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.
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.
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.
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.
June 12, 2015 § Leave a comment
It seems as if summer has finally arrived with some glorious sunny weather.
Over in still warmer climes, our Giant Armadillo Conservation Project team out in the Brazilian Pantanal has been very busy over the past two months and has made great progress. The team has undertaken two expeditions recently: the first was a short one week expedition, led by the team’s Project Biologist, Gabriel Massocato. The objective of the expedition was to locate the armadillos they had been tracking as the group had not been in the field for a month due to heavy rains. The team managed to find Alex, the young giant armadillo, within a few hours and were rather surprised to find that he is still in his mother’s territory. Alex will turn two on 2 July. The researchers also managed to track down Alex’s mother, Isabelle who, according to close inspections of her burrows and the camera traps, has not yet had another baby. They are monitoring Isabelle closely to find out if she is pregnant and when she will have her next baby, as this information is crucial for our understanding of giant armadillo reproduction and population growth rates.
The second expedition in the Pantanal is one I have mentioned in a previous blog post, but the results were particularly interesting. In May, the Giant Armadillo Conservation Project team advanced their reproduction study, with the help of veterinarian and reproduction specialist Camila Luba. An examination of Alex showed that he has not yet reached sexual maturity, which is a very interesting finding indeed, as it gives valuable information about the reproduction of giant armadillos and how long it takes them to reach sexual maturity. The team is also still searching for traces of giant armadillos in the Sao Paulo state, where giant armadillos are thought to have gone extinct over 40 years ago. The scientists are currently working hard to expand the project and have just hired a student for a few months as well as a biologist.
Meanwhile, at our WildGenes lab located at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, Conservation Geneticist Dr Gill Murray-Dickson is busy preparing a genetic tool poster for identifying the geographic origin of snake skins in commercial trade. The DNA tests are being developed to provide evidence of origin to regulatory bodies that investigate illegal trade. This will allow authorities to determine whether the snake skins used in commercially sold items were illegally poached. The poster will be presented at an ITC (International Trade Centre) and DICE (Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology) symposium in Canterbury this month.
BIAZA (British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums) held its annual award ceremony this week at Woburn Safari Park. The event, also known as the Zoo Oscars, is held to celebrate some of the contributions made by the zoo community to animal welfare, wildlife conservation, public understanding and horticulture. I am very pleased to announce that the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland walked away with a fair number of awards. In the Animal Breeding, Care and Welfare category, RZSS received three silver awards for the hand rearing of Darwin’s rhea chicks, the successful rearing of a chimpanzee by a previously unsuccessful mother and captive husbandry for European elk/moose. In the Conservation category we were awarded silver for our work on the Scottish Beaver Trial. In the Education category we were awarded two Bronze awards for our Scottish Beaver Trial and Beyond the Panda education programmes. And finally, we received a Bronze in the PR, Marketing, Digital and Events section for ‘Inspire, Engage and Enrich: a new digital presence for Scotland’s iconic Zoo’.
And in other news, our new pelican walkthrough exhibit at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo will be opening on Monday 15 June. The building and gardens teams have been hard at work over the last few months to get the walkthrough ready and I must say it looks fantastic. As of Monday, visitors will be able to walk through the pelican enclosure, getting up close to the pelicans with unrestricted views. The walkthrough is full of beautiful plantings and willow trees that are around 100 years old, as well as a number of ponds and cascading waterfalls. We have another special walkthrough exhibit opening soon, but I will tell you more about that closer to the time.
“The wilderness holds answers to questions man has not yet learned to ask.”- Nancy Newhal
May 26, 2015 § Leave a comment
Our Giant Armadillo Conservation Project team in the Pantanal has recently managed to find Alex, the young giant armadillo which they have been tracking for nearly two years. Last week, veterinarian Camila Luba, who specialises in reproduction, caught up with Alex to examine him and take samples to determine whether he has reached sexual maturity.
This is vital information and the samples taken from the young armadillo have determined that he is still an immature male which, at the age of nearly two years, is quite surprising. Whilst there has been little research done on the Xenartha species (group of placental mammals found only in the Americas, such as anteater, tree sloths and armadillos), it has been discovered that young giant anteaters are already sexually mature by the age of two. This data continues to confirm the long life cycle of giant armadillos and we are now discovering how long it takes for individuals to even reach sexual maturity.
Dr Arnaud Desbiez, RZSS Latin America Coordinator and lead on the Giant Armadillo Conservation Project, will be in Buenos Aires this week to help facilitate at the ALPZA-CBSG Strategic Planning Workshop for Integrated Conservation, taking place between 29 and 31 May. ALPZA is the Latin American Zoo Association and CBSG is the IUCN Species Survival Commission Conservation Breeding Specialist Group. The main objective of the workshop is to develop a strategy that points out how ALPZA members and other Latin American zoos and aquariums should act towards biodiversity conservation. Over 30 participants from zoos throughout South America will come together, alongside representatives from the Association of Zoo and Aquariums (AZA), European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), and some International NGOs.
Romain Pizzi, Veterinary Surgeon at RZSS, presented a talk about wildlife surgery at the European Association of Zoo and Wildlife Veterinarians (EAZWV) conference in Barcelona, last week. The conference was attended by over 350 zoo and wildlife vets from Europe and further afield. This week, meanwhile, Romain will present to an assembly of human surgeons, medical engineers and health care providers at the International Research Centre for Digestive Cancer (IRCAD) and European Institute for Tele-Surgery (EITS) at the University of Strasbourg. His talk will explore innovations in delivering human surgical interventions in third world countries.
I joined RZSS Conservations Projects Manager Roisin Campbell-Palmer in Knapdale last week to meet with Aileen McLeod MSP, Minister for Environment and Climate Change, to discuss beaver reintroduction to Scotland and our work at the Scottish Beaver Trial to date. This is ahead of the decision by Scottish Government later this year on the future of beaver reintroduction to Scotland.
And finally, HRH The Princess Royal paid an official visit to RZSS Edinburgh Zoo on Friday 22 May. HRH has been the Society’s Royal Patron since 2009 and last visited the Zoo in September 2013 to celebrate our centenary year. The Princess Royal’s visit coincided with two very important ten year conservation anniversaries for RZSS, as the Society has been working with chimpanzees in Uganda and giant armadillos in the Brazilian Pantanal since 2005. To celebrate, HRH visited the Zoo’s innovative and interactive chimpanzee enclosure, the Budongo Trail, to discuss the Budongo Conservation Field Station in Uganda and to see Velu, the first baby chimpanzee to be born in Scotland in 15 years, who has his first birthday next month.
“It is that range of biodiversity that we must care for – the whole thing – rather than just one or two stars.” – David Attenborough
May 8, 2015 § Leave a comment
The first of our gentoo penguin chicks hatched this week at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo and the rest of the eggs will continue to hatch over the next two to three weeks. The gentoos have laid around 40 eggs, so we are hoping for quite a few chicks this year. I look forward to seeing all the young penguins as they start leaving their nests and exploring their surroundings.
We have also had a few births at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park over the last couple weeks, as well as some new arrivals. The first new-borns at the Park this year were a Japanese macaque baby and a Mishmi takin calf, followed by a Przewalksi’s wild horse foal and a European bison calf. The young are all doing well.
The Mishmi takin calf has recently been named Snow, in-keeping with the Game of Thrones theme the keepers seem to have become so fond of recently! Last year the series characters Arya and Khaleeshi got their animal doppelgängers at the Park. We have also recently received a young male Mishmi takin from berlin, which will join the breeding herd. The Mishmi takin are a stocky goat antelope, normally found from the Chinese province of Yunnan in the eastern Himalayas to Bhutan and northern Myanmar, and are listed as a vulnerable species on the IUCN Red list.
Last week RZSS research scientist Helen Senn attended the 15th Annual Sahelo-Saharan Interest Group Meeting in Abu Dhabi. This is a meeting of scientific, conservation and government agencies working in the Sahel and Saharan region. She presented her work on scimitar-horned oryx genomics. Highly detailed genetic data like this is hopefully going to improve the management of this species both in captivity and when it is re-introduced to the wild. She also presented her and the teams work on sand cats, a project that aims to try and find out what the genetic basis for the sub-species of the sand cat is.
Our RZSS conservation geneticist, Dr Gill Murray-Dickson, was in Battleby last week to present a talk about the use of environmental DNA for detection of species presence or absence. eDNA is genetic material derived directly from environmental samples (such as a loch water), without the source of the DNA actually being present. The meeting was organised by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to discuss research the use of eDNA as a tool for aquatic surveillance, and other potential applications, with researchers and relevant stakeholders
And finally, after all the excitement surrounding our Latin America coordinator Dr Arnaud Desbiez’s Whitley Award win for his work on the Giant Armadillo Conservation Project; the giant armadillo team is back to work and leaving for the Pantanal on Thursday. Although it is the end of the wet season, the floods have not been too severe and they don’t expect any problems reaching the field site.
“Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.”
April 30, 2015 § 1 Comment
To start with I want to say that we are all saddened to hear of the passing of conservation luminary, Dick Balharry. He was a wonderful man who achieved a great deal in conservation in Scotland. Over the years he was involved with RZSS and he will be sorely missed by many who knew him. You can read our tribute to Dick on the RZSS website.
I am also very pleased to announce that the Latin America Coordinator for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, Dr Arnaud Desbiez, has been awarded the prestigious Whitley Award for his work on the RZSS Giant Armadillo Project. Also known as the Green Oscars, the Whitley award is awarded by the Whitley Fund for Nature to support the work of proven grassroots conservation leaders in developing countries. Arnaud was selected from over 170 applicants and is one of seven finalists to be awarded the Green Oscar.
HRH Princess Royal presented the award to Arnaud last night, at a ceremony held at the Royal Geographical Society, London. The award is worth £35,000 of funding which will go towards Arnaud’s work to conserve the rarely sighted giant armadillo in Brazil. We are all extremely proud of Arnaud and his spectacular work.
Still with giant armadillos, in my blog last week I mentioned that the RZSS Giant Armadillo Project team were running an expedition to find evidence of giant armadillos in forest fragments in the Sao Paulo state bordering Mato Gasso do Sul, where giant armadillos have not been seen for the past 30 years.
We have just received feedback from the team and thus far they have just found very old evidence of giant armadillos in the Sao Paulo reserve, likely from an animal that crossed the river and then came back again. There is no evidence yet of resident animals, but they are still hopeful as flooding has meant not all areas have been explored yet. The team will once again visit these areas at the height of the dry season in September to October.
In further international RZSS news, our Conservation Programme Manager in Southeast Asia, Dr Ross McEwing, is currently leading a training course in the Sumatran Way Kambad National Park. The training course has been organised by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and YABI, and aims to improve the collection of dung samples collected for DNA testing to determine the census size of the critically endangered Sumatran rhino in Indonesia. It was previously estimated that there were 200 Sumatran rhinos remaining, but the figures are believed to have dropped to as few as 100, albeit there is no data to provide an accurate census size.
Last week it was also reported that Malaysia’s Sumatran rhino population has dropped to a mere three individuals. This is upsetting news as the different species of rhinos around the world are being poached to extinction for their horns, which are believed to have medicinal properties in some Asian countries. Whilst previous DNA attempts have failed, Ross is providing technical support to the laboratory in Jakarta to improve their DNA analysis samples.
Some members of our WildGenes team – Jenny Kaden and Muhammad Ghazali – are busy in the lab on site at Edinburgh Zoo focusing on elephant, wildcat and python projects this week, whilst our conservation geneticist Dr Gill Murray-Dickinson was in Spain attending a start-up meeting for an EU project aimed at reducing fisheries discard.
In my previous blog, I told you about the two international PhD students who are being trained by our WildGenes team in single-nucleotide polymorphism SNP genetic analysis techniques. Priyank, the student from Norway, had a very successful trip and will take back what she learnt at the WildGenes lab here at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo to the Telemark University College (TUC) laboratory. We are also planning to conduct four beaver veterinary studies between TUC, RZSS and the University of Edinburgh, which will include beaver pathology and pregnancy testing via faeces.
In other RZSS news, Simon Girling, our Head of Veterinary Services, was in Paris last week to attend the European College of Zoological Medicine AGM. Here Simon presented original research on grass sickness in Przewalski’s horses at the Zoo and Wildlife Day of the International Conference on Avian, Reptile and Exotic Mammal Care.
And finally, on a lighter note, as spring seems to have arrived with a mighty blast of hot weather, so too does the promise of new arrivals.
We are expecting quite a few births at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo over the next few months. Our Darwin’s rhea adult pair has recently laid eggs and the male is currently sitting. Male rheas take their nesting duties very seriously and are very protective of their impending brood and nesting site during breeding season. These near threatened, flightless birds are incredibly hard to breed in captivity, but last year our bird team managed to help our Darwin’s rheas to successfully rear nine chicks. The youngsters from 2014 have almost all moved to other collections in the vital breeding programme, with the remaining two still to leave shortly.
Still with Edinburgh Zoo, we are also expecting our first gentoo penguin chick to hatch at the beginning of May and there are also a few suspected impending primate births due to happen over the next few months.
Meanwhile, at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park we have already had a few births. Given the seasonal nature of all the species at the park, we generally do not have any births between October and March, but now with the arrival of the warmer weather we have already started welcoming the first of our new-borns. Our Temminck’s tragopan has recently laid three eggs. These colourful birds are considered by many to be the most beautiful pheasant in the world because of their bright plumage.
Our Japanese macaque has recently given birth, bringing the troop up to 22 individuals. The baby is quite small at the moment, but is having no problem clinging onto his mum. We have also had a takin calf born to one of our older females who appears to be doing well. The mother and her new calf, as well as her calf from last year, have been separated from the herd until the new youngster is a bit bigger.
Lastly, our new male wolf, from Jarv Zoo in Sweden, is settling in nicely with our remaining female wolf. Our other wolves have been sent on to Longleat Safari Park, West Midlands Safari Park and a private wolf centre where they have been paired with individual males. Our new female wolverine from Boras Zoo in Sweden has been successfully introduced to our resident male and has been actively digging for and catching voles and field mice.
“The more you know about a species, the more you understand about
how better to help protect them.” Alan Clark
April 21, 2015 § Leave a comment
We’re into our second week of our six month long Dinosaurs Return! and it is proving to be very popular with children and adults alike. We have received some wonderful feedback from visitors about the exhibition and I am pleased people are enjoying it and learning from it.
Our RZSS Giant Armadillo team are currently running an expedition to explore forest fragments found in the Sao Paulo state bordering Mato Gasso do Sul. Although giant armadillos have been absent from Sao Paulo for over 30 years, the team are hoping to find evidence of this rare mammal in the area. The previous expedition of this nature may have failed but the team remain optimistic. They hope that the animals will have crossed a large river to return to Sao Paulo from Mato Grosso do Sul. I will keep you posted on any more developments and will let you if the team are successful in finding evidence of giant armadillos in the area.
In my previous blog I mentioned the RZSS giant armadillo conservation team were busy organising the first Giant Armadillo Epidemiology Symposium, which would be held at Sao Paulo Zoo. I am pleased to report back that the symposium was a great success and was attended by over 35 people. The workshop took place between 10 and 11 April and received funding from Disney Coins for Change. As a result of the symposium, new research activities and partnerships have been formed and new lines of research will be initiated.
In further good news regarding the Giant Armadillo Project, the Prins Bernhard Fund for Nature has just approved a grant to support the project’s activities. The Prins Bernhard Fund for Nature was one of the Giant Armadillo Project’s first donors in 2010 and 2011, and we are very grateful for their continued support.
Elsewhere, our WildGenes team are busy training two PhD students in SNP (Single-Nucleotide Polymorphism) genetic analysis techniques. The two students, who are from Gabon and Norway, are using the same techniques for two very different projects. Both of the students are conducting projects on wild animals that require genetic samples to be matched back to individuals or their parents. Stephanie (from Gabon) is using SNP genetic analysis techniques for her project on the illegal trade of elephant ivory in Gabon, whereas Priyank (from Norway) is focusing on understanding the mating behaviour and ecology of Eurasian beavers.
And finally, if you’re out and about in Edinburgh city centre you may well catch sight of some of our animals moving through the city! We have recently launched a new fleet of Number 26 buses, in partnership with Lothian Buses, which are wrapped top to bottom with superb images of some of RZSS Edinburgh Zoo’s most charismatic animals. The first buses to be launched with the new designs feature our famous penguins as well as our blue arrow tree frog. The other animal buses will be released each week for the next month or so, so do keep an eye out for them. The deal with Lothian buses will continue for the next three years, so the RZSS Edinburgh Zoo wrapped buses will hopefully bring a bit of colour to Edinburgh on those cold, grey days.
“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
― Aldo Leopold
April 14, 2015 § Leave a comment
We have had a really busy Easter period at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo and RZSS Highland Wildlife Park and the weather, which has mainly been pleasant, has certainly helped.
I am very pleased to announce that our Latin American co-ordinator, Arnaud Desbiez, has been nominated for a Whitley Award (also known as the ‘Green Oscars’) for his work on the Giant Armadillo Project in the Pantanal, Brazil. This international prize honours exceptional individuals who, through their outstanding conservation work in developing countries, are redefining the way people engage with the natural world in the 21st century.
Arnaud is one of seven wildlife conservationists to have been nominated for the prestigious award and was shortlisted from a group of 174 applicants. The winner will be announced at an event in London at the end of April. We are very proud of Arnaud’s achievements and are looking forward to the announcement of the winner of the Whitley Award in the near future.
We have also had further good news from our RZSS conservation team out in Brazil. After searching for Alex, the baby giant armadillo that they have been tracking for some time, the team have found him in his mother’s territory. Alex – perhaps the world’s most famous giant armadillo – has been monitored by the team since his birth on 2nd July 2013. The team are happy to report that Alex is doing well and is now fully independent, foraging alone and digging his own burrows.
The Giant Armadillo Project team are also busy organising the first Giant Armadillo Epidemiology Symposium, which will be held at Sao Paulo Zoo. The two-day event will be attended by the 13 different institutions that use samples collected by the Project to present their results, exchange ideas and make suggestions of new lines of research, as well as data collection. It is hoped that the Symposium will further advance the field of epidemiology in armadillos and conservation medicine in general.
The penguins at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo are well into their annual breeding season and the first eggs are starting to appear. The gentoos have already laid 22 eggs and our rockhoppers eight. We are particularly hopeful that we may have our first rockhopper chick(s) in six years this year, as this is the first year our younger rockhopper birds have reached maturity and have laid eggs. We look forward to seeing any chicks emerge from late May onwards.
Finally, the Wild about Scotland bus, our educational outreach programme in association with Clydesdale Bank, was at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo this week. Many children took the opportunity to hop onto the bus and learn about Scotland’s native species, such as the wildcat and beaver. The children had a great time learning and taking part in fun activities. The Wild about Scotland bus then drove over to the City Arts Centre and Summerhall in Edinburgh as part of the annual Edinburgh International Science Festival.
“Destroying rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal.”
― Edward O. Wilson