The meerkat has no major threats in the wild, making this gregarious southern African species an unlikely conservation hero. Yet this is the power meerkats can have. Through our partnership with Edinburgh Children’s Hospital Charity, meerkats from Edinburgh Zoo will soon live at the NHS Lothian Royal Hospital for Children and Young People, giving patients the opportunity to connect with nature during their stay.

With more than a million species at risk of extinction, the wider context is the crisis facing our planet and the need for positive action with impact.

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland is a wildlife conservation charity with a bold vision of a world where nature is protected, valued and loved. By 2030, we have pledged to reverse the decline of at least 50 species across the globe.

Crucially, we have also committed to enable more than 100 communities to better protect nature.

The evidence is clear that access to wildlife and green spaces can have extraordinary benefits for mental and physical health and wellbeing. We also know that strengthened communities have a greater capacity to care for the natural world upon which we rely for our very existence.

Conservation and community-focused zoos therefore have an important societal role to play. Through Edinburgh Zoo, Highland Wildlife Park and digital engagement, our charity inspires millions of people every year. However, this is only part of the picture.

Recently we stood up to a barrage of online hate when we celebrated attending Edinburgh Pride and the enormous contribution the LGBTQ+ community makes to conservation. In doing so, we sent an unequivocal message that nature is for everyone. However, in practice, many communities face barriers to inclusion, such as poverty, social isolation and poor health.

Bringing meerkats to the children’s hospital, the first project of its kind outside of Australia, is a prime example of broadening access to nature by helping young patients experience the joys of being close to wildlife.

The links we are developing with a wide range of charities and community partners also include collaborating with Cyrenians, using a nature-based programme to support their work to tackle homelessness, and Scottish Autism to ensure we provide an inclusive visitor environment for neurodivergent people.

We have been privileged over the past year to welcome more than 4,000 refugees to our zoos, predominantly from Ukraine and Afghanistan. Hopefully we can help these communities take initial steps towards recovery in a safe environment away from the severe trauma many have endured.

Every forward stride, no matter how large or small, brings our vision for nature closer to reality. The humble but mighty meerkat makes a difference every day at Edinburgh Zoo, sparking intrigue in animals, the environment and our vital conservation work with partners for species such as the wildcat in Scotland and chimpanzees in Uganda.

These conservation heroes will now bring this curiosity and sense of wonder about our natural world to young patients in Edinburgh. Community collaboration to save our planet has never been more important.

Ben Supple is Director of Engagement and Business Development with the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland