September 11, 2008

Zoo Needs Cash, but Not This Way

By Gina Davidson

WHAT'S not to like about Edinburgh Zoo? I understand there are those passionately opposed to the very idea of keeping animals in captivity, but if you have to have zoos - and I would argue that sadly, in conservation terms, you do - then Edinburgh's is truly magnificent.

This was illustrated by the birth in July of Florence, a Grevy's zebra foal. She's important as the species is endangered. There are only 1500-2000 remaining in the wild, as they are the largest of the zebra family and therefore preferred by both predators and hunters. More zebra for your buckshot, if you like.

To have such a foal born in Edinburgh is a great testament to the zoo's conservation and breeding programme, which involves working with similar organisations in Kenya and Ethiopia to preserve the zebras in the wild.

Then there's the fantastic new Budongo Trail, a world-class chimpanzee enclosure, which features links to the Budongo Conservation Field Station in Uganda, which is funded by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), owner of the zoo. This conservation project involves the study of endangered chimps in their natural habitat and the relationship between bio-diversity and the local community.

On top of that is the Living Links field station and research centre, for the study of primates - capuchin and squirrel monkeys - in a partnership between the RZSS and the University of St Andrews.

Finally, who can fail to be excited by the idea that pandas could soon be at the zoo too? This may come about as a result of an international breeding programme to help conserve the endangered species.

You might think that with all this conservation going on, the zoo would be a little more aware of why its plans to sell off land on Corstorphine Hill for housing has so many people hot under the collar.

Rather than conserve the natural beauty of its surroundings, it is more than happy to try and flog it for around GBP 20m - which could see the building of 100 new homes - in order to become a "modern wildlife and research facility" and to attract a million visitors a year. Quite how 614,000 paying customers a year - as well as the fact that it's already Scotland's second most popular visitor attraction - fail to qualify it as a world-class visitor attraction, I don't know. Certainly the traffic queue along Corstorphine Road on bank holiday Mondays would have you believe the world has descended on the place.

Thankfully, so far, the council doesn't agree with such a plan either. They will oppose the whole idea at a public inquiry later this year, because the land the zoo wants to sell is designated green belt. The zoo will fight on.

It's understandable that with tourism being such a huge factor in Edinburgh's economic success, the zoo wants to cash in. It's also understandable that it wants to provide better, and more modern, enclosures for its animals, but doesn't the fact that the Budongo Trail, the rainbow lorikeet bird house, the koala house, and the new rhino enclosure have all opened without the sale of land prove that it's not entirely necessary? Even if the zoo did get the go-ahead to sell, which developer would buy at the moment, given that they can't sell the houses they've already built?

There may come a time when the pressures on greenbelt land in and around Edinburgh become too much and city planners are forced to cave in, but, until then, every time a developer wants to build on such land, they should be told in no uncertain terms that's there's a snowball's chance in hell of it happening (unless you're the Royal Bank of Scotland, of course).

Surely the zoo's financial future should be of concern to the Scottish Government? If other large tourist attractions, including the Royal Botanic Garden, receive government money, why can't the zoo?

Edinburgh Zoo is a marvellous asset. So is Corstorphine Hill. Conservation of its future is as important as that of the animals that live on it.

Carry on up the Caley

MY first recollection of going to the cinema was to see Snow White with my nana at the Caley in Lothian Road. How huge it was, how grand, how wonderful was the box of Fruit Gums.

I attended the same venue when it was the Amphitheatre when my second cousin got married inside its Grecian columns, and, of course, it became a rather too frequent Saturday night haunt when it was rebranded as Century 2000.

So I am delighted that the old place is reopening again - with all its art deco splendour intact. Yes, underneath all that neon and mirror, the true spirit of the Caley has survived, and while it may still be a music and dancing venue rather than returning to a real picture house, it can only be good news for Edinburgh's mix of night- time culture.

We'll miss Elizabeth

THE death of Elizabeth Maginnis was truly shocking. She had seemed to be improving after her bout of ill-health (she was given the all-clear after surgery for bowel cancer just last November) and she was in the thick of things at the Pilton Equalities Project as well as the City Chambers as usual. To die so suddenly is a tragedy for her family, friends and constituents.

For 21 years she was a councillor - and experience like that is hard to find on the Royal Mile these days. Whether you agreed with her politics or not, or even the way she sometimes achieved her goals, she was a woman not to be trifled with, a woman who definitely made her mark. In many ways she will be missed.

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