The UK’s first polar bear cub in 25 years has been born in a Scottish wildlife park.
Staff at the Highland Wildlife Park believe the cub, by parents Victoria and Arktos, was born shortly before Christmas on or around December 18.
The birth was confirmed after staff heard distinct, high-pitched squeaking sounds from mum Victoria’s maternity den.
The den is closed to staff and visitors to ensure privacy and protect the cub.
The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) have described the birth as an “outstanding achievement which will have interest across the world”.
But they have stressed that the first three months are perilous for polar bear cubs, whether born in the wild or in captivity.
Una Richardson, who works at the park in Kincraig in Strathspey and Badenochpark, is not sure how many cubs were delivered as they do not have access to Victoria’s cubbing box.
Head carnivore keeper Una said: “We first heard promising noises in the week before Christmas and these have now continued into the new year.
“Because we don’t have sight inside her cubbing box we can’t be sure if Victoria has had more than one cub but we can confirm the birth.
“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.
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“We will continue to monitor Victoria and very much hope for the best possible news when she emerges around March.
“Until then, Victoria’s enclosure will be closed to the public and keeper activity will be at a minimum to give her offspring every chance of survival.”
New-born polar bear cubs are blind, around 30cm long 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 around ten to 12 kg by the time they leave their den.
The polar bear breeding season began in March last year, during which Victoria mated with Arktos, one of the park’s two males.
Barbara Smith, RZSS Chief Executive, said that the birth was “hugely exciting”.
She added: “Our polar bears are part of the European Endangered Species Programme and we hope Victoria’s offspring will survive to reinforce the captive population, which may be needed in the future to augment and help restore a markedly reduced and fragmented wild population.”