By Frank Bucholtz/Special at Aldergrove Star
There are two new red pandas at the Greater Vancouver Zoo, and they’re part of a much larger effort to help preserve and improve this endangered mammal species.
One is a male, the other a female.
These are the first known births of red panda cubs in British Columbia, said Menita Prasad, assistant general manager and director of animal care at the zoo.
Red pandas are not pandas. They are much smaller and are also known as lesser panda.
Head-body length ranges from 51 to 63.5 centimeters (20.1 to 25 in), with a tail ranging from 28 to 48.5 cm (11 to 19.1 in). They weigh between 3.2 and 15 kg (7.1 to 33.1 pounds).
Red pandas are an important species as they help maintain the balance of their ecosystem. Their natural range is in northern Myanmar, India, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Chinese provinces of West Sichuan and Yunnan.
They are the last surviving species of their taxonomic family.
Their number in the wild is thought to be less than 2,500, and in many areas their habitat is fragmented due to human activity. As solitary animals, breeding is often difficult.
They have dense reddish-brown fur with black bellies and legs, white-edged ears, mostly white muzzles, and ringed tails.
They have curved, retractable claws and a thumb-like bone that helps them grasp leaves, fruit, and narrow tree branches.
A red panda’s diet is 90% bamboo. Their thick fur insulates from the cold.
Red pandas generally live solitary lives.
Zoo officials have observed that they are generally quite quiet, but make a lot of interesting sounds.
Most notable is what is called a “huff-quack”. It sounds like a pig growl and a duck quack; they also emit small cries and chirps.
Red pandas are crepuscular, which means they are most active at dawn and dusk. On average, they spend about 45% of the day awake.
The story behind the zoo births is interesting, Prasad explained.
At the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Manitoba, a red panda cub was born on June 28, 2014. He became known as Arun.
Once ready to leave his mother, he joined the Species Survival Plan (SSP), which involves zoos and nature parks around the world.
The Greater Vancouver Zoo in Aldergrove has built a brand new enclosure for his arrival.
He came to Aldergrove on May 28, 2015 and has been popular with zoo staff ever since.
He is very laid back and doesn’t get worked up over anything, though he is quite picky when it comes to food; he will only eat a specific brand of date. It is often motivated by bamboo, especially bamboo shoots.
He is also very energetic and has been seen bouncing around the enclosure playfully.
His partner Sakura was also born in Canada, at the Granby Zoo in Quebec. Her date of birth is July 1, 2013 (Canada Day) – so she is a true Canadian.
The SSP recommended her as a mate for Arun, and the two first met on March 4 last year.
They get along very well, Prasad explained.
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Sakura is extremely food-motivated and loves sweet foods, especially dates and pears. She often steals Arun’s sweet food because she loves sweets so much. She is stockier than him, her face is bigger and rounder than his and also lighter in color. She is the dominant of the couple.
Red pandas usually breed from January to March, when the days begin to lengthen. Babies are born in late spring.
Meanwhile, bamboo shoots and leaves are the most tender and easily digestible, which helps the mother to get proper nutrition while raising her babies.
Females create nests in hollow trees, tree roots, and small enclaves, and pull leaves and other soft materials into the nest.
Zoo staff preemptively built three nesting boxes for Sakura and placed them in different areas of the enclosure. In January, she began pulling material from these boxes. This was followed by signs of obvious mating behaviors.
In April, she began guarding nest boxes, and in mid-May she began actively nesting in one particular nest box, Prasad said.
The zoo had planned to do an ultrasound, but it was scheduled for the day staff discovered the babies – June 14.
Interaction with the sitter is kept to a minimum to allow her to raise her young as naturally as possible, Prasad explained.
Sakura is described as an excellent mother and very protective of her young.
A visual health check takes place daily and there are regular weigh-ins. The cubs will soon be out in their enclosure and will start to get really active when they start eating solid food at three months of age.
The cubs will be at the zoo for at least a year – the time they will stay with their mothers in the wild.
After a year, SSP can match them with potential partners in other facilities.
This is a huge achievement for the SSP and a major contribution to the ongoing conservation efforts of this endangered species.
“SSP programs are led by expert advisors who work cooperatively to maximize genetic diversity, appropriately manage population distribution and the long-term sustainability of animal programs within the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Breeding and translocation plans are being developed with the goal of having a healthy, genetically diverse and demographically stable population for the long-term future,” according to an AZA statement.
The birth of these twin red pandas is part of the zoo’s commitment to conservation and education, Prasad said, noting that zoo visitors may be able to see the cubs soon enough, but it they are asked to be attentive and respectful during their visit.
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