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  1. ITV Report

Calendar given special access to rare transfer of polar bear from Côte d'Azur to Yorkshire

  • Watch Emma Wilkinson's report on Rasputin's journey
Sunrise in Antibes, France. Credit: ITV Calendar

It is quiet in Antibes at this time of year. The beaches are almost empty and the big tourist attraction in the area - Marineland - uses the off-season to close and do a bit of annual maintenance. It is strange walking around a large attraction like this with no people around. But behind the scenes staff are busy working on a complex plan to transfer one of their star attractions from the Côte d'Azur to South Yorkshire.

Rasputin is a male polar bear who arrived at Marineland from Germany ten years ago. He is part of a European Endangered Species Programme, a breeding programme which aims to help secure a future for the world's most vulnerable animals by conserving healthy, self-sustaining populations in captivity.

Rasputin will start a new life at Yorkshire Wildlife Park

Rasputin recently fathered three cubs with female polar bear, Flocke. As happens in the wild, Flocke will spend the next three months in a den with the cubs. For Marineland staff, it has been a time of celebration tinged with sadness because the birth of the cubs has prompted the park, with permission from the breeding programme, to move Rasputin to Doncaster.

When a female has babies she can't be with the male because he could be a predator and the female could be very aggressive with the male to defend her cubs. So they have to be separated for two or three years. It's not good for him to stay alone, so it's better for him to go to another park with other bears.

Rasputin and Flocke have had four babies in five years so the manager of the breeding programme wants to keep them as a breeding pair if we can. So for now, Rasputin will go to Doncaster but we hope in a few years Flocke will go to Doncaster too.

– Damien Montay, Zoological Director at Marineland
Flocke will spend around three months in the den with her cubs Credit: Marineland

Transporting a 600kg bear from one country to another is no easy task. There is no manual - every bear is different and every park has a different layout.

Bruce Walton is the head polar bear keeper at Marineland and clearly has a very close bond with Rasputin. Before he even sees him, Rasputin can smell Bruce and the other keepers amongst a crowd of people.

On the day before the big move, Bruce was advised by the vet to bring Rasputin inside for the night. He would, the vet said, most likely have to be anaesthetised in order to get him safely into the transport crate. So he needed to be in position and without access to food until the following day.

I think Rasputin will handle it all very well. He's a very calm animal and he's very trusting of us. I don't think the journey will particularly stress him out, he won't be able to see much outside of the crate so he will probably just switch off a bit, lay down and wait to arrive in Doncaster. And I think once he's there, he will love it.

– Bruce Walton
Rasputin was kept inside overnight, to fast ahead of the anaesthetic.

At first light the following day a team of around twenty people - including a specialist crane operator - spent two hours getting the transport crate from the ground to the doorway of Rasputin's enclosure at the top of a large ramp. It was a cacophony of voices and machinery.

Once the crate was in position, the vet got to work putting Rasputin to sleep. It gave the team a window of time to get Rasputin into his transport crate. It would take around ten people and innovative use of nets and builders bags, to slide and push him in.

After around an hour unconscious, the vet woke Rasputin up

As the crate was then lifted high into the air, Rasputin moved his head repeatedly from side to side. I asked if that was perhaps a sign that he was stressed.

"No he's ok, I think he's just a bit confused about what is happening," Bruce told me. "He's looking around all the time, being inquisitive, and trying to work out what is going on."

By 2pm, Rasputin was safely in the truck and setting off to the ferry terminal at Calais. The company taking him, Ekipa, are specialists in animal transportation.

It's going to be a twelve hour trip to Calais. I've spoken to his keeper Bruce and he's told me that he's a big drinker so we'll be making sure we keep stopping to give him water and checking he is ok. We'll also give him some food along the way. We've done this many times before, with giraffes, rhinos, elephants and now another bear.

– Davy Smit, Ekipa

From agreeing the transfer, getting the paper work in place, and then physically moving Rasputin has taken a month - an unusually fast timeline. The timing was designed so that he would arrive in the UK before 31st January, due to uncertainty about whether Brexit would affect the administrative process.

Yorkshire Wildlife Park are relieved that it has all gone smoothly, but also excited to welcome a breeding polar bear to its flagship Project Polar.

  • See on how Rasputin is settling in at Yorkshire Wildlife Park

Rasputin will spend four months alone in quarantine in a large enclosure at the park, before being slowly introduced to four other males at the ten-acre Project Polar.

Kim Wilkins, Carnivore Team Leader, said: "It's felt like a long time coming but to finally have him here is fantastic, he's a beautiful looking bear who has been well looked after and so far he seems to settling in very well here."