When he was 12 years old, David Field was given a season ticket to his local zoo and the chance to go behind the scenes.

Like most children might be, he was thrilled. For David, however, it was life-changing.

“I was incredibly lucky, they gave me the chance to take a drink to Joe, the orang-utan,” recalls Field. “It was a watering can full of Ovaltine. I was giving him it through the mesh of his cage when he grabbed the end of the spout.

“He was so strong, and he looked straight at me. It was just an amazing moment.”

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The powerful and deeply emotional connection at Dudley Zoo more than 30 years ago lasted moments but cast the dye for a lifetime working with animals.  “I knew right then that I wanted to do something to help him, to improve his conditions and do something for animals in the wild,” he recalls.

“I knew I wanted to be a zoo director.”

Now in his mid-forties, Field has been CEO of The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) for almost three years. Founded in 1909 when zoos and captive animals were all the rage, the Society’s work spans Edinburgh Zoo and the Highland Wildlife Park in Kingussie. It positions itself as a wildlife conservation charity, runs a cutting-edge genetic laboratory and has an ambitious pledge to reverse the decline of at least 50 species by 2030.

HeraldScotland: David Field has been CEO of The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) for almost three yearsDavid Field has been CEO of The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) for almost three years (Image: Royal Zoological Society of Scotland)

That last challenge sounds an uphill battle at a time when everything seems to be in a climate-crisis fuelled race to survive, but right now Field is fighting fire on another front – batting away criticism of its two Chinese guests, the doggedly childless giant pandas, Yang Guang and Tian Tian.

Now preparing to pack their bags and return home, they arrived at the zoo in 2011 amid controversy and claims they were political pawns; a cack-handed bid to boost trade and improve China’s image.

HeraldScotland: Yang Guang and Tian Tian will be leaving Edinburgh ZooYang Guang and Tian Tian will be leaving Edinburgh Zoo (Image: Royal Zoological Society of Scotland)

Ensconced in their specially built enclosure, they took stage fright under the gaze of an expectant nation and failed miserably to produce the longed-for patter of tiny panda feet.

The zoo, meanwhile, paid their Chinese counterparts around £800,000 a year for their star attractions and absorbed the criticism: including claims from animal group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that efforts to boost Mother Nature by using intrusive procedures to artificially inseminate Tian Tian was tantamount to sexual abuse.

While down the years, it’s been suggested two giant pandas have cost in the region of £20 million – money some suggest might have been better spent.

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After an extended residency that has spanned 12 years, they are set for a grand farewell marked by a host of opportunities for the public to spend precious final moments with the pair. Events include a VIP ticket costing £5000 in return for an exclusive champagne breakfast and meet and greet, and Giant Panda Magic Moments Experience at £500.

HeraldScotland: Wildcats are a wonderful emblem of hope and conservation optimism says David FieldWildcats are a wonderful emblem of hope and conservation optimism says David Field (Image: Royal Zoological Society of Scotland)

While it didn’t go down well with some, tickets have sold like fresh bamboo on a Sichuan mountainside.

Field insists he’s not bruised by recent criticism. Instead, he points out that the pandas’ presence has delighted thousands of visitors and brought financial support to a side of RZSS work they might not always see.

“There will always be some individuals who would not agree with us having taken pandas. Some just don’t like zoos,” he begins.

“I’d never seek to change their minds, but what I would challenge is where such people suggest that we don’t care, we don’t look after the animals well, that we don’t fully understand welfare, and what we trying to do around conservation, education and engagement - which we exist for - is missed.

“If you don’t agree with what we have done around panda feeds, don’t buy a ticket. Or if you don’t agree with zoos, don’t come - there are other ways to experience nature,” he adds.

“But huge amounts of people do see the value and see the work we do. And we have to raise funds which we spend on the wider community, conservation or education and we have to raise that money by people coming through the gate.

Thousands and thousands of people came through the zoo because of these pandas and have been in awe,” he adds.

“We are in such a biodiversity crisis and so divorced from nature, while flying the flag for nature is Yang Guang and Tian Tian.

“In terms of engagement objective - which was part of the original plan - that has far exceeded what we might have hoped.”

Field arrived at Edinburgh in 2020 having previously been zoological director of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), curator of ZSL Whipsnade Zoo and assistant director of Dublin Zoo. An honorary professor of the Royal Veterinary College, he has served as chairman of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquaria (BIAZA) and president of the Association of British and Irish Wild Animal Keepers.

HeraldScotland: Chimpanzee Sonso at Budongo Conservation Field StationChimpanzee Sonso at Budongo Conservation Field Station (Image: Edinburgh Zoo)

This is his second stint in Edinburgh, first time around as a young keeper he got his hands dirty cleaning out the penguins. Most recently, however, he’s been showing the charity’s royal patron, HRH The Princess Royal, around the RZSS’s WildGenes laboratory – the UK’s only zoo-based conservation genetics lab and a hub for ground-breaking research.

Here, he says, is where the future lies both for RZSS and dozens of fragile species in far-flung corners of the globe and, in the case of Scottish wildcats, closer to home.

Tucked in a corner of Corstorphine Hill, far from any of Edinburgh Zoo’s animal enclosures  and visitors, the lab’s work spans the smallest pine hoverflies, so rare in the UK that no one has seen an adult in the wild for nearly a decade, to some of the world’s largest - it is currently working with scientists in Cambodia using genetic technology to track where seized illegal elephant ivory has come from and to assess the remaining population numbers.

One of its newest projects is the partnership with Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF), the only organisation in the world that concentrates solely on the conservation and management of giraffe in the wild throughout Africa.

The RZSS WildGenes team is helping monitor their giraffe reintroduction programmes across Uganda work complemented by the arrival of new attractions, Edinburgh’s first group of giraffes at the zoo for 15 years.

Housed in a £2.8 million state-of-the-art giraffe house and specially designed landscaped, the Rothschild’s giraffes represent a species in serious decline – there are less than 1600 left in the wild.

“COP15, the UN Biodiversity Conference in Montreal, for the first time formally recognised the importance of conserving and understanding the genes of wild species,” adds Field. “That is exactly what we do in WildGenes.

“Working with GCF, we are helping with the translocation of giraffes across Namibia and Uganda.

“Because we have analysed and understood the population, we can tell them who is who. When they know the genetic health, they know which ones to move – fundamental to making sure that the population can maintain long term health.”

HeraldScotland: Wildcats at Highland Wildlife ParkWildcats at Highland Wildlife Park (Image: Edinburgh Zoo)

Similar genetic work is helping to support efforts to boost numbers of Scottish wildcats at the RZSS’s Highland Wildlife Park. “Wildcats are a wonderful emblem of hope and conservation optimism,” adds Field. “We bred 22 kittens this year, and we know every bit about their genetics.

“We know if there’s a possibility of hybrids, how closely or distantly they are related and eventually who should be breeding with who.”

No creature is too small: the conservation breeding programme is battling to improve the fortunes of the humble pond mud snail, a small species of freshwater aquatic snail the size of fingernail listed as ‘vulnerable’. In 2018, it conducted a release of the pond mud snails into Edinburgh’s Pentland hills, with plans for a bigger, more long-terms release program at the site.

Further afield in Uganda, RZSS’s links with Budongo Conservation Field Station, where research and practical action on the ground helps protect a community of almost 700 wild chimpanzees, stretches back almost two decades.

In Brazil, RZSS has been supporting the Giant Armadillo Conservation Project, the first long-term ecology study of the species which has been placed under stress by habitat loss, while in Nepal, tigers and leopards are benefitting from WildGenes lab work to develop a method for evaluating their diets.

“It was said recently why not just have tv film and show a deforested enclosure to get the message across,” adds Field.

“That has been done and it doesn’t work. We try these things and we measure them to see impact is on people and the greatest possible engagement impact is the fact that you can walk up close to these amazing and beautiful animals.

“We need people to go away from the zoo and be more aware of nature and want to do something.”

His vision is for more, not less, up close and personal experiences with Edinburgh’s wildlife. VIP panda experiences may just be the start: Field was working in London when the zoo introduced glamping style pods to enable visitors to spend the night beside the lion enclosure.

“That might happen on top of Corstorphine Hill some time,” he adds.

“I’m a strong proponent of way zoos move forward is that it’s the experience that people get, that emotional connection from being closer to nature.”