Page last updated at 18:36 GMT, Monday, 9 November 2009

Park in polar bear breeding plan

Mercedes in her new enclosure
Mercedes in her new enclosure at the Highland Wildlife Park

More polar bears are to be introduced to the Highland Wildlife Park, when the UK's only polar bear dies.

Mercedes, thought to be 27-years-old, was relocated from Edinburgh Zoo to the park near Kingussie last month. Polar bears can live into their early 30s.

The park's owners said two would be taken from other zoos when Mercedes dies in the hope they will reproduce.

But an animal welfare group denied the park's claim that bringing in more bears would contribute to conservation.

Mercedes was rescued from her native Canada and brought to Scotland in 1984, after she was scheduled to be shot because she was roaming into a nearby town in search of food.

She was kept in Edinburgh Zoo - which, along with the wildlife park is owned by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), but this was criticised because of the size of the enclosure.

Importing polar bears from the wild will not help conservation, and keeping captive wildlife will not halt climate change
Will Travers
Born Free Foundation

Her new home extends over four acres of land regarded as more typical of the natural habitat of polar bears.

The RZSS said she has settled in there "extremely well".

She has been on her own for 13 years, since the male polar bear she was paired with, Barney, passed away.

The RZSS said this was the natural state for the solitary species, and that Mercedes would remain on her own until she dies.

Douglas Richardson, from the Highland Wildlife Park, said: "Until recently, there was no real conservation need to keep polar bears in zoos as there was a healthy population in the wild and therefore RZSS had no definite plans to replace Mercedes after she died.

"However a shrinking polar ice cap and shortening polar ice season has pitched the polar bears to the forefront of conservation concern, so much so that key representatives of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's polar bear specialist group now feel that the modern zoo community has an increasingly important role to play.

"This will include keeping and breeding polar bears within our collections long-term."

'Right thing'

But Will Travers, chief executive of the Born Free Foundation, said: "While the RZSS may have finally done the right thing by moving Mercedes from Edinburgh Zoo to the Highland Wildlife Park, they are way off the mark with their plans to bring in more polar bears.

"Research has shown that wide-ranging species such as polar bears show high levels of abnormal behaviour and infant mortality in captivity.

"There is simply no evidence that exhibiting polar bears in zoos is an effective means of educating visitors about climate change, let alone convincing people to significantly alter their behaviour to lessen their impact on the environment."

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