Screening steamy videos to encourage endangered pandas to breed is the latest technique in China’s zoos, but not in Darjeeling.
“We do not use any artificial breeding techniques," says Sunita Pradhan, one of the world’s few biologists who can track the endangered red panda to its secretive habitat. “But the young ones have a high mortality rate and need care."
Her bond with the 14 red pandas at the Darjeeling Zoo is strong, but with minimum human contact. So that rules out gimmicks like those at Berlin Zoo, where Knut the polar bear drew over one million visitors this year for twice a day shows with his human keeper. The red pandas prefer to doze the day off, bushy tails curled around their tiny heads.
In 1994, this shy scientist from Darjeeling had reported a rare sighting of the red panda in the wild, by a stream in a silver fir forest in Phalut, West Bengal .
“When I started work in 1993 in the Singhalila National Park, the place didn’t have electricity. I cooked on firewood,’’ recalls Pradhan, scientific officer, Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, Darjeeling. “That was initially a problem for me, an urban girl. Few vehicles came to the Park, so it was difficult to get rations, vegetables or mail. I was extremely lonely, disconnected with the world.”
Intrepid researchers like Pradhan hike on remote Himalayan terrain in almost impenetrable bamboo forests, looking for red panda pellets, pugmarks on snow or signs of bamboo feeding. “Fieldwork is a big challenge, especially in monsoon and winter,’’ says Pradhan. “Trying to draw attention to the red panda’s plight is so difficult.’’ Estimates of surviving red panda numbers in India, Bhutan, Mayanmar, Nepal and China are unconfirmed.
But saving the animal, a sign of a healthy Himalayan forest, is critical. The red panda has unusually adapted from being a carnivore to a bamboo-feeder. “It has a niche relationship with its ecosystem, we cannot afford to lose it,’’ emphasises Pradhan.
She was drawn into their world after post-graduation as she noticed a changing environment. “The ponds where we used to watch tadpoles vanished. Deer, porcupines, flying squirrels stopped coming to our backyard.”
In 2003, Pradhan released Sweety, a captive red panda, in the Singhalila National Park, West Bengal. “Sweety took the trouble to establish herself in the wild, mate, and give birth to a cub.’’
After a year, the battery of Sweety’s radio collar died and Pradhan did not spot her again. She now focuses on conservation problems of red pandas in protected areas, to build a captive population. “More releases are subject to studying the status of red pandas in the wild. I still feel I haven’t done much for them."