Happy Birthday Edinburgh Zoo - 100 years old

Diloris the bearded dragon with the centenary sculpture. Picture: Esme Allen
Diloris the bearded dragon with the centenary sculpture. Picture: Esme Allen
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Today Edinburgh Zoo celebrates its centenary. It is 100 years to the day that the doors of the great Capital attraction opened for the first time – a very special occasion for us.

Revolutionary in its day, with nothing of the like being seen in the UK before, Edinburgh Zoo was created with large open enclosures, using ditches and moats to separate animals from visitors.

Victorian-style menageries without bars and cages, were unheard of but Thomas Gillespie, the founder of the zoo and a respected Edinburgh lawyer, had a passion for animals and had been inspired by Hamburg’s “open zoo” designed by Carl Hagenbeck. It was a new and totally different approach.

One hundred years ago the zoo welcomed an inquisitive, marvelling public who had had little opportunity to see the incredible array of animals which had been brought together.

But here we are today in a different world, yet going from strength to strength, demonstrating that people never cease to be thrilled by the sight of the natural world. They do, however, have a greater understanding of how fragile the Earth’s eco-system is.

Today, Edinburgh Zoo acts as a conservation centre for endangered animals. When you look at what is happening in the wild, what with habitat loss, hunting, disease, invasive alien species, pollution and climatic shifts; then our role has moved from an initial collection of animals to that of a “safe place” whilst we aim to restore habitats and undertake captive breeding programmes to reintroduce populations to a recovered “wild”.

Looking forward, we are in the initial stages of a multi-faceted engagement with live animals – including reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates – in an exciting and innovative walk-through environment.

The discovery centre will be a ­combination of science centre, mini-zoo, early-learning centre, exhibition space and tropical house, focused upon connecting people with ­conservation and action.

Owned and managed by conservation charity the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), Edinburgh Zoo remains a central part of Scottish society and we care very much that the story of Scottish nature is told and that native species are part of our ­children’s heritage.

Caledonian Ark is the new name for our integrated native species programme, encompassing our conservation activities within Scotland. It spans fieldwork, science, education and zoo-based conservation breeding. RZSS is a key partner in the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan and is establishing a captive breeding programme to use genetically screened wildcats to create and maintain a long-term, sustainable population.

We are also a lead partner in the Scottish Beaver Trial, managing the successful transfer, release and monitoring of beavers in Argyll.

The next 100 years of Edinburgh Zoo will be an exciting ride and I am delighted to be at the helm of this Scottish institution.

I often wonder if Gillespie could have conceived the heights that Edinburgh Zoo would reach: ground-breaking scientific work in the management of giant pandas, our WildGenes laboratory at the forefront of cutting-edge global conservation science and taking pioneering steps towards Scottish species reintroduction. Whatever evolves and develops, one thing does remain the same, though, at all times – we are and will always be all about connecting people with nature.

• Chris West is chief executive of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.