A white ball of fluffy history recently emerged at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s Highland Wildlife Park. The little one is the first polar bear cub to be born in the United Kingdom in 25 years.
The cub was born in mid-December 2017 to mom Victoria and father Arktos, but until now the birth had only been confirmed by high-pitched noises coming from the den.
Victoria recently had started to venture outside alone for brief periods to eat, drink and roll around in the snow, so keepers knew it was likely that the cub would soon follow.
Una Richardson, head keeper for carnivores, was checking on Victoria in early March, making sure she had fresh water and continuing to reintroduce food to her diet after four months during which the bear lived only on the fat reserves she had built up before retreating to her den.
"Suddenly I saw a small, fluffy bundle next to her and had to pinch myself to check I wasn’t seeing things," Richardson said in a statement. "It was a very special experience and one I’ll never forget. We also have motion-sensitive cameras safely positioned near Victoria’s den and we were delighted to see we had captured her cub’s first few steps outside."
The images were caught on cameras for a documentary being filmed by local Channel 4 and STV Productions, following the historic breeding and birth of the cub. Filmed over two years, "Britain’s Polar Bear Cub," is documenting the park's pioneering polar bear breeding program.
"Having only been able to hear sounds from inside the den before, we can now be certain Victoria has had one cub rather than two and we couldn’t be happier as this is the moment we have been working towards and really looking forward to," Richardson said.
"Both mum and cub appear to be doing well, though this is still a sensitive time and they need as much peace and quiet as possible."
It's a boy!
On April 16, the zoo discovered the cub is a boy during his first health check.
Zoo officials will compile a list of potential names for the furry baby and will ask the public to vote on their favorite pick. "This will help us engage with as wide an audience as possible to raise awareness of the threats polar bears are facing in the wild and the need to protect this magnificent species," said Richardson in a statement.
In the four months since his birth, the cub has spent time in his outdoor enclosure with his mom and even swam for the first time.
Breeding polar bears in zoos
To more closely mirror the way polar bears live in the wild, the zoo has kept the male and female bears separate and has larger than normal enclosures, says Douglas Richardson, head of living collections at the park.
"Some may wonder whether there is any point in breeding polar bears in zoos, and the question deserves a serious answer. The change in the Arctic climate, specifically the shortening of the ice season, coupled with more direct human pressures, is having a noticeably detrimental effect on the species that is likely to result in many of the wild sub-populations disappearing," Douglas Richardson says.
"If we do not develop and maintain a genetically and behaviorally robust captive polar bear population, we will not have the option, should we require it, to use them to support what is likely to be a diminished and fragmented wild population in the future.”
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Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in March 2018.