I love animals, so I can’t figure out why it took me so long to get to the zoo in Edinburgh. The Royal Zoological Society and Botanical Societies of Scotland are on the leading edge of conservation for the plants and animals of our planet, such as their work with the pandas at the Edinburgh Zoo.

Visiting the Edinburgh Zoo with My Dad

I have some very pleasant memories as a child of riding on my dad’s shoulders around the Los Angeles Zoo. Thus it couldn’t have been more fortuitous that I was invited to the Edinburgh Zoo on my birthday, coincident to my dad coming down to visit. I managed to keep it a secret from him until the moment we arrived at the entrance. The wonderful grin he had when he saw where I’d taken him was the perfect birthday present.

Dad at the Edinburgh Zoo

The zoo is built on Corstorphine Hill, which could have ended our activity before it even began considering it’s almost impossible for my dad to go up inclines at his age. However, upon our arrival and before I could even request it, the zoo staff offered us the mobility vehicle. At several points in the zoo, you can call a number and have the van come pick you up and take you to any of the other points. Since the zoo is on a hill, we were brought to the top so we could walk downhill for the rest of the day.

On the way up, our guide gave us all kinds of information about the zoo, including the names of the animals, different upgrades the zoo is doing and his recommendation for where to eat. We even had a treat of getting driven through an otherwise closed-off section of the zoo, which is where they’re building the new giraffe exhibit. Giraffes were introduced into the Edinburgh Zoo back in the 30s but left a little over 15 years ago. Now they’re constructing a much larger exhibit complete with a viewing platform where the giraffes will be able to interact with the viewers.

One thing that was made really clear to me is how the zoo is not just an exhibit but a wildlife sanctuary, a series of conservation programs and a breeding center for endangered species. The Edinburgh Zoo is the only zoo in the UK with a royal charter and employs up to around 400 zoologists. They also have dozens of conservation programs they’re working on all around the world to help with endangered species and other zoological researches.

A New Home for the Pandas at the Edinburgh Zoo

One of the biggest projects the Edinburgh Zoo is working on is a breeding program for pandas. Currently there are only 27 zoos around the world that have panda bears; the Edinburgh Zoo has two. It received its pandas from China on a 10-year contract in 2011 with the intention of breeding them. So far, they have failed to produce a cub, but efforts are still being made.

Just a few weeks ago, a new enclosure for the pandas opened up. Well, not just an enclosure – it’s two identical but isolated areas for both pandas. They would never interact with each other in the wild outside breeding season, so the zoo caters to this. The pandas have their own indoor facility with different rooms, one of which has a private pool. Only one room is visible to the public, so the pandas can choose to be on display or not. In fact, there are a lot of people who have visited the zoo and never had a chance to see either panda. I was lucky enough to see the male, although he was just sleeping on a perch in his room.

Pandas at the Edinburgh Zoo

Pandas sleep at least 16 hours a day, but you just might get the chance to see them munching on some bamboo (almost the entirety of their diet) or possibly even playing in their large outdoor areas which have trees and other climbing apparatus for them to use.

March of the Penguins

The Edinburgh Zoo was originally opened in 1913. Not only was it the first zoo in the world to house and breed penguins, but it was also the first time penguins were seen outside the South Atlantic! The Edinburgh Zoo currently has three different penguin species – gentoo, king, and rockhopper. The kings are the big ones and the rockhoppers have that little tuft of yellow hair on their head.

In 1952, the gatekeeper of the penguin pool left the door open and several penguins followed him out. He quickly turned it into an exhibition, walking around the zoo with the penguins tailing along behind him. Thus the penguin parade tradition was born. Every day since then, the penguins are given a chance to leave the pool for a few minutes (under close supervision) and parade in front of a crowd before going back to the pool. It’s a completely voluntary activity for the penguins and sometimes only one comes out, but often it’s many more. They can have up to 25 on parade, depending on how many zookeepers are on hand to help out. The day I went, we got to see a dozen penguins waddling by.

Penguin Parade at the Edinburgh Zoo

You don’t have to wait for the penguin parade at 2:15 p.m. to enjoy them. The zoo has 130 penguins and they are a lively bunch. At Penguins’ Rock, you can get right up to them and watch them waddle about, leap out of the water and squawk for food. I think this was actually my favorite part of the zoo. I certainly spent the most amount of time there watching them all play about.

Penguins Playing at the Edinburgh Zoo

The Conservation Works of the Edinburgh Zoo

Despite the Edinburgh Zoo being a top city attraction, I didn’t get the sense that it was just a place for the animals to be on display. Every animal is at the zoo for breeding or research purposes, and they’re looked after very well. For example, the lioness recently gave birth to three cubs. Instead of putting them immediately on display, as many places would have done, the zoo closed off her enclosure to the public so she could have privacy while nurturing her young.

Another huge project of the zoo is the Budongo Trail, named after the Budongo Forest in Uganda. The Budongo Trail is the world’s premier chimpanzee research facility. Able to house up to 40 chimpanzees at a time, the huge indoor and outdoor facility provides some of the best living conditions in the world for these primates, especially considering the number of dangers they face in their homeland. The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) also works closely with the Budongo conservation efforts in Uganda.

Budongo Trail at the Edinburgh Zoo

As the zoo is primarily a research and conservation facility, the animals aren’t always on display or active. I got to see some activity with the rhinos, meerkats, zebras and a few others. On the other hand, the tiger, chimpanzees, hippos, koalas and others were sleeping, while some of the cages like the Monkey House appeared to be empty. Many of these animals naturally sleep for a good portion of the day, so you might want to visit more than once if you’re interested in seeing them all in action.

Returning for More

I certainly want to visit again myself so I can see the animals when they’re not sleeping. Hopefully I can even catch the pandas at the Edinburgh Zoo playing in their outdoor activity center. As I was with my dad, we moved a bit slowly and I missed most of the shows and talks, except for the penguin parade. I intend to see those too someday. Besides, Corstorphine Hill is just a really nice setting and a good place to wander around, even without all the animals about.

For anyone who’s in Edinburgh for a full year at a time, I’d definitely recommend the annual zoo pass. I might even consider getting it myself, even though I’m out of town most of the time.

The RZSS also operates the Highland Wildlife Park in the Cairngorm National Park. They have another 22 animals, plus a main reserve you can drive through to see some of the animals up close. I plan to get up there in the next few weeks before the Scottish weather gets too wet.

Quick Facts

  • Location: 134 Corstorphine Rd, Edinburgh EH12 6TS
  • Hours: Apr-Sept – 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Oct & Mar – 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Nov-Feb – 10 a.m. to 4 p.m
  • Price: Adult – £19.95 ($24.50); Child – £9.95 ($12.25) Save 10% when booking online!
  • Website: Edinburgh Zoo
  • What to bring: Walking shoes, a poncho if it’s raining, and your camera.

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Further Reading

Don’t fancy going to the zoo? Here are some other places to eat at, and activities to partake in around Edinburgh.

Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.

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Author Skye Class

Hi, I'm Skye. Writer, photographer, adventurer, foodie, teacher, masseur, friend, dreamer, etc. I think "normal" sucks. Let's aim for extraordinary. SkyeTravels seeks to find the good around the world, focusing on adventures, food and wellness. Be inspired. Be yourself.

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