October 6, 2015 § Leave a comment
By Douglas Richardson, Head of Living Collections, RZSS Highland Wildlife Park
RZSS Highland Wildlife Park regularly gets approached by companies and other groups to assist with a project that would also translate into a team building exercise. We have had call centre staff helping create a natural visual barrier between our forest reindeer and the nearby European wolf pack, and a major insurance company’s staff help build protective barriers around some of our trees to stop the bark being damaged by the animals. More recently we have had assistance on a somewhat more serious scale from a British army regiment and a couple of units of the South Dakota National Guard. For quite a few years we have had help from various segments of the British military, and more recently some of their American counterparts, with some large construction projects, which is not only a significant savings for a conservation charity like ours, but it provides the different units with the opportunity to hone their skills and work as a team.
In recent years the military have erected the shell of our tiger house, the raised wooden walkway that allows pedestrians to safely enter the Park and the one that takes visitors up to the new female polar bear’s enclosure. We provide the materials, and they supply the equipment and the manpower and it appears to be a mutually beneficial arrangement.
This year they assisted us with a couple of projects that will have a direct conservation benefit, one which is visible to our visitors is the start of our European bison handling area. Staff at the Park manage the European bison breeding programme, which also includes breeding bison for eventual reintroduction back into parts of their historic range; the species became extinct in the wild in 1926 and has been gradually reintroduced back into parts of their former haunts. We sent a female bison back to Romania in 2014 and we plan to send further bison out to that and similar project sites. Before sending out a bison it needs to be ear-tagged, microchipped, blood sampled and generally checked over to make sure it is healthy to travel. Previously we have had to anaesthetise each bison to carry-out the necessary procedures, which can be stressful for both staff and the animal, and we have wanted to build a facility that will negate the need for darting the bison and give us more flexibility in managing them.
This year the army begun to erect the first sections of a substantial log fence that will form part of the bison area. We wanted it to be “natural”, hence the logs, but as a bull bison can weigh over a tonne and be nimble with it, the fence needs to be strong and high enough that the bison cannot run through or jump over it. Our own staff will complete the project, but the combined allied forces have given us an excellent start with something that will enhance our conservation effectiveness for Europe’s largest land mammal.
This piece was first published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald
October 4, 2015 § Leave a comment
In terms of European giant panda zoos, RZSS is pretty unique. We have three agreements with our Chinese colleagues. One is the ten year loan of Yang Guang; one the ten year loan of Tian Tian; and the other is a research agreement. The giant panda zoo model that we fit into is much closer to American zoos than our European counterparts.
RZSS is currently facilitating 40 giant panda related projects around the world. Some of these projects we are funding, some we have sought external funding for, some we are collaborating and partnering other organisations, and some we are merely the gatekeepers providing samples like hair or faeces. Excitingly, our experts are currently working with nine universities in the UK.
All this research work stems from the Giant Panda Research Symposium held in Edinburgh in 2013, when RZSS gathered over 60 experts from around the world to help develop a five-year research plan for giant pandas, with the aim of generating global action on how giant pandas are cared for in zoos around the world and in Chinese reserves.
This week a scientific paper was published regarding a stem cell production project with a number of other prestigious organisations. Basically stem cells have been produced from swabs. Why is this important? Because it gives conservationists another method of bio-banking genetic resource other than sperm or eggs.
Cell lines, created from easily collectable samples like cheek swabs, help with research into some of the deadly diseases that pandas are susceptible to – such as distemper, parvovirus and retrovirus. Cell lines allow us to test potential vaccines without having to involve the animals themselves, and they can also be used for tissue repair.
Importantly, this has nothing to do with cloning, although some key figures involved in the cloning of Dolly the sheep are sharing their expertise as part of the project.
RZSS Director of Giant Pandas
September 25, 2015 § Leave a comment
Over the last year we’ve been involved with a project on Arabian sand gazelle with the Office for Conservation of the Environment (OCE) in Oman.
Arabian sand gazelle (Gazella marica) are listed as Vulnerable across their range and are extinct in the wild within Oman. It’s difficult to estimate true numbers, but there are probably no more than 10,000 animals living in remote sandy desert regions of the Arabian Peninsula, such as in the famous Rub’ al Khali or Empty Quarter. Today they are still under threat from illegal hunting (for meat and to a lesser extent for trophies) and habitat loss, and many exist within fenced protected areas.
The Office for Conservation of the Environment in Oman manages a collection of over 400 individual animals at the Al Wusta Wildlife Reserve, in the central region of Oman. Over the last year, RZSS WildGenes has been collaborating with the OCE to use genetic analysis to make management decisions about this valuable collection of animals.
Blood samples were collected from the majority of the animals and tested in the labs at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo. Here we ran genetic test to verify the origin and subspecies status of the animals in the collection. Gazelle taxonomy is very complicated and different gazelle species and subspecies can be hard to distinguish, so this was an important step. Information on genetic diversity and paternity then allowed us to develop breeding recommendation that would enable the population’s genetic diversity to be preserved most effectively in coming generations, both in captivity and for an anticipated reintroduction.
RZSS WildGenes works on a number of reintroductions both within Scotland and worldwide, and the aim is always to maximise the genetic diversity of the founding population to ensure that it is able to evolve and adapt in the face of change, be this environmental change or disease outbreak.
The project also involved training of Scientists from Oman at the laboratory in RZSS Edinburgh Zoo.
Over the next year, RZSS WildGenes will be working with the OCE on a similar project for Arabian oryx.
Dr Helen Senn
RZSS Research Scientist
September 14, 2015 § Leave a comment
While the schools were still off we spent the first half of August beavering away in our office at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, preparing for the coming year. We have laid out our plan for the year as we continue to take our Wild about Scotland bus to schools throughout the country. Over the summer we welcomed two new members of the team. Karen Swift, based in the office, will be dealing with school bookings. So if you request a visit you’ll likely speak to her first. Ruth Fraser is our new project manager. Ruth has been an RZSS Senior Education Officer at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo for many years and has previously been involved in teaching school groups visiting the Zoo, running the Zoo’s summer school and has worked on a linking project with schools in the Falkland Islands.
We also developed a brand new session, ‘Endangered Animals’, in which children uncover clues about the main threats to wildlife in Scotland. They then think about how they could change their everyday behaviour to have a positive impact on the environment.
We kicked off our first week of the new term visiting schools close to home in Edinburgh, West Dunbartonshire and South Lanarkshire. For one lucky class of P1s we were there for their very first day of school. Hopefully we didn’t get their new uniforms too muddy looking for mini-beasts! We spent the last week of August in the Highlands, visiting schools around Inverness. It was a great week surrounded by purple hills and lots of red squirrels.
On 29 August we celebrated our first birthday. Marking one year since the project launched at St Paul’s Primary School, Whiteinch. 141 schools on and we’re still going strong!
As part of our focus on local biodiversity, we made some short videos showing how to make your school grounds or garden a better place for wildlife by building a simple bird feeder, a mini-beast hotel and a pond in a bucket. We were lucky to have a fantastic wildlife filmmaker Barrie Williams help us out and we filmed in our newly created wildlife garden at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo. Watch this space for their release!
See you next month,
Jamie and Lindsay
From the driver’s seat
New term, new year, new destinations. Looking forward to them all. First week went well in the central belt, although I always find navigating through Glasgow a challenge! The roads are always busy and many low bridges to avoid and one way systems – not for the faint hearted. The recently opened extension of the M74 is great for accessing west Glasgow – helps a lot!
It was great to see the friendly faces of the team again after the summer break. During the break the bus had been for a full service and safety inspection. Thank you for the good work Graycoll. All ship shape and ready for the miles ahead…
#Brodie knows best
Brodie’s mini-beast of the month
Brodie’s mini-beast of the month is this beautiful Scotch Argus butterfly found near Drumnadrochit. As the name suggests it is native to Scotland. In England it is only found in two colonies in Cumbria. It can be distinguished from the similar Mountain Ringlet butterfly by the white centre of its eyespots.
Top teacher comments and Tweets
— Wild about Scotland (@WildaboutScot) August 11, 2015
— Wild about Scotland (@WildaboutScot) August 13, 2015
Next month- September
“The Wild about Scotland project linked well to our Outdoor Learning Programme”
Cathkin Primary School
“Children enjoyed searching habitats and were very excited discovering the insects” St Francis Primary
“Children enjoyed rummaging for beasts and then examining them through the magnifying glass”
St Francis Primary
September 9, 2015 § Leave a comment
Last week I was in Kathmandu setting up genetic analysis methods for the Himalayan Wolf Project.
The project, which aims to provide a scientific basis for national and international conservation of the Himalayan wolf, is led by Geraldine Werhahn who is a researcher with the University of Oxford’s WildCru. RZSS Wildgenes is partnering with the project by providing design of genetic protocols and training to the Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal, a laboratory in the capital Kathmandu.
Geraldine has just returned from a two month expedition to the remote Humla Valley where she surveyed the wolves and collected their scats for analysis. In future, surveys will be expanded across the region where wolves are now predominantly confined to remote high valleys. Wolves are threatened by hunting both for protection against livestock loss and for the wildlife trade as their paws are popular talismans.
Whilst Geraldine has been spending long days at altitude (over 4000m) looking for samples, the WildGenes team has been busy at the lab at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo developing genetic protocols for analysis of the samples. We did this with the help of the keepers from RZSS Highland Wildlife Park who collected scats from our very own grey wolves so that we could test-run the methods.
Once we had the protocols up and running, I could travel to Kathmandu to transfer them to the team at the Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal who will conduct the bulk of the analysis. We are aiming to use genetic profiling to understand how many wolves there are, what sex they are and how evolutionarily different they are from Eurasian grey wolf.
Dr Helen Senn
RZSS Research Scientist
September 7, 2015 § Leave a comment
I have just arrived back in Edinburgh following an interesting trip to Norden’s Ark in Sweden last week. I was accompanied by two members of the RZSS Conservation department, Sarah Robinson (RZSS Head of Conservation Programmes) and David Barclay, RZSS Cat Conservation Project Officer. It was a fascinating and rewarding trip, during which we signed a three year agreement with the Snow Leopard Trust and Norden’s Ark for conservation and research projects of Pallas’s cats and snow leopards in Mongolia. Project work will commence over the next few months and I look forward to keeping you updated as the projects develop.
Out in Thailand, the RZSS Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) Conservation Programme Manager, Dr Ross McEwing, welcomed nearly 20 delegates from Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam for a three day wildlife forensic workshop earlier last week. The meeting took place in Chiang Mai Thailand and focused on collaborative approaches to meeting international data standards for wildlife forensics, as well as identifying areas for unifying work across countries. The programme is already receiving great support from a number of countries in South East Asia and aims to encourage other countries, particularly Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos PDR, to participate. The IWT programme aims to deter the illegal trade of animal parts and products, which is one of the biggest threats to the survival of some of the world’s most threatened species.
Elsewhere, in news from our Giant Armadillo Conservation Project in the Pantanal, Brazil, the team are hard at work presenting the Giant Armadillo Project and its educational materials to a team of educators from the Secretary of Education of the Campo Grande Municipality. The team are hoping to launch an outreach and communication campaign on giant armadillos in the 100 schools of the Campo Grande municipality. If this is successful, a state wide campaign will be planned. These environmental education campaigns are key to the Cerrado expansion of the project which will be important to the growth of the Giant Armadillo Conservation Project.
Closer to home, we launched the RZSS Residency Programme last week. The event, which was a modern take on the Parisian Salon, was a great success and formalised the appointment of 15 Residents to the programme. The Residents bring with them their own unique backgrounds and knowledge which will be utilised to help raise awareness of the mission of RZSS: connecting people with nature and safeguarding species from extinction. The RZSS Residency Programme aims to engage and excite people from all walks of life about the conservation work of RZSS, both in Scotland and around the world.
“The only way forward, if we are going to improve the quality of the environment, is to get everybody involved.”
– Richard Rogers
September 4, 2015 § Leave a comment
One of the main reasons I established these Pallas’s cat support projects was to improve our knowledge of the species in countries where their presence and distribution is unknown or unclear. Currently there are three subspecies documented: Otocolobus manul manul, Otocolobus manul nigriprectus and Otocolobus manul ferrugineus. Despite their historical documentation there is very little evidence to suggest that they are indeed unique subspecies and not simply regional colour variations.
In an attempt to explore the physical differences between populations and to boost efforts in a country where few studies have been carried out, I made contact with an Iranian researcher Mohammad Farhadinia back in 2013. Mohammad has been involved with Iranian cheetah conservation and research for many years and has, in the last few years, turned his hand to Pallas’s cat research. Working in Tandoureh, Salouk and Sarigol national parks in North Eastern Iran, Mohammad and his team – with support from RZSS and other European zoos – are slowly uncovering new findings with Pallas’s cats, improving the awareness of the species in a key range country and most of all improving our understanding of Otocolobus manul ferruginea (the western subspecies).
Although camera trapping efforts have produced some amazing images of other local fauna, most notably the Persian leopard (Panthera pardus saxicolor), Pallas’s cats have yet to be caught on camera. However, during field expeditions Mohammad has been made aware of several sightings of dead Pallas’s cats and a number of abandoned kittens (thought to be leopard cubs on occasion) that have been cared for and subsequently released.
One such kitten is still in care, given its young age, but plans to release it and monitor its movements through a radio collar are being discussed. This would be the 1st time a Pallas’s cat has been radio collared in Iran. Should this happen we will be in a position to offer financial support and gain a valuable insight into the behaviour and ecology of Pallas’s cats in their western range.
With another RZSS support project being established in the central Alborz Mountains of Iran, it is clear that interest in the species is growing not just in range countries but throughout the zoo world. It is an exciting time for Pallas’s cats and as long as I am breathing I will continue to support the conservation and research efforts and wave the Pallas’s cat flag.
Join me next time where we will visit our support project in Altanbulag, Northen Mongolia.
If you are interested in learning more about RZSS Cat Conservation projects, why not join me for a Cat Conservation evening with Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull on Monday 19 October at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo at 6:30pm. Not only will you hear about our cat conservation projects from across the globe but also hear from our special guest, one of Scotland’s most famous musicians, Ian Anderson. Find out why Ian has taken time out to support our work and share his feelings toward small cat conservation.
All the best until then,
RZSS Cat Conservation Project Officer