Highland Wildlife Blog: Antler anomalies

December 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

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

Since 2008 we have been collecting some basic data on the antlers of our various deer species at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park. There was no specific reason for gathering the information, other than the philosophy that there is no such thing as useless information and one cannot necessarily predict what may or may not eventually become valuable data.

Deer antlers differ from cattle, sheep or antelope horns in that they are grown and shed annually, whilst horns grow almost continually through the animal’s life and are never shed. When a deer drops its antlers in winter at the end of the breeding season, after a few weeks antler buds appear covered in a velvet-like material, a valuable commodity in Chinese traditional medicine, which is suffused with a blood supply that feeds the growth of the antlers. When the antlers reach their full size for that year (they are generally bigger or have more points each year), the “velvet” is rubbed off by the deer to expose the hard, bony antlers. In our data-set, we record the date the individual strips the velvet and goes into hard antler, the date it loses its antlers and the antlers’ weight.


Male Eurasian elk by Jan Morse

An aggressive, territorial stag can overnight become a meek and mild shadow of his former self as soon as his antlers fall off his head, practically like throwing a switch. I once got a call from a keeper to come and look at one of our big reindeer bulls who was acting strangely. The keeper had noted that his head was shaking a bit and that there may be a neurological problem. When I saw the deer I asked when he had shed his antlers (forest reindeer antlers are particularly massive), and I was told that it had happened the day before. The animal had been carrying almost 10 kg in weight on his head for some months and all of a sudden it had been “removed” and his neck muscles were just taking a bit of time to get used to the new situation; the animal was fine within just 24 hours.

On 21 November we had an unusual event when the bull elk, or moose, dropped his antlers, which was a tad early. We consulted the antler chart and he normally shed them in February, with one pair lasting until mid-March. Our first thought was that he may be poorly, but he is in very good physical shape, his appetite is robust and he is actively associating with the adult female and twin calves. We also noted that the young adult male red deer were hanging about quite close to the female herd without being actively chased away by the herd stag; normally the red deer rut would still be in full swing.

Are these premature shifts in what are normally much later physical and behavioural events just the result of a mild November, or are they possibly indicators of climate change? The continued entry of each year’s antler data into our chart may yet prove to be more enlightening than we first anticipated.

This piece was first published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald

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 edinburghzoo.org.uk/events/2015/12/penguin-festival/

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



Highland Wildlife Blog – When should you pull a tiger’s tail?

November 10, 2015 § Leave a comment

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

Taking your dog to the vet or putting your horse in a trailer usually involves leashes, halters and a few calm but firm words. Trying to carry out similarly routine procedures with zoo animals is seldom so straightforward and at best involves a very different process.


The keepers at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park have a very positive relationship with many of their animal charges and a range of routine husbandry needs can be managed with the cooperation of the animals concerned. At a basic level, visitors are often strangely surprised when they learn that many animals will respond to being called by their keepers to be transferred into an adjacent area to allow cleaning or enclosure maintenance. The Park’s large carnivore keepers have trained these potentially very dangerous creatures to present themselves at the enclosure barrier for some simple daily health checks. They will, when asked, present a paw or their belly, or hold their mouth open for closer inspection, which is rewarded with some small pieces of meat for the tigers or a range of unusual morsels for the polar bears, like tomatoes or cheese. They, along with the camels, have been trained to walk onto scales so that we can more accurately monitor their weight, which is crucial when it comes to calculating how much medication they might need when sick. This positive reinforcement training is also an interesting and enjoyable experience for the animals concerned as many seem to welcome the interaction with humans that they know, as well as the treats.

Dougs_Blog_WatervoleZoo keepers, being a resourceful bunch, will often find uses for items that the manufacturers did not intend. When you need to catch and move a water vole, a small rodent that thinks it is a bear, the tube that a certain salty snack comes in is the ideal restraint and short transport device as they will happily walk in of their own accord.

For more invasive procedures, like a dental check, the animals need to be anaesthetised for their own and our safety. There are a range of drugs that have proven to be as safe as possible for the animals and staff around them. Sometimes hand injected, sometimes delivered using a dart gun, it takes between 10 and 20 minutes for the animal to go down; it is not virtually instantaneous, as often depicted in films. When the drugs appear to have taken effect upon a tiger, one very gently taps on the ears and eyelids with a long pole. If there are any twitches or blinking, you wait a bit longer. When a new drug combination came along it was discovered that the usual gentle tapping was not enough. You could touch the ears and eyes and get no reaction and the animal would appear to be safe, but if you pulled the tail and the drug had not quite taken effect, the cat could jump up and start moving around, which is a touch disconcerting, so always give the tail a couple of tugs before going all the way in!

This piece was first published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald

Highland Wildlife Blog – Swords into Ploughshares

October 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

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

RZSS Highland Wildlife Park regularly gets approached by companies and other groups to assist with a project that would also translate into a team building exercise. We have had call centre staff helping create a natural visual barrier between our forest reindeer and the nearby European wolf pack, and a major insurance company’s staff help build protective barriers around some of our trees to stop the bark being damaged by the animals. More recently we have had assistance on a somewhat more serious scale from a British army regiment and a couple of units of the South Dakota National Guard. For quite a few years we have had help from various segments of the British military, and more recently some of their American counterparts, with some large construction projects, which is not only a significant savings for a conservation charity like ours, but it provides the different units with the opportunity to hone their skills and work as a team.

Bison logs by Jan Morse

Bison enclosure with log fencing. Photo by Jan Morse

In recent years the military have erected the shell of our tiger house, the raised wooden walkway that allows pedestrians to safely enter the Park and the one that takes visitors up to the new female polar bear’s enclosure. We provide the materials, and they supply the equipment and the manpower and it appears to be a mutually beneficial arrangement.

This year they assisted us with a couple of projects that will have a direct conservation benefit, one which is visible to our visitors is the start of our European bison handling area. Staff at the Park manage the European bison breeding programme, which also includes breeding bison for eventual reintroduction back into parts of their historic range; the species became extinct in the wild in 1926 and has been gradually reintroduced back into parts of their former haunts. We sent a female bison back to Romania in 2014 and we plan to send further bison out to that and similar project sites. Before sending out a bison it needs to be ear-tagged, microchipped, blood sampled and generally checked over to make sure it is healthy to travel. Previously we have had to anaesthetise each bison to carry-out the necessary procedures, which can be stressful for both staff and the animal, and we have wanted to build a facility that will negate the need for darting the bison and give us more flexibility in managing them.

This year the army begun to erect the first sections of a substantial log fence that will form part of the bison area. We wanted it to be “natural”, hence the logs, but as a bull bison can weigh over a tonne and be nimble with it, the fence needs to be strong and high enough that the bison cannot run through or jump over it. Our own staff will complete the project, but the combined allied forces have given us an excellent start with something that will enhance our conservation effectiveness for Europe’s largest land mammal.

This piece was first published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald

Chief Executive’s Blog

August 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

I am delighted to announce, that this week, we reached the highest number of members that we have ever had in our more than 100 year history as the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. We now have more than 25,000 members, which is a 10% rise in membership numbers since the beginning of the year. As a conservation charity, we rely greatly on members and visitors to help support the vital conservation work we do, both at home and abroad. So I would like to thank every one of our members for your support; without you we wouldn’t be able to achieve our goal of safeguarding species from extinction. We aspire to continue to grow our membership base so that our conservation efforts can reach further.

Jane Hosegood, PHD Student at Bangor University at RZSS WildGenes Labratory - photo by Katie Paton

Jane Hosegood, PHD Student at Bangor University at RZSS WildGenes Labratory – photo by Katie Paton

In our WildGenes Lab at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, we currently have a PhD student from Bangor University, Jane Hosegood, working with our Senior Technician Jenny Kaden to learn about genomic techniques which she will be applying to her project on manta rays. Jane is working in association with the Manta Trust, Save Our Seas Foundation, TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network and the Natural Environment Research Council. Her project aims to develop tools for the conservation and management of manta and mobula (devil) rays worldwide, which are under threat from target fishing for the illegal trade of their gill plates.

In other news at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, this week we celebrated the 10th Anniversary reunion of our Science Summer School. To commemorate this occasion we held a reunion for all former summer school pupils on Thursday night, 6 August at the Zoo. Past pupils as well as pupils from this year’s course attended the event, which involved a special tour around the Zoo, keynote speakers and a chance to network with the other students. The Science Summer School has been running for 10 years now and is aimed at young people aged 16-18 years old. The free course runs for one week every year and is designed to give students real world experience in the fields of research and conservation within the setting of our Zoo.

71 Engineer Regiment and the South Dakota National Guard at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park

71 Engineer Regiment and the South Dakota National Guard at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park – photos by Alex Riddell

And in news from RZSS Highland Wildlife Park, the military spent some time at the Park recently, helping with a number of hefty tasks. The 71 Engineer Regiment and the South Dakota National Guard spent the last 10 days at the Park helping to build the foundations for an off-show Amur leopard breeding facility (which I will tell you more about in a future blog post) as well as a management area for our European bison. The military completed their work at the Park on Wednesday and to mark this we held a handover ceremony on Thursday where we presented the commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Foulkes from the 71 Engineer Regiment with three specially commissioned commemorative Amur leopard prints as a thank you for the regiment’s work at the Park.


“The Study of nature is a limitless field, the most fascinating adventure in the world.”

Margaret Morse Nice

Chief Executive’s Blog

August 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

I am pleased to announce that we have recently received a pair of endangered snow leopards at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park, who went on show last week.

The male, Chan, is from Krefeld Zoo in Germany, whilst the female, Animesh, arrived from Marwell Zoo in England. We hope that the pair will have cubs to help increase the worldwide population of these rare cats. They are currently settling into their new home, which is built around a rocky cliff face on a hill in the centre of the Park. As snow leopards prefer to inhabit high mountainous terrain in the wild, their new enclosure is ideally suited to them. The female is still keeping a rather low profile as she gets used to her new environment, but will hopefully soon start wandering out of her pen more regularly.

Snow leopards by Alex Riddell (Male, Chan; Female, Animesh; (L-R))

Snow leopards by Alex Riddell (Male, Chan; Female, Animesh; (L-R))

In light of the arrival of the two snow leopards, RZSS has also recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Snow Leopard Trust and Norden’s Ark in Sweden, which will see a three year joint partnership with the three organisations. The partnership will focus on Pallas’s cat and snow leopard field research in order to aid future conservation efforts of the species, as well as to act as an educational tool.

In other news from RZSS Highland Wildlife Park, the Park has also welcomed the birth of three Scottish wildcat kittens. Born at the end of April, the kittens have recently started to wander out of their den. The birth of the kittens is great news in terms of conservation, as this critically endangered native species is facing the very real threat of extinction. Our organisation, along with more than 20 other organisations, is involved in the Scottish Wildcat Action, which is a partnership project –supported by the Scottish Government and the Heritage Lottery Fund – which represents the best chance the wildcat has of surviving in the wild. The project consists of a Priority Areas Team which is currently working to reduce the threats wildcats face in the wild, whilst RZSS has undertaken a new conservation breeding programme to help build up the population of this species.

15_07_22_ScottishWildcat_kittensAnd in further good news related to big cats, we have received a donation of over £3,000 from Nashville Zoo, in Tennessee, to support our field work support projects for Pallas’s cats. RZSS holds and coordinates the European breeding programme (EEP), as well as the international studbook (ISB) for the Pallas’s cat. Little is known of this Near Threatened species, which is why we have undertaken in-situ field work support in Iran, Nepal, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. The project will increase our understanding of this species, thereby allowing better targeted conservation efforts to save this species from extinction.

Socorro dove chick

Socorro dove chick

Meanwhile, at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, an incredibly rare Socorro dove has hatched. This species has been extinct in the wild since the early 1970’s and it is believed that there are less than 100 pure bred Socorro doves left in the world. RZSS has successfully been breeding this rare bird since 2005 and, along with Paignton Zoo, has sent over 12 doves to Albuquerque Zoo in Mexico to form a satellite breeding group in the hope that the offspring of these birds will be reintroduced to their native habitat on the island of Socorro, Mexico, in the near future. The last Socorro dove to hatch at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo was in 2010, so I am glad to hear of the recent hatchling and I hope that it will be able to return to its native habitat in Mexico.

“Nature is an infinite sphere of which the centre is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.”

Blaise Pascal

Highland Wildlife Blog – The Leopard of the Mountains

July 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

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

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

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

Female snow leopard, Animesh by Alex Riddell

Female snow leopard, Animesh by Alex Riddell

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

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

Building the snow leopard enclosure

Building the snow leopard enclosure

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

This piece was first published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald

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