Talking to the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, who own Edinburgh Zoo and the Highland Wildlife Park, Ailie McWhinnie investigates the vital conservation work in Scotland and around the world that has taken a hit during the pandemic, and what we can do to help.
The Cairngorm plateau, a wild and rugged landscape strewn with purple September heather, has always been a destination for hillwalkers. This summer, it became a refuge for many more, seeking to escape the confines of their lockdown homes. It is perhaps not, however, the place one might expect to meet a polar bear. But the heights of this spectacular plateau is actually home to the most extensive range of arctic mountain landscape in Britain, providing the perfect home for the bears and their cosy-coated compatriots at the Highland Wildlife Park. Unlike the hills, however, the park had to close their gates for three months in line with Scottish government ruling.
Lockdown gave the animals at Edinburgh Zoo and the Highland Wildlife Park an extended break from visitors; maybe the longest they have gone in their lives without continuous gawping from us. Did you notice any changes in the animals’ behaviour without visitors, or when visitors returned?
While we were closed, our dedicated keepers and vets worked hard to make life as normal as possible for our animals, though our chimpanzee troop were spotted coming up to their windows looking out for visitors and our penguins haven’t yet been able to take part in their penguin parade.
As part of a wide range of safety measures put in place when we reopened, visitor numbers were gradually increased which allowed everyone, animals included, to adjust to having more people around.RZSS
After hearing about the antics of these beautiful animals, I had to visit them for myself, and their personalities instantly shine through. One of the adult male polar bears, Walker, was entertained for a large part of the visit by blowing bubbles in his pond. A vicuna – a type of wild alpaca from the mountains of South America – chased birds across the moor. The wildcats tumbled around on top of each other like the kittens they are. The animals certainly seem to keep themselves occupied. Perhaps, then, it is us – the gawpers – who have been hit hardest by the zoo closures; the animals certainly don’t need us to entertain them.
It is not, of course, as simple as this. Looking after so many animals with specialist requirements is expensive. Having a fun day out at the zoo is a happy side-effect, but the foremost purpose of visitors is to fund this, and without us there to gawp, money quickly starts to run dry.
Various zoos have reported major struggles throughout the lockdown period without critical funding from visitors. How has RZSS coped?
Being closed cut off 90% of the funds needed to care for thousands of animals and while we are now open again, visitor numbers remain restricted and it is still a very difficult time for our charity.
We are incredibly grateful for all the support we have had from the public so far and really hope it will continue. Every visit, adoption, membership and donation helps to protect endangered animals in Scotland and around the world.RZSS
Around the world. Edinburgh Zoo and the Highland Wildlife Park are certainly the most prominent public faces of their work with over a million visitors each year, but a huge amount of their conservation work is actually conducted in the wild, both locally in the UK, and around the world.
In a recent article, we explored how international projects have taken a hit during lockdown – is this something you experienced?
As a charity, the visitor income from both our parks supports 23 wild conservation projects around the world and now, more than ever, fundraising is critical to help this work continue.
Two of our long-term partners, the Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS) in Uganda and the Giant Armadillo Conservation Project in Brazil, have faced serious challenges. The BCFS team have studied the chimps of Budongo Forest since the 1960s and have done a brilliant job continuing with their monitoring and snare removal patrols in the face of curfews and travel restrictions. Some staff moved into the field station to minimise infection transmission risks. This might sound idyllic to those desperate to get outdoors into nature, but it also meant they weren’t able to see their families for over 10 weeks.
In Brazil, travel restrictions caused similar disruptions to the study of giant armadillos and giant anteaters, and some field sites were completely unreachable. The team relies on camera traps to monitor these elusive animals, and issues with international postage mean they are not receiving this much-needed equipment.
Both projects have recorded an increase in trespassing and illegal activities. With the team’s presence reduced in the Budongo Forest, snares, logging, and poaching increased. The team in Brazil are also faced with another record-breaking forest fire season.RZSS
Human-created threats require active human intervention. In most cases, it is too late to just ‘let nature return to nature’ itself, and examples like these from lockdown have proved so indisputably.
It is easy to imagine conservation issues like these as a far-away issue in the tropical rainforests and coral reefs of picture books and our imaginations, but here in the UK, many creatures are under threat. Countless species have already been hunted to extinction over the centuries, like the beaver, the bear and the wolf, and many more are at risk today through habitat loss. These local species often garner much less press and enthusiasm than the exotic panda or the orangutan, but RZSS have long been fighting for them beneath our very noses.
The recently drawn up Red List of British mammals has shown that one quarter of native mammals are at risk of extinction. Can you highlight any projects you have working with these at risk animals?
Yes, we work with endangered and critically endangered native species, and have been at the forefront of wildcat and beaver conservation work in Scotland for over ten years.
It is a particularly exciting time as we’ve been working in partnership with the Scottish Wildlife Trust to reintroduce beavers to Scotland since 2009 and the project is wrapping up at the end of this year. The Scottish Beavers Trial and subsequent Reinforcement Project has successfully reintroduced beavers into Knapdale, marking the first ever successful reintroduction of a mammal in the UK.
Meanwhile our wildcat conservation efforts are moving into a new phase. In collaboration with national and international partners, we are leading the ambitious Saving Wildcats project, the first wildcat recovery project in Britain focusing on conservation breeding for release. Visit savingwildcats.org.uk to find out more.
Both these species are vital parts of healthy, functioning Scottish ecosystems. We’re proud to be part of restoring them to our landscapes.RZSS
Have any of the projects here in Scotland been affected by the lockdown?
With all the restrictions in place, most of our projects have been affected in some capacity. Even minor disruption to timelines can have big knock on effects.
Our dedicated teams have worked hard to continue making progress during this challenging time, including the keepers at Highland Wildlife Park who care for the breeding population of critically endangered pine hoverfly. This year we’ve had 180 larvae emerge, almost 10 times more than last year! Caring for these tiny creatures is incredibly time consuming as each life stage requires a different and specific environment, so this really is an amazing achievement.RZSS
It is easy to become complacent about the species we have here at home. For some reason, there is less of a sense of urgency around local conservation than international projects.
Prohibitively expensive voluntourism trips are frequently flaunted around university campuses – perhaps diving with the turtles in Costa Rica or building a new national park in Namibia – but little is mentioned about those happening here on our doorstep.
The Scottish government’s 2020 Challenge for Scotland’s Biodiversity puts heavy emphasis on volunteers, in addition to part-time and full-time employees, in its strategy with a diverse range of expertise. As my personal biology interests lie in the microscopic rather than macroscopic world, I was excited to hear about RZSS’s WildGenes project, bringing conservation work into the laboratory.
Typically when I imagine working in conservation, I imagine working outdoors directly with the animals, so joining the effort from a lab is intriguing. Can you tell us more about the WildGenes project?
RZSS WildGenes is one of the only zoo-based wildlife genetics labs in the world.
Since opening in 2010, the lab team has made genetic research more accessible to conservation practitioners around the world. They use DNA, the ‘instruction manual’ that makes you who you are, to find patterns within and between the individuals, families or populations of endangered species and use this to inform conservation efforts.
Look over the shoulder of one of our geneticists and you will see an amazing assortment of material, from snakeskin to beaver blood and elephant tusks to capercaillie feathers. These samples can answer questions about the exact species, where the individual came from and even how many individuals there are and how they are related.
RZSS WildGenes projects are incredibly diverse, with the common theme being to translate genetic data into practical conservation action. By using genetic data alongside other information, including field surveys, behavioural monitoring and captive breeding, we can better understand a species’ conservation needs.RZSS
After four hundred years, we are the first generation who can go out and see beavers in the wild in Scotland. WildGenes helped make this possible, and similar work is currently being carried out with wildcats. After WildGenes discovered the extent of wildcat hybridisation (interbreeding with domestic or feral cats) within the wild population, the species was deemed non-viable. This means that there are so few pure wildcats remaining in the wild that without intervention, wildcats will no longer exist.
WildGenes, using cutting-edge techniques such as ddRAD to sequence and compare genomes, is now a critical tool for the captive breeding programme which is currently underway to produce a genetically secure wildcat population for reintroduction to the highlands of Scotland.
RZSS is working hard for these species to make a comeback in the future, but meanwhile there have been many anecdotes of nature making its own comeback during lockdown. Mountain goats in wales, wild boar in Barcelona; our feeds have been filled with accidental urban rewilding, and with everything closed, people have been turning to the outdoors for entertainment.
Do you think that lockdown has impacted people’s attitudes towards conservation, wildlife and nature?
‘Connecting people with nature’ is one of RZSS’ core objectives and it has been wonderful to see how people truly value being outside and are discovering the nature on their doorstep. ‘Nature’ is tropical jungles, glittering reefs, and awe-inspiring mountain ranges, but it is also the wildlife in your local park, the bird feeder on your washing line, or the bucket filled with rainwater on your patio. At Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park we have lions, tigers, polar bears, and pandas, but we are equally proud of the native biodiversity that can be found on both sites as a result of the green spaces our parks provide.
Spending time outdoors has proven health benefits and, as is so often the case, we don’t appreciate what we have until it is gone. However, as lockdown eases, we are hearing reports of littering, fly tipping, and wider abuse of wild areas. As well as an appreciation of nature, we need to develop a sense of stewardship and encourage people to take ownership of their local patch and contribute to its protection.RZSS
Sadly, this is now a well-established concern, particularly along popular routes like the North Coast 500. It’s a difficult balance to strike. On the one hand, tourism can be an essential economic tool, and recruits new voices to campaign for the survival of an area. On the other hand, those who are passing through may not consider the long-term consequences of their actions, as they will be gone long before they can see them for themselves. We can only hope that through various ‘new normal’ campaigns this balance will shift positively. Learning to appreciate the wonders that surround us at home as much as those of faraway lands will surely be beneficial in changing minds.
Are there opportunities for people to see RZSS’s local work, or even to get involved themselves?
We do have some opportunities for interns if you have funding for a minimum of six months and an interest in conservation genetics or the mechanics of reintroductions. Vacancies are rarely advertised, so get in touch if you’d like to find out more. The best way to see our broad range of projects is via our lockdown YouTube series #RZSSGoesWild. RZSS Conservation Programme Manager Dr Helen Taylor produced a twelve-part series introducing projects like our work on flapper skates in western Scotland, Pallas’s cats in Mongolia, and penguins in the mid-Atlantic ocean. Find the series on YouTube or our social media channels.
We are a wildlife conservation charity and so one of the best ways to get involved in our work is to raise funds and awareness. Whether it is a direct donation or sharing our latest Facebook post, it really makes a difference. Group fundraising challenges are good fun and a great chance to get to know a new class or team. You can have a team knit-a-thon, plan a marathon relay (in the gym, or in the park!), or get creative and sell your wares. We’ve written a list of ideas to help put the fun into your fundraising here.RZSS
How can we help?
Very easily, and we’d love your support!
Visit Edinburgh Zoo or Highland Wildlife Park – It’s a great day out and contributes to conservation efforts.
Become a member – we offer a student discount and you get free visits to both our parks for a full year!
Fundraise with us! We are asking as many people as possible to support our Survival Fund by donating or fundraising. Find out more at rzss.org.uk/fundraise.
If you want to hear more and would like to virtually meet some of our wild RZSS experts, don’t miss out on two upcoming online talks hosted by the EU Conservation Society and the EU Sustainable Development Association.
RZSS conservation experts will be sharing news straight from the field and are ready to answer your questions! The talks will be held online on Monday 14 September and Thursday 8th October 2020. Head to eusda.org.uk for more information.RZSS
My favourite example of an unexpected contribution to the RZSS’s efforts was at the end of my trip to the wildlife park. Upon a final visit to the red pandas, I noticed their small round houses dotted among the trees. It turns out that the local distillery, Tomatin, donated their whisky barrels to be used as housing for the red pandas.
There really is no excuse not to get involved – get creative.
Written by Ailie McWhinnie, in conversation with Jess Wise on behalf of the RZSS, and edited by Tara Gamble.
Ailie’s thoughts… The beginnings of lockdown seemed to offer a glimpse of green hope as many began celebrating nature and sharing images of wildlife making a comeback in their home towns, but it quickly became clear that apart from these stories, in the background, conservation was suffering the same fate as other sectors. But here, it wasn’t just the economy at stake, but the lives of many species – some of them already at risk.
I am determined to explore every inch of the great Scottish outdoors, and I’ll certainly be paying a lot more attention now to the beautiful animals we share it with. There is a deep sense of wonder and privilege when you spot a rare animal in the wild – an otter gliding through the water, or a golden eagle gliding above. Next on my list to spot is a beaver, and that has been made possible by years of work reintroducing them.