The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) has announced they have started their preparations for polar bear dating! Male Arktos is due to meet female Victoria for the first time..
Polar bears are currently listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of endangered species. This is an exciting time for polar bear conservation and will help to protect the species for the future.
Saving polar bears however is not an easy task. They are threatened by a loss of habitat and a reduction in sea-ice, which is mainly driven by climate change and increasing global temperatures. Currently, the future looks uncertain for the big white bears.
Research has estimated that the remaining population of polar bears could decrease even further, declining by as much as 30% in the next three generations should sea-ice loss continue as the current rate. Which is pretty alarming.
RZSS has taken on the task of fighting of establishing a population of healthy bears ex-situ, to ensure there is a range of options should the worst happen.
A large 3 by 1.5 by 1.8 metre transportation crate was manoeuvred into position in the male polar bear enclosure on the morning of Friday 19 February and, over the next month or so, eight-year-old Arktos will be habituated to it. Slowly and steadily, the process will see his keeper’s use positive reinforcement training and his favourite foods to get him used to the new addition to his enclosure. Eventually, Arktos will be comfortable enough to enable his keepers at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park to transport him the one-mile distance across the Park to Victoria’s enclosure.
It’s expected that Arktos will travel the short distance in mid-March. The development of Victoria’s enclosure took a lot of planning and it was enhanced with breeding in mind. Modern enclosures have come on in leaps and bounds and many of today’s enclosures unrecognisable from those that were around even ten years ago. Our understanding of polar bear husbandry has greatly improved also with significant advances in ability to care for and improve cub survival rates.
Douglas Richardson, Head of Living Collections at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park, said: “When we first take Arktos to Victoria, he will live in a separate enclosure adjacent to hers. The two bears will be able to communicate and 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 full breeding condition before mixing them together will depend on how they react to each other in the build-up to that key point.
Polar bear conservation is definitely not simple or easy, but we have an important responsibility. As a conservation body with extensive bear husbandry experience, we truly believe we cannot afford to shy away from the task in hand. If we want to keep all the conservation options on the table for the future of polar bears, we must allow for the idea that a healthy captive population may provide a solution to the species’ plight. The birth and rearing of polar bears cubs will be of real value to the overarching breeding programme. As well as helping to highlight the plight of polar bears in the wild, any cubs born in the foreseeable future will remain within the vital safety net of the captive breeding programme. The shrinking polar ice-cap and shortening polar ice season has pitched the species to the forefront of conservation concerns.”
Richardson added: “In an ideal world, conservation would happen first and foremost in the wild, but 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 this 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 will never 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.”