A girlfriend has been selected from a “dating agency” search for male polar bears Walker and Arktos in the hope of producing the first cubs born in the UK in nearly 25 years.
Earlier this month, it was revealed that Edinburgh Zoo panda Tian Tian was artificially inseminated after failing to mate naturally with Yang Guang.
But staff at the Highland Wildlife Park near Kingussie now hope their polar bears will prove more successful.
Douglas Richardson, the park’s animal collections manager, said a suitable female had been singled out at Amsterdam Zoo by the Polar Bear Special Committee for the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria.
Mr Richardson said: “It is a bit like a dating agency for polar bears. She is five years old and is a good genetic match. We are very pleased with her and accepted her in principle. Other stakeholders in the breeding programme are now being advised to make sure they have no objections.
“They could have some information that we are unaware of, such as over the health of the bear. But all seems fine at this stage. She seems fit and healthy, was bred in captivity and has not been used for breeding before. All being well we hope to have her here next year.”
Walker, who will be six years old this year, has been at the Highland Wildlife Park for four years since arriving from Rhenen Zoo in the Netherlands. Fellow male Arktos, who is a year older, was brought in to keep him company in 2012.
Walker is now old enough to mate, so the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, which runs the park as well as Edinburgh Zoo, is moving ahead with its polar bear breeding programme.
The female, who will weigh between 440lbs and 600lbs depending on the time of year, will be housed in a new enclosure costing up to £400,000.
Mr Richardson added: “It is likely that Arktos will be the first male to be chosen to mate. But he will only spend about three weeks with her because male polar bears are high risk for females. It is likely it would try and kill any cub too.”
Walker and Arktos, the only polar bears in a public collection in the UK, have been responsible for around a 50 per cent increase in the park’s numbers which have seen visitors double to 136,000 a year over the last five years.
A cub is likely to boost visitor numbers and takings considerably, and Mr Richardson stressed that the cash generated would be ploughed back into conservation.
Walker found fame in his first days when it emerged that he was one of two cubs at the centre of a controversy over the BBC’s Frozen Planet series in 2011.
An episode featured cubs in a den with their mother and viewers assumed the footage was from the Arctic – however, it was filmed in captivity.