Highland Wildlife blog – Polar Bear Speed Dating
June 5, 2014 § Leave a comment
by Douglas Richardson, Head of Living Collections, RZSS Highland Wildlife Park
A recent passing comment to a journalist about the Highland Wildlife Park being designated a specific female polar bear, raised rather more interest than we anticipated. But how does one get a female polar bear?
Readers of this column will be familiar with the concept of organised breeding programmes and how the legitimate zoo community manages its animals communally. The intensively managed programmes, normally for species that are under significant threat of extinction, have a species committee of 10-12 that is elected by all the zoos that hold that particular species. On the 16th of April we met in Amsterdam to discuss all the zoos’ needs, recommend transfers of individual bears, advise on the establishment of new breeding pairs and explore whether we have individuals that are surplus to our needs but would be of benefit to polar bear breeding programmes in other regions.
At the Park, we currently have two big males, Arktos who is now fully mature, and Walker who is on the cusp of maturity. It is our intention to build a completely separate female polar bear enclosure on the other side of the Park so that we can more closely mirror the wild lifestyle of the species. Adult males are much more sociable than females, who tend to be pretty solitary and outside of the breeding season, avoid big males like the plague. An adult male bear will be two to three times the size of a female, and a hungry male will sometimes view her or her cubs as a potential meal. One can markedly reduce the stress on captive females, and increase the likelihood of cubs being reared if the male enclosure is nowhere near the female’s.
When deciding which female would be a good match for both of our males, we needed to look at comparative ages, degrees of relatedness, geographical proximity and the nature of her current enclosure. This last point is becoming increasingly important as the evolution of polar bear enclosures in recent years has resulted in a huge disparity in the size and complexity of the newer enclosures with the older ones of a more traditional design. It is a basic tenet of the zoo community that when sending animals out of your zoo, you try and send them to facilities that are as good as if not better than yours. Because of the intelligence of polar bears, coupled with their size (our boys each weigh over half a tonne), individual animal welfare is the programme’s highest priority. As we have the third largest polar bear facility in the world, and we plan a similar sized female enclosure, the nature of the proposed female’s current home was never going to be an inhibiting factor for us.
After almost 14 hours of discussion, we had the makings of a draft plan that would move the population forward and a suitable female was recommended to come to us to produce the British Isles’ first polar bear cubs since 1992.