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03/02/2017 in Highland Wildlife Park
The simple perception of a zoo is a place to bring the kids to see wild animals. The more informed will tell you that zoos help conserve threatened species by managing them in coordinated breeding programmes, but not many will be aware of the increasing role that reputable zoological collections play in conserving wildlife in the wild.
According to the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA), of which RZSS Highland Wildlife Park is a member, their 100 or so members contribute around £14 million per year to over 500 conservation projects, and it is estimated that the global zoo community contributes over £230 million per year towards conservation. Given these figures, the reputable zoos have become significant supporters of conservation, and it is important to note that the BIAZA figure does not include the cost of coordinating breeding programmes or the upkeep of threatened species within the various collections.
The World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) 2014 Living Planet Report calculated that the world’s population of vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish) had dropped by around 52% between 1970 and 2010; the human population had increased by 3 billion during the same period. The wild has become a small, fragmented and insecure place and many of the skills and techniques developed in zoos to manage our captive populations have become directly applicable for conserving and managing wild populations, and these skills only exist within zoos. Our contribution to conservation in the field ranges from simple financial support, to providing expertise, equipment, educational resources and, increasingly, animals for reintroduction projects.
Although RZSS Highland Wildlife Park is part of the larger Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, which includes Edinburgh Zoo, up until a few years ago our specific support of conservation was not significant and so we made a concerted decision to increase our contribution.
Staff based at the Park now manage a total of five European breeding programmes and provide expertise for a further four. We are the hub for the Society’s role within the national wildcat plan, Scottish Wildcat Action, and we were instrumental in evolving the former Cairngorm Wildcat Project into the current country-wide approach. We have bred water voles for reintroduction into the Trossachs to augment the population of these highly threatened rodents, beavers have been sent from the Park to the reintroduction project in Argyll and one of our European bison is living in a wild herd in Romania. A member of our team recently returned from a year’s sabbatical where she managed and trained the staff at a bear rescue facility in Laos and we are providing expertise for two critically endangered hoofed mammal projects that span three countries in Southeast Asia.
For some time we have been working with Russian conservationists to help develop their reintroduction project for Amur leopards in the Russian Fareast, and we have recently completed construction of a facility that will provide even more tangible support for this, the most threatened form of leopard.
Our education department may be small, but with support from Edinburgh zoo-based colleagues we have provided an increasingly dynamic programme of conservation focused lessons for visiting students and an attractive and comprehensive series of animal signs throughout the site. We have a unique resident intern programme that enables budding zoo keepers, educators, vets and field researchers to get a first-hand introduction to practical conservation work.
Next time you visit the Park, take a closer look at what we do and if you think we only keep interesting animals for people to see, just ask any member of staff.
Head of Living Collections, RZSS Highland Wildlife Park
This piece was first published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald