Highland Wildlife Blog – The Leopard of the Mountains

July 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

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

Recent visitors to the Highland Wildlife Park will have noted a significant amount of building activity on and around a cliff face on the hill near the centre of the site. It is a ridiculously steep location to consider building anything on, but it is a perfect location for the planned purpose and the abseiling lessons our project team underwent were definitely not an exercise in pandering to some overly cautious piece of health and safety legislation.

Ever since we expanded our species remit beyond solely Scottish animals to encompass a broader range of cold weather adapted creatures from around the world, a number of those that make their homes in the mountain ranges of our planet have found their way to the Highlands. Until now they have generally been some of the threatened wild sheep and goat species, mainly from the peaks of the Himalayas and Hindu Kush, but now we are preparing a home for the cat that preys upon them. The snow leopard is arguably the most beautiful of the wild cats of the world with its smoky grey and white coat and long, thick tail.

Female snow leopard, Animesh by Alex Riddell

Female snow leopard, Animesh by Alex Riddell

The snow leopard is Endangered and the subject of an international breeding programme, with many zoos providing significant support for the conservation of the species in the wild, including the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, of which the Highland Wildlife Park is a part. The captive population is carefully managed by a colleague in a Swedish zoo called Nordens Ark, and he has been pestering me for years to bring the species into the collection as he felt that they would thrive here, given our location, climate and level of proven expertise with a range of threatened carnivore species.

Our new snow leopard enclosure is in two parts: a pair of very large aviary style enclosures at the top, and the primary exhibit that is a grassy plateau that then drops down the face of the cliff and levels out with the public walkway at the bottom. By any standard, this will be a spectacular animal enclosure, and certainly the finest snow leopard exhibit in the UK. We are very lucky in that we are blessed with a suitably rugged and scenic location, and where other zoos will spend considerable sums on landscaping to achieve a suitable look, we just pick the best location in the Park for the species concerned.

Building the snow leopard enclosure

Building the snow leopard enclosure

We plan to have the pair of leopards settled into the large pens at the top of the cliff towards the end of July, where they will be readily visible to our visitors, while we continue to complete the main enclosure that encompasses the cliff. Over the years a number of our visitors have asked if we would ever consider getting snow leopards and I always responded that they were on the list. The addition of this magnificent species to the Park is both exciting and an obvious next step in our development.

This piece was first published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald

Chief Executive’s Blog

July 18, 2015 § Leave a comment


I am pleased to announce that our new lemur walkthrough exhibit at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo opened to the public for the first time this week, on Monday 13 July. The enclosure, which is currently home to the ring-tailed lemurs, now enables visitors to take a stroll through the enclosure, getting up close to the lemurs. Visitors are really enjoying the new immersive enclosure and it is proving popular with both children and adults alike. The lemurs are also enjoying the added stimulus of having visitors in the enclosure as they are very social and inquisitive species.

Lemur Walkthrough

Lemur Walkthrough

Across in the Brazilian Pantanal, the Giant Armadillo Conservation Project is progressing well. Dr Arnaud Desbiez and his team are currently out on an expedition and they have caught a young female giant armadillo, bringing the total number of animals they are currently monitoring to six. They have also caught three giant anteaters, meaning that the team are now monitoring a total of six giant anteaters.

We have also recently captured some wonderful footage of a beaver kit at the Scottish Beaver Trial (SBT) site in the Knapdale Forest in Argyll. It is the first young beaver to be spotted at the site this year and indicates that continued breeding is taking place at the Trial site. The Scottish Beaver Trial is a partnership between RZSS, the Scottish Wildlife Trust and host Forestry Commission Scotland which started in 2009. The project aimed to determine the feasibility of reintroducing beavers in Scotland and study the impacts their reintroduction would have. The monitoring phase of the Trial ended earlier this year and the scientific findings have been presented to the Scottish Government by Scottish Natural Heritage to help determine the future of beavers in Scotland.

We have also had positive news from our conservation work with Scottish wildcats. David Barclay, RZSS Cat Conservation Project Officer, has been continuing to meet with estate factors and owners to garner support for the Scottish Wildcat Action project, and has thus far been receiving very positive responses. We have welcomed three new wildcat kittens (born at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park) recently, which is good news as we try to save this critically endangered species from extinction. This year’s births add to a long line of successful breeding of wildcats at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park, which has been instrumental in maintaining the captive population which is intended to act as a safety net for the species.

“We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.” – Thomas Fuller

Chief Executive’s Blog

July 13, 2015 § Leave a comment


I am pleased to announce that our new conservation corridor has recently opened on the walkway between the Scottish wildcat enclosure and tiger enclosure at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo. The new walkway features large panels and interactive displays which will take visitors on a journey of discovery through RZSS’s conservation work.

A walk through the corridor will educate visitors about one of Scotland’s rarest species, the wildcat, as well as other larger carnivores such as the Sumatran tiger and snow leopard. It also provides visitors with a wealth of information about species which have been saved from the brink of extinction, plus information on creatures of the sea, the WildGenes laboratory at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo and global conservation projects which RZSS is involved in.


Central to the message of this walkway is that visitors to the Zoo can take the first steps to safeguarding species from extinction on their very own doorsteps, protecting wildlife in their gardens and making small changes in their day to day routines. The mantra, in other words, is very much “think global, act local”.

14_12_04_ScottishWildcat_1_kp_fbOur work with the Scottish wildcats and Pallas’s cats is ongoing, with good progress being made. We have now installed a wildcat trail camera at Pitcastle Estate, which will enable us to monitor this rare and elusive species. We are also currently in discussions with a number of estate factors and owners who are all very positive and keen support the wildcat project. We have also just received new images and footage from our Mongolian Pallas’s cat field project, which shows an adult female with young, this will be released shortly. In the meantime you can read the latest RZSS Pallas’s cat project update here.

A week or so ago a delegation from the State Forestry Administration of the People’s Republic of China come to visit us at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo. A total of six people made the trip, including the Vice Minister from the Ministry, making this the most senior Chinese delegation to have visited us since the panda programme began. The first day of their visit involved a series of meetings, but the following day the delegation were taken to meet our pandas and the panda team. The delegation enjoyed their time here and important relationships were fostered.

At the beginning of this month, RZSS participated in a special exchange event alongside research leaders from Heriot-Watt University and the Moredun Research Institute. The event was aimed at stimulating novel interdisciplinary research collaborations and proposing new ideas for even closer cooperation between the three institutions. The event participants represented a wide range of biological, engineering, management, physical and mathematical sciences spanning many of the principal areas of research between the three organisations. The event ran over two days and provided a clear insight into the research aims, expertise and facilities of the three institutions.

Further afield, RZSS’s Illegal Wildlife Trade Conservation Programme Manager, Dr Ross McEwing, recently organised a workshop in America: “The illegal wildlife trade in Africa and South East Asia and the challenges of the wildlife forensic response”. The workshop was jointly organised by Ross, TRAFFIC and TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network and was funded by the UK and US governments. This helped ensure attendance from developing countries, enabling wildlife scientists from Africa and Southeast Asia to attend the conference. The conference explored how wildlife forensics is helping fight the illegal wildlife trade by providing critical insight into the monitoring of trade routes and the origin of seized wildlife and wildlife products, assisting law enforcement by analysing critical evidence for the prosecution of wildlife offenders.

The illegal wildlife trade is currently booming, with extremely high demand for elephant ivory and rhino horn. Rhino are currently facing likely extinction due to increased poaching, with a number of rhino subspecies already declared extinct. Southern Africa in particular is bearing the brunt of this activity, with more than 680 rhinos poached in South Africa this year alone. This only serves to highlight how important RZSS’s work combatting the illegal wildlife trade is.


At RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, we have also just welcomed a new, critically endangered, male Sumatran tiger to the collection at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo. The new tiger, Jambi, arrived this week from Berlin Tier Park and will partner up with our resident female tiger Baginda in the hope that they will eventually have cubs to increase the numbers of this extremely rare species.

“Man shapes himself through decisions that shape his environment.” – Rene Dubos

Going Wild about Scotland through June!

July 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

Nesting guillemots at Duncansby Head

Nesting guillemots at Duncansby Head

We’ve had a fantastic end to the school year, reaching some of the furthest corners of Scotland, including Eilean Siar, Skye, Ullapool, Wick and Orkney, as well as schools closer to home in Edinburgh and Renfrewshire.

This month has been a real adventure, taking the bus on long stretches of single-track road and two ferry trips! We’ve seen some amazing Scottish wildlife on the way including seals, otters and minke whales. Another highlight was visiting the spectacular seabird colonies at Duncansby Head – the most north-easterly point on mainland Scotland (pictured, right). Even the smallest of ledges were crowded with nesting birds here for the summer breeding season. Approaching from downwind, the smell gave away their presence long before we could see them!

Pupils taking a closer look at the mini-beasts found in their school grounds

Pupils taking a closer look at the mini-beasts found in their school grounds

Despite some less than summery weather, our mini-beast hunts have been in full swing. We took pupils out into their school grounds to see what they could find, before bringing any mini-beasts back to the bus so the pupils could take a closer look (pictured, left). It’s been brilliant to get pupils and teachers thinking about all the wildlife right outside their front door and how they can make use of their outdoor space.

For many pupils in Orkney, our visit was a chance to compare their unique wildlife with that in the rest of Scotland. Although not found on the island, it was interesting for the pupils to think about how the Scottish Wildcat might be protected and discuss the re-introduction of species such as beavers (pictured, below right).

It’s all about beavers!

It’s all about beavers!

We also had a great day meeting members of the public at Dawyck Botanic Gardens in the Borders, one of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh sites. It’s always nice to link up with other conservation organisations and meet people interested in plants and wildlife, as well as spreading the word about the Wild about Scotland project.

Jamie and David at John O’Groats, pondering next year’s destinations…

Jamie and David at John O’Groats, pondering next year’s destinations…

And so our first school year is complete! Since August 2014 the Wild about Scotland bus has visited 136 schools and welcomed over 11,000 people on board. We’ve been involved in world class events such as the Edinburgh International Science Festival and Scotland’s Big Nature Festival and travelled to 29 of the 32 Scottish local authorities, all whilst spreading the word about Scotland’s extraordinary native wildlife.

We’re delighted that Clydesdale Bank has continued to fund this project for another year and we look forward to building on the success of the last 12 months, visiting more schools and extending the sessions we offer. It was quite fitting that one of our final weeks on the road involved a visit to John O’Groats – a final destination for many travellers, as well as a starting point for further adventures!

If you would like the Wild about Scotland bus at your school or event please register your interest at www.rzss.org.uk/wildaboutscotland

Bus driver DaveFrom the driver’s seat

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.

The final month of the school year brought about mixed emotions – sadness at the end of another school year, but excitement to visit places in Scotland I had never previously been. The month started well, travelling to the east and west coasts and back again, visiting schools in Croy, Ullapool and Wick to name a few. But the pinnacle of the project for me was driving our bus to Orkney – one of the few islands I had yet to visit. As luck would have it, I almost missed out due to a broken spring on the bus near John O’Groats on the Thursday before the Monday sail. I carefully nursed the bus to a Stagecoach garage in Thurso, where all the stops were pulled out to get our bus up and running and happy days! A call from Thurso told me the bus was ready to roll and off we went to Orkney! Another island ticked off my places to visit and a great experience for the kids there. Many thanks to the guys at Stagecoach – what a nice and helpful team! Thanks Clydesdale Bank for the continued funding our project – bring on next year!

BrodieKnowsBest#Brodie knows best

Brodie’s mini-beast of the month

Northern Eggar moth caterpillar, found by pupils at Back School, Isle of Lewis

Northern Eggar moth caterpillar, found by pupils at Back School, Isle of Lewis

June’s mini-beast of the month goes to this Northern Eggar moth caterpillar found by pupils in heathland at Back School, on the Isle of Lewis. This impressive caterpillar eats and eats, growing up to 8cm and shedding its skin four times in the process. The brown adult moths have thick feathery antennae and can be seen flying in a zig-zag fashion on sunny afternoons from July to August. Like many invertebrates their development takes longer in the cooler North, going from egg to moth in two years, compared to just one year in Southern England. The southern form is known as the Oak Eggar, but despite its name feeds on heather, bramble and trees such as sallow and hazel.

Top teacher comments and tweets

“The children were engaged and enthusiastic. A great way to encourage learning – the children got maths and science in a practical way” Sgoil a’Bhac, Isle of Lewis.

“The range of activities meant that the children could handle materials and problem solve with lots of opportunities for discussion” Croy Primary, Inverness.

“It is such a unique experience for the children who live up here. They loved taking part in the activities and being on the bus was really exciting for them” Ullapool Primary School.

“Many thanks for a great educational session- very well organised and presented” Bower Primary School, By Wick

Next month – July

During the school holidays you can visit the Wild about Scotland bus at various venues throughout central Scotland (listed below). The bus is free to visit although site entrance fees may apply.

Tuesday 14 July, 10am-4pm Falkland Palace, Cupar, Fife
Wednesday 15 to Thursday 16 July, 10am-4pm Scottish Deer Centre, Cupar, Fife (free,
but entry fees in the Centre may apply)
Friday 17 July, 10am-4pm Hill of Tarvit, Cupar, Fife
Monday 20 to Friday 24 July, 10am-4pm Glasgow Botanic Gardens
Sunday 26 July, 10am-4pm Kelvingrove BioBlitz
Tuesday 28 July, 10am-4pm David Livingstone Centre, Blantyre, South Lanarkshire
Wednesday 29 July 10am-4pm Pollock House, Glasgow
Thursday 30 July 10am-4pm Holmwood House, Glasgow
Friday 31 July 10am-4pm Whitmuir Organic Farm, West Linton

RZSS Pallas’s Cat Project Update

July 10, 2015 § Leave a comment

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) support and manage several cat conservation and research projects, ranging from sand cats in the Middle East to snow leopards in Mongolia. However, it gives me great pleasure as the newly appointment RZSS Cat Conservation Project Officer to introduce another fascinating project to you – the Pallas’s cat.


Grey/Himalayan wolf – Taken from the first Nepalese field outing

For the last seven years I have coordinated the Pallas’s cat European Endangered Species Programme (EEP) and, in more recent years, the International Studbook (ISB) too. Aside from education, raising awareness and research, the objective of these captive programmes is to maintain a robust and sustainable ex-situ population to act as a long-term insurance policy for the species.

In addition to this captive safety net population, we must also look to the wild and support conservation and research projects that improve our knowledge of the species and thus help us protect the in-situ populations. In early 2014 I took it upon myself to raise the profile of Pallas’s cats in Zoological collections in an attempt to encourage interest for in-situ field work support projects.


Golden eagle – Taken from the first Nepalese field outing

Just over one year on, sitting here in my office at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park, it is exciting to reflect that we, and other EEP collections, are currently supporting four different projects throughout the Pallas’s cat range. It is clear to me that there is both interest and support for this smaller, lesser known cat species, even if we have to work harder at it. This, however, is part of our job.

Inhabiting the steppe grasslands and remote mountains of Central Asia, the Pallas’s cat is a unique yet elusive species that few people have heard of, let alone seen. Like its larger cousin the snow leopard (which it shares the majority of its range with), the Pallas’s cat is another “ghost of the mountain”.


Snow leopard – Taken from the first Nepalese field outing

In order for us to learn more about these cats we have not only provided financial support, but sent motion triggered trail cameras to all four field projects in Nepal, Iran, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. Over the course of the year I will be providing updates on all of these projects and sharing with you some of the amazing images and video footage we have – and will continue to capture – introducing you to each project and giving you an insight into the fauna found throughout these countries.

See you next month.

David Barclay

RZSS Cat Conservation Project Officer

Chief Executive’s Blog

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.

Alex the armadillo at various ages by the Giant Armadillo Project

Alex the armadillo at various ages by the Giant Armadillo Project

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.

Velu and mum, Heleen by Mike Gilburt

Velu and mum, Heleen by Mike Gilburt

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.


Turkmenian markhor kid

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.

Highland Wildlife Blog – What is a BIAZA?

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.

Przewalksi’s wild horse and foal by Alex Riddell

Przewalksi’s wild horse and foal by Alex Riddell

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.


Moose and young at Highland Wildlife Park by Alex Riddell

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


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