Chris West: A century on, animals need our help more than ever

This year is the centenary of Edinburgh Zoo. This great Scottish visitor attraction opened its doors to members of the public on July 22 1913 and has seen many changes over the years. When the Zoo opened, it would have seemed incredible that a century on many of the animals there would be endangered in the wild.

Without television or internet access, can you imagine how magical it would have been to have seen a real live tiger, lion or bear? To this day zoos enable us to reconnect with the living world and to be inspired and engaged by nature, and zoos remain vital, amazing, interactive visitor experiences.

Today, much has changed in our knowledge of creatures’ needs, from animal husbandry techniques to enclosure design. I’ve been working in zoos for almost 30 years and am often asked why they are still relevant when we have access in this modern age to animals through incredible TV programmes or travel to the far-flung places which are their natural habitats. But never have zoos played a more important role in the conservation and sustainability of certain species as they do today.

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By providing a home to some animals at Edinburgh Zoo, we are acting as an insurance policy for them dying out or being driven to extinction. Illegal animal trading, global warming or introductions of non-native species have all had a disastrous effect on certain animals.

At Edinburgh Zoo, we provide a safe place for many of them while we work on rebuilding their “homes”, their habitats in the wild. It will be the offspring of their offspring – or even further down the line – that we help get back into their natural habitat.

In-situ conservation is our first choice for conservation action, but when the wild habitat is not sufficient or in good enough condition, zoos are vital.

Elephant and rhino poaching sprees are still happening and they, like tigers, giant pandas and others could face extinction in the wild ... and these are big “celebrity” species.

And in the meantime, we work as part of a network of zoos across the world, breeding species to encourage genetic diversity with the aim of one day releasing the offspring into the wild.

 Through our work with communities, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) helps to educate, train and provide support to local people so they can learn to live alongside and support some of the planet’s most endangered animals.

Recognised internationally for our pioneering scientific research and captive breeding skills, RZSS is applying our learning to reintroducing and restoring wildlife outside of zoos. It can be a slow process and therefore the need for zoos continues.

Did you know that as well as the iconic conservation species such as giant pandas, at Edinburgh Zoo itself we have a number of extremely rare species on site that we are helping to save from extinction in the wild – a few examples include the Socorro dove, blue-crowned laughing thrush, Sumatran tiger, Sclater’s lemur, 
partula snails and western chimpanzees.

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We’re also excited that soon Edinburgh Zoo will also be home to Scottish wildcats, a threatened species right on our doorstep that RZSS are working with partner organisations to assist.

By visiting Edinburgh Zoo, you are showing that you care.

We are a charity and a membership body that receives no government funding. Knowing that a percentage of every ticket bought for the zoo goes directly into our conservation and research work means that not only will you have a great day out, but you are helping to make a long-term 

If you’ve not been for a while, come along and join us in our centenary year. Our beloved penguins are coming back this month to their revamped home and there is much going on throughout the year.

• The Royal Zoological Society of 
Scotland is the charity that owns and manages Edinburgh Zoo

• Chris West is CEO of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland


1913: The Edinburgh Zoo site is bought with help from the local council for £17,000 and opened to the public on July 22, 1913.

1927: The Carnegie Aquarium is opened, featuring turtles, conger eels, lobsters, crabs and electric eels, in two large oval pools.

1934: King George V and Queen Mary visit and are particularly amused by the penguins’ habits at feeding time.

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1938: The first giraffe ever seen in Scotland, named George, arrives at the Zoo.

1952: The world-famous penguin parade begins.

1966: Two young chimps, four-year-old Ricky and three-year-old Cindy, move in. Although Ricky died last year, aged 50, Cindy is still alive today and celebrates her 49th birthday in October.

1988: The Queen opens the orientation centre in the new gate and shop complex to celebrate the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s 75th Anniversary.

2008: Budongo Trail, housing up to 30 chimpanzees in cutting-edge facilities, is opened by the Princess Royal.

2011: Giant pandas Tian Tian and Yang Guang arrive on December 4.