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




Giant panda blog: Giant pandas and stem cell research

October 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

YG_EatingBamboo_1In terms of European giant panda zoos, RZSS is pretty unique. We have three agreements with our Chinese colleagues. One is the ten year loan of Yang Guang; one the ten year loan of Tian Tian; and the other is a research agreement. The giant panda zoo model that we fit into is much closer to American zoos than our European counterparts.

RZSS is currently facilitating 40 giant panda related projects around the world. Some of these projects we are funding, some we have sought external funding for, some we are collaborating and partnering other organisations, and some we are merely the gatekeepers providing samples like hair or faeces. Excitingly, our experts are currently working with nine universities in the UK.

All this research work stems from the Giant Panda Research Symposium held in Edinburgh in 2013, when RZSS gathered over 60 experts from around the world to help develop a five-year research plan for giant pandas, with the aim of generating global action on how giant pandas are cared for in zoos around the world and in Chinese reserves.

This week a scientific paper was published regarding a stem cell production project with a number of other prestigious organisations. Basically stem cells have been produced from swabs. Why is this important? Because it gives conservationists another method of bio-banking genetic resource other than sperm or eggs.

Cell lines, created from easily collectable samples like cheek swabs, help with research into some of the deadly diseases that pandas are susceptible to – such as distemper, parvovirus and retrovirus. Cell lines allow us to test potential vaccines without having to involve the animals themselves, and they can also be used for tissue repair.

Importantly, this has nothing to do with cloning, although some key figures involved in the cloning of Dolly the sheep are sharing their expertise as part of the project.

Iain Valentine

RZSS Director of Giant Pandas

RZSS WildGenes blog: Arabian sand gazelle

September 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

Over the last year we’ve been involved with a project on Arabian sand gazelle with the Office for Conservation of the Environment (OCE) in Oman.

Entering the reserve, most famous for being the site of the first Arabian Oryx reintroduction.

Entering the reserve, most famous for being the site of the first Arabian Oryx reintroduction.

Arabian sand gazelle (Gazella marica) are listed as Vulnerable across their range and are extinct in the wild within Oman. It’s difficult to estimate true numbers, but there are probably no more than 10,000 animals living in remote sandy desert regions of the Arabian Peninsula, such as in the famous Rub’ al Khali or Empty Quarter. Today they are still under threat from illegal hunting (for meat and to a lesser extent for trophies) and habitat loss, and many exist within fenced protected areas.

Sand gazelle enclosures

Sand gazelle enclosures

The reserve

The reserve

The Office for Conservation of the Environment in Oman manages a collection of over 400 individual animals at the Al Wusta Wildlife Reserve, in the central region of Oman. Over the last year, RZSS WildGenes has been collaborating with the OCE to use genetic analysis to make management decisions about this valuable collection of animals.

OCE staff at project presentation in Muscat

OCE staff at project presentation in Muscat

Blood samples were collected from the majority of the animals and tested in the labs at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo. Here we ran genetic test to verify the origin and subspecies status of the animals in the collection. Gazelle taxonomy is very complicated and different gazelle species and subspecies can be hard to distinguish, so this was an important step. Information on genetic diversity and paternity then allowed us to develop breeding recommendation that would enable the population’s genetic diversity to be preserved most effectively in coming generations, both in captivity and for an anticipated reintroduction.

RZSS WildGenes works on a number of reintroductions both within Scotland and worldwide, and the aim is always to maximise the genetic diversity of the founding population to ensure that it is able to evolve and adapt in the face of change, be this environmental change or disease outbreak.

The project also involved training of Scientists from Oman at the laboratory in RZSS Edinburgh Zoo.

RZSS WildGenes technicians Jennifer Kaden (Centre) and Muhammad Ghazali (Centre right) training scientist from the OCE and the laboratory in Edinburgh Zoo

RZSS WildGenes technicians Jennifer Kaden (Centre) and Muhammad Ghazali (Centre right) training scientist from the OCE and the laboratory in Edinburgh Zoo

Over the next year, RZSS WildGenes will be working with the OCE on a similar project for Arabian oryx.

Dr Helen Senn
RZSS WildGenes Programme Manager

Arabian oryx at the reserve

Arabian oryx at the reserve

Chief Executive’s Blog

August 24, 2015 § Leave a comment


CAT Programme_15 - FLYER - ONLINE_page 2_Page_1In September RZSS will launch a brand new conservation programme, the Conservation Action Team (or CAT for short). The CAT programme is aimed at five to 15 years old who are passionate about wildlife and want to protect it. Running once a month on Saturdays for ten months, CAT will encourage children to have fun and work as part of a team to help wildlife. The programme also offers children the opportunity to achieve their John Muir Award and is recognised as an activity by the Children’s University. Please do check out our website for more details on this fantastic new initiative.

In news from our WildGenes laboratory, the team have been using genomic sequencing to determine the father of one of the forest reindeer calves which was born in June at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park. This is incredibly useful as we will be able to ensure greater genetic diversity within our herd. One of our research scientists, Gillian Murray-Dickson, is also busy evaluating high genetic data to see if it is possible to design tests which will distinguish wild fish from farmed escapees in the Mediterranean. These tests will then be passed to the Scottish Wildlife DNA Forensics Laboratory for validation as part of a larger EU-funded project. The tests will help to stop detrimental fishing practices and to distinguish wild fish from farmed fish. Many fish farms have escapees, so this project will potentially be able to determine where the fish come from and what genetic impact the farmed fish will have on wild populations.


The Zoo will be hosting a Bee Festival next weekend, from the 29 to 31 of August. The festival links to the Society’s Residencies Programme and will be led by our Beekeeper in Residence Brian Pool. The plight of our bees and pollinators is a serious one and the event aims to raise awareness of their decline, as well as demonstrating how much we rely on them and what we can do to protect our native species. The festival also aims to spark the imagination of young people on the subject of conservation and to show them that they too can make a difference, no matter how small.

15_8_15_Dinosaur_Rickshaw_3Elsewhere, we are also currently running a competition at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo which is linked to our Dinosaurs Return! exhibition and our recently launched “dino-shaws” in the city centre. If you haven’t spotted them yet, we have three dinosaur themed rickshaws travelling through the city. If you spot one, take a “selfie” of yourself with one of the rickshaws, or even just a quick snap of the rickshaw itself, to enter our competition. Selfies with the dinosaurs at the exhibition can also be entered into our weekly competition, with the winner taking home a Living Dinosaur Magic Moment experience at the Zoo. Send your photos to our Twitter and Facebook accounts to enter

“Every individual matters. Every individual has a role to play. Every individual makes a difference.”

Jane Goodall

Chief Executive’s Blog

August 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Margaret Morse Nice

Chief Executive’s Blog

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

July 13, 2015 § Leave a comment


I am pleased to announce that our new conservation corridor has recently opened on the walkway between the Scottish wildcat enclosure and tiger enclosure at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo. The new walkway features large panels and interactive displays which will take visitors on a journey of discovery through RZSS’s conservation work.

A walk through the corridor will educate visitors about one of Scotland’s rarest species, the wildcat, as well as other larger carnivores such as the Sumatran tiger and snow leopard. It also provides visitors with a wealth of information about species which have been saved from the brink of extinction, plus information on creatures of the sea, the WildGenes laboratory at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo and global conservation projects which RZSS is involved in.


Central to the message of this walkway is that visitors to the Zoo can take the first steps to safeguarding species from extinction on their very own doorsteps, protecting wildlife in their gardens and making small changes in their day to day routines. The mantra, in other words, is very much “think global, act local”.

14_12_04_ScottishWildcat_1_kp_fbOur work with the Scottish wildcats and Pallas’s cats is ongoing, with good progress being made. We have now installed a wildcat trail camera at Pitcastle Estate, which will enable us to monitor this rare and elusive species. We are also currently in discussions with a number of estate factors and owners who are all very positive and keen support the wildcat project. We have also just received new images and footage from our Mongolian Pallas’s cat field project, which shows an adult female with young, this will be released shortly. In the meantime you can read the latest RZSS Pallas’s cat project update here.

A week or so ago a delegation from the State Forestry Administration of the People’s Republic of China come to visit us at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo. A total of six people made the trip, including the Vice Minister from the Ministry, making this the most senior Chinese delegation to have visited us since the panda programme began. The first day of their visit involved a series of meetings, but the following day the delegation were taken to meet our pandas and the panda team. The delegation enjoyed their time here and important relationships were fostered.

At the beginning of this month, RZSS participated in a special exchange event alongside research leaders from Heriot-Watt University and the Moredun Research Institute. The event was aimed at stimulating novel interdisciplinary research collaborations and proposing new ideas for even closer cooperation between the three institutions. The event participants represented a wide range of biological, engineering, management, physical and mathematical sciences spanning many of the principal areas of research between the three organisations. The event ran over two days and provided a clear insight into the research aims, expertise and facilities of the three institutions.

Further afield, RZSS’s Illegal Wildlife Trade Conservation Programme Manager, Dr Ross McEwing, recently organised a workshop in America: “The illegal wildlife trade in Africa and South East Asia and the challenges of the wildlife forensic response”. The workshop was jointly organised by Ross, TRAFFIC and TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network and was funded by the UK and US governments. This helped ensure attendance from developing countries, enabling wildlife scientists from Africa and Southeast Asia to attend the conference. The conference explored how wildlife forensics is helping fight the illegal wildlife trade by providing critical insight into the monitoring of trade routes and the origin of seized wildlife and wildlife products, assisting law enforcement by analysing critical evidence for the prosecution of wildlife offenders.

The illegal wildlife trade is currently booming, with extremely high demand for elephant ivory and rhino horn. Rhino are currently facing likely extinction due to increased poaching, with a number of rhino subspecies already declared extinct. Southern Africa in particular is bearing the brunt of this activity, with more than 680 rhinos poached in South Africa this year alone. This only serves to highlight how important RZSS’s work combatting the illegal wildlife trade is.


At RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, we have also just welcomed a new, critically endangered, male Sumatran tiger to the collection at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo. The new tiger, Jambi, arrived this week from Berlin Tier Park and will partner up with our resident female tiger Baginda in the hope that they will eventually have cubs to increase the numbers of this extremely rare species.

“Man shapes himself through decisions that shape his environment.” – Rene Dubos

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