Chief Executive’s Blog

July 18, 2015 § Leave a comment


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

Lemur Walkthrough

Lemur Walkthrough

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

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

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

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

Chief Executive’s Blog

June 30, 2015 § Leave a comment


I start my blog on a sad note this week, as we unfortunately received news from the Giant Armadillo Conservation Project in the Pantanal that Alex, the young giant armadillo that Dr Arnaud Desbiez and his team have been following since his birth nearly two years ago, has recently passed away.

Arnaud found Alex in one of his mother’s old burrows with injuries indicative of a puma attack, the only animal capable of causing such damage to a giant armadillo. Alex managed to escape the predator, but unfortunately his injuries were too severe and he died two days later. The entire Giant Armadillo Conservation Project team are upset and saddened by Alex’s death. They have been monitoring him closely for nearly two years and have gained extremely valuable information and research from the young armadillo. Before the Giant Armadillo Conservation Project not much was known about giant armadillos and Alex has been fundamental to the research into this fascinating species. His life and interactions with his mother had been carefully documented and he showed the project that parental care in giant armadillos was much longer than ever imagined.

Alex the armadillo at various ages by the Giant Armadillo Project

Alex the armadillo at various ages by the Giant Armadillo Project

Pictures of Alex were featured in numerous media worldwide, including the BBC and National Geographic. He was an ambassador for his species and he will be missed by the entire team. His death has highlighted the battle these rare ancient creatures face for survival, as well as the importance of long term studies to help us understand and conserve these creatures. There is still so much more we need to learn about giant armadillos, but the team are very grateful for all the insights Alex has provided into the life of these remarkable animals.

Elsewhere, in our WildGenes lab at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, we are saying goodbye to our placement student Jo who is returning to her studies at Cardiff University. Over the last year she has assisted the WildGenes lab with numerous projects and has also completed a successful research assignment on the taxonomy of sand cats. We will be welcoming another student to the lab in September.

Velu and mum, Heleen by Mike Gilburt

Velu and mum, Heleen by Mike Gilburt

The baby chimpanzee at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, Velu, has celebrated his first birthday this week on Wednesday 24 June. Velu is quite special as he is the first chimpanzee to be reared successfully in Scotland for 15 years and his first birthday is in the same year as the 10 year anniversary of RZSS’s work with wild chimpanzees at the Budongo Conservation Field Station in Uganda. Velu is a pure Western chimpanzee, an underrepresented subspecies of the common chimpanzee, although all chimpanzees are classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Velu is now a toddler, learning how to walk and play, and he is starting to eat small amounts of solids. He never wanders far from his mother Heleen, as chimpanzees are completely dependent on their mothers for a few years. He will start to explore more independently when he is two years old and will only wean from his mother’s milk between three and four years old.


Turkmenian markhor kid

At RZSS Highland Wildlife Park, meanwhile, we have had a number of new births, including European elk twins, Turkmenian markhor kids (including a set of twins), Himalayan tahr lambs, five red deer calves, Bukhara deer calf, lynx kittens and a muskox calf. The arrival of all these new-borns is wonderful news as some of these species face the threat of extinction in the wild. The Turkmenian markhor is classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, whilst the Himalayan tahr is listed as Near Threatened, with population numbers believed to be in significant decline due to hunting and habitat loss. The Park has also recently won a BIAZA award for the successful husbandry of European elk, as they are a notoriously difficult species to breed in captivity.

“Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.” – Ibid.

Highland Wildlife Blog – What is a BIAZA?

June 23, 2015 § Leave a comment

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

BIAZA stands for British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and I have just returned from the association’s annual conference. The association will be 50 years old next year and this recent conference aptly demonstrated how far the legitimate zoo community has come. The conference was hosted by Woburn Safari Park which is within the beautiful grounds of the Duke of Bedford’s estate, and the theme of the conference was , “The Crucial Nature of Zoo and Aquarium Conservation: Is your collection a conservation tool?” The host location was very apt, given the theme of the meeting, as it was the 11th Duke of Bedford who single-handedly saved the Pere David’s deer from extinction. By the 19th century, this large species of deer only existed within the walled gardens of the Emperor’s palace in Beijing. A handful of animals were exported to a few European capital city zoos towards the end of the 1800s, which was just as well as the Chinese herd was wiped out by a flood and starving peasants just after the Boxer Rebellion. The Duke collected surplus deer from the European zoos, whose little groups also all died out, and the last herd was the one at Woburn.

Przewalksi’s wild horse and foal by Alex Riddell

Przewalksi’s wild horse and foal by Alex Riddell

The saving of the Pere David’s deer is one of the classic captive conservation success stories, which is mirrored by the similar histories of the European bison and the Przewalski’s wild horse, two species we manage at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park, as the zoo community also snatched a victory from the jaws of extinction with them. Now of course good zoos are more than just breeders of threatened species and our place within the wider conservation community continues to expand. In recognition of our role as conservation funders, educators and centres with unique skills sets, some of the key speakers at the recent conference came from outside of the zoo community, notably Dr Simon Stuart, the chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, the most important organisation within the international conservation community. In recent years, Simon has actively formed alliances with key regional zoo associations as he recognised that we have an increasingly important role to play and as the wild becomes a smaller and more intensively managed place, we bring the skills and experience of managing small enclosed populations of animals.


Moose and young at Highland Wildlife Park by Alex Riddell

As for the Park’s role in the conference, I gave a talk on how zoos can more accurately measure the conservation value of their animal collections and suggested that more could be done by challenging the assembled membership to increase the percentage of threatened species they manage. I am pleased to report that quite a number of key players appeared keen to rise to the challenge.

The conference’s final dinner is also when the various annual awards are given out and I am very proud to say that the Park won a silver award in the Animal Breeding, Care and Welfare category for our advances in moose husbandry, a notoriously difficult species.

This piece was first published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald

Chief Executive’s Blog

June 3, 2015 § Leave a comment

The pine hoverfly may be one of the more diminutive animals RZSS works with, but that hasn’t stopped us getting very excited about our ground-breaking pine hoverfly conservation project!


The pine hoverfly is the rarest species of hoverfly in Britain, currently recorded at just two sites in the whole of the UK, both of which are in Strathspey, Scotland. The species itself was formerly quite widespread – with populations being recorded regularly in Scotland up until the 1940s – but over recent decades numbers have declined dramatically and, in the late 1990s, surveys funded by Scottish Natural Heritage found only two remaining populations of the species.

As a result, the pine hoverfly was listed as endangered. The pine hoverfly is also declining in Europe and is considered to be under threat. Amongst other things, this decline can be traced back to a lack of appropriate habitat, as the pine hoverfly use rotting tree stumps as breeding sites, particularly stumps that are at least 40cm in diameter. The larvae develop and feed in wet rot-holes in the tree stumps and where the heartwood has been softened by the rot fungus Phaeolus schweinitzi. Unfortunately, these particular kinds of stumps are rather hard to come by. Ongoing monitoring has highlighted declining populations so the decision to pursue conservation breeding for release was taken.

Pine hoverfly larvae

Pine hoverfly larvae

We received some pine hoverfly larvae last week, which have been specifically collected from the wild in Finland to begin a captive breeding programme at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo. The Zoo’s Presentations Team will undertake the captive husbandry in specially built facilities behind the Budongo Trail. Ongoing monitoring for wild Scottish larvae will continue and, if sufficient numbers can be found, a captive Scottish population will also be created. If we are successful, larvae will be released into artificially created tree holes in woods in Speyside.

Meanwhile, over at our WildGenes Laboratory, RZSS Senior Lab Technician Jennifer Kaden is preparing a genomic library on the pygmy falcon as part of a project with San Diego Zoo and the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The birds are currently in Sweden and are destined for America; however, due to timings involving permits and quarantine, there will not be time for the genomic work (which will establish which birds are best paired together) to be carried out once the birds reach the USA. Instead, the data is going to be generated here and then sent to the USA in advance of the bird’s arrival. This is hopefully the first step in a fully integrated programme to coordinate genomic analysis between breeding programmes in the United States of America, Europe and Australia.

Up at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park we have had a flurry of new-borns. In the last few weeks we have had a Mishmi takin calf, two Przewalksi’s wild horse foals and two bison calves, as well as a few others which I will tell you more about in my next blog. We are really pleased with the births, especially the foal and bison calves as both species were considered extinct in the wild, but as a result of an effective breeding programme using captive populations of the species, both have been successfully re-introduced into the wild. The Przewalski’s wild horse was re-introduced into its native habitat in Mongolia in 1992, whilst the European bison can now be found in free-ranging and semi-free herds in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Slovakia. The IUCN has now reclassified the European bison and Przewalski’s wild horse from extinct in the wild to endangered.

Przewalksi’s wild horse foal by Alex Riddell

Przewalksi’s wild horse foal by Alex Riddell

A female bison which was born and raised at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park, Glen Rosa, was selected to be a part of the reintroduction project and was reintroduced into the wild on a forest reserve in Romania in April 2014. The re-introduction of these species is a brilliant conservation success story, one which highlights the importance of modern day zoos and the vital role they play in protecting animals from extinction.

“A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers but borrowed from his children.”

– John James Audubon

Highland Wildlife Blog – Wolf Pack Politics

May 22, 2015 § 1 Comment

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

On the same day that our new female polar bear arrived from Denmark, another important carnivore arrived. Jax, a two year old male European wolf, arrived from Jarv Zoo in Sweden to be paired with our female wolf, Ruby.

Most people think of wolves as quite social animals, which they are, but establishing a compatible wolf pack is far from straightforward, and if not done properly, the wolves can start to set-about each other with potentially fatal results. To enable Jax to be introduced to Ruby, all Ruby’s relatives had to be moved to other collections to create a suitably stable environment for the new pair to settle. The basis of every wolf pack is the alpha male and female, who are unrelated to each other, and their offspring. As they mature, some of the offspring will disperse out of the pack to find mates and start their own packs and sometimes older offspring are driven out if the home territory does not have enough prey to sustain the pack. In a captive situation, older offspring would be sent to other zoos to start new packs as space can become an issue, not food supply.


Ruby’s parents were introduced to each other in 2010 in what was our new wolf wood, opened by the Princess Royal in September of that year. In 2012 they reared their first litter of three males and two females, one of which was Ruby. In 2013 they reared a litter of two males and two females bringing the pack size up to 11. In 2014 Ruby’s mother became ill and had to be put to sleep, but when one of the alpha pair is lost, the whole pack structure can collapse into a snarling, fighting mass as the hierarchy is disrupted and the fights for dominance begin. A new park called Wild Place was looking for a single sex group of wolves and so we sent them all the males to reduce the aggravation in our group and avoid any mating between relatives. This left us with the four young females. Three other zoos in the UK were looking to add European wolves into their collections, so the coordinated plan was for us to send Ruby’s three sisters south to be joined by young males from continental zoos. Four male wolves were imported, with one, Jax, coming north to us, to start a new Highland Wildlife Park wolf dynasty.

After 24 hours in the adjacent off-exhibit enclosure and a suitable amount of observed interest from both wolves, the separating door was opened and the new pair was together. Initially Jax spent his time checking out the main enclosure whilst Ruby watched him closely. Because this new pack is just one male and one female in a large complex enclosure, there is no competition with others of the same sex and there is plenty of room to avoid confrontation. After a few weeks, all the signs indicate that we have a new bonded pair, and with some luck the next litter of wolf pups will be born one year from now.

This piece was first published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald

Chief Executive’s Blog

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.

Dr Helen Senn presenting at the 15th Annual Sahelo-Saharan Interest Group Meeting in Abu Dhabi

Dr Helen Senn presenting at the 15th Annual Sahelo-Saharan Interest Group Meeting in Abu Dhabi

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.

Aldo Leopold

Chief Executive’s Blog

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.

Giant Armadillo Project by Kevin Schafer

Giant Armadillo Project by Kevin Schafer

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.


WildGenes Team

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.

Gentoo penguins nesting

Gentoo penguins nesting

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

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