I met Kelvin on the deck of a three-masted schooner off the west coast of Greenland. We were looking for bowhead whales (quite my favourite of all the great whales I have seen). We had a hoot for a week, with our witty Danish friend Kasper, leading a delightful trip. All the same, because of Kelvin's bipolar life, spending winters in Antarctica and summers in Svalbard, and my own hobo existence, it has been hard for us to spend time together in the real world. We'd therefore agreed that on my way home from Speyside I would stay with Kelvin and his lovely family in Edinburgh. We laughed quite as hard this weekend as we did while surrounded by bergs and bowheads in Disko Bay.
Yesterday morning I went with Kelvin and Clea and their spark of a two-year-old son to Edinburgh Zoo, to stretch our legs in the sun, to share experiences of wildlife, and, in my case, to set eyes (albeit not in the wild) on my fourth tiger subspecies of the year.
From the standpoint (flypoint or swimpoint) of our native wildlife, a good zoo is a patch of open country, with trees, bushes, water, flowers, and maybe even food to be appropriated. It was good, therefore, to see as much wild wildlife in the zoo as exotic. Herring gulls circled the king, gentoo and northern rockhopper penguins; jackdaws high-stepped around snacking children, knowing that sooner or later some of the snacks would be theirs; dunnocks and goldfinches sang from the trees and shrubs; a moorhen staked its claim to one of the great white pelicans' leafy pools; magpies scavenged the leftovers of a Sumatran tiger's meal; and rabbits calmly nibbled the lawns along the street outside.
My own focus yesterday was seeing the Sumatran tigers. In February I saw thirteen wild tigers in India. In April I saw Malayan tigers in captivity at Lok Kawi in Sabah, Borneo. Last week I saw Amur tigers at RZSS's Highland Wildlife Park. And yesterday I saw my fourth subspecies at Edinburgh Zoo. I have a terrible confession to make and feel sure that many of you will think me a bad person: Sumatran tigers, as fascinating and wonderful as they are, and as dearly as I long for their preservation in their rainforest home, don't really float my aesthetic boat. Their faces, with powerful eyes and those long, silky cheek tufts, are dramatic. Their coats, with the boldest black stripes of any tiger and a background the colour of my mother's marmalade, are striking in the extreme. But they're a funny shape. Dare I say it? A piggy shape. Compared to the slender elegance of the Indian tigers I've watched in the wild for the past decade, compared the the vast, solid power of the Amur tiger who photobombed me at the Highland Wildlife Park last week, Sumatrans are just a bit piggy.
|Photobombed by an Amur tiger|
|I didn't manage a Sumatran selfie yesterday; |
but here's a photo my sister took of me at Thrigby Hall last year.
I'm on the right.
In truth I was enthralled to spend time in the company of Edinburgh Zoo's magnificent male Sumatran tiger (and, in case any of you are poised to unfollow me on Twitter, I was just joking about the piggy thing). I was also happy to see the zoo's Asiatic lions, close relatives of the animals I saw in Gir just three months ago (this is guaranteed given that the world population fell to a dozen a century ago). It was good to see a wildcat too, since so much of my recent energy has been devoted to seeing the species (or, as it turned out, some of the species' genes) in the wild.
|Distant Asiatic lioness|
|Wood-carved Sumatran tiger|
In the rest of the collection there were many beautiful animals attractively housed. Some, like greater one-horned rhinos, ring-tailed and red-bellied lemurs, brown capuchins and Azara's agoutis, I have seen many times in the wild; others I hope one day to see. The showstoppers at Edinburgh Zoo, of course, are the placid giant pandas. I had not seen pandas, I think, in twenty years, since I worked for a summer with Mike Lubbock, formerly of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, in North Carolina and paid a visit to a colleague at the National Zoo in Washington. I was delighted to see them again yesterday and, for their own good and the good of their species, I wish them a black-and-white baby very soon.
|Malayan tapirs, a mother and her well-grown youngster|
|African wild dog|