November 20, 2015 § Leave a comment
We’ve had a busy October, welcoming aboard pupils from schools in the Lothians, Fife, Glasgow and Angus to learn about our amazing Scottish Wildlife.
One of the challenges of the project that we face on a regular basis is negotiating the bus around streets designed in the last century for wooden carts and the like. David managed to navigate our nine foot wide double decker successfully into East Linton Primary School grounds and we delivered our popular Beavers and Wildcats lesson to the Primary 4 and Primary 6 classes, much to the delight of the pupils and the teachers.
With it being October half-term across Scotland we decided to park up at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park for the week. This is a great opportunity for us to talk about the project as well as the other work of RZSS. People love hearing about the important conservation and research work that is funded by their visit to our parks as well as hearing about the amazing biodiversity of Scotland and the UK.
During this time at the park we manged to fit in a meeting with Alexandra Kennaugh and Costi Ciocoiu from The European Nature Trust (TENT). This is an organisation which is interested in the restoration and preservation of wild habitats in Scotland and Romania, particularly the Scottish Highlands and the Carpathian Mountains. TENT have been running a similar project to ours in Romania called Regatul Salbatic (Wild Kingdom) and this was a perfect opportunity to link up the two buses. Costi travels around Romania teaching children about the importance of the forest and was keen to get an idea of what we deliver for his next bus that they will be launching in the new year.
Romania contains 50% of Europe’s virgin forest and with illegal logging on the increase animals such as lynx, brown bear and wolf are now under threat. For more information on TENT and their work across the world just head to http://www.theeuropeannaturetrust.com/en/.
See you next month,
Jamie and Lindsay
#Brodie knows best
Following our visit from Costi, who runs The Wild Kingdom bus in Romania, Brodie’s been learning all about Romania’s wildlife. Romania still has species that once roamed Scotland but sadly have been hunted to extinction over the last 1000 years. Animals such as lynx, European brown bear and wolves live alongside the local shepherds working in the mountains. Although some of the large predators hunt their livestock there is a respect for the important role these predators play in controlling large destructive herbivores such as deer in an ecosystem like that of the Romanian forest.
Top teacher comments and Tweets
“Fantastic afternoon of activities which thoroughly engaged children in learning. Resources were interesting and children were excited to engage with them. Education officers were well organised and enthusiastic” St John the Baptist School
“Excellent workshop which engaged everyone in the class” East Linton Primary
“Fantastic workshop and great education officers!” Campie Primary School, Musselburgh
What was the best part?
“Using the nets, bug boxes and sheets to let the children see what is living in their own garden. Motivating and something we can do again when doing info handling and graphs next term” Stenton Primary
“The outdoor section- the children were able to explore in small groups, helping their appreciation of the outdoors and wildlife. Children were engaged, motivated and intrigued to learn about what they had collected” St Benedicts Primary.
Next month- November
Next month we continue to spread the word about Scotland’s amazing widlife visiting schools across South Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway, Moray, West Lothian, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
November 17, 2015 § Leave a comment
After a frustrating update from the Pantanal in my last blog, I promised some great news regarding the Cerrado expansion. I am really pleased to say that things are going very well and progressing as planned. We were able to run our first model on giant armadillo distribution thanks to the work of Helen Maranhao. Helen is a student we funded to collect all existing locations of giant armadillos in government databases, biodiversity surveys and interviews with organisations and researchers. Over 30 locations were obtained. Predictably the map is incomplete, but it is a great starting point.
Gabriel meeting young future field biologists.
Through a collaboration with the local federal university, alongside modelling expert Jose Ocha, we have selected 20 watershed areas (selected based on % of native vegetation cover) to run a preliminary test on methodologies. At the moment we have surveyed eight areas and plan to visit 30 before the end of the year.
I am relieved to report that we are finding evidence of giant armadillos in some of these areas. However, finding individuals does not mean viable populations and we still have a lot of work to do to fully assess the situation. The good news is we have had very positive responses from the local communities and we are creating a lot of interest in the species. This work is very much community based and we need to work in close partnership with all stakeholders. Recognising the importance of this, we are launching a citizen science exercise to help us with our work and to promote the species.
Through the help of local media we are calling upon everyone in the State of Mato Grosso do Sul to help us find giant armadillos. We have prepared a poster and pamphlets that describe how to recognise evidence of giant armadillos. Posters will be distributed in key places throughout the state during our visits and the pamphlets distributed to selected partners. Both these documents are being communicated through social networks and press. We recently did our first press interviews and hope to be doing television soon too. This work is aimed at encouraging public interest in this unique species and participation in giant armadillo conservation. I realise this will take time, but I think we have to use as many creative methods as we can to make this happen. I really look forward to reporting on the progress made.
Gabriel demonstrating field techniques to student biologists.
Giant armadillo conservation does not only happen in the field. Gabriel gave an intensive course to students on field techniques recently in an attempt to get the younger generation to let go of their cell-phones and tablets! Capacity-building is a big part of our work and we need to get biologists interested in field work and conservation (harder said than done!). We are pleased that after several meetings, the Pantanal Cerrado of WWF Brasil will be using the results of our work to help establish protected areas for giant armadillos!
A few weeks ago I presented our project and all the educational materials to the education board of the municipality of Campo Grande. I am hoping that in 2016 we can launch an outreach campaign in the 100 schools in and around Campo Grande on armadillos. If that is successful I will extend this work to the whole State! These partnerships and initiatives involve a lot of meetings and discussions but we are making solid progress.
Last but not least, I recently had the honour of being invited to attend the 8th Conference of Brazilian Mammalogy, where the organisers put on a special symposium for Xenarthra. I gave a presentation on armadillo conservation: where we are now and what we want to achieve. The idea was to try to get researchers working on armadillos to work more closely together.
None of this work would be possible without the long term support from RZSS and we are very grateful. Thank you so much for supporting our work.
All the best from Brazil,
November 10, 2015 § Leave a comment
By Douglas Richardson, Head of Living Collections, RZSS Highland Wildlife Park
Taking your dog to the vet or putting your horse in a trailer usually involves leashes, halters and a few calm but firm words. Trying to carry out similarly routine procedures with zoo animals is seldom so straightforward and at best involves a very different process.
The keepers at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park have a very positive relationship with many of their animal charges and a range of routine husbandry needs can be managed with the cooperation of the animals concerned. At a basic level, visitors are often strangely surprised when they learn that many animals will respond to being called by their keepers to be transferred into an adjacent area to allow cleaning or enclosure maintenance. The Park’s large carnivore keepers have trained these potentially very dangerous creatures to present themselves at the enclosure barrier for some simple daily health checks. They will, when asked, present a paw or their belly, or hold their mouth open for closer inspection, which is rewarded with some small pieces of meat for the tigers or a range of unusual morsels for the polar bears, like tomatoes or cheese. They, along with the camels, have been trained to walk onto scales so that we can more accurately monitor their weight, which is crucial when it comes to calculating how much medication they might need when sick. This positive reinforcement training is also an interesting and enjoyable experience for the animals concerned as many seem to welcome the interaction with humans that they know, as well as the treats.
Zoo keepers, being a resourceful bunch, will often find uses for items that the manufacturers did not intend. When you need to catch and move a water vole, a small rodent that thinks it is a bear, the tube that a certain salty snack comes in is the ideal restraint and short transport device as they will happily walk in of their own accord.
For more invasive procedures, like a dental check, the animals need to be anaesthetised for their own and our safety. There are a range of drugs that have proven to be as safe as possible for the animals and staff around them. Sometimes hand injected, sometimes delivered using a dart gun, it takes between 10 and 20 minutes for the animal to go down; it is not virtually instantaneous, as often depicted in films. When the drugs appear to have taken effect upon a tiger, one very gently taps on the ears and eyelids with a long pole. If there are any twitches or blinking, you wait a bit longer. When a new drug combination came along it was discovered that the usual gentle tapping was not enough. You could touch the ears and eyes and get no reaction and the animal would appear to be safe, but if you pulled the tail and the drug had not quite taken effect, the cat could jump up and start moving around, which is a touch disconcerting, so always give the tail a couple of tugs before going all the way in!
This piece was first published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald
November 6, 2015 § Leave a comment
Last week I was involved in a number of meetings in Morocco on antelope conservation. The conservation situation for antelope in the Maghreb and Sahelo-Saharan region “North Africa” is extremely serious and RZSS WildGenes has had a long-term involvement in contributing basic science and genetic management recommendation for a number of these species to try and improve their conservation prospects in the wild and captivity. There are seven North African antelope species in total, all of which are listed as being Vulnerable or worse according to the IUCN red-list of threatened species.
The first stop for the week was conservation planning for the Endangered Cuvier’s Gazelle organised by the IUCN-Med, bringing together expert and stakeholders across the Maghreb region and Europe to thrash out a status review and plan of action for this mountain dwelling species. We often don’t even know basic things like how many animals there are or how important different threats are (in the case of Cuvier’s gazelle overgrazing, poaching, feral dogs all play their part). Without this information it is hard to implement and evaluate conservation actions with a scientific basis. We were also then lucky enough to visit the Souss-Massa National Park to see the work Le Haut Commissariat aux Eaux et Forêts et à la Lutte Contre la Désertification is doing to conserve addax (Critically Endangered), scimitar-horned oryx (Extinct In The Wild) and dorcas gazelle (Vulnerable).
In the second part of the week I travelled to the region of Dakhla, in the far west of the Sahara, to see the recent release site of the Critically Endangered Dama gazelle at Safia Reserve. RZSS has been involved in conservation action planning and genetic analysis support for this species for a number of years. Fewer than 300 dama gazelle are likely to be left in the wild and fewer than 1,500 in captivity. The world’s remaining animals are spread across various isolated populations and breeding centres, which means that genetic information is crucial for making management decision about captive breeding and transfer of animals in the wild. Further information about the dama gazelle can be found here: https://sites.google.com/site/damagazellenetwork/home.
Through our continued involvement with antelope genetic management, the team at RZSS’s WildGenes laboratory hopes to be able to do our bit for the conservation of these undervalued species and their fragile desert ecosystems. More updates will follow soon!
Dr Helen Senn
RZSS WildGenes Programme Manager
November 6, 2015 § Leave a comment
As the winter draws nearer in the Highlands of Scotland and the warm summer mornings are replaced with a frosty chill, we enter a key part of the year for Scottish Wildcat Action. Not only will monitoring and trapping efforts become more intensive, but come January and February the breeding season for wildcats will be upon us. This of course plays a big part in the conservation breeding programme.
Ensuring that valuable pairs of wildcats are together in time will increase the chances of wildcat kittens come early spring. One significant development that took place over the summer was that I took over the coordination of the European studbook for the Scottish wildcat. This puts us in a position to manage the UK population of captive Scottish wildcats in a way that preserves the best genetic diversity within the population. To do this I work closely with our geneticists at RZSS’s Wildgenes lab at the Zoo, who are analysing genetic samples to determine whether animals are pure wildcats or a mixture of wildcat and domestic cat. Using these modern scientific techniques gives us the best chance of finding suitable wildcats that will act as the foundation for a robust and viable captive population, which in turn can be used for releases into the wild in the future.
As the number of landowners and private estates we are working with increases – and Scottish Wildcat Action’s presence across the north, east, south and west of Scotland continues to grow – it is clear to see that this ambitious and diverse approach to saving the Scottish wildcat is moving in the right direction.
It is also important to highlight that the work and support of Scottish Wildcat Action is not restricted to Scotland. To ensure that we give ourselves the best chance of saving the Scottish wildcat we have been collaborating with colleagues and organisations from across the world that specialise in cat conservation. These additional skills in global conservation management, post-release monitoring and conservation breeding coupled with their opinions and networks are vital to the long-term security of the species.
During September I attended the annual conference of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) in Wroclaw, Poland. During this conference of over 700 delegates, I was able to give presentations on Scottish Wildcat Action and our role with conservation breeding for release. This gave me the chance to promote the project and to raise the profile of this species. These presentations – given to the EAZA reintroduction and translocation group and the EAZA felid taxon advisory group – were not only well received but allowed other countries and projects to see what could be one of the first ‘models’ for small cat conservation and reintroduction. I have now had enquiries from colleagues in Taiwan and Sri Lanka regarding our work with Scottish Wildcat Action and how it could be a model project for their native threatened small cat species.
There will of course be challenges throughout the five year action plan, but this is the same for all conservation projects across the globe. Scottish Wildcat Action is the only national project for wildcat conservation but is also a statement that says we care enough about Scottish wildcats to do everything in our power to save them. As long as we prepare ourselves for future challenges and remember that the work we are doing is the best hope for Scottish wildcats then we can and will succeed.
RZSS Cat Conservation Project Officer
November 3, 2015 § Leave a comment
Heading for one of the worst years on record for rhino poaching, with 749 animals already slaughtered in South Africa alone for their horn, a team of wildlife forensic scientists from the United Kingdom and Australia have teamed up to train scientists in Vietnam in rapid rhino horn identification. The scientists were given unprecedented access to rhino horn seizures in the country by authorities in order to facilitate the DNA testing.
The training, funded by the UK Government, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) and the Australian Museum, was particularly vital as the number of poached rhinos is now coming perilously close to outnumbering the birth rate of rhinos in the wild, a position that may ultimately lead to the decline and possible loss of these enigmatic species.
Dr Ross McEwing, from RZSS and TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network, and Dr Greta Frankham and Kyle Ewart, from the Australian Museum Research Institute’s Australian Centre Wildlife Genomics, spent a week in the wildlife genetics laboratory of the Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources in Hanoi. The rapid identification techniques taught allows seized rhino horn to be speedy tested in only 24 hours to confirm if it is real or fake and also determine the species of rhino being illegally traded.
Dr McEwing of RZSS and TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network explained: “One of the fundamental issues in Vietnam, a country synonymous with the illegal trade in rhino horn, is the requirement to identify true rhino horn from fake material in order to progress any criminal investigation, a process that can take many weeks due to limited capacity and which results in a very low rate of conviction.
“The new rapid DNA testing technique, developed by the Australian Centre Wildlife Genomics, allows this process to be undertaken quickly and inexpensively in under 24 hours. Ensuring Vietnam authorities have the capacity to carry out this new test will help enforcement officers monitor and prosecute those responsible for trading rhino horn.”
Kyle Ewart from the Australian Museum Research Institute’s Australian Centre Wildlife Genomics added:
“Three species of rhino are routinely traded in Vietnam – white, black and Indian rhinos – and identifying the species forms part of the investigation, helping enforcement agencies direct resources to target individuals and trade routes.
“We’re at a tipping point for rhino with the number of poached individuals coming precariously close to outnumbering the birth rate, a position that will ultimately lead to the decline and possible loss of these enigmatic species,” said Dr Rebecca Johnson, Director of the Australian Museum Research Institute and Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics.
Dr McEwing, who coordinated the training, said: “Deploying this new technique in Vietnam was only possible thanks to support from both the Australian Department of Environment and Vietnam CITES Management Authority. It shows just what can be achieved when organisations from different countries work collaboratively to tackle the international illegal wildlife trade. This international capacity-building project showcases the valuable scientific expertise and collection resources available at institutions like RZSS and the Australian Museum and legitimises our investments in the wildlife forensics field.”
October 29, 2015 § 1 Comment
It has been a little over two months since my last update and, as usual, we have lots of news to share.
We ran two expeditions in the Pantanal and numerous short expeditions in the Cerrado (the latter I will tell you about soon in another blog). The August expedition into the Pantanal included me, Gabriel, Camila and Bruna (our veterinarian Danilo Kluyber is currently finishing his master’s degree in Sao Paulo). New to the team, Bruna Oliveira is a biologist who will work mostly in the Cerrado after her training is complete in the Pantanal. She is enthusiastic, hardworking and experienced with (Geographical Information System) GIS software and the programs we will be using to model giant armadillo distributions in the Cerrado.
For the first few days, we were joined by a cameraman from Maramedia, who are creating a documentary about giant armadillos. Seeing the Pantanal through the lens of the camera was fascinating, and the detail and colour of our beautiful surrounds were magnified and somehow made me fall in love with them all over again. It was such a privilege to catch Isabelle again and to fit her with a GPS tag while Justin was there. I have such a soft spot for Isabelle that I am so glad we were able to film her. The battery of her transmitter has almost run out and I was very conscious this could be the last time I actually see her.
To our surprise, whilst searching for Isabelle we actually found another active giant armadillo burrow! The burrow belonged to a male and was right in the middle of Isabelle’s territory. Although there is some overlap between giant armadillos on the border of their territory, we have never before documented overlap in core areas. It was a shallow burrow that we describe as a ‘resting burrow’ as they are generally only used by animals for one night. This was the typical pattern for a visiting male.
But who could this borrow belong to? Could it be Ben, a large juvenile we caught two years ago who we believe to be Isabelle’s son? Could it be Don/Hannibal, who was responsible for killing her first young almost three years ago and whom we caught last July and is known to make brief incursions into Isabelle’s territory? Or Zezinho, a male we caught over three years ago who was the father of Isabelle’s first baby? What if it was Robert or Wally? Their territories are very far away but these animals always surprise us… And what if this was a female? That would change everything we thought we knew. Who could this be?
We set our trap and then spent the whole evening reviewing everything we knew about giant armadillos and the relationships we know we have established. Our conversations that evening would have made a gossip columnist proud. Even the lives of celebrities pale in comparison to the gossip and relationships we came up with! We even got pretty close to suggesting a long lost twin brother separated at birth… giant armadillo soap operas at their best…
Around 11 pm the piercing sound of the transmitter indicated that the trap had closed and we raced to the trap in the pitch dark. There HE was, just beautiful and calm and waiting for us… We were ecstatic.
As we fit all the animals we capture with a tiny micro-chip (the same as used on pet dogs and cats), Camilla our veterinarian was able to run the small reader over the animal’s stomach and to our mounting excitement it beeped! It was a known animal – but which one? We had to wait until we returned to the ranch to check our files.
We quickly placed the giant armadillo in a night box, as we always do, so it could settle down before being anesthetised at the crack of dawn. We do this for the animal’s health and welfare, but also so that sample collections and transmitter fittings can take place in daylight.
You can imagine the mood of the team was at its highest. Camila Luba, who focuses on male reproductive characteristics, has been collaborating with the project for over a year. However, since she has started we have had terrible luck with males. Houdini’s transmitter stopped working and then when we managed to find him again we were unable to catch him as he refused to come out of his burrow. Don/Hannibal’s transmitter never worked, so when his GPS fell off we lost him. Then, as you know, Alex never reached sexual maturity before he was predated. Wally had been the only male Camila has been able to study to date.
So, that night when we arrived at the ranch, we checked our files and discovered the identity of this male. It was Zezinho, one of Isabelle’s old flames that we had not seen since June 2012 when he mated with her! We had caught Zezinho in January 2012, but at the time we were experimenting with other transmitters and got very little data from him. What a great opportunity to study him this now was. It was almost too good to be true…
It was too good to be true… Zezinho broke out of the holding box!
Our wooden box has been reinforced in every possible way since Houdini and then Dolores broke out of it. I was 100% sure it was unbreakable. Check out the pictures… it obviously was not. You can imagine we were all gutted. We could not believe it. I will never leave a giant armadillo in a box on its own again; from now on we will remain until daylight with the animal. So much work, effort and patience only for Zeninho to escape…
Another crazy thing occurred during in August, when our three female giant armadillos appeared to exhibit nesting behaviour. This sees them building huge burrows with large sand mounds, and animals re-using the same burrow for many days. Once again all our excitement was crushed as the armadillos eventually changed burrows… how frustrating! We never got to the point of seeing a female leave a burrow and closing it, which is a sure sign that a baby was born.
All in all, the August Pantanal expedition was an emotional rollercoaster; however, if there is one thing we have learned throughout the years is perseverance. You can never give up.
I’ll update on the Cerrado in my next instalment but until then… all the best from Brazil!
Arnaud and the Giant Armadillo Conservation Project team