RZSS WildGenes Blog: Desert Gazelles in Danger

November 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

Last week I was involved in a number of meetings in Morocco on antelope conservation. The conservation situation for antelope in the Maghreb and Sahelo-Saharan region “North Africa” is extremely serious and RZSS WildGenes has had a long-term involvement in contributing basic science and genetic management recommendation for a number of these species to try and improve their conservation prospects in the wild and captivity. There are seven North African antelope species in total, all of which are listed as being Vulnerable or worse according to the IUCN red-list of threatened species.

Scimitar-horned oryx ready for transfer from Souss-Massa National Park, to another centre in Morocco. Scimitar-horned oryx are extinct in the wild, but there are large numbers in captivity. RZSS WildGenes is involved in generating genomic data to improve global management of this species with a number of partners world-wide.

Scimitar-horned oryx ready for transfer from Souss-Massa National Park, to another centre in Morocco. Scimitar-horned oryx are extinct in the wild, but there are large numbers in captivity. RZSS WildGenes is involved in generating genomic data to improve global management of this species with a number of partners world-wide.

The first stop for the week was conservation planning for the Endangered Cuvier’s Gazelle organised by the IUCN-Med, bringing together expert and stakeholders across the Maghreb region and Europe to thrash out a status review and plan of action for this mountain dwelling species. We often don’t even know basic things like how many animals there are or how important different threats are (in the case of Cuvier’s gazelle overgrazing, poaching, feral dogs all play their part). Without this information it is hard to implement and evaluate conservation actions with a scientific basis. We were also then lucky enough to visit the Souss-Massa National Park to see the work Le Haut Commissariat aux Eaux et Forêts et à la Lutte Contre la Désertification is doing to conserve addax (Critically Endangered), scimitar-horned oryx (Extinct In The Wild) and dorcas gazelle (Vulnerable).

Association Nature Initiative https://www.facebook.com/Association.Nature.Initiative radio tracking dama gazelle in Safia Reserve. They work round the clock to monitor the release site and implement many other conservation projects in the area.

Association Nature Initiative, radio tracking dama gazelle in Safia Reserve. They work round the clock to monitor the release site and implement many other conservation projects in the area.

In the second part of the week I travelled to the region of Dakhla, in the far west of the Sahara, to see the recent release site of the Critically Endangered Dama gazelle at Safia Reserve. RZSS has been involved in conservation action planning and genetic analysis support for this species for a number of years. Fewer than 300 dama gazelle are likely to be left in the wild and fewer than 1,500 in captivity. The world’s remaining animals are spread across various isolated populations and breeding centres, which means that genetic information is crucial for making management decision about captive breeding and transfer of animals in the wild. Further information about the dama gazelle can be found here: https://sites.google.com/site/damagazellenetwork/home.

Through our continued involvement with antelope genetic management, the team at RZSS’s WildGenes laboratory hopes to be able to do our bit for the conservation of these undervalued species and their fragile desert ecosystems. More updates will follow soon!

Dr Helen Senn
RZSS WildGenes Programme Manager

Dama foot-prints heading off into the distance at Safia reserve. This is the first full release of this species into the wild and monitoring of its success will be vitally important to conservation efforts for this species globally.

Dama footprints heading off into the distance at Safia reserve. This is the first full release of this species into the wild and monitoring of its success will be vitally important to conservation efforts for this species globally.


RZSS Cat Conservation Blog

November 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

As the winter draws nearer in the Highlands of Scotland and the warm summer mornings are replaced with a frosty chill, we enter a key part of the year for Scottish Wildcat Action. Not only will monitoring and trapping efforts become more intensive, but come January and February the breeding season for wildcats will be upon us. This of course plays a big part in the conservation breeding programme.


Ensuring that valuable pairs of wildcats are together in time will increase the chances of wildcat kittens come early spring. One significant development that took place over the summer was that I took over the coordination of the European studbook for the Scottish wildcat. This puts us in a position to manage the UK population of captive Scottish wildcats in a way that preserves the best genetic diversity within the population. To do this I work closely with our geneticists at RZSS’s Wildgenes lab at the Zoo, who are analysing genetic samples to determine whether animals are pure wildcats or a mixture of wildcat and domestic cat. Using these modern scientific techniques gives us the best chance of finding suitable wildcats that will act as the foundation for a robust and viable captive population, which in turn can be used for releases into the wild in the future.

As the number of landowners and private estates we are working with increases – and Scottish Wildcat Action’s presence across the north, east, south and west of Scotland continues to grow – it is clear to see that this ambitious and diverse approach to saving the Scottish wildcat is moving in the right direction.

It is also important to highlight that the work and support of Scottish Wildcat Action is not restricted to Scotland. To ensure that we give ourselves the best chance of saving the Scottish wildcat we have been collaborating with colleagues and organisations from across the world that specialise in cat conservation. These additional skills in global conservation management, post-release monitoring and conservation breeding coupled with their opinions and networks are vital to the long-term security of the species.

During September I attended the annual conference of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) in Wroclaw, Poland. During this conference of over 700 delegates, I was able to give presentations on Scottish Wildcat Action and our role with conservation breeding for release. This gave me the chance to promote the project and to raise the profile of this species. These presentations – given to the EAZA reintroduction and translocation group and the EAZA felid taxon advisory group – were not only well received but allowed other countries and projects to see what could be one of the first ‘models’ for small cat conservation and reintroduction. I have now had enquiries from colleagues in Taiwan and Sri Lanka regarding our work with Scottish Wildcat Action and how it could be a model project for their native threatened small cat species.


There will of course be challenges throughout the five year action plan, but this is the same for all conservation projects across the globe. Scottish Wildcat Action is the only national project for wildcat conservation but is also a statement that says we care enough about Scottish wildcats to do everything in our power to save them. As long as we prepare ourselves for future challenges and remember that the work we are doing is the best hope for Scottish wildcats then we can and will succeed.


David Barclay
RZSS Cat Conservation Project Officer

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.”

Arnaud’s Blog: Giant armadillo expedition updates from the Pantanal

October 29, 2015 § 1 Comment

Left: The Pantanal Team - Danilo, Camila, Arnaud, Gabriel. Right: Bruna Oliveira

Left: The Pantanal Team – Danilo, Camila, Arnaud, Gabriel. Right: Bruna Oliveira

It has been a little over two months since my last update and, as usual, we have lots of news to share.

We ran two expeditions in the Pantanal and numerous short expeditions in the Cerrado (the latter I will tell you about soon in another blog). The August expedition into the Pantanal included me, Gabriel, Camila and Bruna (our veterinarian Danilo Kluyber is currently finishing his master’s degree in Sao Paulo). New to the team, Bruna Oliveira is a biologist who will work mostly in the Cerrado after her training is complete in the Pantanal. She is enthusiastic, hardworking and experienced with (Geographical Information System) GIS software and the programs we will be using to model giant armadillo distributions in the Cerrado.

Maramedia filming the team for an upcoming documentary on giant armadillos.

Maramedia filming the team for an upcoming documentary on giant armadillos.

For the first few days, we were joined by a cameraman from Maramedia, who are creating a documentary about giant armadillos. Seeing the Pantanal through the lens of the camera was fascinating, and the detail and colour of our beautiful surrounds were magnified and somehow made me fall in love with them all over again. It was such a privilege to catch Isabelle again and to fit her with a GPS tag while Justin was there. I have such a soft spot for Isabelle that I am so glad we were able to film her. The battery of her transmitter has almost run out and I was very conscious this could be the last time I actually see her.

To our surprise, whilst searching for Isabelle we actually found another active giant armadillo burrow! The burrow belonged to a male and was right in the middle of Isabelle’s territory. Although there is some overlap between giant armadillos on the border of their territory, we have never before documented overlap in core areas. It was a shallow burrow that we describe as a ‘resting burrow’ as they are generally only used by animals for one night. This was the typical pattern for a visiting male.

But who could this borrow belong to? Could it be Ben, a large juvenile we caught two years ago who we believe to be Isabelle’s son? Could it be Don/Hannibal, who was responsible for killing her first young almost three years ago and whom we caught last July and is known to make brief incursions into Isabelle’s territory? Or Zezinho, a male we caught over three years ago who was the father of Isabelle’s first baby? What if it was Robert or Wally? Their territories are very far away but these animals always surprise us… And what if this was a female? That would change everything we thought we knew. Who could this be?

We set our trap and then spent the whole evening reviewing everything we knew about giant armadillos and the relationships we know we have established. Our conversations that evening would have made a gossip columnist proud. Even the lives of celebrities pale in comparison to the gossip and relationships we came up with! We even got pretty close to suggesting a long lost twin brother separated at birth… giant armadillo soap operas at their best…

Around 11 pm the piercing sound of the transmitter indicated that the trap had closed and we raced to the trap in the pitch dark. There HE was, just beautiful and calm and waiting for us… We were ecstatic.

As we fit all the animals we capture with a tiny micro-chip (the same as used on pet dogs and cats), Camilla our veterinarian was able to run the small reader over the animal’s stomach and to our mounting excitement it beeped! It was a known animal – but which one? We had to wait until we returned to the ranch to check our files.

We quickly placed the giant armadillo in a night box, as we always do, so it could settle down before being anesthetised at the crack of dawn. We do this for the animal’s health and welfare, but also so that sample collections and transmitter fittings can take place in daylight.

Left: Giant armadillo male Zezinho. Right: The team fit a GPS tag to Isabelle

Left: Giant armadillo male Zezinho. Right: The team fit a GPS tag to Isabelle

You can imagine the mood of the team was at its highest. Camila Luba, who focuses on male reproductive characteristics, has been collaborating with the project for over a year. However, since she has started we have had terrible luck with males. Houdini’s transmitter stopped working and then when we managed to find him again we were unable to catch him as he refused to come out of his burrow. Don/Hannibal’s transmitter never worked, so when his GPS fell off we lost him. Then, as you know, Alex never reached sexual maturity before he was predated. Wally had been the only male Camila has been able to study to date.

So, that night when we arrived at the ranch, we checked our files and discovered the identity of this male. It was Zezinho, one of Isabelle’s old flames that we had not seen since June 2012 when he mated with her! We had caught Zezinho in January 2012, but at the time we were experimenting with other transmitters and got very little data from him. What a great opportunity to study him this now was. It was almost too good to be true…

It was too good to be true… Zezinho broke out of the holding box!

Our wooden box has been reinforced in every possible way since Houdini and then Dolores broke out of it. I was 100% sure it was unbreakable. Check out the pictures… it obviously was not. You can imagine we were all gutted. We could not believe it. I will never leave a giant armadillo in a box on its own again; from now on we will remain until daylight with the animal. So much work, effort and patience only for Zeninho to escape…

An incredible demonstration of the burrowing capabilities of giant armadillos.

An incredible demonstration of the burrowing capabilities of giant armadillos.

Another crazy thing occurred during in August, when our three female giant armadillos appeared to exhibit nesting behaviour. This sees them building huge burrows with large sand mounds, and animals re-using the same burrow for many days. Once again all our excitement was crushed as the armadillos eventually changed burrows… how frustrating! We never got to the point of seeing a female leave a burrow and closing it, which is a sure sign that a baby was born.

All in all, the August Pantanal expedition was an emotional rollercoaster; however, if there is one thing we have learned throughout the years is perseverance. You can never give up.

I’ll update on the Cerrado in my next instalment but until then… all the best from Brazil!

Arnaud and the Giant Armadillo Conservation Project team

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

RZSS Thinker in Residence Blog

October 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

Autumnal greetings, as colourful leaves dance gently to the ground and we prepare to turn our clocks back for winter, and hibernation mode.

In light of the shorter days and longer nights I thought it might be a good opportunity to update you on two RZSS programmes under my wing, namely the Tribal Elders: Words of Wisdom lecture series, and the Residency Programme.


As a lifelong fan of campfire storytelling I have often felt in this era of technological know-how that we are as in danger of losing our treasured oral tradition for passing accumulated wisdom down from generation to generation as we are of losing many of the cherished endangered species we care so deeply to protect.

Thus was born the RZSS Tribal Elders Lecture series.

As many of you know, Dr Jane Goodall DBE was our inaugural Tribal Elder delivering a most passionate and inspiring talk entitled ‘Reasons for Hope’, followed by esteemed Professors Aubrey Manning OBE and Roger Wheater OBE.

Last week Roger Wheater returned to pass on the Tribal Elder baton to our Royal Patron, Her Royal Highness, The Princess Royal.


HRH The Princess Royal delivered a most compelling and often humorous lecture entitled ‘Committed to Conservation: You Can Make a Difference,’ offering us many personal insights from a life-long love of animals, and decades of ambassadorship on behalf of international charities like the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, Save the Children and since 2009, |The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. In closing, she praised the RZSS for the myriad conservation initiatives we are conducting at home and abroad, and she challenged each of us to be brave enough to take a stand and make a difference.

At the conclusion questions were taken from the floor, then RZSS Chairman of the Board Jeremy Peat OBE offered the Vote of Thanks. As a special thank you for her continuing and generous support as our Royal Patron, HRH The Princess Royal was presented with a handmade silver hair comb adorned with an intricately crafted rhino. This piece was created by our Silversmith in Residence Bryony Knox, and inspired by our Indian one-horned rhinos Bertus and Samir.

You can see other works by Bryony on her website: www.bryonyknox.com


Additionally, Her Royal Highness was presented with a hand woven tray specially made for her by a women’s cooperative in Uganda, supported by our Budongo Chimpanzee Field Station.   Our Chief Executive Chris West and Head of Conservation Sarah Robinson brought the basket back from recent 25th anniversary celebrations of the field station, which also marked our tenth year of financial support.

If you missed this or any of the earlier talks, all Tribal Elder lectures are filmed for the RZSS Archives and can be viewed in their entirety through RZSS websites via the Members portal.


Last month we formally launched the RZSS Residencies Programme with the first Salon at Mansion House. This programme was implemented to engage experts in a myriad of fields to collaborate with the Society in new and different ways, so as to reach and inspire broader audiences to support our conservation work in Scotland and abroad.


I am pleased to say the revolving programme has been proceeding apace, with 15 appointments under the Thinking, Creating, Doing categories, including a paleontologist, storyteller, nature photographer, organic chef, emerging wildlife artist, environmental scientist and adventurer/explorer, amongst others.

Each residency is tailored to mutually benefit the Society and the professional, and each appointment is made initially for one year, with the option to renew if an ongoing collaboration warrants continuation. I am open to new suggestions, so please feel free to write in if you have a good candidate in mind.

In closing, we must offer a sad but fond farewell to our first appointed RZSS Resident – Sculptor in Residence John ‘JR’ Ramsay – who departed this life on 24 August after a very brief illness. JR is much missed, and leaves a rich legacy of work dotted throughout Edinburgh Zoo and the Highland Wildlife Park. We shall remain ever grateful to JR for creating three superb animal sculptures for our first three Tribal Elder speakers. In his final days, JR gifted us his working anvil, which will soon find a suitable home at Edinburgh Zoo.


SAVE THE DATE: Next Tribal Elder lecture featuring Dr Lee Durrell MBE, Thursday 14th April 2016 at Edinburgh Zoo.

Kathy Sorley,
RZSS Thinker in Residence          

Chief Executive’s Blog

October 19, 2015 § Leave a comment


I have recently returned from a trip to the Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS) in Uganda, where we are celebrating a double anniversary: it is the 25th anniversary of the start of the conservation project in the Budongo Forest and it is the tenth anniversary of RZSS’s involvement with BCFS.

Photo by Sarah Robinson

Photo by Sarah Robinson

This was my first visit to the station in Uganda and it was remarkable to be able to witness the work of BCFS in the forest. For those of you who are unfamiliar with BCFS, it is a conservation project – of which RZSS is the core funder – which blends research and conservation to ensure sustainable management and utilisation of the Budongo Forest Reserve and all its wildlife. The station conducts world-class scientific research on the chimpanzees which inhabit the Budongo Forest and welcomes scientists, students and researchers from around the world. The research and activities at BCFS support policy development, conservation action and sustainable resource management.

BCFS_School_Project_SarahRobinsonI spent a week at the research station with RZSS Head of Conservation Programmes Sarah Robinson and Director of BCFS Fred Babweteera, who showed us around the station as well as some of the other communities and projects which BCFS supports, such as local communities and schools. It was also wonderful to be able to witness the chimpanzees in their natural habitat in the Budongo Forest; some of the chimpanzees even strolled through the camp.

I am also very pleased to announce that HRH The Princess Royal, the Society’s Royal Patron, delivered a talk as part of the Tribal Elders: Words of Wisdom series at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo on the evening of Thursday 15 October. The Tribal Elders talk, entitled “Committed to conservation: you can make a difference”, was a sell-out event and as a thank you for her support as Royal Patron, HRH The Princess Royal was presented with a gift of a handmade silver hair comb adorned with an intricately crafted greater one-horned rhino; created by RZSS Silversmith in Residence Bryony Knox. The gift was presented on a tray, handcrafted especially for The Princess Royal by residents of the local community in Budongo, Uganda.

151015_TE-0099And finally, in news from our other conservation projects, this week Neahga Leonard visited the Conservation Team at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo to talk about the Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project. The Cat Ba Langur or Golden-headed langur is endemic to the islands of Ca Ba in Northern Vietnam. Numbers were reduced to less than 100 individuals, largely as a result of poaching and for over a decade, Münster Zoo, the Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations (ZGAP) and Vietnamese conservation agencies have been collaborating to bring the poaching of langurs under control. As the project manager based in the Cat Ba national park, Neahga talked about some of the challenges being faced, milestones and future missions of the project going forward.

Our Giant Armadillo Conservation Project team in the Pantanal have been busy including the surrounding community in their search for giant armadillos. Distribution of posters and pamphlets throughout the local communities as well as taking education tools into to schools continues to support their efforts and help people recognise signs of Giant Armadillos in the area. There is also the potential to expand the outreach programme into 100 more schools in 2016 which is a very exciting prospect which will further help educate and engage the younger generation with the conservation of this important species.

“Only if we understand, will we care. Only if we care, will we help. Only if we help shall all be saved.”

– Jane Goodall