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National park officials achieve 'major milestone' in efforts to rescue animal from brink of extinction: 'We didn't dare to dream'

"We're only starting out on that journey and there's a lot of work to be done."

"We're only starting out on that journey and there's a lot of work to be done."

Photo Credit: iStock

The first reintroduction of a predator in the United Kingdom is verging on success after two wildcat kittens were spotted frolicking in the grass.

The "major milestone" was years in the making, as the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland has worked to save the animals from extinction, the Guardian reported. The scene was captured by a camera trap in Cairngorms National Park, and the outlet shared a brief clip.

There is no documentation of wildcats being born outside captivity in the past five years in Scotland, according to the Guardian. Last year, 19 wildcats were released in the Cairngorms by Saving Wildcats, a joint venture of the RZSS with NatureScot, Forestry and Land Scotland, and other organizations.

The wildcats, which eat mice, voles, rabbits, and hares, were extinct because of habitat loss, human persecution, and interbreeding with other cats. About 60 will be released near Inverness by the end of the project, the Guardian previously reported.

The reintroduction effort began in 2019, when the wildcat population of about 30 was reported to be "no longer viable," per the outlet. The interbreeding, with hybrid and domestic cats, has resulted in every wild and captive Scottish wildcat having domestic cat ancestry.

Saving Wildcats field manager Keri Langridge told the Guardian that DNA samples must be taken to confirm the six-week-old kittens are wild. The group had thought two females gave birth because of movement changes tracked via GPS collars. The kittens look like wildcats, and two females and a male were released during breeding season.

"We didn't dare to dream that we would have wildcat kittens in the first year of releases, and seeing those kittens on the video was the most exciting moment of the project so far," Langridge said.

Other predators have been similarly reintroduced to the wild, including bison in Romania. Grizzly bears are set to return to the North Cascades in Washington. These programs help rebalance ecosystems after they were disrupted by humans.

This project will run through 2026, and the RZSS' Helen Senn told the Guardian that a population of 40 wildcats would be a success. Her goal is for the creatures to inhabit large swaths of the country.

"We're only starting out on that journey and there's a lot of work to be done to reverse what is effectively centuries of decline of a species that was once extremely widespread across most of Scotland," Senn said.

"... It's so exciting to see that the cats are able to make their life in the wild, find a mate and reproduce, when all of those things are not givens at this stage in the project."

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