Highland Wildlife Park welcomes polar bear Victoria

THE long-awaited new arrival of a polar bear on Scottish soil today is set to spark massive global interest, with hopes of a cub being born in the country for the first time in nearly 30 years.

Mercedes was the last female polar bear to live in the UK. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Victoria is to be welcomed at Highland Wildlife Park, near Kingussie, having travelled by road and sea from Aalborg Zoo in Denmark.

The 18-year-old bear will spend two weeks settling into her new enclosure before the public can see her.

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Becoming the only female currently in the UK, she will be joining the resident males Walker and Arktos.

The intention is for Victoria to breed with the eldest of the males, seven-year-old Arktos. Mating could begin within weeks, depending how well she likes her new surroundings.

Douglas Richardson, Head of Living Collections for Highland Wildlife Park, said: “Victoria will need to settle in.

“Her enclosure is completely separate to Walker and Arktos’, as male and female polar bears live separately in the wild.

“During the polar bear breeding season, which general falls between March and May, we will gradually introduce her to Arktos and the two will stay together until the two hopefully mate, when the male will be returned to the bachelor enclosure.”

If mating takes place this year then offspring would be expected around November or December.

Mr Richardson said: “A great deal of thought and planning has gone into developing Victoria’s enclosure.

“It is a large area featuring a large pond and plenty of natural ground for her to explore. In addition to the main enclosure, there is an adjacent smaller holding enclosure with its own pool that will initially house the male until the signs are right for the introduction.

“This extra enclosure allows us to also use a visiting male from another zoo, should the breeding programme recommend it, and we are not aware of any other polar bear breeding facility that has this degree of flexibility.”

He said: “The birth and rearing of polar bears cubs will be of real value to the regional breeding programme, help to highlight the plight of polar bears in the wild, and will be incredibly positive for Highland Wildlife Park.”

Such a birth would become a worldwide sensation and most likely provide a massive boost to visitor numbers to the Highland park.

The chances of success are believed to be high, particularly as Victoria has previously given birth to cubs in 2008.

Milak, her first cub, became an online sensation when hundreds of thousands of people from 75 countries around the world followed the early days of the cub’s life whilst still in the maternity den.

It was one of the first times that webcams were able to show what life is like with a mother and a newborn cub.

The last female polar bear to live in the UK was Mercedes, who died at the old age of around 30 years old in April 2011. She gave birth to the last cub born in Scotland in 1988.

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, alongside a generous benefactor, saved Mercedes from certain death in Canada in the early 80s when she came to live at Edinburgh Zoo, before later in life moving to live in the radically different enclosure at Highland Wildlife Park where she was eventually joined by the young Walker.

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland has a history of designing state of the art polar bear enclosures that meet the animals’ needs to the highest level possible.

Animal experts from the park have since been invited to consult and advise on other polar bear enclosures both in the UK and around the world.

Last September 60 military personnel arrived in the Highlands to help the Park’s ‘Works Team’ create the visitor access to Victoria’s new home.

The Engineers from 71 Engineer Regiment and a contingent from the South Dakota National Guard kicked off the project with the construction of a 300 metre (984ft) walkway out to the one hectare polar bear enclosure on the south west side of the Highland Wildlife Park.