Director of Giant Pandas Blog

June 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

by Iain Valentine, Director of Giant Pandas

So it is June and much has happened since our last update…

I am sure all of you have followed the news of the run up to and the outcome of the panda breeding season for 2014. As with previous years, it was an intensive time of monitoring behaviours and hormones in Tian Tian and our own expert team was supported throughout by Dr Chengdong Wang of the China Conservation & Research Centre for the Giant Panda (CCRCGP).

Panda-Symposium_Final-1FrontCoverWith Tian Tian’s behaviour not favourable enough for us to put Yang Guang and her physically together, we conducted one artificial insemination on Tian Tian the afternoon of 13 April. Despite us going quiet, a lot has been happening since and I promise to write more on the procedure and the results of recent test results from Tian Tian soon.

On this occasion, I wanted to share with you a very large piece of work which we have just completed and which has been made available to all of the participants of the Jaguar Land Rover China (JLR) Giant Panda Research Symposium which was held here in Edinburgh in September last year.

The contents of the report is self-explanatory, but you will see that what it does is outline the important projects with panda conservation and research work which the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland will be looking to do here in the UK and in China over the next few years.

We know from many meetings that we have had with our Chinese partners, and various other meetings which we have had with other “panda zoos” around the world, that the in-house expertise that RZSS has, and the expertise of the world class institutes and universities which we are associated with, are very much needed to safeguard the future of giant pandas both in captivity and in the wild.

I have pleasure in sharing this important document (2MB pdf) with you and soon the full five year Giant Panda Research Strategy document will follow it.

Chief Executive’s Blog

April 18, 2014 § Leave a comment


It has been a whirlwind of a week at Edinburgh Zoo. Yesterday was the grand opening of our brand new meerkat enclosure, Meerkat Plaza, and I am delighted legendary Edinburgh author Alexander McCall Smith was present to officially open the enclosure. Alexander McCall Smith was born in Africa and is the author of the bestselling series No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, which is about Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s first female detective, among many other novels. He has also written a series of children’s books, about Precious as a child, which feature meerkats. Due to his wealth of experience on Africa and its culture, it seemed only fitting to invite him as our guest of honour.

Meerkat Plaza opening with Alexander McCall Smith - photo by Ivon Bartholomew

Meerkat Plaza opening with Alexander McCall Smith – photo by Ivon Bartholomew

The enclosure itself is located on the site of our old sea lion pool and is now home to our group of 10 meerkats. A wide open and natural looking space, the enclosure features many rocky outcrops for meerkat lookouts and sand for digging, while 20 metres of glass panelling allows visitors to come face to face with some of the Zoo’s most charismatic residents. The renovation has also allowed us widen the front entrance area of the Zoo and create an orientation plaza for visitors, with improved signage, carved meerkat benches and space for both animal talks and animal handling experiences. Meerkat Plaza follows on from the renovation of Penguins Rock and Koala Territory and forms part of the ongoing plans for the renaissance of Edinburgh Zoo. I hope you will all be as delighted with the new enclosure as I am.

Tian Tian by Ivon Bartholomew

Tian Tian by Ivon Bartholomew

Our giant pandas Tian Tian and Yang Guang have also kept us on our toes with the arrival of their annual breeding window. On Sunday we were able to confirm Tian Tian had come into oestrus and introductions were attempted in the morning but proved to be unsuccessful. Although giant panda behaviour expert Dr Wang Chengdong from the China Conservation and Research Centre for Giant Pandas (CCRCGP) was confident later introduction attempts would be more successful, Tian Tian’s hormones were falling too rapidly for us to wait and so we moved straight onto artificial insemination on Sunday afternoon. Both fresh and frozen samples of Yang Guang’s semen were used and the two pandas were back on their feet shortly afterwards. As giant pandas experience pseudo pregnancies and delayed implantation, it is very likely we will not 100% know if Tian Tian is pregnant until she gives birth. This is usually August to September but can continue much later, as we saw last year.

As a conservation organisation, we believe giant pandas are too important a species to be allowed to become extinct. Although the breeding window is incredibly brief, pandas are in actual fact not poor breeders, they existed on the planet for many millennia before man intervened and deforestation caused the increasing fragmentation of populations. Our partnership with the China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA) allows RZSS to bring our skills in genetics and animal husbandry to assist in ensuring a genetically healthy and diverse population exists ex-situ, as well as in the wild. We are also in the position to aid a fellow conservation body financially.

Furthermore, if we can successfully assist Tian Tian and Yang Guang to breed, we will be adding to the total number of pandas in zoos around the world and in breeding centres in China. The more there are, the greater and more diverse the gene pool is from which pandas can be selected for re-introduction. In the last two years, a male and female panda have been re-introduced into the bamboo forest reserves in Sichuan Province. They are being closely monitored using tracking devices so we will know if they survive, mate and breed, either with wild pandas or each other. It’s a slow process but the experience gleaned from experts around the world in caring for pandas in captivity has shaped the form of release and hopefully over time, more will be suitable for re-introduction.

Turkey vulture by Micky Reeves

Turkey vulture by Micky Reeves

Finally, next Wednesday 23 April, RZSS is hosting a free public talk – ‘Living with Raptors’. Taking place from 6:30pm at the Budongo Lecture Theatre at Edinburgh Zoo, the talk explores the human and wildlife conflict issues surrounding raptor conservation and includes special guest speakers David Doxford, CEO of Falklands Conservation, Steve Redpath, Chair in Conservation Science for Aberdeen University and David Sexton, Scotland Mull Officer for RSPB. No reservation is necessary and for further information please email our events team via

Economic advance is not the same thing as human progress.

– John Clapham, A Concise Economic History of Britain, 1957

Chief Executive’s Blog

April 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Welcome again to my weekly blog.

Dr. Jane Goodall with Gombe chimpanzee Freud © Michael Neugebauer

Dr. Jane Goodall with Gombe chimpanzee Freud
© Michael Neugebauer

This week I want to tell you about a very special Royal Zoological Society of Scotland talk taking place next month in conjunction with the University of Edinburgh and the Jane Goodall Institute. The amazing Jane Goodall herself will speak from the heart about the world of the Gombe chimpanzees, drawing on a lifetime of challenges and unique experiences that she has encountered first hand in the field.

Taking place on the evening of Thursday 1 May at Edinburgh University New College Assembly Hall, on Mound Place, Jane will share her thoughts on the illegal wildlife trade, her opinion on the future of chimpanzees in the wild, and her vision for the future of conservation. Jane will also offer her particular guidance on how as a world we should navigate the currents threats facing the plant and why she thinks there is reason for hope in these troubled times.

Glitter watches her sister Gaia fish for termites at Gombe National Park © the Jane Goodall Institute

Glitter watches her sister Gaia fish for termites at Gombe National Park
© the Jane Goodall Institute

If you go along, you can also hear all about the work of the Jane Goodall Institute that is dedicated to her pioneering research and spearheads projects to protect chimpanzees in their natural habitat. The Institute has also established innovative community-centred conservation and development programmes in Africa, and Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots is a global environmental and humanitarian youth programme.

Tickets cost £15 or £12 for students and RZSS members, and all we are delighted to advise that proceeds from the evening will be donated to the Jane Goodall Institute UK. Tickets must be booked in advance, so if you are interested visit

CapuchinwithOnionWith Edinburgh International Science Festival now in full swing, there are some fantastic events taking place around the city and of course at Edinburgh Zoo too. University of St Andrews researchers have been working our Discovery and Learning team to create an exciting exhibit entitled ‘Wild Medicine’. The exhibit will run at Edinburgh Central Library this weekend on 12, 14 and 15 April, before coming to Edinburgh Zoo on 16 April. Focused on how the animal kingdom uses its natural environment to help prevent and treat infection and disease, visitors to the exhibit will learn how chimps use rolled up leaves to remove gut parasites and how capuchins use smelly plants to prevent insect bites. They will also find out how honey bees treat fungal infections in their hives and why house sparrows have been seen adding cigarette butts to their nests. The exhibit will also feature a variety of human medications that have been derived from plants. At Edinburgh Zoo on 16 April we will then be delighted to demonstrate some of this live science to our visitors, free with Zoo entry. For a preview, take a look at this Monkey Medicine film

Finally, things are still on-track and looking very good with our giant pandas as Tian Tian progresses toward her breeding window. As soon as there is more news I will be sure to let you know.

Best wishes,

Chris West

Man has been endowed with reason, with the power to create, so that he can add to what he’s been given.  But up to now he hasn’t been a creator, only a destroyer.  Forests keep disappearing, rivers dry up, wild life’s become extinct, the climate’s ruined and the land grows poorer and uglier every day. 

~Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya, 1897

Chief Executive’s Blog

April 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

Hello again,

Early next week we will have visitors coming all the way from the Budongo Forest, Uganda, to Edinburgh Zoo. Monday and Geresomu are field staff will be spending time in the Budongo Trail at Edinburgh Zoo and meeting our staff, volunteers and members.

The Society’s continuing work in Uganda inspired the construction of the Budongo Trail at Edinburgh Zoo, one of the world’s most innovative and interactive chimpanzee enclosures. It is currently home to 18 chimpanzees, the oldest being Cindy who was born on 15October 1965.

Budongo people - Photo by Florian Moellers

Budongo people – Photo by Florian Moellers

RZSS is the core funder of the Budongo Conservation Field Station in Uganda, where Monday and Geresomu work. With the original aim of studying and helping to conserve a group of chimpanzees native to the area, the project now also runs a successful ex-hunter scheme, which aims to dissuade hunters from setting snares which injure or kill chimpanzees, works to improve relations between the local community and forest managers and to educate communities about health care and the risk of tuberculosis transmission from bush meat.

Areas of research currently being conducted at the Budongo Conservation Field Station also include enhancing chimpanzee habitat protection in the face of forest degradation due to agricultural development; researching the primate roots of human language; and gaining a better understanding of the causes and implications of the recent decline in fruiting trees within the Reserve.

Undertaking education activities both at Edinburgh Zoo and the Highland Wildlife Park, our Discovery and Learning team also have 60 students from Sparsholt College taking part in a study tour next week.

Back out in the field, Arnaud our Latin American coordinator has returned from an action plan meeting of the Brazilian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (SZB) at Sao Paulo Zoo, where a detailed Action Plan for the future of SZB was produced. Arnaud will present the results to the assembly at the SZB conference in May.

Dr Helen Senn and our conservation science team are compiling the final draft of a Dama Gazelle Conservation Action Plan which is being sent to be translated into French next week; this is so it can be distributed in French speaking range states, such as Chad, where dama gazelle are present.

Karnali, male Bactrian camel by Alex Riddell

Karnali, male Bactrian camel by Alex Riddell

At the Highland Wildlife Park we have the possibility of camel and yak births, so for protective measures we have temporarily restricted the kiang herd to one side of the new entrance reserve walkway, as equids can cause problems when there are births to other species in the same reserve. We do not definitely know that any of the female camels or yaks are pregnant yet, but like the rest of our species in the Park, they show a strong seasonal tendency with the vast majority of births in the spring.

The Park is also waiting on the final health check result on the female European bison born in 2012 as she will be part of a group of females bred within the British Isles that will be shipped out to Romania.  These animals will augment an existing, small, reintroduced herd of bison in the Carpathian Mountains.

Finally, at Edinburgh Zoo we are one step closer to the giant pandas’ 36 hour annual breeding window. Working with endocrinologists from the Queen’s Medical Research Institute (QMRI) at the University of Edinburgh, who analyse daily urine samples taken from Tian Tian, we have been able to confirm the all-important crossover of hormones took place on Tuesday 1 April. The crossover occurs when oestrogen levels rise higher than progesterone levels and indicates that Tian Tian should come into oestrus within the next seven to 14 days. The science behind panda breeding season forms just one of many aspects of RZSS’s giant panda conservation and research project. As well as assisting with genetic and ecological research, RZSS also provides funds for work in the wild, such as the construction of bamboo corridors which allow many species, including pandas, to cross into previously isolated reserves.

Best wishes,

Chris West

“There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth.  We are all crew”

Marshall McLuhan, 1964

Chief Executive’s Blog

March 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

Good afternoon

As we are about to move into April, I thought it might be about time for a giant panda breeding season update. As you may know, earlier this year we again began to collect urine samples from Tian Tian to analyse for two key hormones – progesterone and oestrogen. We’re currently just waiting for the all-important crossover of hormones in Tian Tian and then when this happens it means breeding is roughly seven to 14 days away. This week we moved to analysing Tian Tian’s urine samples each day, so it’s a case of watch and wait.

Students from Middleton Park School, Aberdeenshire, paid a celebratory visit to see the giant pandas this week after winning a schools’ competition organised by our Discovery and Learning team. The Beyond the Panda education outreach programme, which received funding from Jaguar Land Rover (China), ran in partnership with RZSS and the Confucius Institute for Scotland’s Schools (CISS), and involved primary students from schools across Scotland who are studying China as part of their curriculum. The students were challenged with creating a short story surrounding anything they had learnt about China, Chinese culture or giant pandas.

Middleton Primary School

Middleton Park School

Middleton Park School’s winning entry, created by its Primary 5 students, was a video called ‘From Aberdeen to China! Our learning journey exploring China’, which detailed the different ways the students learnt about China and its culture. It tied with an entry from Primary 5 students at Oakbank Primary School, Perth, which was a story called ‘The Panda with No Patches’. The winning entries will be translated into both Gaelic and Chinese and presented to the Chinese Consulate in Edinburgh.

We look forward to meeting Oakbank Primary School in May when they visit Edinburgh Zoo as part of their prize.

A young buff-checked gibbon at Edinburgh Zoo was the centre of attention this week. Now old enough to be away from the mother, the as yet unsexed youngster performed acrobatic swings across the enclosure for press photographers. Quite a bold character, its still golden hair made it quite easy to spot.

Photo by Katie Paton

Photo by Katie Paton

We have a very lively troop of six buff-cheeked gibbons at Edinburgh Zoo. Seventeen-year-old Lucy is the head of the troop; she arrived at the Zoo in September 2004 with her daughter Lea. Her partner Jon arrived six months later and they have had three offspring – seven-year-old Cheeky, three-year-old Lloyd and the newest youngster.

Baby gibbons are born blonde to blend into their mother’s hair and later turn black. Males then remain black throughout their lives, with the distinguishing golden cheeks that give the species their name. Females, however, then turn back to blonde at sexual maturity, and only have a black cap of hair on the top of their heads.

This week our conservation scientists Dr Helen Senn and Dr Rob Ogden are in Bodrum, Turkey. A project meeting funded by the European Union, the meeting is to evaluate the genetic input of the growing fish-farming industry on native fish in the Mediterranean.

Finally, I’m delighted to tell you that our members’ magazine, LifeLinks, has won a top award at the 2014 Institute of Internal Communications Scottish Awards. The magazine took home the Best Stakeholder Printed Publication. The 20-page online and print magazine is only available to members of RZSS and is produced three times a year. Content includes news, event listings and in-depth features on conservation and animals, as well as a dedicated page for children. For further information please visit

Best wishes,

Chris West

“I conceive that the land belongs to a vast family of which many are dead, few are living, and countless numbers are still unborn.”

Author Unknown

Chief Executive’s Blog

February 14, 2014 § Leave a comment


This week RZSS conservation staff attended the UK’s Government’s Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference, which was hosted by Prime Minister David Cameron. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales was also in attendance, as well as senior government representatives from over 50 countries, with the purpose of spurring action to combat the growing threat to endangered wildlife and producing new and improved multi-lateral agreements to combat the illegal trade.

Stef_WW_ele_sampleDuring the conference, the Gabonese president Ali Bongo Ondimba unveiled a new initiative aimed at helping to curb the poaching of African elephants for their ivory which utilises the genetic and forensic expertise from the RZSS and TRACE Wildlife Forensic Network.

Elephant poaching is on the increase in Africa as demand for ivory increases in some Asian countries. Statistics show that 96 elephants were killed every single day in 2012 and in 2013 large scale ivory movements were 20% higher than the previous peak in 2011. As part of this new initiative, bone and tissue fragments from elephant carcasses killed by poachers will be recovered and forensic DNA techniques utilised to produce unique profiles for subsequent matching against blood stained clothing or ivory recovered locally or in Asia.

I am delighted that RZSS will be involved in a project which bridges the gap between conservation genetics and wildlife DNA forensics, enabling the Gabon authorities to understand elephant population structure in its National Parks and apply this information to the fight against poaching.

In some light-hearted news from Edinburgh Zoo, the giant pandas are proving to be a real favourite with couples looking to have a more unusual setting for their marriage proposals. Tony Bradford, Visitor Experience Coordinator for Edinburgh Zoo, has helped arrange 35 proposal announcements at the panda enclosure since their arrival! The Zoo’s penguins also occasionally witness a marriage proposal. Edinburgh Zoo’s historic Mansion House is also a popular choice for weddings, with 27 already booked in for this year.

Lynx by Jan Morse

Lynx by Jan Morse

Keeping with the romantic theme, Highland Wildlife Park’s adult lynx pair Switch and Dimma received some Valentine’s Day enrichment from keepers. The pair have proven to be excellent mates and have successfully raised a litter each year since arriving at the Park in 2012. As their first litter was born only months after their arrival, the quick success is testament to how relaxed they are at the Park as well as the keepers’ animal husbandry experience.

Finally, Highland Wildlife Park is seeking 10 eager people for its new volunteer programme, the first of its kind in the Park’s 42 year history. The programme forms part of the Highland Wildlife Park Redevelopment Plan, which has received over £50,000 in funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. They’re looking for people who have an interest in conservation and wildlife and who want to gain new experiences while assisting in a range of areas across the Park. This includes acting as guides, meeting and greeting visitors, helping with the horticultural upkeep of the Park’s public areas and assisting in our shop and café. People interested in applying for a volunteer position can do so by downloading our Volunteer Application Form from, or in writing to Visitor Services, Highland Wildlife Park, Kincraig, Kingussie PH21 1NL with applications closing 28th February.

The activist is not the man who says the river is dirty.  The activist is the man who cleans up the river. 

– Ross Perot

Director of Giant Pandas Blog

January 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

Happy New Year!

It’s been a while since our last blog, but as this one coincides with the Chinese New Year beginning on the 31st January it’s only right that we wish all of our panda followers Xin Nian Kuai Le also. 2014 is the Chinese Year of the Horse that is often associated with love, romance and relationships…….so fingers crossed for Tian Tian and Yang Guang.

Tian Tian

Tian Tian

With panda breeding, there are several key things to remember. First, pandas are seasonal breeders, so light levels are important for them as this triggers changes in their body and in the bamboo on which they feed. Secondly, male pandas are in season for around four months of the year (from around mid-Jan though to mid-May) and during this time they will mate with as many female pandas in season as they can; well if the females and other mature males allow them to! Individual panda females are only in season for around 40 hours a year and they have a multiple mating strategy; in other words a female panda in the wild would be mated by several males during the 40 hours she was in peak season.

Therefore, when you are working with two pandas, as we are with Tian Tian and Yang Guang, we have to bring a fair amount of science to the table in order to improve Tian Tian’s chances of producing a cub. In effect, for the panda keepers at Edinburgh Zoo, the panda breeding season has already begun!

As of Christmas 2013, we again began to collect daily urine samples from Tian Tian; these are being picked up and analysed so that we can monitor two key hormones for breeding purposes – progesterone and oestrogen. So far, as we would expect, there is no big news to report regarding changing hormones level, but we are picking up and noticing quite a lot of behaviours associated with breeding in both giant pandas. Tian Tian and Yang Guang are already clearly showing an increased interest in one another and both pandas are fairly regularly seen scent marking now.


Yang Guang

Both pandas are in good health, with Yang Guang especially looking excellent and now almost “pink” white, which is what you see in mature male pandas. We’re also seeing food intake increasing in both pandas as they seek to drive their body weight up and take their condition to the best it can be ready for breeding; all fantastic instinctive pre-breeding behaviours that we want to be seeing.

The weather we’re experiencing right now is also the best kind of weather for pandas – cold and bright, with a hint of snow to come. So if any of you are thinking about visiting the Zoo to see our two giant pandas, please do so, as it’s the best time of year to see them. Right now Tian Tian and Yang Guang are more active than usual and, if you are lucky, you may also see Yang Guang performing that famous “panda handstand” as he scent marks his enclosure!

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