Three Scottish wildcat kittens are getting used to their new surroundings at the Highland Wildlife Park - and they offer hope that the species can be saved from extinction.
The trio, born in March to mother Ness, have recently begun to emerge from their den at theÂ Royal Zoological Society park near Kingussie.
They might look similar to domestic tabby cats, but theyÂ are the newest additions to a breeding programme which aims to protect the iconic Scottish wildcat from extinction.
David Barclay, RZSS cat conservation project officer said, 'While it is always a joy to see the excitement in the visitor's faces as they catch a glimpse of the kittens exploring their enclosure, it is an even greater feeling knowing that young wildcats like these could be the saviour of the species in Scotland.
'With little evidence of viable populations in the wild it is clear to see how valuable reintroductions from the captive breeding population could be. These kittens, from a wild born father, possess genes that will allow for new breeding pairs to be established ensuring the population continues to grow.
'Very real threat of extinction'
'The Scottish wildcat is facing the very real threat of extinction due to hybridisation with domestic and feral cats as well as habitat loss and accidental persecution," addsÂ Barclay.
"However, together with our partners in Scottish Wildcat Action, Scotland's national conservation project for the species, we will continue to deliver conservation efforts for the species and make sure we give them the greatest hope of survival for future generations'
How wildcats differ
Although Scottish wildcats share some similarities with domestic tabby cats, the two species are not to be confused.
An adult Scottish Wildcat in captivity at the Highland Wildlife Park (Photo: TSPL)
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 last ice age, around 9,000 years ago.
Domestic cats originate from Near Eastern wildcats and have been through a process of domestication. So they have a quite separate evolutionary history to Scottish wildcats and behave quite differently.
Wildcats are less social, generally just coming together for a short period for breeding, normally giving birth to two or three kittens, which the mother will protect fiercely.
Douglas Richardson, head of living collections at the park said, 'RZSS Highland Wildlife Park first bred Scottish wildcats in 1981.Â Over the years we have provided many of our offspring to other high-standard collections and so from quite early-on we sowed the seeds for what is now the formal conservation breeding programme.
'It is comforting to know that the wildcats within the formal breeding programme will provide the lifeline that the species needs to ride-out the very real threat of extinction in the wild.'