Sunday, 3 November 2013

A Panda and Wildcat Walk into a Bar...

Last week UHI held a public lecture: "Scotland and it's 21st century Zoos". The speakers were from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, Prof. Chris West, (CEO), Iain Valentine (Director of the Giant Panda Project), and Douglas Richardson (Head of Living Collections at the RZSS’s Highland Wildlife Park). Wonderfully, the UHI Science Society were given the opportunity to meet with the speakers, so Emma, Karen and I went along early to find out more about their work.

Right to left: Iain Valentine, Emma Aitken, Chris West, Karen
Muller, Douglas Richardson, me, and Crichton Lang
UHI's Deputy Principle, Dr Crichton Lang introduced us all to the evening's lectures with a trip down memory lane:  Lang family outings to Edinburgh Zoo in the 1960s-70s. They shaped his interest in biology and later choice to enter veterinary surgery. (I'm sure training with animals is useful at any University!)

Prof. Chris West was the first of the RZSS speakers to take the floor, beginning by asking us where zoos fit into our damaged world. His hypnotically calm voice delivered sobering statistics about climate change and habitat degredation - not to depress us, but to encite us to action. Zoos, he believes, are part of the long term social and ecological solution. They have come a long way since the cigar-smoking chimps in the bare cages of milleniums past. Now they emphasise wildness and conservation, education and research.

There was a great turn out, and lots of questions for the
The RZSS fund a laboratory undertaking various projects in applied genetics. For example they've tested ivory siezed from the black market as part of the international fight against the illegal trade in endangered species. "It's more than just a zoo", he told us. Places like Edinburgh Zoo and the Highland Wildlife park also attract the broadest socio-economic band of visitors. Unlike art galleries or even museums, you can visit a zoo no matter your age or background.

Iain Valentine laughed awkwardly as he took the stand next, "I'm going to assume you are all fans of the giant panda... you will be by the end of this talk".  His enthusiasm was evident, delving straight into the passion that has consumed him and the rest of Scotland in the last couple of years: pandas, of the giant variety. Over 3 billion people across the globe have been following Tian Tian 甜甜 and Yang Guang 阳光 and their time delighting the public in our capital city - that's three times as many as tuned into the 2012 olympics Iain tells us, with evident pride (although if you could combine the two to create a Panda Olympics, I reckon you could quadruple those figures).

To be honest (though I didn't mention it to Iain) I'm personally not a massive fan of the big two-tone bear. I wish them all the best, but I'm more of a Bagheera Kiplingi girl myself. Better yet, make it a tuojiangosaurus.

Tian Tian got pregnant by artificial insemination in April 2013,
but lost the foetus. This is apparently common in captive
panda breeding. Edinburgh Zoo is hoping next year will bring
Having said that, if it's extinct you want, the panda may be there soon enough. Solitary, elusive creatures, the giant panda, Ailuropoda melanoleuca, is well known as a species in trouble, suffering from habitat degredation and the fragmentation of their populations in their native China. What's less well known is that even where they persist, they are no longer living in their favoured habitat but in a harsher mountain environment, lowering their survival rate further. These factors add up to create an unsustainable situation where pandas face extinction in the wild and earn themselves their iconic status as the poster children for the World Wildlife Fund.

  Lastly, Douglas took the podium to tell us about Scottish wildlife ("now that you are all sick of pandas..."). His focus was on the Scottish Wildcat Felis sylvestris grampia, that elusive icon of our wilderness. He bemoaned the equal elusiveness of facts about the feline in the media, where numbers in the wild are quoted anywhere between 30 and 500. The true number he tells us, lies somewhere in the middle.
How to tell  a wildcat from a domestic. 1. Dorsal stripe on lower
back always stops at the root of the tail; 2. Tip of tail blunt and
black;3. Distinct aligned tail bands; 4. Unbroken flank stripes;
5. No spots on rump, stripes may be broken but distinct;
6. Four nape stripes, broad, wavy and unfused;
7. Two shoulder stripes.

The main threat to their survival is breeding with pet and feral domestic cats. Douglas pressed home that captivity was the only place their survival as a genetically pure species was 100% guranteed.

His somewhat grumpy demeanor went perfectly with a no-nonsense attitude and dry wit. "If there's one thing I hate its people walking past the wildcats and saying oh look, it looks just like wee Tiddles at home. I'd like to give them the keys and say: go on, stroke it. I dare you."

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