For the first time, critically endangered Scottish wildcats bred in captivity will be released into the wild.
Funding for a six-year plan to collect and release up to 60 animals starting in 2022 has been obtained.
Scientists also estimated that the animal-known as the Highland tiger-will become “highly likely” to become extinct without the action.
EU funds worth £ 3.2 million is obtained for the construction of a reintroduction centre in Kincraig’s Highland Wildlife Park.
Until their publication, the cats will be removed from the public view to avoid interaction with humans.
Potential release sites in the Cairngorms National Park are being investigated.
The venture was operated by the Scottish Royal Zoological Society managing the wildlife park.
Helen Senn, Head of Conservation, said: “Wildcats are already on the brink of extinction in Scotland but it is not too late.’
The reintroduction centre will provide a stable supply of wildcats for years to come using wildcats from the current captive population as well as cats from Europe to improve the gene pool.”
The Scottish wildcat is Britain’s only natural representative of the cat family that is still found in the wild.
Conservationists have concentrated on five “priority regions” in Scotland for the past couple of years.
Their main defence was to capture, neutralize, vaccinate and release feral cats to minimize harm to wildcat colonies in those areas.
Yet, owing to hybridization with feral or domestic cats, a report by the International Union for Nature Conservation found Scottish wildcats “functionally extinct.”
Researchers studied hundreds of dead and live DNA wildcats and discovered that they belonged to the same genetic pool as domestic cats.
Yet wildcats have been bred in captivity since the 1970s and are now closer to their ancestors ‘ genetic connection.
Scottish Natural Heritage’s Martin Gaywood claims that neuter cat owners and vaccinate their cats are important in order to avoid further hybridization.
He added: “Releasing animals into the wild for conservation reasons is very complex and challenging. ‘ With the first wildcats set to be released into the wild in 2022, now is time for a public conversation on domestic and feral cat populations and how we treat them and the public will play an important role in trying to prevent potential hybridization.”