Arktos the giant male bear is being put through his paces to father the first cubs seen in Britain for almost a generation.
Over coming weeks, Arktos will be slowly prepared to meet Britain’s only female polar bear Victoria at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s Highland Wildlife Park.
Arktos has been chosen for the historic rendezvous as he is genetically more important for captive stock of polar bears in Europe.
Conservationists say with wild polar bear populations facing a 30 per cent decline in just three generations because of the loss of sea ice, establishing a healthy captive population will give more species survival options for the future.
There has not been polar bear club born in the UK since 1992.
For eight year old Arktos, that means doing things as nature intended but polar bear nuptials have to be prepared “slowly and steadily,” says the RZSS.
The love matching began today with the placing of a transportation crate in his huge enclosure so he gets accustomed to it before being ferried one mile across the Highland Park to Victoria’s sanctuary in March.
RZSS says a great deal of planning has gone into developing Victoria’s Highland enclosure, with producing young very much in mind.
Victoria, who is 18 and arrived at the park last year, has already given birth. In 2008, her cub Milak became an online sensation when he emerged at the maternity den in Aalburg Zoo, Denmark.
Building up 250kg Victoria to a healthy pregnancy weight of more than 300kg will be essential if she is going to successfully rear cubs.
Arktos, who was born in Vienna Zoo in 2007 and arrived at the Highland Park just under four years ago, will be kept separately but close by until the bears’ behaviour shows they are ready to let nature take its course.
Polar bear keeping has moved on dramatically from the dark days when bears often appeared traumatised by their stark surroundings.
The RZSS says it devotes more space to polar bears than any other zoological institution in the world with more than 10 acres of habitat, featuring soft grassy areas, natural slopes, ponds and trees.
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.”
At present, polar bears are classed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List, but there are increasing fears that the reduction of sea ice because of climate change will mean they become increasingly threatened.
As a result of declining polar bear numbers, Highland Wildlife Park says it intends to breed and rear polar bear cubs, which will help bolster the European breeding programme.
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.
“While 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.”