Two red pandas, members of a species facing rapid extinction, have been born in a zoo in the Netherlands – while their vulnerable family members in the wild are being wiped out daily by logging and poaching.
“Births among red pandas are pretty rare and so you can imagine how excited we were to find two beautiful little cubs, and not just the one we were hoping for,” said keeper, Mirthe Wesbonk of Amersfoort zoo, which works with the international Red Panda Network.
The remarkably cute creatures are native to southwestern China and the eastern slopes of the Himalayas, but despite conservation campaigns their numbers have been dwindling at an alarming rate. Roughly 50 per cent have disappeared in the past 20 years.
Only about 10,000 – at a very optimistic estimate – survive in their native habitats and those have become victims of their own cuteness and rarity with the result that they’re frequently stolen for their pelts or as pets, or in the belief that certain body parts have medicinal value.
At the same time, their habitats are being destroyed or broken up by industrial-scale logging and land clearance in unprotected wilderness areas; and so the small groups who do survive become separated from one another.
As a result of these relentless challenges, the embattled species suffers from a psychological condition known as “inbreeding depression”, which leads to reduced biological fitness in their population and contributes to the downward spiral in numbers.
At 50-60cm in height, with distinctive reddish fur and striped tails, they are now on the “red list” of species threatened with extinction kept by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the world’s most comprehensive inventory of biological species.
“It’s true that they’re not doing too well in the wild and that’s another reason we were delighted to discover real red panda twins in our enclosure”, says Ms Wesbonk.
Even the keepers at the zoo, about 50km from Amsterdam, don’t know yet whether the new arrivals are male or female.
“We disturb them as little as possible and try not to go near the nest in their first weeks. It can sometimes be as long as three months before they make their first appearance. But being able to see such rare twins will be a really special experience.”