Edinburgh Zoo enjoys blast from prehistoric past

One youngster gets up close and personal with a dinosaur at the exhibition currently running at Edinburgh Zoo. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
One youngster gets up close and personal with a dinosaur at the exhibition currently running at Edinburgh Zoo. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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STUNNING exhibition of dinosaurs will highlight problem of extinction in the modern world, writes Chris West.

Over the last few weeks at Edinburgh Zoo some very large and very unusual creatures have been taking up residence at the top of the hill.

The exhibition will be a valuable learning zone for schoolchildren from across Scotland

A new type of inhabitant, we have welcomed a number of giant animatronic and incredibly realistic dinosaur models – a total of 14 to be exact – who are currently taking in the views over the fine city of Edinburgh.

Some might wonder why a conservation charity like the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, dedicated to preserving the natural world, is to have a six-month long exhibition like this. However, the connection is actually much more obvious than you might think.

As an unfunded conservation charity we rely on donations, our loyal members and paying visitors that come through the doors of Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park, so yes, these immensely popular creatures and an exhibition of this kind and duration will certainly drive footfall.

It is a proven model that has worked well at zoos elsewhere in the country and internationally and has been greeted locally with much excitement and enthusiasm. But this project is about so much more than boosting visitor numbers.

Dinosaurs Return! will position the visitor as an explorer of the prehistoric age, with key messages presented in a fun and engaging way, that link the project back to our Society’s mission statement – “connecting people with nature and safeguarding species from extinction”. This is key for us and absolutely central to everything we do.

The exhibition will allow visitors to explore a lost world of creatures that really existed (ie, not King Kong or Godzilla!) and that were on planet Earth up to 65 million years ago whilst simultaneously rediscovering the natural world of today. Included will be the most ferocious, the heaviest, the best protected against predators, the best hunters and the largest winged dinosaurs. We hope Dinosaurs Return! will capture the imagination of visitors, through the sheer scale of dinosaurs – their ferocity, individual adaptations and “other worldliness”, all set within a specially designed landscape that we hope will mentally transport our visitors back in time.

A key part of our large-scale display will also be engaging and highly imaginative interpretation and specially trained “dinosaur keepers” who will help bring the exhibition to life – if you have been to visit the giant panda experience at Edinburgh Zoo you will have met our panda experience team, Dinosaurs Return! will take a very similar approach. Key areas of focus for these dinosaur keepers will be telling the stories of extinction, evolution and palaeontology, as well as communicating the many amazing facts about the dinosaurs.

These “wow factors” have the ability to endlessly capture the imaginations of children and adults alike and it is this hook that we want to use to get visitors excited about our very own conservation projects. Edinburgh Zoo features incredibly diverse animals from around the world, including fierce apex predators, apes that share 98 per cent of our DNA and some of the rarest birds on the planet. The exhibition will offer us the opportunity to engage wide ranging and varied audiences and tell the stories of our living collection and highlight some very real evolutionary connections between dinosaurs and certain existing species, such as birds.

In line with the Curriculum for Excellence, the exhibition will be a valuable learning zone for schoolchildren from across Scotland, and the wider United Kingdom. We will also look at Scottish palaeontology, including Scotland’s “Jurassic Park”, the Isle of Skye, where an incredible number of dinosaur discoveries have been made – from new species to footprints – and explore if Nessie was a plesiosaur. There will even be an interactive fossil dig.

On another level we hope to make the connection on a deeper level, talking about extinction and it is terrible consequences. RZSS will also be using this collection of long-lost giants to raise awareness about the very real threat of extinction faced today by many of the world’s existing endangered species. Indeed, many refer to the current crisis in the natural world as the “sixth extinction”, but obviously the issues aren’t mega volcanos and asteroids – the danger this time is humans, it’s us.

We hope that with this exhibition the amazement and wonder of our visitors will be a spark that ignites interests in other chapters of the conservation story.

Dinosaurs Return! runs at Edinburgh Zoo from 3 April to 1 November 2015. Please visit www.edinburghzoo.org.uk for further information and to book your tickets now.

• Chris West is chief executive of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland www.rzss.org.uk

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