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.
RZSS Cat Conservation Project Officer
October 12, 2015 § Leave a comment
Normally I would start the blog by introducing you to yet another Pallas’s cat project that we support in the field. However, it has become clear that since I started writing these blogs the support, interest and commitment (from both the RZSS and our supporters) to cat conservation and research projects has grown, and for these reasons I will take a lot of pleasure in updating you on all our cat projects through this re-titled cat conservation blog.
With the momentum of our cat projects growing all the time, it has been a busy time for me both at home and abroad. Since last month we have sent further financial support to Bariushaa Munkhtsog, a Mongolian researcher who is conducting research into productivity and trends with Pallas’s cats in Central Mongolia. Not only has Bariushaa and his team spent years monitoring wild snow leopards, he is also one of the few researchers to be currently monitoring breeding female Pallas’s cats, which is providing an amazing insight into their behaviour and movements pre- and post-dispersal.
Another great achievement for RZSS was the signing of a new three year partnership with the Snow Leopard Trust and Nordens Ark Zoo in Sweden. This took place during a three-day visit to Nordens Ark where myself, Chris West (CEO) and Sarah Robinson (Head of Conservation Programmes and Science) spent time with staff from both organisations exploring the possibilities of this new joint venture. This has already opened new doors for our cat conservation and research projects and it will be amazing to see how this develops.
After several productive meetings with Scottish land managers and estates discussing how we can work together to secure the future of Scottish wildcats, I attended a week long European Association for Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) conference in Wroclaw, Poland. This gave me the opportunity to deliver presentations on our work with Scottish Wildcat Action, Pallas’s cats and snow leopards.
One of the great things about this job is not only having the chance to work with some amazing species, but having the chance to work with so many diverse people and organisations that share the same passion that I do. I am fortunate to be supported by both my own organisation and many other international colleagues and it is this support that drives my enthusiasm for conserving cat species across the globe. There are many exciting projects and events that I will be sharing with you over the coming year so stay tuned and I look forward to introducing you to more of the work that we do.
All the best until then,
RZSS Cat Conservation Project Officer
August 2, 2015 § Leave a comment
I am pleased to announce that we have recently received a pair of endangered snow leopards at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park, who went on show last week.
The male, Chan, is from Krefeld Zoo in Germany, whilst the female, Animesh, arrived from Marwell Zoo in England. We hope that the pair will have cubs to help increase the worldwide population of these rare cats. They are currently settling into their new home, which is built around a rocky cliff face on a hill in the centre of the Park. As snow leopards prefer to inhabit high mountainous terrain in the wild, their new enclosure is ideally suited to them. The female is still keeping a rather low profile as she gets used to her new environment, but will hopefully soon start wandering out of her pen more regularly.
In light of the arrival of the two snow leopards, RZSS has also recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Snow Leopard Trust and Norden’s Ark in Sweden, which will see a three year joint partnership with the three organisations. The partnership will focus on Pallas’s cat and snow leopard field research in order to aid future conservation efforts of the species, as well as to act as an educational tool.
In other news from RZSS Highland Wildlife Park, the Park has also welcomed the birth of three Scottish wildcat kittens. Born at the end of April, the kittens have recently started to wander out of their den. The birth of the kittens is great news in terms of conservation, as this critically endangered native species is facing the very real threat of extinction. Our organisation, along with more than 20 other organisations, is involved in the Scottish Wildcat Action, which is a partnership project –supported by the Scottish Government and the Heritage Lottery Fund – which represents the best chance the wildcat has of surviving in the wild. The project consists of a Priority Areas Team which is currently working to reduce the threats wildcats face in the wild, whilst RZSS has undertaken a new conservation breeding programme to help build up the population of this species.
And in further good news related to big cats, we have received a donation of over £3,000 from Nashville Zoo, in Tennessee, to support our field work support projects for Pallas’s cats. RZSS holds and coordinates the European breeding programme (EEP), as well as the international studbook (ISB) for the Pallas’s cat. Little is known of this Near Threatened species, which is why we have undertaken in-situ field work support in Iran, Nepal, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. The project will increase our understanding of this species, thereby allowing better targeted conservation efforts to save this species from extinction.
Meanwhile, at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, an incredibly rare Socorro dove has hatched. This species has been extinct in the wild since the early 1970’s and it is believed that there are less than 100 pure bred Socorro doves left in the world. RZSS has successfully been breeding this rare bird since 2005 and, along with Paignton Zoo, has sent over 12 doves to Albuquerque Zoo in Mexico to form a satellite breeding group in the hope that the offspring of these birds will be reintroduced to their native habitat on the island of Socorro, Mexico, in the near future. The last Socorro dove to hatch at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo was in 2010, so I am glad to hear of the recent hatchling and I hope that it will be able to return to its native habitat in Mexico.
“Nature is an infinite sphere of which the centre is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.”
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.
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
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”.
Our 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
April 29, 2015 § Leave a comment
By Douglas Richardson, Head of Living Collections, RZSS Highland Wildlife Park
The Captive Animal Protection Society (CAPS), with the help of a couple of their allies, recently managed to get a not inconsiderable number of column inches in various newspapers and internet news sites, including our own Strathspey and Badenoch Herald. As presented, it was a story that needed to be reported and it certainly showed Highland Wildlife Park and its parent organisation, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) in a very negative light.
The main thrust of their outrage was the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan’s, of which over 20 conservation organisations are a part, secret plot to capture wildcats and bring them into zoos to enhance our profits under the guise of saving the species.
First, the Action Plan has been available to all on the SNH’s website since the formal launch in September 2013. It clearly states that part of the plan is to develop a captive programme, including the likely need for bringing in more cats to ensure the sustainability of the captive population which is to act as both a safety net against extinction and as a source of cats for future release, once areas have been cleared of ferals and cross-bred wildcat/domestic cats; it is important to note that the majority of the Plan is focused upon conservation efforts in the field, including in Strathspey.
What I found most galling was the spurious claim that removing genetically good wildcats from the wild would accelerate their extinction. This completely ignores the fact that the reason for the wildcat’s plight is due to them being genetically swamped by feral domestics and the hybrids that ensue from cross-breeding. If we leave wildcats in these high risk environments, they will most certainly disappear. As for RZSS trying to line its pockets: any cats that are brought in from the wild and incorporated into the captive programme will be kept in large, natural, off-exhibit enclosures, invisible to our visitors. Our commitment to the species will cost us money.
In North Carolina there is a growing population of over 100 red wolves. The red wolf was persecuted by humans, not unlike the wildcat was, and the expanding coyote population began to hybridise with the wolves, again like our situation with the wildcat. The species became extinct as a wild animal in 1980. Luckily a captive programme was initiated in 1969 using a combination of the few individuals in zoos and the selective capture of some of the last pure individuals. In 1987, the first pair of captive-bred wolves were released into North Carolina.
Is it better to conserve a species in the wild? Of course it is, but if the cause of the species’ rarity is affecting all the remaining wild populations and we have the skills to manage the species in captivity until the cause of their rarity is brought under control, we would be neglecting our responsibility if we did not use all the conservation tools at our disposal.
This piece was first published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald
February 20, 2015 § Leave a comment
Well Happy Chinese New Year. The year of the goat has begun and, as we enter spring, the days are getting gradually warmer and longer. Spring and summer always prove to be eventful seasons for everybody at RZSS, with the main breeding season for many animals in full swing and a jam-packed set of summer school classes just around the corner.
Velma the Velociraptor has been out and about this week ahead of Dinosaurs Return! which will start in April. She has been meeting the public and has proved to be a big hit so far at Edinburgh Zoo and Dynamic Earth. She will continue to meet and greet visitors at various venues across Edinburgh and Glasgow until the launch.
On Monday we receive our actual animatronic dinosaurs, all the way from America. Shipped across the North Atlantic Ocean, they are as realistic as possible and are based on actual DNA research of fossilised dinosaur skin and bones. It will be all hands to the top of the hill as these giants are unloaded and assembled on site. We are inviting press along, so there should be some really memorable photographs taken recording the occasion.
The Wild about Scotland bus, our educational outreach programme in association with Clydesdale Bank, visited Edinburgh Zoo this week, with lots of children taking the opportunity to hop on board and learn about Scotland’s native species. Then yesterday (Thursday 19 February) the mobile classroom pulled up at the Scottish Parliament to engage with MSPs as part of the 10th anniversary of Scottish Environment Week. MSPs including Mike MacKenzie, Bill Kidd, Christine Grahame and Liam McArthur – to name just some – ‘got on board’ the interactive classroom. During the visit to Parliament, MSPs were asked to vote and tweet their hopes for the future of Scottish biodiversity.
If you are interested in the bus coming to your school, please go to our website to request a visit http://www.rzss.org.uk/wildaboutscotland . You can also follow all the action from the bus, including the activity at Scottish Parliament yesterday, via our dedicated Twitter feed https://twitter.com/WildaboutScot
Meanwhile, our Scottish wildcat conservation work is ongoing. This week our team meet with the Scottish Gamekeepers Association and estate managers in Ardnamurchan, to discuss of the plight of the Scottish wildcat. We are working with land managers to allow us to better monitor the wildcat population and ensure that any predator control being used is wildcat friendly. This crucial work will help to provide the Scottish wildcat with safer areas to roam and contribute to the future survival of this species.
All of the above is sadly very relevant in a week when the world’s largest earwig has been declared extinct. The St Helena Giant Earwig (Labidura herculeana) grew up to a maximum of eight centimetres long, with the last confirmed adult being spotted as far back as 1967. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has now declared the species extinct, changing its status from Critically Endangered. Since the early 1960s its habitat has been degraded, with the stones that it lived under being removed from the island by the construction industry. Through education, research and conservation, we must all work hard together to make sure examples like this do not continue to happen.
“The most important environmental issue is one that is rarely mentioned, and that is the lack of a conservation ethic in our culture.”
– Gaylord Nelson