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The Highland Wildlife Park in the Cairngorm National Park of Scotland is the second attraction managed by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS). It’s where they breed and house those animals needing a wilder setting than a zoo in Edinburgh.

Driving to the Highland Wildlife Sanctuary

The Highland Wildlife Park is located 130 miles north of Edinburgh, halfway up the Cairngorm National Park on the way to Inverness. If you want to go by public transportation from Edinburgh, you can take a bus or train to Perth and then another bus or train to Aviemore. From there, take the 32 or 35 bus to the park. Just know that this route takes about four and a half hours! Better is to rent a car. The drive takes about two and a half hours, depending on traffic. Either way, the scenery on the way up is stunning. This is Scotland after all.

Another option is to spend the night closer to the park. Inverness is an hour to the north and Pitlochry is an hour to the south. Pitlochry is a small, quintessential Scottish town and has a backpackers hostel, but it fills up in the summer. There are also plenty of B&Bs across the Scottish countryside.

If you do choose to drive, make sure you follow Google Maps closely. You have to get off the highway a couple miles before the park. Otherwise, it’s a few miles before you can turn around. You definitely want to bring your own vehicle, not just because they have free parking but so you can drive through the Main Reserve.

Lunchtime for the Amur Tiger

We got to the park a bit later than we should have and just missed the talk on the snow leopards. Thankfully we were on time for the tiger feeding and headed there first. This was so much different than the tiger attractions in Thailand. Dominika is the park’s resident tiger, and she’s a beauty!

Amur Tiger at the Highland Wildlife Park

I learned some really interesting facts about this breed of tigers. First of all, it was formerly called a Siberian tiger but they’re believed to be extinct in Siberia and only extant in the far east of Russia, a little into China, and possibly in North Korea. The Amur River runs through the center of their remaining habitat, which is why they were named after it. Dominika was born at the Highland Wildlife Park in May of 2009. On May 28, 2013, she gave birth to two male cubs which later were sent to other breeding programs in Europe.

We arrived at the enclosure just minutes before feeding time began. Instead of some spectacle of trainers throwing food at the tiger, Dominika had to search around her large enclosure to find where the keepers had hidden large chunks of meat, simulating a more natural environment. While this was going on, the keeper gave a talk about this majestic animal. Sadly, we missed Dominika’s mate by a couple months. He passed away from some medical problems unrelated to a dental surgery he was getting.

Adorable Arctic Foxes

Near the Amur tiger are the Arctic foxes. A male and female named Bard and May gave birth to a litter of 10 cubs in May this year. They are now nearly as big as their parents. We missed the talk but some of the foxes were quite active and fun to watch…probably because it was around their feeding time too. The little cubs were just adorable running around and wanting to discover everything in their enclosure. They certainly weren’t afraid of people either, and mostly just ignored us as they went about doing their own thing.

Arctic Fox at the Highland Wildlife Park

The Arctic fox has been extinct in Scotland since the last ice age, but the breed is flourishing in other places. I’m personally curious if they have plans to reintroduce the fox into the British Isles. I don’t know how it would affect the current ecosystem, but after seeing how adorable those cubs were, I’d hope to see them running around the Scottish countryside someday in the future. Well, there are other fox breeds running around the UK; we saw one just a couple days ago driving across Scotland.

Scotland’s First Snow Leopard Cubs

By far the highlight of our trip was the snow leopard enclosure at the top of the hill. In the first couple weeks of August 2019, the female snow leopard Animesh gave birth to three cubs. As far as I can tell, these were the first snow leopards born in Scotland. Snow leopards are listed as vulnerable, a threatened category but not as bad as endangered. There are about 4,500 to 7,300 in the wild throughout central Asia.

Snow leopards are solitary creatures so the male and female are kept separate at the Highland Wildlife Park, although the enclosures are next to each other which allows the male to keep an eye on things. There was a gaggle of photographers keeping an eye on things too. Apparently they had been there every day since the cubs were made known to the public. I could easily see why. We must have spent half an hour there. Two of the cubs were already asleep, but one was quite boisterous. For easily half an hour, we stood there watching him frolic about, tease his mom and try to climb a wooden log to a higher portion of the enclosure before his mom could swat him off.

Snow Leopard Cub at the Highland Wildlife Park

By far the funniest part was when the cub came up to the glass to find out what we were about. After a minute or so, his mom called him back. When he reached her, she smacked him in the head, and then repeatedly did so several more times before dragging him back to the den for a nap. My partner caught everything on video! After all, striking a child is illegal in Scotland.

Driving Through the Main Reserve

Half an hour before the park closes is the last chance you get to drive through the Main Reserve. This is where they keep the animals that have no problem interacting with humans as they drive past. Przewalski’s horses (another endangered species at the park), vicuna (similar to a llama), red deer, Bukhara deer, European elk and European bison are the animals walking about. Most were happy to graze by the side of the road. It took about 20 minutes to complete the circuit, although the car behind us took longer as the bison decided to finish their meal in the center of the road.

Bison in the Main Reserve at the Highland Wildlife Park

The entrance of the park is another drive-through where you can see Bactrian camels, yaks, white-lipped deer and Mishmi takin (an endangered goat-antelope from northern India). You’re not allowed to get out of your car or feed the animals in either of the drive-throughs, but you can have the windows down and the animals might come right up to the car.

Returning for More

The other attraction we really enjoyed was the polar bear enclosure. Victoria, the female polar bear, gave birth to a cub in December 2017. By now, he was almost her size, although still considerably smaller than the two male polar bears which are kept in a separate enclosure by the Main Reserve. They all were doing their usual activity of napping while we watched, but it was still nice to see them in person. The polar bear is classified as vulnerable rather than endangered, but the park is still doing its part in the breeding program.

Polar Bears at the Highland Wildlife Park

There were more than a dozen other animals throughout the park. Similar to the Edinburgh Zoo, this isn’t a display of captured animals but rather a conservation and breeding program. A big difference to the Edinburgh Zoo is that the animals at the Highland Wildlife Park are much more active. At the zoo, most of the animals I saw were sleeping. At the park, it was only the polar bears and red pandas that were napping.

Linx at the Highland WIldlife Park

The park is open from 10 a.m. until 4 to 6 p.m. (depending on the month) every day of the year except for Christmas Day. While the park isn’t particularly big, there are talks throughout the day for many of the animals, and you can drive through the Main Reserve as many times as you want. Nevertheless, it’s the kind of place I’d love to return to many times. If I do end up spending more time in Scotland in the next year, I’ll definitely have to get my RZSS membership for the Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park, which also gets me free access to 13 other zoos in the UK and Europe. Besides, I need to hear the rest of the talks at the Highland Wildlife Park and see those adorable snow leopards again before they’re sent off to other breeding programs.

Quick Facts

  • Location: Kincraig, Kingussie PH21 1NL Scotland
  • Hours: July-Aug – 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; April-Oct – 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Nov-Mar – 10 a.m. to 4 p.m
  • Price: Adult – £17.95 ($22.95); Child – £9.95 ($12.25) Save 10% when booking online!
  • Website: Highland Wildlife Park
  • What to bring: Walking shoes, a poncho if it’s raining, and your camera.

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Highland Wildlife Park Pin

Further Reading

Don’t fancy going to the Highland Wildlife Park? 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.

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.

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.

Click to Pin It!

Pandas at the Edinburgh Zoo Pin

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.