Linklater's Scotland

Share this article

IT IS a cold, wet winter's day, and the animals don't like it.

A zoo rarely looks its best in these conditions. It's hard for a chimp to radiate enthusiasm when the rain is seeping into his fur. Only the ducks seem to enjoy it. But something seems to have happened to Edinburgh Zoo since I was last here. I watch the hunting dogs, not from behind grim iron railings or a concrete barrier, but from an African hut, which I reached along a raised walkway. It seem as though I'm almost on top of them; infra-red CCTV cameras let me intrude on their most intimate moments; from a glass-fronted space I can imagine myself part of the pack.

Nearby, the new rhino enclosure has been converted into a night house and a day house, which gives these lumbering creatures room to manoeuvre while providing a high-level visitor shelter from where you can observe them in almost indecently close proximity. A viewing camera allows me to see the penguins not just marching, but swimming under water.

This may not quite echo the extraordinary wildlife scenes we have been witnessing on the BBC's Planet Earth series, but it is clear that Edinburgh Zoo is trying to bring the jungle a step nearer to Corstorphine in order to present its animals in the most natural surroundings possible. A 58 million masterplan has just been announced, envisaging the creation, over the next 20 years, of four entirely new habitats, or biomes, as they are known, simulating the tropics, oceans, woodlands and grasslands. This will give the zoo's visitors a unique perspective on animals that include some of the world's rarest species - such as the snow leopard, which we last saw on Planet Earth, tearing dramatically down a Himalayan slope in pursuit of its prey. It is on the list of endangered animals. Edinburgh has two of them.

Masterminding this evolution, and mounting a robust defence of the whole idea of zoos in the modern era, is its chief executive, David Windmill, whose own evolution, from fish-farmer to zoo-keeper, defies Darwinian rules. On leaving the University of London with a degree in zoology, he became a merchant banker, went to Africa for six years, where he traded commodities, and then returned to manage the Marine Harvest salmon-farming enterprise in the Highlands. From there he applied to the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, and was given the job of hauling Edinburgh Zoo into the 21st century. "I think the society felt that the zoo had to become more commercial, and it wanted someone with a knowledge of business as well as of animals," he says.

"Zoos are about animals, certainly, but they are about visitors too. There has been a cultural change here, and it was felt that we had to put the visitor on an equal plane with the animals."

This has also meant combating critics - such as Advocates for Animals, the organisation which campaigns against the whole idea of zoos - by advancing a strong case for the conservation role of zoos. Windmill maintains that Edinburgh Zoo is in the frontline of protecting important species from extinction. He points out that more than 70% of the animals in his zoo are on the endangered list, and that without zoos their population would decline. He would like to see that figure climb to 85%.

It is for this reason that the zoo has Asian lions, of which there are only 400 left in the wild, rather than African lions, which thrive; he also plans to exchange the zoo's white rhino, whose population in the wild is robust, for an Indian rhino, from a declining population. He defends the plan to enlarge the zoo's polar bear enclosure on the same grounds. With the ice cap shrinking, Mercedes, the only polar bear in captivity in the UK, may soon become a member of a species threatened by climate change.

And he would love to see elephants back at the zoo - only this time they would be Indian rather than African elephants, because the former are more at risk. "The visitors would love to see elephants back at the zoo, and there is a powerful conservation case for them as well," he says. "I've got to convince the society that it can be justified."

Edinburgh is not only involved in its own breeding programmes, it takes part in conservation projects throughout the world. In partnership with St Andrews University, the zoo sends its keepers out to work in the Falklands, Uganda and Zambia, from where they bring back invaluable research that can be used here. "My view is that if our job is to conserve and to educate then it is entirely justified to have animals here that act, as it were, as ambassadors for their species, so that for the greater good, progress can be made," he says. "People say, 'Poor animals,' but they are not poor. Life in the wild is very stressful. Here they live for far longer than they would out there."

None of the zoo's work is publicly funded - a fact that Windmill would like to draw to the attention of politicians. "We have a national collection of exotic animals, rather like the Botanic Garden has a national collection of plants. It is funded, we are not. But we have 615,000 visitors, and we are a science centre, so our education work is very important.

"At present we are surviving, but we would like to raise our game. We've made a huge investment in our visitor attractions, and I would like to move our numbers up to around 800,000 or 900,000. By showing that we are a serious organisation, perhaps we can be taken seriously. The problem is that there is still this issue of zoos being seen as being politically incorrect. It is time the contribution we make to conservation was recognised.

"We have to make a decision: if this is a way of educating people about the importance of the tundra, for instance, or the decline of the ice caps, we are right at the heart of that argument. And I believe we do that job very well."

He cites the decision by San Diego Zoo to donate two of its koala bears as evidence that Edinburgh now enjoys a recognised status among the world's zoos. "We are good at connecting with the outside world. All our animals have come from other zoos," he points out. "They are all part of international breeding programmes, and have never been out in the wild, so I believe they do very well where they are."

He would like to build on this reputation, to draw more people to the zoo, and to convince the Scottish Executive that Edinburgh is involved with world-class research.

After all that high-minded talk, I ask which animals are his own favourite. Snow leopards? Ring-tailed lemurs? Something even rarer? "The penguins," he confesses. "I could sit and watch them all day."

I prefer to live dangerously - give me a painted hunting dog any day.