Hidden cameras have captured exciting footage of the moment six rare baby Pallas cats first ventured out of their nest box at the Highland Wildlife Park (HWP) in Scotland.
The kittens, now seven weeks old and still tiny, cuddly balls of fur, are a major success story for the park. This is because Pallas cats are a "near threatened species".
These beautiful creatures are very difficult to breed in captivity due to the high mortality rate among new-born kittens. They could easily contract toxoplasmosis, a deadly parasitic disease.
To minimise the risk of infection, HWP devised a complicated plan that brought together cutting-edge technology, animal management and modern medicine.
The park's adult Pallas cats, male Beebop and female Alula, were moved to a private enclosure with hidden cameras and sound-activated recording equipment. Keepers needed to know when mating had taken place so that the plan could be implemented.
The Pallas cat is native to the grasslands of Central Asia and the Middle East. An adult Pallas cat is about the same size as a domestic cat. It has a strong, stocky body covered in thick fur. The animal's summer coat is ochre-coloured with dark bars on the torso and front legs. Its winter coat is greyer and has fewer markings than the summer fur.
The Pallas cat has black rings on its tail and dark blobs on its forehead. Its face is covered with light-coloured fur, with dark stripes running down from the corners of its eyes. Its distinct markings and bright green/yellow eyes make it one of the most beautiful members of the cat family.
In the wild, the Pallas cat is in danger of disappearing, and that is why the conservation programme at HWP is so important.
This elusive animal has long been hunted for its fur, and its organs are used as medicine in rural Russia and Mongolia. The cats can also easily get caught in traps set by villagers for foxes and wolves.
They are also threatened by habitat loss, as grasslands are destroyed by urbanisation and farming.
Pallas cats have a weak immune system so it is very difficult to raise them in captivity. They can easily catch viruses they are not exposed to in high-altitude grasslands. The kittens at HWP are only the third recorded litter born worldwide this year.
With programmes like the one at HWP, we can rest assured that the Pallas cat has a future.
Check out the new-born Pallas cats on www.edinburghzoo.org.uk/love-your-zoo-2014/pallas-cats-rzss-conservatio…
We would like to thank the Press Office at Edinburgh Zoo for helping with this article
1 What does the abbreviation "HWP" stand for?
2 Which of the following could replace the words "mortality rate"? (section 1)
a. birth rate
b. pulse rate
c. death rate
d. exchange rate
3 A "near threatened species" is a group of animals that …
a. has been removed from its natural habitat
b. is facing extinction
c. is only bred in captivity
d. has been domesticated by humans
4 What is "cutting-edge technology"? (section 2)
a. the latest hi-tech equipment
b. technology that is no longer useful
c. out-of-date technology
d. technology that requires special training
5 Why did the keepers at HWP need to know when Beebop and Alula had mated? (section 2)
a. so that they could work out a diet for any possible kittens
b. to prepare for a big celebration when the kittens were born
c. so that they could start their special care programme
d. to inform the general public about possible future kittens
6 Which of the following statements about the Pallas cat is UNTRUE?
a. it is about the same size as a pet cat
b. it is native to Scotland
c. its body is covered in thick fur
d. its coat changes in winter
7 What colour is ochre? (section 3)
a. bluish green
b. a mixture of purple and silver
c. yellowish orange
d. light blue
8 What markings does the Pallas cat have on its forehead? (section 3)
a. dark-coloured rings
b. light-brown stripes
c. small, black stripes
d. dark spots
9 What does the word "elusive" mean? (section 4)
a. happy to live alongside humans
b. easily domesticated
c. difficult to track down or catch
d. a meat-eater
10 Why is it difficult to breed Pallas cats in captivity?
a. because they can easily catch infections
b. because they need a special diet
c. because they are allergic to humans
d. because they are bad-tempered and violent