Auckland Zoo keepers say the birth of a rare Nepalese red panda baby in the early hours of 24 December was the best Christmas present they could have received.
The four-week-old is the first offspring of three-year-old mum Bo (who arrived at Auckland Zoo in mid-2012) and 12-year-old Sagar, and is an extremely valuable addition to the international breeding programme for this threatened species.
The yet-to-be-sexed cub weighed just 105 grams (equal to a medium sized tomato) at birth, and is now an estimated 240 grams. It is the first red panda to be born at the Zoo since 2002.
"We're absolutely stoked. This birth is a fantastic result, especially as Bo was only introduced to Sagar last August, and given female red pandas come into season just twice a year and a male has only a one to two-day window to mate a female.
"We couldn't ask for a better mum in Bo. She's doing an exceptional job, staying in the nest box for long periods and feeding her cub up to six times a day, and being very attentive," says the Zoo's Carnivore team leader, Bruce Murdock.
Mr Murdock says red pandas develop slowly and are dependent for at least three months, so it could be another eight to 10 weeks before visitors see the cub venturing out of its nest box and around the enclosure with Bo.
"We're keeping a regular watch on this cub, but taking a very hands-off approach so Bo can continue to do the great job she's doing, and we minimise any potential stress for her. Around late February will be a safe time for us to do a full vet check on the cub. We're not absolutely sure, but bets are on that we have a female," he says.
As part of the international breeding programme for this threatened species, Auckland Zoo sent female red panda Khosuva to India's Darjeeling Zoo in 2010, where she has been paired up with a breeding male as part of Project Red Panda. The plan is for Khosuva's offspring to be released into the wild in Nepal. In return, Sagar arrived at Auckland Zoo in 2010 from Darjeeling Zoo to breed.
Executive director of the Australasian Zoo Aquarium Association (ZAA) and species coordinator for red panda Chris Hibbard, says the birth is a landmark event and an important part of the global breeding efforts facilitated by the World Association of Zoos and Aquaria.
"Thanks to Auckland's initiative with Darjeeling Zoo and this successful breeding with a very genetically valuable male, internationally we're able to build on our efforts to preserve a genetically representative insurance population," says Mr Hibbard.
Besides Bo, Sagar and the newborn, Auckland Zoo has two other red pandas - 16-year-old Maya and her 12-year old daughter Amber. Visit www.aucklandzoo.co.nz and Auckland Zoo's facebook page for further details and updates about the cub.
The Auckland Zoo Conservation Fund supports the Red Panda Network in Nepal, which is working to save the red panda in the wild and preserve habitat through education and empowering local communities. Visit www.redpandanetwork.org