Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Saving more species

Written on 31st May, published with the agreement of the press team at RZSS and other interested parties

My conversation with Doug Richardson of RZSS Highland Wildlife Park did not restrict itself to the plight of the Scottish wildcat. Far from it. The park is home to four further species of wild cat, with a fifth to arrive in the near future. Here therefore are more thoughts which Doug and I ping-ponged between ourselves on Sunday morning.

Amur tiger Panthera tigris altaica

The Amur tiger is the largest subspecies of the world's largest cat and is restricted to the southern far east of Russia and, historically, bordering areas of China. It is characterised by its light orange coat, dense fur, rather weak black stripes and extensive areas of white in its cheeks and throat. It is magnificent and on Sunday I spent far too long cooing over Highland Wildlife Park's three cats.

As magnificent as it is, the Amur tiger is also desperately threatened. Until very recently it was essentially extinct in China and well on its way to extinction in Russia. Still today, though WWF claims this week that there are now 540 wild Amur tigers, this subspecies is critically endangered. Some believe this figure to be inflated and one source reports that there may be only 40 reproductive individuals in the wild population. And every single individual that has ever been radio-collared, Doug says, has been poached in the end. Every one.

Happily, if there is any happiness in this situation, the captive population is known to be genetically pure, a far better situation than pertains with the Scottish wildcat. At Highland Wildlife Park there are currently three Amur tigers, an adult pair and their male youngster born in 2013. He will soon move to form half of a new breeding pair at a zoo in Germany, just as a sibling from the same litter recently went to Switzerland. The adults live in a large birch-scrub enclosure which hints at the taiga home of the species in Amur.

Doug has such experience with cats in captivity that he is husbandry advisor on the Europe-wide breeding programmes for both Amur and Sumatran tigers. It is with his eyes on Amur that he passionately argues for the need to keep this subspecies in captivity in the Scottish Highlands. He feels, and his argument is borne out by reintroductions across the world, that without the husbandry skills gained through breeding an animal in captivity we cannot hope to return it to its natural environment. Critically, also, in the case of large, severely threatened carnivores, without captive populations there can quite simply not be enough individuals, or enough genetic diversity, to restitute a healthy wild population in the future. Already, Doug says, there are genetic dynasties of the Amur tiger in captivity, which are known to have disappeared in the wild.

It is a sad world indeed in which we talk in these terms. But it is the world we inhabit.

Vying with the Ngorongoro lion for the position of
coolest selfie to date

Pallas's cat Otocolobus manul

I've always thought it rather unfair that Pallas has so many marvellous animals named after him: a powerful eagle, the most dramatic gull, the most delicate and enchanting leaf-warbler, the snazziest grasshopper warbler, the most evocative sandgrouse. However, where cats are concerned Pallas drew, if not the short straw, the strangest of straws. Pallas's cat is weird.

Highland Wildlife Park has an excellent record of breeding and raising Pallas's cats, a species which, Doug tells me, can be difficult to rear to adulthood on account of its susceptibility to toxoplasmosis. Last year, thanks to veterinary advances, Highland Wildlife Park raised an exceptional six Pallas's kittens.

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland coordinates the European breeding programme and international studbook for Pallas's cat. It also supports research into Pallas's cats in their wild range, funding camera-trapping campaigns in Mongolia, Iran, Nepal and Kazakhstan. The intention is to map the species' distribution with greater accuracy and to explore the veracity of the cat's supposed subspecies. More information on RZSS's work with Pallas's cats may be found here.

The Pallas's cats are currently off exhibit,
so I took this as a surrogate.

Northern lynx Lynx lynx lynx

The park has recently, quite strategically, changed from keeping Carpathian lynxes to keeping northern lynxes, aquiring one adult of Swedish origin and another of Latvian. Doug is quite clear on the rationale behind this. Until a few hundred years ago when we extinguished the lynx in the UK, it would have been northern lynx which inhabited our island. It is therefore, Doug argues, important for a facility within a region in which lynx might one day be reintroduced to maintain the correct subspecies, principally for local stakeholders to be able to see the living animal in the flesh.

It is also crucially important for animals which might one day be released to have been raised in a way which minimises their likelihood of coming into conflict with humans and their livestock; and for the local institutions involved to build good relationships over time with those whose livelihoods could in theory be affected. The reintroduction of a large carnivore is not a question of opening cage doors. It is a question of people, institutions, stakeholders in a landscape working together over decades for the good of wild species and their wildnerness.

Doug is not a man to shy from such challenges. As he talks, from his position of immense knowledge and experience, you can feel him mentally rolling up his sleeves to take on a tough gig. For now his lynxes are breeding successfully at the park, with two new kittens born last week, and they are proving very popular with visitors.

How my northern lynx selfie worked out

How I'd hoped it would work out

Amur leopard Panthera pardus orientalis

It might seem obvious that a zoo should prominently display charismatic animals in its collection in order to draw in the crowds. Think pandas at Edinburgh Zoo. It might seem obvious, yes, but that's not what RZSS and Doug have in mind for Amur leopards.

In July this year Highland Wildlife Park begins construction of a large enclosure for Amur leopards in an area of birch and juniper scrub at the top of the park. It will never be seen by visitors. Its aim, Doug explains, is not to display a breeding pair of Amur leopards to the public, but to welcome established breeding pairs from other instituions (obviating the need for the complex and potentially dangerous process of introducing a new pair to one another) and, in a very naturalistic enclosure, encourage them to raise young which are wild enough to go back to the wild.

The wild population of Amur leopards has reached critical levels, with some experts suggesting that fewer than twenty individuals remain, and no-one believing there are more than fifty. Russian authorities plan to create a second, reintroduced population, within the historic range of the cat but outside its current wild range. Doug and his remarkable facility in the birchwoods would provide cubs for this project, to order, according to the new population's genetic needs. Established pairs from the captive breeding programme would visit RZSS's visionary Amur leopardarium in turn and their cubs would go straight back to the Russian far east, without losing their innate fear of humans. Via a huge soft-release enclosure in the taiga they would then join this new population of the subspecies in the wild.

Or almost of the subspecies. The trouble with Amur leopards in captivity is that one of the founders of the captive population, a female known as Founder 2, is now known not to have been an Amur leopard at all. As a result the captive population is around 12% impure. So the Amur leopard in captivity (and therefore the founder stock of Russia's proposed new wild population) is faced by the same problem as the Scottish wildcat. It is not exactly what it says on the tin. The romantic end of the conservation community may well decry the Russian government's iniative, believing it better to lose the Amur leopard altogether than to dilute it with non-local genes.

Certainly if nothing is done we shall soon lose the wild Amur leopard altogether. So, at the pragmatic end of the community, Doug would say that it is better to have an animal which is genetically closely similar to the Amur leopard than no animal at all. A hardline ecologist would no doubt say the same, as an ecosystem with a top predator, whether it be the pure original genetic form of the top predator or not, is a healthier ecosystem than one without.

Philosophy aside, Doug and his team will soon commence construction of a superb new enclosure for Amur leopards at Highland Wildlife Park. Uniquely it will be for leopards and not for humans; visitors will observe its inhabitants only via remote cameras. What happens to the leopard kits born in this enclosure may revolutionise our understanding of big cats in zoos.

Snow leopard Panthera uncia

Construction is also underway of a snow leopard enclosure in the heart of the Highland Wildlife Park. This large, open-topped enclosure includes a small rock face and a patch of light birch scrub. It abuts a paddock housing Turkmenian markhor and on occasion, while the snow leopards are inside holding pens, the markhor will graze the snow leopards' outdoor area, enriching the scent and sense experience of the landscape for both species.

In collaboration with Norden's Ark in Sweden, the snow leopard project at Highland Wildlife Park will support conservation of wild snow leopards led by the Snow Leopard Trust.

Snow leopard enclosure under construction
at the Highland Wildlife Park

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