Three rare wild­cats born at High­land Wildlife Park

The Oban Times - - OUTDOORS - MARTIN LAING mlaing@oban­

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.

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