Vickie Larkin, an employee of the Scottish Highland Wildlife Park, is coming to Land of the Leopard National Park as a volunteer. We talked to Vickie about her upcoming trip, her work with wild felines and the spotted predators' personalities.
Question: Why have you decided to go to Land of the Leopard National Park as a volunteer?
Vickie Larkin: Far Eastern leopards are so beautiful and so endangered. And I just really wanted to do something to help, you know. So working in a zoo is great, but I wanted to be involved, to do more as well. So going up to Russia is a dream of mine. I can't believe I'm actually going! It's incredible.
Question: Where do you work right now?
Vickie Larkin: I work at the Highland Wildlife Park, I've been here for about two and a half years now. I used to be a zoo keeper in Essex, England (Colchester Zoo) and that was where I first met Far Eastern leopards.
I studied Zoology. My final project was actually looking at genetics of Far Eastern leopards. We were looking for an area in MHC which contains codes for resistance or susceptibility to disease.
Question: Did working with Far Eastern leopards at zoos help you to learn more about these predators? What are they like?
Vickie Larkin: Working with them in a zoo you get to know their personalities. We have snow leopards in the park and they're so different to the Far Eastern leopards. You know, they're a bit soppy, kind of soft and placid compared to the Far Eastern leopards, which I think are really quite fierce, quite feisty. They're fast and really intelligent. They creep up on you and you don't even hear them. It's just amazing. They're so stealthy. They're inspiring animals and, yeah, they are beautiful.
Question: How many Far Eastern leopards do you have at the park?
Vickie Larkin: Two. We have a male and a female. The male is called Freddo and he's from Tallinn Zoo. And the female is called Arina and she's from Twycross Zoo. They're both 3-3.5 years old. We are hoping that we'll have cubs this year. We have an off-show area. They're in a really big naturalistic enclosure, away from the public.
Question: How do they feel in the Scottish climate?
Vickie Larkin: I think they do really well. It's not as cold as in Russia's Far East, but… This winter we had —10 C, —7 C, which is pretty cold. Good training for me actually, I think. And the summer is quite mild as well: 22-25 degrees max.
Question: What is it like to work with leopards?
Vickie Larkin: I had really good relationships with all the cats I worked with. I was connected with those leopards I worked with at Colchester Zoo, and Freddo here as well, a bit more than Arina. She's a little bit different. The females just tend to be a little bit more highly strung, nervous. Well, those I've worked with, I can't say for all of them. The boys just seem so confident; they come and take food from you straight away.
Question: Are you working only with felines or with other animals as well?
Vickie Larkin: I'm working with quite a range of animals we have here. We also have Eurasian cranes, snowy owls, eagle owls, capercaillie, Scottish wildcats (we have four at the moment, two breeding pairs), and four red pandas as well. And we have 29 Japanese macaques. Actually, we also had two beavers and last year they were reintroduced back into Scotland. So they were zoo beavers and now they're back in the wild. It's exciting to be part of conservation frontline.
© From Vickie Larkin personal archive
Question: Do you already know what you will be doing at the national park? What will your duties be like?
Vickie Larkin: I will look for foot prints in the snow, check camera traps. By the way we use camera traps at the zoo as well.
Question: What for?
Vickie Larkin: At the moment we've got camera traps up at the Far Eastern leopards' enclosure to see if there is any interaction between the cats at night, because we're not there all the time. They're in different enclosures, but they can see each other. And also to pick up any sounds. We haven't really picked up anything from her, a little bit from him. It's a really useful tool actually.
Question: What do you expect from this trip? Have you ever been to Russia?
Vickie Larkin: No, I haven't been to Russia. To be honest, I'm a bit apprehensive, because it's a completely different country.
Question: Do you have any stereotypes?
Vickie Larkin: Drinking vodka?
I am not bothered about the weather. I've got a special coat, boots and things to keep me warm. That's what I got for Christmas actually.
I'm a little bit nervous about the language barrier. I've taught myself a few words, but it's a really difficult language to learn on your own in a short period of time. Obviously, the alphabet is completely different as well.
Question: Do you expect to see a Far Eastern leopard in the wild?
Vickie Larkin: No way. I'm not expecting to see them at all. But I did see in your news that a leopard stood at the side of the road and the people drove him past beeping a horn at it. This is incredible, I couldn't believe it. But I don't expect to see leopards or tigers.
Question: Have you ever been a volunteer before with wild animals or other campaigns?
Vickie Larkin: Not anything like this. I used to volunteer at a small nature park in Birmingham, which is how I kind of got experience and then become a zoo keeper.
Question: What do you believe to be the most important thing for Far Eastern leopard conservation?
Vickie Larkin: Corridors, eco-bridges. And I think just more education for people, making more people aware. Even for adult people to know what to do if they see a leopard, like beeping a horn, trying to scare the leopard away. More things like that. In the Russian Far East they're doing really well, because they have Leopard and Tiger Days, they celebrate the cats. I think that's really good.
There are so many facets to wildlife conservation. You can't really pick one thing. If you look at the massive picture, things like climate change and the problem of plastic in the ocean… Humans are the top of it all and we are the ones who can make the change.
Question: Would you like to work with animals in the wild, at a national park, one day?
Vickie Larkin: I'd like to work with Far Eastern leopards and be involved in reintroduction, possibly something like working at a soft-release centre. I like working at the zoo, but I'd like to do more.
Question: Will this trip to the Far East help you in your work?
Vickie Larkin: It will be nice to see the habitat that they live in and some problems that they face. I'm looking forward to chatting to the scientists and finding out their opinion on the leopards. Also making links between Wildlife Park and Land of the Leopard could be really good for both parties.
Question: You said you were learning some Russian phrases. What Russian words do you know?
Vickie Larkin: Spasibo. Does it sound right to you? Da, net. And "hi" is "privet." I want to have at least a few words. I think it's important. You show respect by learning a few words.
I'm English and whenever English people go to other countries, I think we just expect everybody to speak or learn English and I think it's quite arrogant.
Question: And the last question: are you a cat person yourself?
Vickie Larkin: I have two cats: a male and a female. Their names are Finchy and Luna. They are both rescue cats, so I didn't have them from kittens. I've always been cat mad. I love cats. And Far Eastern leopards are definitely my favourite.