First polar bear cub born in the UK for 25 years at Scottish park

Patrick Barkham
Parents of the new polar bear cub, Arktos and Victoria, at the Highland Wildlife Park. Images are not yet available of the cub as any disturbance could cause the mother to abandon her cub. Photograph: Peter Jolly/Rex/Shutterstock

The first polar bear cub to be born in Britain for 25 years is being cared for in a private den by its mother, Victoria, at the Highland Wildlife Park in Scotland.

Staff at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) park confirmed the birth after hearing distinct high-pitched sounds from Victoria’s maternity unit, which remains closed to visitors to ensure privacy.

The news of the birth comes 24 hours after a polar bear cub at a Berlin zoo died aged 26 days, and the RZSS admitted that the first three months would be perilous for the newborn polar bear.

Una Richardson, the park’s head keeper responsible for carnivores, said: “While we are absolutely thrilled, we are not celebrating prematurely as polar bear cubs have a high mortality rate in the first weeks of life due to their undeveloped immune system and the mother’s exaggerated need for privacy, with any disturbance risking the cub being killed or abandoned.”

New-born polar bear cubs are blind and weigh little more than a guinea pig. They only open their eyes when they are a month old and are entirely dependent on their mother, feeding on fat-rich milk to grow quickly, weighing about 10-12kg by the time they leave their den.

The cub may yet turn out to be twins because Victoria dislodged a video camera in the den and so keepers are relying on external audio equipment to detect signs of life.

The cub’s first cries were heard on 18 December but the park does not expect it to leave the den and appear in public until late February or March, depending on the caution of its mother.

The keepers are taking a radically “hands-off” approach to minimise disturbance for mother and cub, only visiting the enclosure to check the water outside the den is not frozen. Mimicking conditions in the wild, the keepers fed Victoria so she increased her weight from 290kg to in excess of 470kgs in the autumn before stopping her food in late October. In the wild, polar bears can live off their fat reserves for six months and Victoria will next be offered food – in the form of several carrots – at the end of this month.

If it survives, the cub is likely to trigger a visitor boom for the Highland Wildlife Park. When London Zoo unveiled its first captive-born polar bear cub in 1949, visitor numbers increased from 1.1 million to more than three million the following year.

Knut, the orphaned polar bear cub rescued from his mother by keepers at Berlin Zoo, became a global sensation in 2007, generating between €5m and €10m from visitors and merchandise. But Knut was said to have become addicted to having an audience, had to be separated from his keeper and died prematurely, aged four, of a rare autoimmune disorder known as anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis.

Douglas Richardson, head of living collections at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park said the park would be very wary of intervening in any way if Victoria was struggling to rear her cub.

“We would certainly prefer not to hand-rear because they are so bright that we can end up with a cub that’s not the most balanced individual and thinks it’s a little furry human as opposed to a polar bear,” he said.

Richardson said he was confident there would be no repeat of “Knut mania” with thousands of visitors in potentially stressful close proximity to the young cub when it emerges in the spring.

“The enclosure that the female and cub have access to is by anyone’s standards enormous. The public are only at one end of it. Even if the viewing area was jam-packed with visitors the bears have a huge amount of space where they can step back from visitors.”

Of the criticism that it is cruel to keep such a large and intelligent animal in captivity, Douglas Richardson said: “The way polar bears were kept in the 1980s was not appropriate – we were dealing with big, intelligent animals in barren, hard environments. We’ve changed it dramatically.” The animals have grassy, tundra-like conditions rather than the concrete pens of old.

Douglas Richardson added: “There’s a lengthening list of species where we are thankful we had a robust captive population so we’re able to augment a fragile wild population. I’m not saying that genetically augmenting the polar bear wild population will be an easy or even possible option but if we don’t have a robust captive population we will not have that option.”

The Born Free Foundation said that British zoos should not be breeding polar bears but only providing sanctuary for captive bears rescued from cruel conditions in zoos overseas. According to the charity, captive polar bears display very high levels of abnormal behaviour and infant mortality.

Will Travers of the Born Free Foundation said: “This isn’t going to make an iota of difference for the 24,000 polar bears in the wild. The more time and effort we spend on this, the less time and effort we spend on putting these things right by doing something about climate change.

“There’s something really quite sad that we are using words like ‘living collections’. Are we a magpie species that collects exotic wildlife from four corners of the planet and puts it on postage stamp-sized pieces of land and goes and looks at it? It’s not the 21st century I want to be part of.”



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