June 19, 2008

Two Tiny Red Pandas at Edmonton Zoo Carry Survival of Species on Furry Shoulders

By Shannon Montgomery, THE CANADIAN PRESS

EDMONTON - Two tiny red pandas at Edmonton's Valley Zoo are carrying the survival of their species on their furry shoulders.

Tai the female and Pip the male were born May 26 and have already almost tripled their birth weights of 112 and 147 grams. They're the second set of twins born to the zoo's pair of adult red pandas and are part of a breeding program aimed at ensuring survival of the species.

The two were taken from their mother shortly after birth when she began grooming one aggressively, and have been cared for around the clock by zoo animal health technologist Sandy Helliker.

At first, they were kept toasty in an incubator simulating a warm nest and fed eight times a day through stomach tubes.

They're now being fed puppy formula by bottle and are slowly being introduced to cooler temperatures, said Helliker, who joked she's feeling as sleep-deprived as any new mom.

"I get up with them in the middle of the night, just like I would if I had a real baby."

The red pandas are still so young they are mostly immobile, their eyes sealed shut, their fluffy bodies more often than not curled up together fast asleep.

But the two are more than a staggeringly cute addition to the zoo's population.

Only four red pandas were born in captivity in North America last year - including Tai and Pip's twin siblings in Edmonton and one each at zoos in Winnipeg and Calgary. There are only about 45 animals in captivity in North America.

It's estimated that only 2,000 to 5,000 of the animals survive in the wild, although that number is by no means certain.

"With the cyclone in Myanmar, and with the earthquakes in China, and with the political unrest in Tibet - all which their natural territory falls into - they haven't been able to do much research over in that part of the world, and so they don't even know what the wild population sits at right now," said Helliker.

The breeding program tries to ensure genetic diversity and sufficient numbers to someday help increase the wild population. Tai and Pip are crucial to that goal because their parents are from Japan.

"They could be bred to almost any of the animals in North America, which makes them very important to the breeding program," Helliker said.