Moonlight, a 4-year-old red panda, gave birth to a cub on June 12 at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal.
The institute, which studies endangered species from around the world, now has five red pandas.
“It’s really great news,” said Juan Rodriguez, a supervisory biologist for red pandas, clouded leopards and maned wolves at the institute. “We have been involved in breeding red pandas for a little more than 40 years.”
Normally, the facility has two or three breeding pandas each year, but because of staffing and other issues, he said they only had one this year.
Having a new red panda cub, “it’s a big thing,” he said.
Red pandas are native to high-altitude bamboo forests in Asia, according to a news release from the SCBI.
The pandas are classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. They are mainly threatened by habitat loss from logging and human development.
“The number of red pandas living in the wild has declined by as much as 50% during the past 20 years,” the release says.
Rodriguez said the SCBI participates in the North American Red Panda Species Survival Plan, breeding and studying red pandas as an insurance population against extinction.
Their goal is to keep a captive population that is viable, healthy and genetically diverse, he said.
Scientists track everything about captive red pandas, including their genetics and family history, he said. Eventually, the hope is to return red pandas into the wild, but he said that might not be for decades. In the meantime, the insurance population protects against a catastrophic threat to red pandas in the wild.
“They’re planning literally 100 years in advance,” he said.
Moonlight and her cub appear to be doing well, and keepers are watching the cub to make sure it continues to grow.
Rodriguez said this is because a number of factors can affect a red panda’s health, both before and after birth.
This is Moonlight’s second litter, but keepers still need to make sure she’s caring for her cub as she should.
So far, she has been very attentive to her cub, only leaving their nest box for short periods of time to eat and drink, the news release states.
“Keepers have been monitoring the pair via a closed-circuit camera in the nest box and have seen Moonlight, an experienced mom, grooming and nursing the cub.
“When Moonlight left the nest box June 19, keepers took the opportunity to perform a quick visual exam and weigh the cub,” the release says. “It weighed in at 6 ounces, which is normal for a newborn. Keepers and veterinarians will continue to monitor the pair closely during the next several weeks, which are the most critical for a newborn cub.”
The cub should open its eyes after two to three months and will begin walking. It’s covered in thick woolly fur that will become thicker and start to turn a rusty red color that gives red pandas their name, the release states. The cub will stay with its mother until it’s 12 to 18 months old.
Most red pandas live about eight or 10 years, Rodriguez said, though the oldest he knows about lived to about 17 ½ years.
“They’re kind of like cats in that respect,” he said.