Chief Executive’s Blog

December 14, 2015 § Leave a comment


Welcome back to the CEO blog. Over the past few months we have welcomed new blogs from across RZSS, with a number of colleagues now posting regularly about their fascinating and vital work. We’ve been delighted to bring you updates covering everything from giant armadillos to Scottish wildcats and the latest developments from our WildGenes lab and Wild about Scotland bus. Soon we will be bringing you even more stories from across the Society, including the life of a new trainee keeper at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park and updates from the Living Collections departments. Watch this space!

Last week one of our greater one-horned rhinoceroses, Samir, left RZSS Edinburgh Zoo for Istanbul in Turkey as part of the overarching breeding programme. Whilst it is sad to see him go, the two male rhinos at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo had reached an age where they were sexually mature and, as part of ongoing international efforts to save the species from the threat of extinction, Samir will soon be joined by a female. It is hoped the pair will breed and help further reinforce the safety net population of this threatened species. The move mimics the natural process of rhinos in the wild, with males becoming solitary once they reach breeding age and disperse in order to find a suitable mate. Bertus, the other male rhino, will stay at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo as we continue to work up our plans for the next generation of rhinos at the Zoo.


Photo by Jamie Grant

In other conservation news, Fred Babweteera – Director of the Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS) in Uganda – and Arnaud Desbiez – the conservation biologist and RZSS’s Regional Conservation and Research Coordinator for Latin America who leads the Giant Armadillo Conservation Project in Brazil – both spent last week at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo. We discussed in detail the work of RZSS in these two far flung locations, alongside future developments and plans for these two groundbreaking conservation projects. With so much achieved in 2015 – from Arnaud’s Whitley Award to the 25th Anniversary of BCFS – there is much to look forward to over the coming year.

On 8 December, RZSS’s Conservation Projects Manager Roisin Campbell-Palmer gave a talk at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) Institute of Zoology for their ‘What is the future for beavers in Britain?’ event. The event discussed the topic of whether beavers could be successfully re-established in Britain and what effects they would have on local diversity. Roisin’s talk looked at beaver restoration in England and the importance of founder selection.


This past weekend, an exciting one-off Penguin Festival opened at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo. The Festival started on 4 December and will run right through the festive season until 6 January. The main feature of the festival is a large art exhibition by notable German artist Ottmar Hörl. The installation consists of 120 black and white penguin statues, displayed upon the main lawn outside the Mansion House at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo. To launch the festival we hosted a Penguin Festival Lights event on Sunday 6 December, which saw the Zoo stay open later and the penguin art colony and Mansion House brightly illuminated. For details of other daily Penguin Festival activities please visit

And finally, the keepers at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park donned their kilts and traditional Scottish attire last Monday to celebrate St Andrews Day. Despite being surrounded by snow, the team seemed completely unfazed by the cold weather and enjoyed the opportunity to celebrate St Andrew’s Day in style!


“Our inability to think beyond our own species, or to be able to co-habit with other life forms in what is patently a massive collaborative quest for survival, is surely a malady that pervades the human soul.” – Lawrence Anthony



Arnaud’s Blog: Have you seen this armadillo?

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.

24.Gabriel Massocato triaing young future field biologists (Small)

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.

23. Gabriel Massocato triaing young future field biologists  (Small)

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,


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Projrect Poster – How to recognize giant armadillo evidence

RZSS WildGenes Blog: Desert Gazelles in Danger

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.

Scimitar-horned oryx ready for transfer from Souss-Massa National Park, to another centre in Morocco. Scimitar-horned oryx are extinct in the wild, but there are large numbers in captivity. RZSS WildGenes is involved in generating genomic data to improve global management of this species with a number of partners world-wide.

Scimitar-horned oryx ready for transfer from Souss-Massa National Park, to another centre in Morocco. Scimitar-horned oryx are extinct in the wild, but there are large numbers in captivity. RZSS WildGenes is involved in generating genomic data to improve global management of this species with a number of partners world-wide.

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).

Association Nature Initiative radio tracking dama gazelle in Safia Reserve. They work round the clock to monitor the release site and implement many other conservation projects in the area.

Association Nature Initiative, radio tracking dama gazelle in Safia Reserve. They work round the clock to monitor the release site and implement many other conservation projects in the area.

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:

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

Dama foot-prints heading off into the distance at Safia reserve. This is the first full release of this species into the wild and monitoring of its success will be vitally important to conservation efforts for this species globally.

Dama footprints heading off into the distance at Safia reserve. This is the first full release of this species into the wild and monitoring of its success will be vitally important to conservation efforts for this species globally.

RZSS Cat Conservation Blog

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.


David Barclay
RZSS Cat Conservation Project Officer

Arnaud’s Blog: Giant armadillo expedition updates from the Pantanal

October 29, 2015 § 1 Comment

Left: The Pantanal Team - Danilo, Camila, Arnaud, Gabriel. Right: Bruna Oliveira

Left: The Pantanal Team – Danilo, Camila, Arnaud, Gabriel. Right: Bruna Oliveira

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.

Maramedia filming the team for an upcoming documentary on giant armadillos.

Maramedia filming the team for an upcoming documentary on giant armadillos.

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.

Left: Giant armadillo male Zezinho. Right: The team fit a GPS tag to Isabelle

Left: Giant armadillo male Zezinho. Right: The team fit a GPS tag to Isabelle

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…

An incredible demonstration of the burrowing capabilities of giant armadillos.

An incredible demonstration of the burrowing capabilities of giant armadillos.

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

Chief Executive’s Blog

October 19, 2015 § Leave a comment


I have recently returned from a trip to the Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS) in Uganda, where we are celebrating a double anniversary: it is the 25th anniversary of the start of the conservation project in the Budongo Forest and it is the tenth anniversary of RZSS’s involvement with BCFS.

Photo by Sarah Robinson

Photo by Sarah Robinson

This was my first visit to the station in Uganda and it was remarkable to be able to witness the work of BCFS in the forest. For those of you who are unfamiliar with BCFS, it is a conservation project – of which RZSS is the core funder – which blends research and conservation to ensure sustainable management and utilisation of the Budongo Forest Reserve and all its wildlife. The station conducts world-class scientific research on the chimpanzees which inhabit the Budongo Forest and welcomes scientists, students and researchers from around the world. The research and activities at BCFS support policy development, conservation action and sustainable resource management.

BCFS_School_Project_SarahRobinsonI spent a week at the research station with RZSS Head of Conservation Programmes Sarah Robinson and Director of BCFS Fred Babweteera, who showed us around the station as well as some of the other communities and projects which BCFS supports, such as local communities and schools. It was also wonderful to be able to witness the chimpanzees in their natural habitat in the Budongo Forest; some of the chimpanzees even strolled through the camp.

I am also very pleased to announce that HRH The Princess Royal, the Society’s Royal Patron, delivered a talk as part of the Tribal Elders: Words of Wisdom series at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo on the evening of Thursday 15 October. The Tribal Elders talk, entitled “Committed to conservation: you can make a difference”, was a sell-out event and as a thank you for her support as Royal Patron, HRH The Princess Royal was presented with a gift of a handmade silver hair comb adorned with an intricately crafted greater one-horned rhino; created by RZSS Silversmith in Residence Bryony Knox. The gift was presented on a tray, handcrafted especially for The Princess Royal by residents of the local community in Budongo, Uganda.

151015_TE-0099And finally, in news from our other conservation projects, this week Neahga Leonard visited the Conservation Team at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo to talk about the Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project. The Cat Ba Langur or Golden-headed langur is endemic to the islands of Ca Ba in Northern Vietnam. Numbers were reduced to less than 100 individuals, largely as a result of poaching and for over a decade, Münster Zoo, the Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations (ZGAP) and Vietnamese conservation agencies have been collaborating to bring the poaching of langurs under control. As the project manager based in the Cat Ba national park, Neahga talked about some of the challenges being faced, milestones and future missions of the project going forward.

Our Giant Armadillo Conservation Project team in the Pantanal have been busy including the surrounding community in their search for giant armadillos. Distribution of posters and pamphlets throughout the local communities as well as taking education tools into to schools continues to support their efforts and help people recognise signs of Giant Armadillos in the area. There is also the potential to expand the outreach programme into 100 more schools in 2016 which is a very exciting prospect which will further help educate and engage the younger generation with the conservation of this important species.

“Only if we understand, will we care. Only if we care, will we help. Only if we help shall all be saved.”

– Jane Goodall

RZSS Cat Conservation Blog

October 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

Normally I would start the blog by introducing you to yet another Pallas’s cat project that we support in the field. However, it has become clear that since I started writing these blogs the support, interest and commitment (from both the RZSS and our supporters) to cat conservation and research projects has grown, and for these reasons I will take a lot of pleasure in updating you on all our cat projects through this re-titled cat conservation blog.

Pallas's cat kitten Mongolia 2015 by B.Munkhtsog

Pallas’s cat kitten Mongolia 2015 by B.Munkhtsog

With the momentum of our cat projects growing all the time, it has been a busy time for me both at home and abroad. Since last month we have sent further financial support to Bariushaa Munkhtsog, a Mongolian researcher who is conducting research into productivity and trends with Pallas’s cats in Central Mongolia. Not only has Bariushaa and his team spent years monitoring wild snow leopards, he is also one of the few researchers to be currently monitoring breeding female Pallas’s cats, which is providing an amazing insight into their behaviour and movements pre- and post-dispersal.

Another great achievement for RZSS was the signing of a new three year partnership with the Snow Leopard Trust and Nordens Ark Zoo in Sweden. This took place during a three-day visit to Nordens Ark where myself, Chris West (CEO) and Sarah Robinson (Head of Conservation Programmes and Science) spent time with staff from both organisations exploring the possibilities of this new joint venture. This has already opened new doors for our cat conservation and research projects and it will be amazing to see how this develops.

Snow leopard and pallas cat partnership, Nordens Ark Zoo, Sweden

Snow leopard and pallas cat partnership, Nordens Ark Zoo, Sweden

After several productive meetings with Scottish land managers and estates discussing how we can work together to secure the future of Scottish wildcats, I attended a week long European Association for Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) conference in Wroclaw, Poland. This gave me the opportunity to deliver presentations on our work with Scottish Wildcat Action, Pallas’s cats and snow leopards.

EAZA Conference ice-breaker, Wroclaw, Poland

EAZA Conference ice-breaker, Wroclaw, Poland

One of the great things about this job is not only having the chance to work with some amazing species, but having the chance to work with so many diverse people and organisations that share the same passion that I do. I am fortunate to be supported by both my own organisation and many other international colleagues and it is this support that drives my enthusiasm for conserving cat species across the globe. There are many exciting projects and events that I will be sharing with you over the coming year so stay tuned and I look forward to introducing you to more of the work that we do.

All the best until then,


David Barclay
RZSS Cat Conservation Project Officer

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