Coronavirus: Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park issue cash warning

Hamish the polar bearImage source, RZSS
Image caption,
Hamish the polar bear is one of the main attractions at the Highland Wildlife Park.

Edinburgh Zoo is preparing to open at the end of June after owners warned being closed over the summer would be "financially disastrous".

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) said the same applied to Highland Wildlife Park in Kingussie.

The wildlife conservation charity confirmed it has had to borrow £5m in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It said basic monthly running costs ran into almost £700,000 per month to keep the facilities going.

Both are currently in the process of putting in place safety measures to protect visitors and staff.

'Furloughed staff'

These include closing indoor areas, limiting numbers and selling tickets online with time slots.

RZSS chief executive David Field revealed the pandemic had already caused heavy financial losses.

He said: "Almost all our income comes from our visitors and around 65% from April to August.

"We have furloughed staff and our generous supporters have raised funds to help feed our animals but we have still had to borrow £5m."

Image source, RZSS
Image caption,
RZSS chief executive David Field joined the charity from the Zoological Society of East Anglia on 1 June

The new chief executive, who took up his post this week, said the UK government had helped smaller zoos protect animal welfare through the zoo emergency fund.

But RZSS and other large charitable zoos are not eligible to apply for this support.

'Close to extinction'

Mr Field told BBC's Good Morning Scotland programme that having missed the Easter break, the impact of having no income over the summer would be devastating.

He said: "What became apparent to me very quickly is that we are already perhaps, in zoological terms, an endangered animal.

"The longer that we remain closed, for every day we remain closed, for every extra pound that we have to borrow, the closer we come to extinction."

Image caption,
Penguins being fed at Edinburgh Zoo

Even while shut to visitors, Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park still need almost £700,000 per month to keep going.

Mr Field said: "Repaying our multi-million pound loans will have a significant impact on our parks and our globally important conservation activities.

"If we cannot reopen soon then we will need to borrow even more, which could be financially disastrous.

"When this crisis is over, connecting with nature and being close to animals is going to be more important than ever, which is why it is vital that our parks open again and we can recover to continue our science, education and conservation work."

A wildcat breeding programme in the Highlands is now in doubt and Mr Field is concerned about the impact of the pandemic will have on the charity's international work, which includes a chimps project in Uganda.

Image source, RZSS
Image caption,
Panda Yang Guang is one of the most popular residents at Edinburgh Zoo

Zoos in England have been told the earliest they can reopen is in July.

Mr Field said: "We are talking to the Scottish government and hope we can reopen within the next few weeks if Scotland moves into the next phase of lockdown and outdoor attractions can open again.

"Zoos with these Covid-secure restrictions will be just as safe as private gardens and far safer than a crowded beach or public park.

"The many educational, physical and mental health benefits of visiting zoos and enjoying nature are also well known, which is why zoos in Europe have been among the first places to reopen."

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