Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) is preparing to pair 2 polar bears at the Highland Wildlife Park.
There have been no new cubs in Scotland in almost 25 years.
A crate has been placed in the male bears’ enclosure which will then be used to transport Arktos, male bear, to where Victoria, female bear, is kept.
According to RZSS, captive breeding formed an important part of polar bear conservation. Polar bears are classified as ‘vulnerable’ on the International Union Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.
Born Free Foundation and OneKind Scotland, animal welfare organisations, have stated that the focus should be on tackling climate change to protect polar bears in the wild rather than captive breeding.
Arktos has a shared enclosure which contains another, younger male bear, Walker.
RZSS have said that Arktos has been chosen for breeding as he is viewed as a genetically more important male.
Within the captive population, Walker’s jeans are already well represented.
Victoria was brought to Scotland from Aalborg Zoo in Denmark in 2015 and previously raised cubs in 2008.
She is kept in an enclosure about 1 mile from the Arktos & Walker.
Park staff hope that over the course of a month Arktos will get used to the 3m (9ft 10in) by 1.5m (4ft 11in) by 1.8m (5ft 10in) crate to a point where he can be safely moved to Victoria’s enclosure.
Later, Arktos will then be moved back to his own enclosure. RZSS have stated that their polar bear enclosures are larger than any other zoological institution in the world.
Head of Living Collections at Highland Wildlife Park, Douglas Richardson, said: ‘When we first take Arktos to Victoria, he will live in a separate enclosure adjacent to his.
“The 2 bears will be able to communicate & interact through a secure large fence to start with. We fully expect to see them showing an interest in each other right away.
“As with any introduction of large predators, the process must be approached slowly and carefully, paying close attention to positive behavioural indicators, like vocalisations and body posture.
“Whether we wait until Victoria comes into breeding conditions before mixing them together will depend on how they react to each other in the build-up to that key point.
In an ‘ideal world’, polar bear conservation efforts would take place entirely in the wild, according to Mr. Richardson.
“Unfortunately this is not the scenario we are dealing with. The next best thing is a combined approach, with in-situ and ex-situ work taking place simultaneously and in a joined up manner.
“The zoo community has a duty of care to help the species survive and collectively our work is helping to preserve as varied a mix of genes as possible.
“It will also maintain the option of being able to return animals to the wild at some point in the future.
“Whilst Victoria’s cubs won’t go back into the wild themselves, further down the line her offspring may well play a key role in restoring or augmenting populations in the Arctic.”
Director of OneKind Scotland, Harry Huyton, said that polar bears did not fare well in captivity and required huge territories in which to roam & thrive.
He said: “Even with the greatest efforts from zoos, it’s hard to see how polar bears confined to small enclosures will be able to have good lives.
“If the Highland Wildlife Park believes this is about conservation they need to demonstrate how breeding a small number of captive polar bears in Scotland will benefit the wild population.
“Ultimately, the main threat to polar bears is climate change and unless we address that there will be no suitable habitat to release captive bred animals into.”
He also said that: “If you want to protect polar bears climate change should be your focus, not building captive populations of bears with no place to go.”
The Born Free Foundation also said that it was opposed to captive breeding of polar bears.
In 2011, the Highland Wildlife Park had hopes of pairing up Walker who has been at the park for about 6 years with a female. However, this did not go ahead due to suspicions that the planned female was already pregnant.
Arktos arrived in the Highlands in April 2012 from a zoo in Hannover, Germany. Whilst going through health checks, staff spoke to Arktos in German, the language he heard at the zoo in Hannover.
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