CINCINNATI -- Three polar bears found themselves in new homes last Wednesday as part of a three-way, 1,600-mile swap between Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wisconsin, and the Buffalo Zoo in New York. The polar bear Species Survival Plan (SSP) organized the triple bear shuffle in order to diversify the gene pool while increasing breeding potential for all three.
Cincinnati Zoo’s 17-year-old female Berit moved to Henry Vilas Zoo to replace male Sakari. Sakari in turn moved to the Buffalo Zoo to replace female Anana, who moved to Cincinnati to replace Berit. The SSP advisory board decided to swap females when Berit failed to produce cubs with her 26-year-old mate Little One.
“Berit and Little One have been together since 2007 and, although they have demonstrated appropriate breeding behaviors, Berit has never produced cubs,” said reproductive physiologist Erin Curry of the zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife. “Anana is of prime reproductive age (16) and has produced cubs in the past, but due to the current shortage of sexually mature males in the population, she is left without a male to breed. Because Little One is genetically valuable, he and Anana were deemed a good match by the Polar Bear SSP.
“While we will be sad to say goodbye to Berit, the recommended moves are in the best interest of the polar bear population as a whole, and we are excited at the possibility of Little One becoming a father and passing on his genes to future generations.”
As the number of polar bears in the wild continues to decline because of loss of habitat, melting ice floes and rising waters, Cincinnati Zoo director Thane Maynard said it’s more important than ever to help bolster their numbers in captivity. Unfortunately, he said, zoos have had limited success breeding polar bears under professional care even when conditions seem to be ideal. While they had high hopes for Berit and Little One, he said, she failed to conceive. As Berit is still in her prime breeding years, he said, it’s absolutely possible she’ll produce cubs at another zoo with a different mate.
“Not everything has been unlocked in the mystery of polar bear breeding,” he said.
Because Little One is so valuable genetically, Maynard said the SSP decided to bring in Anana as she’s a proven breeder. Over the course of the next few weeks the pair will gradually get acquainted. Their curator plans to put them together before the end of December to coincide with mating season in late winter.
“Anana’s right next to where Little One is, but they’re not physically together,” Maynard said. “So they’ll see each other and smell each other, and I’m sure they’ll get along together fine.”
In addition to partnering with Polar Bear International as an Arctic Ambassador Center to assist with the plight of the animals in the wild, the Cincinnati Zoo will sponsor the Polar Bear Challenge to help raise money locally to support research for CREW’s Polar Bear Signature Project. If they raise $35,000 by Dec. 31 through T-shirt sales and donations, Maynard said, other donors will match the amount for a total of $70,000.
“I don’t think we’re going to sell ($35,000) in T-shirts, but if we get some other donations, we can get there. That’s important because that would help fund for 2017 our polar bear research here at the zoo,” he said.
Maynard said he’s working with Ohio Sen. Rob Portman to get a single sentence changed in a regulation through the Fish and Wildlife Service that would allow orphans brought in from the wild to be able to breed. He said the regulation was designed to prevent zoos from breeding then releasing animals back into the wild when they might not be able to care for themselves, but the regulation was put in place way before many species became endangered.
“I know it sounds completely counterintuitive, but currently when an endangered species is brought in, whether that’s a manatee to come to our zoo or a polar bear from Alaska, you’re not allowed to breed them,” he said.
According to recent International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) numbers, only 26,000 polar bears remain in the wild. The species is currently listed as vulnerable, with climate change cited as their greatest threat. While the triple bear swap won’t address perils polar bears face in the wild, Curry hopes to gather valuable information to help ensure survival of the species.
“Studying bears in zoos provides unique opportunities for research that would not be feasible with wild bears,” Curry said. “Because it is challenging to collect serial samples from the same bear in a field setting, scientists use bears like Berit, Little One and Anana as models to learn more about the complex physiology of this species.”