Connecting people with nature. Safeguarding species from extinction.
Established in 1909 by Edinburgh lawyer Thomas Gillespie, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland has been working to safeguard species from extinction and connect people to nature for over 100 years. RZSS is a leading conservation NGO, dedicated to researching and protecting endangered species around the world. In Scotland, the Society operates RZSS Edinburgh Zoo and RZSS Highland Wildlife Park, learning from our amazing animal collections, providing safe environments, and translating this knowledge back into global conservation and education programmes to inspire people of all ages to care about nature. Since its inception, RZSS has placed a great emphasis on the conservation of biodiversity and the contribution that scientific research must make in that process.
Roisin Campbell-Palmer – Conservation Projects Manager.
Roisin has always had an interest in working with animals, undertaking her degree in Zoology at Glasgow University, and then completing her MSc in Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare at the University of Edinburgh. From her school days and through university she volunteered for a number of animal charities, and was employed as an animal keeper at Edinburgh Zoo where she began work in the bird and reptile section. After several years’ experience of being a zoo keeper and successfully completing the ANC in Management of Zoo Animals, she took a senior keeper position in the newly established Living Links Primate Research facility, based at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo.
Research and conservation are her real passion and when she was offered an opportunity to work more closely with Telemark University College to undertake research on wild beavers in Norway she took it willingly. This led to her involvement in the Scottish Beaver Trial and undertaking her PhD at Telemark University College, investigating the health and welfare of beavers used in conservation projects, on which she has produced several publications.
As part of her responsibilities as the Conservation Projects Manager for RZSS, she acts as the Field Operations Manager for the Scottish Beaver Trial. This role involves the daily management of the field work programme and management of field officers, monitoring of the animals involved, public and stakeholder engagement, presentation of scientific findings, supervising student placements and volunteers, delivery of the monitoring programme and upholding licence conditions. Another important part of this job is to undertake research to increase our knowledge about processes involved in any potential reintroductions from the sourcing and selection of wild individuals, to their captive management, release process and subsequent ecological impact and welfare of released individuals.
The Scottish Beaver Trial is one of our key native species conservation projects. RZSS, along with the Scottish Wildlife Trust, made a successful application to the Scottish Government for the scientific trial reintroduction of beavers to Knapdale Forest, Mid-Argyll in 2008. The Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) is a native mammal that became extinct from Scotland, largely through hunting pressure, almost 400 years ago. Its reintroduction has been proposed and debated over at least the last 30 years. Any reintroduction process involves a number of disciplines including ecology, veterinary science and animal husbandry.
Beavers are unique mammals that often capture people’s imagination. They play a key role in wetland ecology and species biodiversity, providing vital ecosystem services including habitat creation, water management and quality improvement, and reducing sediment erosion. At the same time, their activities can present real challenges for land and wildlife managers.
One of the most political, interesting and controversial issues in the beaver reintroduction to Britain story has been the appearance of unlicensed beavers in the countryside, especially within the River Tay and Earn catchments in Perthshire, and on the River Otter in Devon. There is growing evidence of beavers at a number of sites throughout Britain that have not been part of an official release process. The largest of these population are known as the “Tayside beavers” and there has been much media interest in these animals. Following a successful public campaign against their removal, the Scottish Government agreed to “tolerate” their presence until they have processed the findings of the Scottish Beaver Trial and made a decision on the future of all beavers in Scotland. RZSS have been actively involved undertaking health screening work and genetic testing to provide further information on these animals. We have also been working with landowners and various stakeholders in an advisory manner to develop practical mitigation, enabling people to live alongside this species again.
The scientific monitoring aspect of the Scottish Beaver Trial has now been completed, with findings available on the Scottish Natural Heritage website http://www.snh.gov.uk/. Further information on the Scottish Beaver Trial, including the final report, can be found at our website http://www.scottishbeavers.org.uk/, while further details on the conservation projects undertaken by RZSS can be found on http://www.rzss.org.uk/conservation-programmes with further details on careers working with animals http://www.edinburghzoo.org.uk/faqs-working-with-animals/
The preservation of wildcats (Felis silvestris) in Scotland is another major conservation project for RZSS. We are at a critical point for the species which is under massive pressure particularly from hybridisation with feral domestic cats. Roisin manages the RZSS aspects of the Scottish Wildcat Action project, including the securing of a conservation breeding programme, which aims to screen and trap wildcats to increase the genetic diversity and purity of the current captive population for later release into the wild. Every aspect of the breeding and release process is crucial to ensure cats competent for survival in the wild are put back into areas where the hybridisation risk has been managed. The daily work associated with this project is varied, including the management of field staff, data collection and analysis, working with communication staff to promote the plight of the Scottish wildcat, developing management strategies with the genetics team, and working with the animal department to build suitable enclosures and husbandry programmes. This project also involves working with a wide range of organisations and stakeholders, all committed to saving the Scottish wildcat.
Project website: http://www.scottishwildcataction.org/
Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan: http://c-js.co.uk/1N49b7H
Colin Oulton – Animal Team Leader.
With a lifelong interest in the natural world, Colin studied at the University of Aberdeen, gaining a BSc in Zoology in 1995. Inspired by an advert for Arabian oryx reintroduction field staff, he set about gaining practical experience with animals and returned to Edinburgh to volunteer at the Zoo. Colin studied a group of free-ranging marmosets and collaborated with the keepering staff to make environmental enrichment devices for the animals. An opening on the hoofstock section led to him working with a variety of ungulates for the next three and a half years before a role on a primate-based section came up. After a period on birds and reptiles, he was promoted to Head Keeper of the Bird Section following a departmental reorganisation in 2004.
On a daily basis, his role is split between the hands-on tasks of a zookeeper and that of managing the section staff, stock and aviaries, assisted by two Senior Keepers. In conjunction with senior Living Collections staff, Team Leaders contribute to the daily running of the department and longer term development of the animal collection: bringing their expertise to bear on topics such as species choice, enclosure suitability, animal management and staff skills.
RZSS Edinburgh Zoo is a member of BIAZA (British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums) and Colin has been Chair (or co-Chair) of the BIAZA Bird Working Group since 2009. He is also a regular attendee and contributor at EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquaria) Taxon Advisory Group meetings and holds the European Studbook for thick-billed parrots.
In terms of how zoos can contribute to in situ conservation, Colin points to RZSS’s involvement in the Socorro Dove Project. The Socorro dove (Zenaida graysoni) is a small dark brown dove from an island 600 km west of the coast of Mexico. Though not the most “showy” bird in Edinburgh’s collection, he finds the story of its extinction in the wild, its accidental salvation and the hope for its future, fascinating.
First described in 1865 by American ornithologist Andrew Jackson Grayson, it was considered common across Socorro from expedition reports in the 1920s. Very little was written about the dove and the vast majority of knowledge has been gained from specimens studied in aviaries.
Last recorded on Socorro in 1972, the species is classed as Extinct in the Wild by the IUCN. Several factors were thought to be involved: over-hunting following the establishment of a Mexican naval base in 1957, predation by feral cats introduced by families of navy personnel, and over-grazing by sheep introduced a century before. The understorey vegetation and especially the fruiting trees that the doves probably depended upon is severely degraded over large areas of the island.
In 1988 scientists visited Socorro and subsequently launched an initiative to restore the damaged ecosystem and reintroduce the Socorro dove. Dr Luis Baptista was at the forefront of this effort, establishing the Island Endemics Foundation and the Socorro Dove Project. By remarkable good fortune, doves had been sent to US and European aviculturalists in the 1920s and so a captive population existed, though many of the US birds had been deliberately hybridised with mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) and were thus unsuitable for reintroduction purposes.
Therefore birds in zoos and private aviaries in Europe form the basis of the captive population, managed as a European Endangered species Programme (EEP) and co-ordinated by Dr Stefan Stadler of Frankfurt Zoo since its inception. There have been 24 participants in 9 European countries, with a further six collections currently awaiting birds. Due to the efforts of the EEP partners and colleagues in US and Mexico, there also now exists a “non-hybrid” population in several North American collections that work in close co-operation with the EEP.
RZSS first became involved in February 2005 and Edinburgh Zoo has since bred 16 youngsters to four different pairs. Carefully managed introductions are used to establish pairings as males can be notoriously aggressive in their pursuit of females.
With the Mexican authorities’ restrictive legislation concerning avian influenza being potentially “imported” from Europe, birds were sent to the US so that any further transfer to Mexico might be more straightforward. Following pre-export screening at Edinburgh in October 2008, 12 birds underwent a quarantine period before moving to Rio Grande Biological Park, New Mexico. These birds, or their descendants, will form the basis of the population for any reintroduction attempts on Socorro. They also act as a reserve population, helping to relieve some of the holding-space pressure in European zoos.
This population has increased to around 50 individuals in five North American collections bringing the global population to around 130 birds. Perhaps the most significant transfer was six birds to Africam Safari Zoo's breeding station at Valsequillo, Mexico in 2013. They were the first Socorro doves on Mexican soil for 4 decades, a major milestone for the international partners of the Socorro Dove Project. To top this, in the spring of 2014, Africam Safari reported a successful breeding from one of their pairs.
On Socorro Island, a variety of organisations continue to prepare the island for the return of the doves. The Mexican Navy has provided logistic support and constructed aviaries where birds would be held prior to any release programme. The Socorro Dove Project partners continue to engage and work with the Mexican authorities and though there is still a long way to go, Colin believes the likelihood of Socorro doves returning to the wild is considerably higher than it has ever been.
Edinburgh Zoo website link: http://c-js.co.uk/1X95oRk
Footage of the doves at Africam Safari in Mexico can be seen at: http://youtu.be/r1TH9d_zd1U
Further information on the Socorro dove can be found at http://c-js.co.uk/1PK1x9c
Updated information January 2017:
The two lead partners in the Scottish Beaver Trial – the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) and the Scottish Wildlife Trust – warmly welcomed the announcement on 24 November 2016 from the Scottish Government that the Eurasian beaver is to be formally recognised as a native species, 400 years after being hunted to extinction in the UK.
Returning beavers to Scotland’s lochs and rivers is the first formal mammal reintroduction in UK history. Today’s announcement is a major success story for conservation, and the culmination of nearly two decades’ work.
RZSS website: http://www.rzss.org.uk/
RZSS Conservation Programmes: http://www.rzss.org.uk/conservation/
Edinburgh Zoo http://www.edinburghzoo.org.uk/