Three rare wildcats born at Highland Wildlife Park
THREE rare Scottish wildcat kittens were born at the Highland Wildlife Park in April.
The new arrivals – born to mother Ness and father Zak – are the 18th, 19th and 20th kittens to be born and reared at the park over the past four years.
Also known as the ‘Highland tiger’, this rare native species is facing the threat of extinction due to hybridisation with domestic and feral cats, habitat loss and persecution. However, as a result of co- ordinated conservation efforts and a breeding programme for eventual release, the species has a fighting chance.
The wildcat kittens have spent the first couple of months in their dens, but are becoming slightly more independent of mum now. They are enjoying exploring their enclosures and the overhead tunnels, and exhibiting kitten-like behaviour such as play-fighting.
Douglas Richardson, from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s (RZSS) Highland Wildlife Park, said: ‘The three female kittens are another important addition to the captive population. Fathered by wild-born Zak, who came to us as an abandoned kitten in 2012, they possess genes which are valuable to the population and will allow new breeding pairs to be established in the future.
‘The three are becoming more confident as they settle into their surroundings, and can be seen in the forest habitat at the park. Our plan is that they will go on to play an important role in the conservation of the species and, with possibly as few as 110 wildcats left in the wild, the importance of a well-managed captive population cannot be overstated.’
The RZSS is a partner in Scottish Wildcat Action, the first national project to save the wildcat from extinction. Alongside its work leading the conservation breeding for release aspect of the project, RZSS’s WildGenes laboratory is developing a molecular studbook for the species, having collected genetic data from over 70 breeding wildcats in captivity.
This will provide more detailed information on the relatedness of the population while informing future breeding decisions and ensuring that the best possible matches are made to create a genetically diverse population.
Although some similarities with domestic tabby cats exist, the two species are not to be confused. The Scottish wildcat is the same subspecies of wildcat as is found in continental Europe, but has been separated from them since the end of the ice age, around 9,000 years ago.
With their big, bushy, blackringed tail and tenacious behaviour, it is no surprise that the Scottish wildcat was used historically in many Highland clan crests. It is one of the rarest populations of cat in the world and is critically endangered in the wild. The long-term future of the Scottish wildcat relies on local people reporting sightings of any cats living in the wild, volunteering and spreading the word about the conservation challenge facing the species.
The Scottish wildcat kittens are now getting adventurous.