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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
September 9, 2015 § Leave a comment
Last week I was in Kathmandu setting up genetic analysis methods for the Himalayan Wolf Project.
The project, which aims to provide a scientific basis for national and international conservation of the Himalayan wolf, is led by Geraldine Werhahn who is a researcher with the University of Oxford’s WildCru. RZSS Wildgenes is partnering with the project by providing design of genetic protocols and training to the Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal, a laboratory in the capital Kathmandu.
Geraldine has just returned from a two month expedition to the remote Humla Valley where she surveyed the wolves and collected their scats for analysis. In future, surveys will be expanded across the region where wolves are now predominantly confined to remote high valleys. Wolves are threatened by hunting both for protection against livestock loss and for the wildlife trade as their paws are popular talismans.
Whilst Geraldine has been spending long days at altitude (over 4000m) looking for samples, the WildGenes team has been busy at the lab at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo developing genetic protocols for analysis of the samples. We did this with the help of the keepers from RZSS Highland Wildlife Park who collected scats from our very own grey wolves so that we could test-run the methods.
Once we had the protocols up and running, I could travel to Kathmandu to transfer them to the team at the Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal who will conduct the bulk of the analysis. We are aiming to use genetic profiling to understand how many wolves there are, what sex they are and how evolutionarily different they are from Eurasian grey wolf.
Dr Helen Senn
RZSS Research Scientist
August 24, 2015 § Leave a comment
In 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.
Elsewhere, 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.”
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.
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.
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
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
June 12, 2015 § Leave a comment
It seems as if summer has finally arrived with some glorious sunny weather.
Over in still warmer climes, our Giant Armadillo Conservation Project team out in the Brazilian Pantanal has been very busy over the past two months and has made great progress. The team has undertaken two expeditions recently: the first was a short one week expedition, led by the team’s Project Biologist, Gabriel Massocato. The objective of the expedition was to locate the armadillos they had been tracking as the group had not been in the field for a month due to heavy rains. The team managed to find Alex, the young giant armadillo, within a few hours and were rather surprised to find that he is still in his mother’s territory. Alex will turn two on 2 July. The researchers also managed to track down Alex’s mother, Isabelle who, according to close inspections of her burrows and the camera traps, has not yet had another baby. They are monitoring Isabelle closely to find out if she is pregnant and when she will have her next baby, as this information is crucial for our understanding of giant armadillo reproduction and population growth rates.
The second expedition in the Pantanal is one I have mentioned in a previous blog post, but the results were particularly interesting. In May, the Giant Armadillo Conservation Project team advanced their reproduction study, with the help of veterinarian and reproduction specialist Camila Luba. An examination of Alex showed that he has not yet reached sexual maturity, which is a very interesting finding indeed, as it gives valuable information about the reproduction of giant armadillos and how long it takes them to reach sexual maturity. The team is also still searching for traces of giant armadillos in the Sao Paulo state, where giant armadillos are thought to have gone extinct over 40 years ago. The scientists are currently working hard to expand the project and have just hired a student for a few months as well as a biologist.
Meanwhile, at our WildGenes lab located at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, Conservation Geneticist Dr Gill Murray-Dickson is busy preparing a genetic tool poster for identifying the geographic origin of snake skins in commercial trade. The DNA tests are being developed to provide evidence of origin to regulatory bodies that investigate illegal trade. This will allow authorities to determine whether the snake skins used in commercially sold items were illegally poached. The poster will be presented at an ITC (International Trade Centre) and DICE (Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology) symposium in Canterbury this month.
BIAZA (British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums) held its annual award ceremony this week at Woburn Safari Park. The event, also known as the Zoo Oscars, is held to celebrate some of the contributions made by the zoo community to animal welfare, wildlife conservation, public understanding and horticulture. I am very pleased to announce that the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland walked away with a fair number of awards. In the Animal Breeding, Care and Welfare category, RZSS received three silver awards for the hand rearing of Darwin’s rhea chicks, the successful rearing of a chimpanzee by a previously unsuccessful mother and captive husbandry for European elk/moose. In the Conservation category we were awarded silver for our work on the Scottish Beaver Trial. In the Education category we were awarded two Bronze awards for our Scottish Beaver Trial and Beyond the Panda education programmes. And finally, we received a Bronze in the PR, Marketing, Digital and Events section for ‘Inspire, Engage and Enrich: a new digital presence for Scotland’s iconic Zoo’.
And in other news, our new pelican walkthrough exhibit at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo will be opening on Monday 15 June. The building and gardens teams have been hard at work over the last few months to get the walkthrough ready and I must say it looks fantastic. As of Monday, visitors will be able to walk through the pelican enclosure, getting up close to the pelicans with unrestricted views. The walkthrough is full of beautiful plantings and willow trees that are around 100 years old, as well as a number of ponds and cascading waterfalls. We have another special walkthrough exhibit opening soon, but I will tell you more about that closer to the time.
“The wilderness holds answers to questions man has not yet learned to ask.”- Nancy Newhal