Penguin Festival

December 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

There isn’t much that’s more Christmassy than a penguin, as we saw last year with Monty in John Lewis’ Christmas advert. Penguins have always been a huge part of RZSS Edinburgh Zoo’s history – from historic links with the Salveson company who supplied penguins to the Zoo as far back as 1914 to the knighting of Sir Nils Olav, the king penguin, in 2008. Not to mention our world famous Penguin Parade, which began when a keeper accidently left an enclosure door open and a few penguins waddled out! So what better opportunity to celebrate our penguins than with a special winter Penguin Festival?

Earlier in the year, we were contacted by art curator Paul Robertson who introduced us to the work of Ottmar Hörl – a German conceptual artist, art professor and sculptor. We were immediately struck by the installations Professor Hörl creates – the displays of large numbers of sculptures together which alters the way you look at the pieces of art. Ottmar Hörl has developed memorable models of identification and universal emblems that have come to be part of our collective memory, such as the Euro Sculpture erected in Frankfurt am Main in 2000 and the Soap of Innocence, first issued in 1997 in an edition of 82 million copies.


Ottmar Hörl’s penguins, in particular, were an ideal fit for the Zoo and something we were sure our visitors would enjoy. We decided that the main lawn in the centre of the Zoo would be an ideal location, so then set to work figuring out how many penguins would be required to fill the space. After mapping it out, we settled on ten rows of 12 penguins as the most visually appealing formation.

The Penguin Festival opened with a spectacular light show during its first weekend, illuminating the 120 black and white penguins and the historic Mansion House back drop.


There is also an interactive element to the Penguin Festival in the form of a treasure hunt. Five special “Sir Nils Olav” gold penguins are currently hiding in various places around the Zoo waiting to be found. Plus, visitors can enter a competition to win a Penguin Magic Moment if they spot a “Nils”.

GoldPenguinVisitors can also purchase the limited edition works of art, with the penguins being available to collect or be posted in the New Year. It’s a fantastic chance to own a piece of Zoo history, so head over to our online shop to p…p…pick up your very own penguin sculpture today.

Film screenings, storytelling and penguin bubble enrichment will also be going on throughout the festival, so hop on down to the Zoo before it ends on 6 January!

Jo Paulson is Events and Experiences Manager for RZSS, and is responsible for delivering a wide range of events as well as keeper experiences and magic moments at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo.


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

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



New rhino horn DNA test deployed in Vietnam to aid enforcement against illegal wildlife trade

November 3, 2015 § Leave a comment

Heading for one of the worst years on record for rhino poaching, with 749 animals already slaughtered in South Africa alone for their horn, a team of wildlife forensic scientists from the United Kingdom and Australia have teamed up to train scientists in Vietnam in rapid rhino horn identification. The scientists were given unprecedented access to rhino horn seizures in the country by authorities in order to facilitate the DNA testing.

Dr Rozz McEwing - RZSS and TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network

Dr Ross McEwing – RZSS and TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network

The training, funded by the UK Government, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) and the Australian Museum, was particularly vital as the number of poached rhinos is now coming perilously close to outnumbering the birth rate of rhinos in the wild, a position that may ultimately lead to the decline and possible loss of these enigmatic species.

Dr Ross McEwing, from RZSS and TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network, and Dr Greta Frankham and Kyle Ewart, from the Australian Museum Research Institute’s Australian Centre Wildlife Genomics, spent a week in the wildlife genetics laboratory of the Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources in Hanoi. The rapid identification techniques taught allows seized rhino horn to be speedy tested in only 24 hours to confirm if it is real or fake and also determine the species of rhino being illegally traded.

Dr McEwing of RZSS and TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network explained: “One of the fundamental issues in Vietnam, a country synonymous with the illegal trade in rhino horn, is the requirement to identify true rhino horn from fake material in order to progress any criminal investigation, a process that can take many weeks due to limited capacity and which results in a very low rate of conviction.

“The new rapid DNA testing technique, developed by the Australian Centre Wildlife Genomics, allows this process to be undertaken quickly and inexpensively in under 24 hours. Ensuring Vietnam authorities have the capacity to carry out this new test will help enforcement officers monitor and prosecute those responsible for trading rhino horn.”

Dr Ross McEwing in Vietnam holding seized seized rhino horn

Dr Ross McEwing in Vietnam holding seized seized rhino horn

Kyle Ewart from the Australian Museum Research Institute’s Australian Centre Wildlife Genomics added:

“Three species of rhino are routinely traded in Vietnam – white, black and Indian rhinos – and identifying the species forms part of the investigation, helping enforcement agencies direct resources to target individuals and trade routes.

“We’re at a tipping point for rhino with the number of poached individuals coming precariously close to outnumbering the birth rate, a position that will ultimately lead to the decline and possible loss of these enigmatic species,” said Dr Rebecca Johnson, Director of the Australian Museum Research Institute and Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics.

Dr McEwing, who coordinated the training, said: “Deploying this new technique in Vietnam was only possible thanks to support from both the Australian Department of Environment and Vietnam CITES Management Authority. It shows just what can be achieved when organisations from different countries work collaboratively to tackle the international illegal wildlife trade. This international capacity-building project showcases the valuable scientific expertise and collection resources available at institutions like RZSS and the Australian Museum and legitimises our investments in the wildlife forensics field.”

Chief Executive’s Blog

October 27, 2015 § Leave a comment


Winter is on its way, bringing with it the colder nights and blustery days, but both RZSS Edinburgh Zoo and RZSS Highland Wildlife Park are looking beautiful with all the rich autumnal colours in the trees and the orange leaves scattered over the grounds.

Our Creepy Crawlies event came to an end this Sunday (25 October). The event, which had been running in the Budongo Trail since 10 October, has been very successful, with visitors thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to get up close to – and in some cases handle! – a variety of crawling creatures. The exhibition had a prehistoric theme to tie in with our Dinosaurs Return! exhibition and featured an array of fascinating insects and animals such as crave crickets, giant snails, tarantulas and crabs.

Photo by Grant Bullocharch

Photo by Grant Bullocharch

Speaking of Dinosaurs Return!, this exciting exhibition is also nearing an end, with only one week to go until it closes for good on 1 November. The seven-month-long exhibit has been incredibly popular with visitors both young and old, attracting nearly half a million people through our doors since it opened in April. Dinosaurs Return! was also recently commended in the Scottish Event Awards 2015 for Best Cause Related/Charity event. We have received a lot of positive feedback about the incredibly life-like dinosaurs and it will be sad to see the giants at the top of Corstorphine hill go.

Earlier last week, on 19 October, we hosted a Cat Conservation Evening at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, highlighting RZSS’s cat conservation projects around the world alongside our special guest (and cat conservation supporter) Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. The evening helped raise awareness of small cat conservation projects that RZSS is supporting in the wild, including Pallas’s cats, Arabian sand cats and Scotland’s very own wildcat. RZSS Cat Conservation Officer David Barclay delivered the main talk of the evening, sharing his experiences of cat conservation in the field, from protecting the wildcat in Scotland to searching for rare Pallas’s cats in the Himalayas, Mongolia and Iran. The event raised over £1,000 in donations on the night, all of which will go towards supporting our work with small cats across the globe.

Cat-Conservation-Event_2Elsewhere, in news from our Giant Armadillo Conservation Project, Arnaud Desbiez is currently out in the field in the Brazilian Pantanal with veterinarian Camilla Luba and Yamil de Branco, a giant anteater researcher from Argentina. Besides monitoring giant armadillos, the team also monitor and research giant anteaters. They are currently recapturing anteaters to replace their GPS collars, which will enable the team to follow and monitor them much more closely.

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”

– Lao Tzu

Going Wild about Scotland through May!

June 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

Traffic jam of Highland cows on Mull!

Traffic jam of Highland cows on Mull!

We’ve had an exciting May; spreading the word about Scotland’s amazing wildlife to schools in Argyll, the Isle of Mull, the Highlands, West Dunbartonshire and North Lanarkshire.

Whilst in Argyll we had the opportunity to visit the site of the official Scottish Beaver Trial in the Knapdale forest, near Lochgilphead. The re- introduction of beavers is a key topic of discussion in the lessons we teach on the bus. It was fantastic to finally see the positive impact of these beavers first hand!

Vegetables grown by pupils at Ulva Ferry Primary School, Mull.

Vegetables grown by pupils at Ulva Ferry Primary School, Mull.

This month also saw the bus on its first ferry voyage to the Isle of Mull. Apart from a stretch close to the ferry port at Craignure, the roads on Mull are all single track with passing places. It wasn’t long before we hit a traffic jam – of highland cows!

Future naturalists hard at work during our wildcat session.

Future naturalists hard at work during our wildcat session.

Lots of the schools we’ve visited recently have been busy planting flowers and vegetables. We particularly liked Ulva Ferry Primary School’s ingenious use of the bike shed as a makeshift greenhouse. A special thank you to the people of Mull for their hospitality as, despite getting two punctures in the car on our last morning, we still managed to make it to all of our schools.

Another highlight for us, whilst visiting schools in the Fort William area, was seeing The Jacobite steam train and the stunning Glenfinnan viaduct- now infamous thanks to the Harry Potter films.

Queueing up to get on board at RSPB’s Scotland’s Big Nature Festival.

Queueing up to get on board at RSPB’s Scotland’s Big Nature Festival.

As well as visiting schools we’ve opened our doors to members of the public at Benmore Botanics in Dunoon, helped the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick to celebrate their 15th birthday at their “Puffin Fest” event and engaged with over 1,600 visitors at the RSPB’s Big Nature Festival in Musselburgh. It was brilliant to meet enthusiasts of all ages passionate about celebrating and conserving Scotland’s natural environment.

Still curious about what happens on the Wild about Scotland bus? Check out our brand new video

We are still taking enquiries and starting to book school visits for after the summer holidays! Check out our webpage for details about how to request a visit from our bus:

Bus driver DaveFrom the driver’s seat

Each month our ‘Wild about Scotland’ bus driver David gives you a wee insight into what it’s like to drive our double decker the length and breadth of Scotland.

An interesting month – Argyll & Bute, Highlands and Islands, ferries and miles of single track roads, with the bonus of good weather. So far easily the best scenery of the project and some very amusing children. One in particular, probably primary one or two, confidently stepped on board and said, “Thanks very much driver”, handing me 50p! Another quipped, “Should you really be driving at your age?” The mouths of babes! Looking forward to next month – more islands and more ferries!

BrodieKnowsBest#Brodie knows best

Brodie’s mini-beast of the month


Hoverfly Meredon equestis, found by pupils at Salen Primary School, Mull

Hoverfly Meredon equestis, found by pupils at Salen Primary School, Mull

May’s mini-beast of the month goes to this hoverfly Meredon equestris found at Salen Primary School on the Isle of Mull. They do not sting, but mimic bees to avoid predation from birds and other animals that know to avoid these foul-tasting and potentially harmful prey. This true fly can be distinguished from bees due to its large eyes that meet in the centre of the head and its small, stubby antennae. But like bees, hoverflies are important pollinators of many of our native plants.


Top teacher comments and tweets

“Children have been looking forward to the visit and we’ve not been disappointed!” Cambusnethan Primary School

“This was a brilliant set up. Well organised, resourced and very friendly and knowledgeable staff”, “Part of the Curriculum of Excellence’s Experiences and Outcomes state that we must compare other cultures with our own. We’ll be looking at wildlife so this is great!” Inveraray Primary School

“It was so active and children totally engaged in the activities! Education officers’ enthusiasm was excellent!” Rhunahaorine Primary School

“Highlighted the need for more local-based, environmental topic work to be included in the curriculum” Castlehill Primary School

“This was a great afternoon for our children who are all now enthusiastic about finding and looking after mini-beasts” Upper Achintore Primary School

Next month – June

Next month is the last of the school year and we continue our journeys north to the Highlands, Harris and Lewis and finishing off in Orkney.

We will also be open to the public at Dawyck Botanics on Saturday 13th June.

Chief Executives Blog

February 7, 2014 § Leave a comment



In an interesting update from RZSS’ veterinary department, Romain Pizzi spent part of last week with Professor Rowan Parks from Edinburgh University, one of the UK’s top pancreatic surgeons, observing human surgery. While pancreatic disease is unusual in many animal species, in giant pandas it appears to be of major importance, with 15% of wild panda deaths in China between 1938-1992 being diagnosed due to pancreatic disease (more than one in seven pandas). This is a great example of how our veterinary surgeons are collaborating with a wide range of experts in different disciplines as part of the long term aim of improving the care of giant pandas worldwide.

Continuing with vet news, while it is more common for veterinarians to apply experience and knowledge gained from their human medical colleagues to the unique and different situations across the breadth of animal patients, the reverse is also possible with veterinary perspective and experience sometimes helping with human medicine. Romain recently helped establish a trial cross-discipline surgical training course in London, where veterinary and medical trainees learn together in a complementary manner to enhance both groups learning. This means that what our vets learn can sometimes help human medicine advancement as well.

To hear more about the ground-breaking work of our vet team, I recommend coming along to the annual Vets Talk at Edinburgh Zoo’s Education Centre on Thursday 27th February. This talk is always very popular so I recommend booking your place soon! More information can be found on our events page.

I would also like to congratulate our Discovery & Learning team, who delivered 11 outreach sessions to over 300 people in January. Edinburgh Zoo’s educational outreach programme, Beyond the Panda, is aimed at students in primary levels 5-7 and raises awareness about giant pandas, the history of China and the importance of taking action to save the species from extinction. The programme is proving to be very popular and on Friday 14th February it will be Skyped live to a school in Turkey from Doon Academy, East Ayrshire, where it is being taught.


After the enormous success of Edinburgh Zoo Nights in 2013, I am very pleased to say that it is returning in 2014! This year there will be four adults only evenings at Edinburgh Zoo, with the first on Friday 23rd May, followed by Friday 6th June, Friday 20th June and Friday 27th June. Edinburgh Zoo Nights won Best-In House Event at the 2013 Scottish Event Awards – an enormous achievement for an event’s inaugural year – and with even more live entertainment and performers, this year is going to be even better. Tickets are on sale now and money raised from Edinburgh Zoo Nights will go towards the Society’s range of conservation projects.

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