face the threat of extinction in the wild. The Turkmenian markhor is classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, whilst the Himalayan tahr is listed as Near Threatened, with population numbers believed to be in significant decline due to hunting and habitat loss. The Park has also recently won a BIAZA award for the successful husbandry of European elk, as they are a notoriously difficult species to breed in captivity.
“Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.” – Ibid.
June 23, 2015 § Leave a comment
By Douglas Richardson, Head of Living Collections, RZSS Highland Wildlife Park
BIAZA stands for British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and I have just returned from the association’s annual conference. The association will be 50 years old next year and this recent conference aptly demonstrated how far the legitimate zoo community has come. The conference was hosted by Woburn Safari Park which is within the beautiful grounds of the Duke of Bedford’s estate, and the theme of the conference was , “The Crucial Nature of Zoo and Aquarium Conservation: Is your collection a conservation tool?” The host location was very apt, given the theme of the meeting, as it was the 11th Duke of Bedford who single-handedly saved the Pere David’s deer from extinction. By the 19th century, this large species of deer only existed within the walled gardens of the Emperor’s palace in Beijing. A handful of animals were exported to a few European capital city zoos towards the end of the 1800s, which was just as well as the Chinese herd was wiped out by a flood and starving peasants just after the Boxer Rebellion. The Duke collected surplus deer from the European zoos, whose little groups also all died out, and the last herd was the one at Woburn.
The saving of the Pere David’s deer is one of the classic captive conservation success stories, which is mirrored by the similar histories of the European bison and the Przewalski’s wild horse, two species we manage at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park, as the zoo community also snatched a victory from the jaws of extinction with them. Now of course good zoos are more than just breeders of threatened species and our place within the wider conservation community continues to expand. In recognition of our role as conservation funders, educators and centres with unique skills sets, some of the key speakers at the recent conference came from outside of the zoo community, notably Dr Simon Stuart, the chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, the most important organisation within the international conservation community. In recent years, Simon has actively formed alliances with key regional zoo associations as he recognised that we have an increasingly important role to play and as the wild becomes a smaller and more intensively managed place, we bring the skills and experience of managing small enclosed populations of animals.
As for the Park’s role in the conference, I gave a talk on how zoos can more accurately measure the conservation value of their animal collections and suggested that more could be done by challenging the assembled membership to increase the percentage of threatened species they manage. I am pleased to report that quite a number of key players appeared keen to rise to the challenge.
The conference’s final dinner is also when the various annual awards are given out and I am very proud to say that the Park won a silver award in the Animal Breeding, Care and Welfare category for our advances in moose husbandry, a notoriously difficult species.
This piece was first published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald
June 19, 2015 § Leave a comment
We have just sent off more than 100 Partula snails (also known as Polynesian tree snails) to the Zoological Society of London, to be screened as part of our overarching re-release programme. As you may or may not know, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland has been involved in the conservation of the Partula snail since 1984.
The last remaining individuals of different species of Partula snail were recovered from French Polynesia and the Society has been successfully breeding these since 1986. Most species of Partula snail went extinct as a result of predation by the introduced, carnivorous rosy wolf snail. However through the combined efforts of a number of zoos, we have successfully managed to bring the numbers up for these species, which has allowed us to start re-introducing them back to their native habitat in Tahiti. The Partula Global Species Management Programme is coordinated by ZSL London Zoo and combines the breeding programme for 17 species in 16 different zoos around the world with conservation work in the Polynesian islands. RZSS Edinburgh Zoo was given the very last captive individual of the Partula taeniata simulans variety, which the Zoo then bred back to a safe level of several hundred, as luckily that individual had been fertilised and produced viable young.
And in recent news headlines regarding the Scottish Beaver Trial, RZSS along with more than 20 other Scottish environmental NGOs, has written to Dr Aileen McLeod, Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, calling for the Eurasian beaver to be fully reintroduced and recognised by the Scottish Government as a resident, native species in Scotland. This comes ahead of the Scottish Government’s decision about the future of reintroduced beavers in Scotland. The group of NGOs, who combined represent over a quarter million members, concur that a positive outcome for beavers will help ensure that Scotland continues to position itself at the forefront of biodiversity conservation in an international context. The collective see beavers as a missing element in Scottish biodiversity, believing there is both an ecological and moral imperative to restore this keystone species to benefit Scotland’s depleted freshwater ecosystems, as the reasons for their loss are no longer present.
I have mentioned in my previous blog at the beginning of June that we are also currently involved in a ground-breaking pine hoverfly conservation project. This is the rarest species of hoverfly in Britain and listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List. We are busy breeding a captive population with the hope of releasing them into artificially created tree holes in the woods in Speyside. In an update, the RZSS pine hoverfly larvae are doing very well and there is plenty of evidence of increased growth.
Finally, our resident veterinary surgeons Dr Simon Girling and Dr Romain Pizzi and RZSS Conservations Projects Manager, Roisin Campbell-Palmer, had a paper published this week titled Haematology and serum biochemistry parameters and variations in the Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber). The article is available to read in Plos One.
“The conservationist’s most important task, if we are to save the earth, is to educate.”
– Peter Scott, founder chairman of the World Wildlife Federation
June 16, 2015 § Leave a comment
By Kathy Sorley, RZSS Thinker in Residence
For those of you who have visited RZSS Edinburgh Zoo in recent weeks to scope out the impressive Dinosaurs Return! exhibition up at the top of Corstorphine Hill, hear the superb Tribal Elder lecture ‘From Elephants to Penguins’ delivered by our very own Roger Wheater OBE, join in the great fun and festivities of the first two Zoo Nights of the summer season or ventured to RZSS Highland Wildlife Park to meet our beautiful new female polar bear Victoria, it’s fair to say things at the RZSS are hopping!
As these very special initiatives have been taking shape, I am pleased to say the revolving RZSS Residency programme has also been proceeding apace, with 12 new appointments under the Thinking, Creating, Doing categories since my last blog, including a paleontologist, storyteller, nature photographer, emerging wildlife artist, environmental scientist and adventurer/explorer, amongst others.
As promised, I look forward to profiling each of our Residents in future blogs for you. It gives me particular pleasure to dedicate this column to John Ramsay, more affectionately known as ‘JR’, and my very first appointment as our exceptionally talented Sculptor in Residence.
Born on the Royal Mile to mum Mary from The Cannongate and dad Robert from Haddington, JR is a self-described ‘war baby’. From a very early age he knew he wanted to work with metal. His father bought him his first Meccano set and by age 15 he had landed a job as a farrier’s apprentice to ‘Old Tam’, a one-legged WWI veteran who spoke little, but taught John everything he knew at the fire.
JR eventually moved on to become the designer and overseer of the installation of the large stainless steel and glass hanging staircase at Edinburgh Airport, then the creator of the hanging stairs at the Royal Bank of Scotland on Dundas Street, before serving as blacksmith here at Edinburgh Zoo for nearly 30 years.
JR has tackled pretty much every RZSS challenge that has ever been thrown at him. Create a Gibbons cage from within? No problem, and one of JR’s favourite projects. Chimp keepers need enhanced security in the Budongo Trail? Send JR into the tunnels. Flamingos enclosure needs updating to protect their young? Put JR on the case. Need a locking system to outsmart the clever macaques? JR dreamt up an ingenious swivelled lock solution in about 30 seconds for Highland Wildlife Park. Need decorative gates for our Members, the Physic Garden, the Penicuik Hut or the Lion exhibit? JR’s your man. And the list goes on …
JR loves nothing more than a challenge and his immediate instinct, not boastful but sure, is ‘I can do that.’ And then he does. When I asked him what it was like to work in the chimp tunnel with powerful primates banging at both ends he admits, ‘It was scary. I have a whole new respect for the primate keepers!’
So when I approached him about becoming our Sculptor in Residence, to create special one-off pieces for esteemed speakers participating in our prestigious Tribal Elder series, including Jane Goodall, Aubrey Manning, and Roger Wheater, JR was immediately up for the challenge. He puts great stock in researching each speaker’s favourite animal, and takes equal care in creating one-of-a-kind pieces unique to the RZSS, for our Tribal Elders to treasure forever.
For Jane Goodall he sculpted an impressive African rhino, which you can see here in its various stages of creation, as captured beautifully by our photographer Katie Paton.
At the conclusion of Jane’s compelling ‘Reasons for Hope’ lecture, she was so overcome with her extraordinary gift that she and JR shared a most special hug. A Jane fan since he was a boy, I do believe it was a highlight of JR’s artistic career!
For Aubrey Manning he created a Sumatran rhino mother and calf, while for Roger Wheater JR sculpted a beautiful pair of rutting stags entitled ‘The Young Pretender’, depicting a battle for supremacy between a 14-pointed Imperial and a 16-pointed Monarch. There was no doubt about who would become the victor! Roger adds the stunning pair to an equally impressive African elephant sculpted by JR and gifted to Roger upon his retirement from RZSS in 1998.
In addition to these one-off pieces, JR created over 50 flamingoes to grace the tables at the RZSS Centenary Gala in 2013, auctioned at the end of the evening alongside his Penguins Rock sculpture in the Silent Auction, his creations raising an impressive £5,200 for the Society.
He has also sculpted the unique ‘Wishing Tree’ sited at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, created to encourage children and adults alike to have their dreams engraved on its leaves.
In researching this blog I have come to find out JR has lifted many a heart over the years with his quietly crafted unique gifts, as testified to by an overflowing manila envelope of thank you’s, which reads like a Who’s Who of animal lovers and conservationists, and goes something like this:
Dear JR, thank you so much for the very special… mole/penguins/candlesticks/lovely mouse/beautiful lantern/majestic golden eagle/magnificent bongo/Floosie/ striking box/lovely candle sconce you created for me on the occasion of my marriage/my retirement/my coming out of the hospital. I am thrilled to have such an exceptional work of art from your hand, and I will treasure it always. It has pride of place in our sitting room/over our mantelpiece/in our garden.
A few other thank you’s stand out – one for fixing the wheels on a child’s pram – another praising a stork commemorating the arrival of a first baby.
Special thanks on the retirement of Rob Ollison from RZSS: ‘To express my gratitude for the magnificent bongo you gave me on my departure from the Zoo. I am privileged to possess such a work of art. I can’t thank you enough for executing such a superb piece of sculpture – you have caught the very essence of the antelope – its tentative way of walking, the twist of its horns, and the arch of its back.’
I think that about sums it up. JR instinctively knows each animal from the inside out and magically captures the spirit within the form using only metal, fire and his very skilled hands. Pure artistic alchemy. He sets out to inspire and delight, and he does so with every piece.
Our society is fortunate to count JR amongst our first new Residents, and his works have gladdened the hearts of many. Therefore it is with deep sadness that I must close this blog by saying that JR is grappling with multiple health concerns that have resulted in his very recent decision to take retirement. At nearly 70 years of age he has certainly earned it, but we will all miss him around the Zoo. We wish him a swift return to robust health, and we thank him for his many talents and gifts.
Dr Jane Goodall DBE receiving her rhino sculpture created by John Ramsay in celebration of her inaugural Tribal Elders lecture ‘Reasons for Hope’ delivered on April 29 2014, which can be seen in its entirety on the Members portal.
STAY TUNED: Next up, Dr Stephen Brusatte, Paleontologist in Residence …
June 12, 2015 § Leave a comment
It seems as if summer has finally arrived with some glorious sunny weather.
Over in still warmer climes, our Giant Armadillo Conservation Project team out in the Brazilian Pantanal has been very busy over the past two months and has made great progress. The team has undertaken two expeditions recently: the first was a short one week expedition, led by the team’s Project Biologist, Gabriel Massocato. The objective of the expedition was to locate the armadillos they had been tracking as the group had not been in the field for a month due to heavy rains. The team managed to find Alex, the young giant armadillo, within a few hours and were rather surprised to find that he is still in his mother’s territory. Alex will turn two on 2 July. The researchers also managed to track down Alex’s mother, Isabelle who, according to close inspections of her burrows and the camera traps, has not yet had another baby. They are monitoring Isabelle closely to find out if she is pregnant and when she will have her next baby, as this information is crucial for our understanding of giant armadillo reproduction and population growth rates.
The second expedition in the Pantanal is one I have mentioned in a previous blog post, but the results were particularly interesting. In May, the Giant Armadillo Conservation Project team advanced their reproduction study, with the help of veterinarian and reproduction specialist Camila Luba. An examination of Alex showed that he has not yet reached sexual maturity, which is a very interesting finding indeed, as it gives valuable information about the reproduction of giant armadillos and how long it takes them to reach sexual maturity. The team is also still searching for traces of giant armadillos in the Sao Paulo state, where giant armadillos are thought to have gone extinct over 40 years ago. The scientists are currently working hard to expand the project and have just hired a student for a few months as well as a biologist.
Meanwhile, at our WildGenes lab located at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, Conservation Geneticist Dr Gill Murray-Dickson is busy preparing a genetic tool poster for identifying the geographic origin of snake skins in commercial trade. The DNA tests are being developed to provide evidence of origin to regulatory bodies that investigate illegal trade. This will allow authorities to determine whether the snake skins used in commercially sold items were illegally poached. The poster will be presented at an ITC (International Trade Centre) and DICE (Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology) symposium in Canterbury this month.
BIAZA (British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums) held its annual award ceremony this week at Woburn Safari Park. The event, also known as the Zoo Oscars, is held to celebrate some of the contributions made by the zoo community to animal welfare, wildlife conservation, public understanding and horticulture. I am very pleased to announce that the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland walked away with a fair number of awards. In the Animal Breeding, Care and Welfare category, RZSS received three silver awards for the hand rearing of Darwin’s rhea chicks, the successful rearing of a chimpanzee by a previously unsuccessful mother and captive husbandry for European elk/moose. In the Conservation category we were awarded silver for our work on the Scottish Beaver Trial. In the Education category we were awarded two Bronze awards for our Scottish Beaver Trial and Beyond the Panda education programmes. And finally, we received a Bronze in the PR, Marketing, Digital and Events section for ‘Inspire, Engage and Enrich: a new digital presence for Scotland’s iconic Zoo’.
And in other news, our new pelican walkthrough exhibit at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo will be opening on Monday 15 June. The building and gardens teams have been hard at work over the last few months to get the walkthrough ready and I must say it looks fantastic. As of Monday, visitors will be able to walk through the pelican enclosure, getting up close to the pelicans with unrestricted views. The walkthrough is full of beautiful plantings and willow trees that are around 100 years old, as well as a number of ponds and cascading waterfalls. We have another special walkthrough exhibit opening soon, but I will tell you more about that closer to the time.
“The wilderness holds answers to questions man has not yet learned to ask.”- Nancy Newhal
June 11, 2015 § Leave a comment
We’ve had an exciting May; spreading the word about Scotland’s amazing wildlife to schools in Argyll, the Isle of Mull, the Highlands, West Dunbartonshire and North Lanarkshire.
Whilst in Argyll we had the opportunity to visit the site of the official Scottish Beaver Trial in the Knapdale forest, near Lochgilphead. The re- introduction of beavers is a key topic of discussion in the lessons we teach on the bus. It was fantastic to finally see the positive impact of these beavers first hand!
This month also saw the bus on its first ferry voyage to the Isle of Mull. Apart from a stretch close to the ferry port at Craignure, the roads on Mull are all single track with passing places. It wasn’t long before we hit a traffic jam – of highland cows!
Lots of the schools we’ve visited recently have been busy planting flowers and vegetables. We particularly liked Ulva Ferry Primary School’s ingenious use of the bike shed as a makeshift greenhouse. A special thank you to the people of Mull for their hospitality as, despite getting two punctures in the car on our last morning, we still managed to make it to all of our schools.
Another highlight for us, whilst visiting schools in the Fort William area, was seeing The Jacobite steam train and the stunning Glenfinnan viaduct- now infamous thanks to the Harry Potter films.
As well as visiting schools we’ve opened our doors to members of the public at Benmore Botanics in Dunoon, helped the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick to celebrate their 15th birthday at their “Puffin Fest” event and engaged with over 1,600 visitors at the RSPB’s Big Nature Festival in Musselburgh. It was brilliant to meet enthusiasts of all ages passionate about celebrating and conserving Scotland’s natural environment.
Still curious about what happens on the Wild about Scotland bus? Check out our brand new video
We are still taking enquiries and starting to book school visits for after the summer holidays! Check out our webpage for details about how to request a visit from our bus: http://www.rzss.org.uk/wildaboutscotland
Each month our ‘Wild about Scotland’ bus driver David gives you a wee insight into what it’s like to drive our double decker the length and breadth of Scotland.
An interesting month – Argyll & Bute, Highlands and Islands, ferries and miles of single track roads, with the bonus of good weather. So far easily the best scenery of the project and some very amusing children. One in particular, probably primary one or two, confidently stepped on board and said, “Thanks very much driver”, handing me 50p! Another quipped, “Should you really be driving at your age?” The mouths of babes! Looking forward to next month – more islands and more ferries!
Brodie’s mini-beast of the month
May’s mini-beast of the month goes to this hoverfly Meredon equestris found at Salen Primary School on the Isle of Mull. They do not sting, but mimic bees to avoid predation from birds and other animals that know to avoid these foul-tasting and potentially harmful prey. This true fly can be distinguished from bees due to its large eyes that meet in the centre of the head and its small, stubby antennae. But like bees, hoverflies are important pollinators of many of our native plants.
Top teacher comments and tweets
“Children have been looking forward to the visit and we’ve not been disappointed!” Cambusnethan Primary School
“This was a brilliant set up. Well organised, resourced and very friendly and knowledgeable staff”, “Part of the Curriculum of Excellence’s Experiences and Outcomes state that we must compare other cultures with our own. We’ll be looking at wildlife so this is great!” Inveraray Primary School
“It was so active and children totally engaged in the activities! Education officers’ enthusiasm was excellent!” Rhunahaorine Primary School
“Highlighted the need for more local-based, environmental topic work to be included in the curriculum” Castlehill Primary School
“This was a great afternoon for our children who are all now enthusiastic about finding and looking after mini-beasts” Upper Achintore Primary School
Next month – June
Next month is the last of the school year and we continue our journeys north to the Highlands, Harris and Lewis and finishing off in Orkney.
We will also be open to the public at Dawyck Botanics on Saturday 13th June.
June 3, 2015 § Leave a comment
The pine hoverfly may be one of the more diminutive animals RZSS works with, but that hasn’t stopped us getting very excited about our ground-breaking pine hoverfly conservation project!
The pine hoverfly is the rarest species of hoverfly in Britain, currently recorded at just two sites in the whole of the UK, both of which are in Strathspey, Scotland. The species itself was formerly quite widespread – with populations being recorded regularly in Scotland up until the 1940s – but over recent decades numbers have declined dramatically and, in the late 1990s, surveys funded by Scottish Natural Heritage found only two remaining populations of the species.
As a result, the pine hoverfly was listed as endangered. The pine hoverfly is also declining in Europe and is considered to be under threat. Amongst other things, this decline can be traced back to a lack of appropriate habitat, as the pine hoverfly use rotting tree stumps as breeding sites, particularly stumps that are at least 40cm in diameter. The larvae develop and feed in wet rot-holes in the tree stumps and where the heartwood has been softened by the rot fungus Phaeolus schweinitzi. Unfortunately, these particular kinds of stumps are rather hard to come by. Ongoing monitoring has highlighted declining populations so the decision to pursue conservation breeding for release was taken.
We received some pine hoverfly larvae last week, which have been specifically collected from the wild in Finland to begin a captive breeding programme at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo. The Zoo’s Presentations Team will undertake the captive husbandry in specially built facilities behind the Budongo Trail. Ongoing monitoring for wild Scottish larvae will continue and, if sufficient numbers can be found, a captive Scottish population will also be created. If we are successful, larvae will be released into artificially created tree holes in woods in Speyside.
Meanwhile, over at our WildGenes Laboratory, RZSS Senior Lab Technician Jennifer Kaden is preparing a genomic library on the pygmy falcon as part of a project with San Diego Zoo and the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The birds are currently in Sweden and are destined for America; however, due to timings involving permits and quarantine, there will not be time for the genomic work (which will establish which birds are best paired together) to be carried out once the birds reach the USA. Instead, the data is going to be generated here and then sent to the USA in advance of the bird’s arrival. This is hopefully the first step in a fully integrated programme to coordinate genomic analysis between breeding programmes in the United States of America, Europe and Australia.
Up at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park we have had a flurry of new-borns. In the last few weeks we have had a Mishmi takin calf, two Przewalksi’s wild horse foals and two bison calves, as well as a few others which I will tell you more about in my next blog. We are really pleased with the births, especially the foal and bison calves as both species were considered extinct in the wild, but as a result of an effective breeding programme using captive populations of the species, both have been successfully re-introduced into the wild. The Przewalski’s wild horse was re-introduced into its native habitat in Mongolia in 1992, whilst the European bison can now be found in free-ranging and semi-free herds in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Slovakia. The IUCN has now reclassified the European bison and Przewalski’s wild horse from extinct in the wild to endangered.
A female bison which was born and raised at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park, Glen Rosa, was selected to be a part of the reintroduction project and was reintroduced into the wild on a forest reserve in Romania in April 2014. The re-introduction of these species is a brilliant conservation success story, one which highlights the importance of modern day zoos and the vital role they play in protecting animals from extinction.
“A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers but borrowed from his children.”
– John James Audubon