Chief Executive’s Blog

November 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

Hello,

Beaver Kit by Phillip Rice

Beaver Kit by Phillip Rice

This week we were delighted to welcome, after five years of study, the publication of the Scottish Beaver Trial scientific reports by Scottish Natural Heritage. The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland was a key player in the trial which was a partnership with Scottish Wildlife Trust and was hosted by Forestry Commission Scotland. The Scottish Beaver Trial was the first ever licenced mammal reintroduction in the UK. European beavers were reintroduced to the Knapdale Forest, mid-Argyll after they were hunted to extinction there 400 years ago. The key findings of the reports will be presented to the Scottish Government to enable a Ministerial decision about the future of beavers in Scotland to be decided in 2015. The five year trial included 11,817 hours of scientific monitoring fieldwork which varied from tracking the beavers to water sampling and has engaged almost three million people about beaver ecology. In 2013, we were honoured that the project was named ‘Best Conservation Project in the UK’ by BBC Countryfile magazine.

greatgifts_relatedAs the weather begins to get colder, it signals that the festive period is nearly upon us. Next week, on Wednesday 26 November, the first Christmas shopping night will be held in the gift shop at Edinburgh Zoo. Children of all ages will be able to meet Santa in his grotto and a truly festive environment will take over the whole shop as there will be carol singers, food tastings and special discounts. More information can be found at: http://www.edinburghzoo.org.uk/events/2014/11/meet-santa-at-our-christmas-shopping-night/

During winter at the Zoo, our popular Animal Antics hilltop show is replaced with an activity in a warmer location and this year our presentations team are running storytelling sessions in the Rainforest Room of the Education Centre. I don’t want to give everything away, however it is an enlightening story with an important conservation message; it follows the journey of Chi Chi the giant panda as he travels through the mountains of China in search of more bamboo because his food source has declined. The story is a reflection of the actual conservation work taking place out in China.

Lasswade High School - China Trip with Jaguar Land Rover China

Lasswade High School – China Trip with Jaguar Land Rover China

Also earlier in the week, I was pleased to sight photos from the recent trip to China by school pupils of Lasswade High School, an experience which I have covered quite closely in previous blog posts and was made possible through a partnership with Jaguar Land Rover China. It is my pleasure to share a couple of these with you.

Lasswade students seeing a giant panda

Lasswade students seeing a giant panda

If you are visiting Highland Wildlife Park, look out for the young capercaillie who went on show last week.

Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher.

~William Wordsworth

Chief Executive’s Blog

November 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Hello,

First of all I would like to give you a little update from Arnaud Desbiez, RZSS Latin America Coordinator who is stationed in the Brazilian Pantanal. I last updated you in my blog of his work on the Giant Armadillo Project in August and since then the Giant Armadillo Project team has run two field expeditions to monitor all the animals which we are following. One of the main tasks of the October expedition was to fit a GPS tag on 16 month old giant armadillo Alex who we have been following through camera traps since his birth and was the first ever photographed baby giant armadillo in the wild. On the final night of the expedition, the team successfully fitted a GPS tag on Alex which will enable us to continue to learn more about him as he becomes more independent from his mother. This addition means we are now monitoring a total of seven giant armadillos through a combination of cameras and telemetry – a record for the project!

Giant Armadillo Baby Alex 2013 by Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project

Giant Armadillo and baby Alex by Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project

RZSS veterinary surgeon, Romain Pizzi, was also in Brazil this week. Romain is in Rio Grande do Sul, one of the Southern states, where he is teaching wildlife surgery to Brazilian veterinarians. I am sure it will prove to be a valuable teaching experience for all and will help build and enhance the capacity of the veterinarians.

Gentoo penguins

Gentoo penguins

Back in Scotland, I’m sure you have all seen the recent Christmas advert for John Lewis. A realistic CGI penguin plays the starring role and we were honoured that the penguins at Edinburgh Zoo helped inspire the advert; the advert’s production team spent a day in May observing the behaviours of our penguins as they waddled and porpoised through their state of the art enclosure. At Penguins Rock this week, keepers have heard visitors discuss the movements they can see within of our colony and relate these to some of the behaviours of Monty the penguin. It is wonderful for us to watch as members of the public get excited about observing natural behaviours of animals.

Arctic Fox with winter coat by Alex Riddell

Arctic Fox with winter coat by Alex Riddell

At Highland Wildlife Park, Arctic foxes Elf and Kilian have donned their winter coats as their fur has turned white and become denser. This is a natural annual transformation which not only helps protect them from the cold of winter, but also camouflages them in their native Arctic landscape.

We are currently hosting three students from the University of Edinburgh who are studying for an MSc in Science Communication and Public Engagement as part of an eight week placement for their course. The students are based at Edinburgh Zoo and have been concentrating on gaining visitor feedback on some of the interpretation throughout the site. I’m looking forward to hearing their findings which I trust will prove insightful and refreshing. They have also had the opportunity to meet with staff across numerous departments which has enabled them to get a broad overview of RZSS and all the jobs involved.

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

~Nelson Mandela

Chief Executive’s Blog

November 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

Red November may sound like the name of a horror movie or a particularly gruesome historical happening, but it is actually a fantastic conservation event organised by the British and Irish Associate of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) to celebrate the significant contribution of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List in guiding conservation action and policy decisions over the past 50 years.

Scottish Wildcat by Alex Riddell

Critically Endangered, Scottish Wildcat by Alex Riddell

Both of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s animal collections at Highland Wildlife Park and Edinburgh Zoo are developed under the guidance of the Red List and our primary focus is often on species classed as Vulnerable or worse. The IUCN Red List has also had a positive impact in regenerating the wild populations of threatened species.

As the name suggests, Red November is taking place across the entire month of November, and the Highland Wildlife Park has set a conservation challenge for visitors, inviting them to solve clues across the Park and be rewarded with interesting facts about some of our species. Extra talks from our keepers will focus on the individual Red List classifications of animals – with categorisations ranging from Least Concern to Extinct in the Wild, with Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered and Critically Endangered in between. The presentations will also explain the threats to each animal’s survival and hopefully inspire action and discussion towards biodiversity conservation.

As an added bonus, the driver of any red cars during November will also be given free entry to the Highland Wildlife Park.

Our discovery and learning team have been in Skye and Fort William this week with our excellent Penguins to Pandas and Beyond the Panda educational programmes. The team have carried out 42 sessions between August and now, with many more due before the end of term.

Earlier this week Marty the Amur tiger featured in an episode of ‘Vets: Gach Creutair Beo’. A Gaelic series, viewers are taken on a journey across Scotland following vets as they tend to animals from small, to large, to the very wild. In this programme vets met Marty when he had toothache earlier this year and filmed how we treated and helped him.

Aubrey Manning OBE

Aubrey Manning OBE

Finally, we have the next in our new series of Tribal Elders lectures coming up soon. RZSS is pleased to present an evening with Professor Aubrey Manning OBE as the second inspiring address Tribal Elders: Words of Wisdom lecture series.

Recognised as one of the country’s leading authorities on animal behaviour and professor at The University of Edinburgh, Professor Manning is a committed conservationist and I am looking forward to hearing him distil his collected lifetime wisdom. His keynote speech is a challenging and thought-provoking message that explores how humans treat the planet, use finite resources and the effects of the ever-spiralling population growth.

Taking place at 7pm on Thursday 13 November in Edinburgh Zoo’s Budongo Lecture Theatre, tickets are free and available by emailing rallan@rzss.org.uk

“Look into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”

~Albert Einstein

Chief Executive’s Blog

October 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

Hello,

As I’m sure you are all aware, today is Halloween and it would be only fitting that it is the theme behind my blog post this week.

The Mansion House, which originally belonged to the Macmillan family stands in the centre of the Zoo and with its Scottish Baronial styled architecture and over 200 years of history, it is the perfect picture for ghost stories. Although I’ve no spooky experiences to share myself (well, yet!) many colleagues across the Zoo like to remind me, particularly at this time of year, that this house where I sit and write to you all is almost certainly, haunted. To put these rumours to rest, on All Hallows Eve 2012 we opened the creaky old doors to a ghost hunter and spiritualist who took guests on a tour of the house and used technical equipment, such as night vision cameras and electric magnetic field meters, to uncover any paranormal activity. I can assure you that my mind was not at ease after hearing the findings of the night…

Douroucouli

Douroucouli

Of course, the Mansion House isn’t the only part of the Zoo creeping through the night, we have a few nocturnal animals in our collection including douroucoulis, also known as night monkeys, and pygmy slow loris who all live in the small monkey Magic Forest exhibit. In keeping with the Halloween theme, we also house a few animals which, although very subjective, visitors often describe as “scary” looking. A regular recipient of this label and Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red List, is our flock of 14 Waldrapp ibis. If you’ve not already spotted them in the trees at the Duck Pond, these birds have long glossy black feathers, piercing black beady eyes and electrifying hairstyles. I will leave it to yourself to decide if this “scary” status is a compliment or not. I’ve also heard reports from both staff and visitors alike that a couple of wild, red eyed albino squirrels also make the Zoo their home.

Waldrapp ibis

Waldrapp ibis

Halloween is a great excuse to get creative with the enrichment our animals receive. To celebrate Halloween this year, keepers stuffed pumpkins with meat and insects as part of the daily feed of our Oriental short-clawed otters. As they are naturally inquisitive, all 15 otters, including the five pups who were born in June, came out of their dens to take a closer look. I hear the pups quickly grabbed some meat before running back to the safety of their heated dens to enjoy their breakfast in peace.

Oriental short-clawed otters with pumpkins at Halloween

Oriental short-clawed otters with pumpkins at Halloween

Tomorrow, Saturday 1 November, members of the public will be given the opportunity to celebrate Halloween by building enrichment items for many of the animals we have here at Edinburgh Zoo, including the squirrel and capuchin monkeys and the sun bears. In addition to making your own items, it’s a wonderful opportunity to engage with keepers to learn about the importance of animal enrichment and the behaviours it stimulates. There will also be special enrichment given to the various animals throughout the Zoo including a whole carcass feed for the Egyptian vultures. More information about the day and a timetable of the day can be found here. www.edinburghzoo.org.uk/events/2014/11/enrichment-day/

Up at Highland Wildlife Park the annual stag rut continues and I hope that at some point over the next few weeks we will know which one of our stags will be in control of the herd.

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.

~Albert Einstein

Chief Executive’s Blog

October 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

Hello readers,

Last week I wrote in more detail about the Big Cat Strategy. On Wednesday evening myself and Darren McGarry met with many of RZSS’ invaluable Volunteers to discuss the details of this Strategy further. The evening proved a very useful opportunity for sharing information and comment. We spoke about the sadness with which we have come to the careful conclusion that we must remove the Big Cat Walkway and it was agreed by attendees that we must first be guided by what is best for our cats. The fact that they will be going to world class EAZA zoos with modern enclosures was welcomed. We also talked about the current financial picture for RZSS and the exciting projects we have planned to develop the visitor experience at both Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park. We listened very carefully to the enthusiastic feedback from the evening and are looking forward to sharing and discussing ideas with our Volunteers on a regular basis in the future.

On the topic of new developments, if you have been into Edinburgh Zoo this week I’m sure you have seen that the new meerkat house is really beginning to take shape and I believe this will prove a fantastic addition to Meerkat Plaza.

Purple pincher crab

Purple pincher crab

This Sunday is the final day of the very popular Creepy Crawlies event which has been held daily for the past two weeks from 9am to 3pm. The enriching and entertaining display has taken over the lecture theatre in Budongo Trail at Edinburgh Zoo. It’s wonderful to see children of all ages immersed in the area and engaging with our extremely knowledgeable staff and Volunteers who are on hand to talk about the huge contribution these little creatures make to the planet. Some of the children were even listening and learning with a slimy giant African land snail in hand! Other animals on display which you may not have seen before include death’s head cockroaches, a Mexican fire leg tarantula, purple pincher hermit crabs and, my personal favourite, an orchid mantis which, if you’re able to spot this delicate little creature, you’ll easily understand where it gets the name from.

Orchid mantis

Orchid mantis

Up at Highland Wildlife Park, the annual red deer rut is ongoing and there has been a change in direction – Zeus has taken control of the herd as Atlas, who has been in charge over the last few weeks, has been ousted. The spectacle is a great display of the strength and the – sometimes forgotten – aggression of Britain’s largest land mammal.

We are pleased to hear that the pupils from Lasswade High School have returned safely with glowing reports of their trip to China. Organised by RZSS and supported by Jaguar Land Rover China, the pupils visited Bifengxia Panda Reserve where they saw lots of pandas in various stages of their life, including the Reserve’s newest panda cubs.

We do not see nature with our eyes, but with our understandings and our hearts.

~ William Hazlitt

Chief Executive’s Blog

October 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

I returned from my travels earlier this week to lovely news about some of the most popular arrivals at Highland Wildlife Park this year. Scottish wildcat kittens, Vaa and Gynack are six months old tomorrow and are now around half the size of their mother. Each month they are gradually becoming more independent and are picking up all the natural behaviours shown by parents Betidh and Hamish, particularly at feeding time.

14_5_16_Wildcat_2_jpBoth parents are considered to be of ‘high purity’ in terms of their lack of hybridisation with the domestic cat. We understand this from results of a DNA test recently developed by RZSS, as part of the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan (SWCAP), which now allow us to distinguish animals with a high level of hybridisation. The SWCAP is backed by a wide range of partners in government and NGOs and RZSS has a key role in the programme to lead on genetic management, animal husbandry and to inform and engage the public through the presence of cats at Highland Wildlife Park. The animals on display at Highland Wildlife Park are of varying levels of ‘purity’ as all Scottish wildcats might now be hybridised with domestic cats to different degrees. Animals in the captive breeding programme that show very high levels of hybridisation have been neutered and are on display in zoos around the UK and playing a very important role in Scottish wildcat education – the responsible thing to do to prevent further dilution of this great native species.

Last week, Edinburgh Zoo welcomed Dr. Arnaud Desbiez, RZSS Latin America Coordinator and Dr. Fred Baweteera, Director of the Budongo Conservation Field Station who, I have been told, gave a couple of enlightening talks. Arnaud gave an overview of the RZSS Giant Armadillo Project in the Pantanal in Brazil as part of last week’s adult education class on mammals and as mentioned in my last blog, Fred spoke at an information evening about a trip to Uganda.

JLR

Students from Lasswade High School

I’m delighted that tomorrow RZSS, in partnership with Jaguar Land Rover China, will be giving ten local children from Lasswade High School in Midlothian the trip of a lifetime! They are jetting off to the remote Bifengxia Panda Reserve in the Sichuan Province of China as part of the RZSS Giant Panda Project. At the Reserve they will see some of the newest giant panda cub arrivals and hear more about conservation efforts to combat the decline of the species. The school children will conclude their trip by heading to the contrasting, metropolitan city of Shanghai for an exchange with Chinese families. 14_09_04_ChileanFlamingo_chick_kp_1_webWe must also remember that it’s rainy season in China; the pupils are well prepared for a little downpour and are bringing RZSS and Jaguar Land Rover China waterproof jackets especially for the occasion.

Back in Scotland, if you are planning an autumnal walk through Edinburgh Zoo I recommend your first stop is at the flamingo enclosure where you’ll be able to spot five chicks, varying in height and age, amongst the long legs of their parents.

A September to remember. An October full of splendor. A November to treasure.

~La Prevenchere

Military Lend a Hand to Create New Female Polar Bear Enclosure at Highland Wildlife Park

September 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

Ten days, 60 military personnel, 2,240 hours of labour and 615 tonnes of timber and stone later, all in preparation for approximately 250 kilos of female polar bear. The 71 Engineer Regiment and a contingent from the South Dakota National Guard saluted goodbye to Walker and Arktos as they handed back a brand new walkway and female polar bear enclosure to Highland Wildlife Park.

HWP_Army_Build_PolarBearPondSteven Plowman, Highland Wildlife Park Property and Estates Manager, said:

“I was approached by the military personnel to see if we could offer them a task for their operatives; they were looking to do practical engineering work within the local community that allowed them to create something permanent for people to enjoy for many years to come. A win win for all. As a conservation charity we are also delighted to receive the donation (worth an amazing £45,000) of the military’s experience and labour. Incredibly, each post hole is dug by hand with fencing shovels and then the posts themselves are loaded onto army vehicles and taken out to the site of the new development.”

Douglas Richardson, Animals Collection Manager for the Highland Wildlife Park, continues:

“We are delighted to be welcoming a female polar bear to the Park next spring. It is still to be agreed exactly which female will arrive in the Highlands, but we hope to have confirmation shortly. The female will remain separate from the males, as she would in the wild, and during the breeding season we will introduce her to one of our males – likely Arktos to start with as he is the older of our boys. The two will spend some time together and we hope nature will take its course.

Arktos by Alex Riddell

Arktos by Alex Riddell

“The last time polar bear cubs were born and reared in the UK was in 1992.  Creating an environment that will allow such an event to happen again will be incredibly positive for the Highland Wildlife Park and confirm that our unique approach to this threatened species’ husbandry – which will mirror what happens in the wild – is correct.”

The new enclosure will feature a pond for the female to splash and play in and plenty of natural ground for her to run and roll around on. In addition to the main enclosure, adjacent will be a smaller holding enclosure, also featuring a pond, for when the male comes to visit. The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland have a history of designing state of the art polar bear enclosures that meet the animal’s needs to the highest level possible. Animal experts from the Park have since been invited to consult and advise on other polar bear enclosures both in the UK and around the world.

Also in development is a raised walkway through the vicuna enclosure. The viewing platform will wind up the hill to give a panoramic view of the female polar bear enclosure and also provide disabled access to visitors.

Walkway by Alex Riddell

Walkway by Alex Riddell

Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Mifsud RE, Commanding Officer of 71 Engineer Regiment said:

“This project, involving a blend of Reservists from 71 Engineer Regiment, Regular Sappers from our partnered Regular unit in Kinloss and military engineers from the South Dakota National Guard, provides an excellent opportunity to showcase the depth and diversity of skills required to plan, resource and deliver an ambitious project in such short time. It provides vital training for the Regiment’s role on future operations. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to work with the Society again; this sort of work develops individual trade skills; inspires my soldiers and generates an enormous amount of interest from those who seek to add a new dimension to their lives as a Royal Engineer Reservist.”

A ‘handing over’ ceremony between the Park and military personnel took place on Wednesday 17 September, where Daska Mackintosh, Head of Operations and Visitor Services at Highland Wildlife Park presented military representatives from both sides of the Atlantic with specially commissioned commemorative polar bear prints.

Handing over ceremony by Alex Riddell

Handing over ceremony by Alex Riddell

Second in Command of the 71 Engineer Regiment, Major Darren Keogh was presented with a large print of Walker to be displayed in their Leuchars headquarters in Fife. The contingent from the South Dakota National Guard received four smaller prints that will travel to various towns throughout South Dakota which are local to the units.

Highland Wildlife Blog – Climate Change and Snowy Owls

September 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

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

As with animals like our European bison, snowy owls have been a feature of the Highland Wildlife Park since it opened in 1972. Historically the species figured in the list of Scottish wildlife, but although a single individual was photographed on the Cairngorms last year, the last time there was a wild breeding pair within the UK was on Shetland in 1975.

Snowy owl

Snowy owl by Jan Morse

Although there had been some breeding behaviour over the years at the Park, no chicks were ever reared and it was not until 2011, following a number of changes to the birds’ enclosure, that we actually reared a snowy owl chick. Having a chick hatched and reared, especially as it was a first for the Park, was a pretty special event for us, but of minor importance in the wider zoo community. However, as snowy owls have generally been quite prolific in zoos, I thought it may take some time to find a good home for our first home-grown chick, but a good location was quickly found. In 2012 we did not rear any, but as we had moved them to a new, larger aviary, it was not surprising that the move probably disrupted their breeding pattern.

Snowy owl chick by Alex Riddell

Snowy owl chick by Alex Riddell

In 2013 we reared two chicks and I did advise the keepers that it may take some time to find good homes for both birds, but as it turned out, I could have placed even more snowy owls with relative ease. Shortly after moving the 2013 chicks to their new homes, I was speaking with a colleague from a specialist collection in the north of England who has much more extensive experience with owls, and I told him of my surprise at being able to place snowy chicks easily. He then told me that they had stopped trying to breed the species at his facility as in recent years they had lost all the chicks to avian malaria.

Avian malaria surfaced significantly in the UK in the 1990’s when it was the cause of a number of high profile deaths of penguins in zoos in the very south of England; one zoo lost virtually their entire flock. It was certainly not an issue for snowy owls back then and certainly not in the north of England. I then started to look at the international zoo animal data bases to see who was doing what with snowy owls, and sure enough, our success, although not unique, was certainly rarer than I had imagined.

It is often stated that major weather events could be signs of climate change, and certainly there is growing evidence that they will become more frequent or occur in locations that have no history of such events. But the signs are more likely to be an accumulation of small changes that will add-up to provide the evidence. Migratory birds arriving early, nesting patterns changing or snowy owls not breeding in zoos in the north of England may be as indicative of climate change as excessive rain or more violent storms.

This piece was first published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald

Chief Executive’s Blog

September 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

Hello.

Simon Girling, Head of Veterinary Services at RZSS, recently gave a presentation at the annual European Wildlife Disease Association conference here in Edinburgh. We were delighted Simon was asked to speak. Simon spoke to the audience about veterinary health screening checks he carried out on water voles as part of a captive breeding programme. The Water Vole Species Survival Plan is an overarching UK reintroduction programme, and as part of this RZSS has ensured captive water vole populations are viable for release and will not pose a threat to native wildlife, further developing scientific knowledge on water vole health and welfare. If you would like to find out more, please visit www.rzss.org.uk/conservation-programmes/projects/current-projects/water-voles

Budongo by Florian Moellers

Budongo by Florian Moellers

I often write about the work of the Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS) and we are extremely pleased to offer RZSS supporters the chance to go on a “No Limits” safari to BCFS in the heart of Uganda. It is an amazing opportunity to witness first-hand the incredible work carried out by staff and discover part of Africa few others are able to experience. Keen travellers will be able to accompany field station assistants as they monitor the wildlife in the forest, including chimpanzees, and help with the local community projects RZSS is involved in. Any surplus income generated after costs are covered will go towards RZSS’ vital work in Budongo.

In partnership with Aardvark Safaris, other activities of the ten day trip include gorilla tracking through the Bwindi forest, a tour through the Queen Elizabeth National Park which is home to tree-climbing lions and a host of other magnificent creatures.

Edinburgh Zoo will host a free information evening on Thursday 2 October with Praven Moman, a Ugandan born pioneer of great ape eco-tourism, and Dr Fred Baweteera, Director of the Budongo Conservation Field Station.  Tickets for this talk are free with drinks and canapés served, but space is limited so please RSVP to sara@aardvarksafaris.com.

Finally, if you are up at the Highland Wildlife Park, I recommend going to see the northern lynx twins, who at just over three months, can be spotted exploring their enclosure. They have also started to practice their pouncing at feeding time; great natural behaviour that is fantastic to observe.

Northern lynx cub by Alex Riddell

Northern lynx cub by Alex Riddell

I am also off on a few family travels of my own, so shall be back in a few weeks; until then enjoy the amazing wildlife at Edinburgh Zoo and the Highland Wildlife Park as we enter the autumn months.

“Everyone must take time to sit and watch the leaves turn”

Elizabeth Lawrence

Chief Executive’s Blog

September 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

As some of you may know, I spent an earlier portion of my career at Chester Zoo. It was refreshing and entertaining to watch a history I am so familiar with being loosely retold in the new BBC drama Our Zoo. In keeping with the theme of zoo enclosure history, I thought I would take this opportunity to tell you a little bit more about the history of the enclosures here at Edinburgh Zoo.

Edinburgh Zoo opened in 1913 by founder and respected Edinburgh lawyer, Thomas Gillespie who had a passion for animals. Almost unheard of in the day of Victorian menageries with bars and cages, Gillespie’s design for the Zoo had been inspired by Hamburg’s ‘open zoo’ by Carl Hagenbeck. Edinburgh Zoo was then created with large open enclosures, using ditches and moats to separate the animals from the visitors – this new approach was revolutionary for its day and nothing of the like had been seen in the UK before. I believe Chester and Whipsnade, in 1931, were the first non-urban zoos with larger enclosures in country surroundings.

We continue to constantly re-evaluate and adapt our animal enclosure to ensure they cater for the animal’s needs. Our most recent enclosure redesign, Meerkat Plaza, opened earlier this year. It has the same enrichment opportunities as their previous enclosure, yet is more reflective of their natural habitat and is a wonderful greeting point at the entrance to Edinburgh Zoo. Some other exciting developments have been Penguins Rock, the panda enclosure and the Budongo Trail. Over the past 101 years, Edinburgh Zoo has evolved into the more modern site it is today, yet hints of its Victorian character are still visible. I trust many more exciting developments and enclosure redesigns will take place as the Zoo continues to mature.

Searching for a giant armadillo

Searching for a giant armadillo

As almost a continuation of the previous blog, I would like to highlight some recent work of Arnaud Desbiez, RZSS Latin America Coordinator stationed in the Pantanal in Brazil. I have spoken before in my blog of his work on the Giant Armadillo Project.

During an August expedition, Arnaud and his core team were joined by veterinarian trainee Henrique Guimarães Riva and the Curator of Zoological Operations at Busch Gardens Tampa, Rob Yordi. They were also joined by extra special guest Gaia, a young female Belgian shepherd dog, and her trainer Mariana Faria Correa. Gaia was taking part in a pilot study of dog detections of giant armadillos to help us locate members of the elusive species. She had been preparing for her first expedition since April; this involved training that familiarised the dog with the scents of the Pantanal, for example sand upon which an animal had urinated.

Mariana and Gaia

Mariana and Gaia

Work started slowly with Gaia as she had been trained to find scents, not occupied burrows, and had a little bit of difficulty distinguishing between fresh and old scents. Gaia would react to scents sometimes 50 meters from the burrow and then expected a reward; however Mariana would patiently have her find the burrow before rewarding her with a play session. Gaia made a lot of progress during the expedition and every day got better and better as she began to understand what was expected from her. Gaia also had to learn how to walk in this new environment and how to recognise giant armadillo signs. The learning curve was steep, but great progress made.​

After a few days of training, Arnaud, Rob and Mariana went to look for Don (a male giant armadillo) to help train Gaia. On the way to find Don, a familiar character who could be relied upon to help train Gaia, the team stumbled upon a fresh feeding burrow around one kilometre away from his burrow. This scent was given to Gaia to see if she could take the lead and find Don. She rose to the challenge and swiftly picked up the scent, but went off in the opposite direction to Don’s location. The team followed as Gaia walked from one murundum island to another – islands of cerrado vegetation with a termite mound in the middle that are found in the scrub grasslands. The team came to an old burrow and to their surprise; right behind it was a beautiful fresh sand mound and a freshly dug occupied burrow! All in all, a very promising experience with Gaia.

And finally, you have probably seen the news that giant panda Tian Tian is now past her due date and the scientific evidence suggests that this may be bad news. She is still displaying some of the behaviours of a pregnant panda, but the scientific data from the urine analysis of her hormones is becoming more atypical. We hope to be able to update you further, either way, next week.

If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago.  If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos. 

Edward O. Wilson

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