Chris West: Zoo time is more important than ever

Keeping animals in captivity is controversial, but experts perform vital work in these institutions, writes Chris West
Edinburgh Zoo is home to two Sumatran tigers  a breed that may be down to just 300 in the wild. Picture: GettyEdinburgh Zoo is home to two Sumatran tigers  a breed that may be down to just 300 in the wild. Picture: Getty
Edinburgh Zoo is home to two Sumatran tigers  a breed that may be down to just 300 in the wild. Picture: Getty

When Thomas Gillespie opened Edinburgh Zoo in 1913, he came in for tremendous criticism. To quote the great man himself, he was told, “you’ll never get animals to live in a climate like Edinburgh’s” and “the people here will never support a zoo”. How lucky we are that he stayed true to his beliefs and principles and opened what has now become Scotland’s national zoo.

Although climatically the capital may pose its challenges, the animals we choose to look after here are well cared for and adapted.

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Public support for the zoo, as well as the charity behind it, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), has never been so strong.

We are fortunate that Gillespie continued with his dream and proved his critics wrong, as never have zoos, good zoos, been as necessary to securing a better, healthier world for us all as they are now. Perhaps a rather grandiose statement, but I feel secure enough in the work we do at the zoo to justify it.

Our purpose and mission has always been to connect people with nature, to allow people to come into close contact with our wonderful animals and to develop understanding and appreciation of them. Although this still stands, I feel the need to redefine our role.

In an increasingly damaged world, where we have lost 50 per cent of our nature, witnessed biodiversity extinction, ecological breakdown and are coping with an ever-crowded humanity; I liken our position now to one of a field hospital or even refugee camp for threatened and endangered species.

Running parallel to this though is the fact that we have hundreds of thousands of people coming through our doors every year, providing us with tremendous opportunities for mass public engagement with nature and to engender reverence for wildlife and encourage real action for change.

Visitors to the zoo and to our sister site at Highland Wildlife Park near Aviemore can encounter some of the world’s most threatened and endangered animals. For example, there may be as few as 300 Sumatran tigers left in the wild, their numbers having dwindled due to habitat loss, poaching and the spread of palm oil plantations restricting the tigers to isolated fragments of forest.

These animals are critically endangered, appearing on the IUCN ( International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List. This indicates that this species faces an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. Edinburgh Zoo is home to two of these tigers and our hope is that they will become a breeding pair in the future.

The blue-crowned laughing thrush is another animal under threat from environmental destruction and is marked as critically endangered. We house a male and female here who gave us two youngsters in 2010. They are the first blue-crowned laughing thrushes hatched in our collection and provide hope for the future of this beautiful species.

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Many visitors are captivated by our yellow-breasted capuchin monkeys. Inquisitive and intelligent, these monkeys are among the most endangered primates, due to hunting and habitat loss, and their numbers are estimated to have declined by 80 per cent over three generations. They are now found only in a few small areas of forest.

So, to those critics who complain about us holding these animals in captivity my response is this – would you rather we let these animals die out in the wild through no fault of their own but through man-made problems, or do we keep viable populations safe while we do our best to work with whoever and whatever we can to restore and secure their natural habitats?

We are leaders in science-based conservation. Having managed thousands of animals in captivity over the years, we are now experts in small population management of endangered species and are already applying this expertise to the population of beavers released into Argyll as part of the Scottish Beaver Trial.

Our scientific research spans several disciplines. We conduct pioneering genetic analysis on species reintroduction and projects in Scotland and abroad, and last year saw us carrying out genetic analysis on European beaver populations in the UK and Denmark, advising on the reintroductions of the Arabian oryx to the United Arab Emirates and the scimitar-horned oryx in Chad.

Our veterinary staff have worked on advancing minimally invasive surgical techniques across all species, but with a particular focus recently on primates, which will allow for easier recovery for the animals. Bird research has seen us developing diagnosis and monitoring techniques for aspergillosis, a common respiratory disease in birds and reptiles.

And, I can’t mention research without referring of course to the first artificial insemination procedure carried out on a giant panda in the UK, where we gathered many of the world-leading experts on artificial insemination and reproduction management in animals including our own vets, scientists and animal staff to carry out ground-breaking science for the first time in the UK as part of the overall global panda conservation effort.

I feel that we are an important cultural, education and public science institution and yet zoos in general have become pigeon-holed into the popular leisure category. We are of course a wonderful destination for a terrific day out, and always will be. Our ultimate aim, however, is to make people understand that we fulfil a purpose that stretches way beyond the geographical boundaries of our 82 acres of beautiful land in the west of Edinburgh.

I hope Thomas Gillespie would be proud of his legacy. I am proud to carry on his amazing work and and that of my other predecessors, and to represent the organisation’s talented, hardworking staff.

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We are making a difference to all of our futures through the work we do. Through visiting, you are helping to make this difference too.

• Chris West is chief executive officer of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. Tonight he delivers a lecture to the The Royal Society of Edinburgh at 6pm.