The death of two rare red pandas at a zoo in Darjeeling, which is coordinating the breeding of the endangered animals in the country, has prompted authorities to order a probe.
The dead male pandas - one aged 11 and the other 12 - were not zoo bred but rescued from nearby forests and brought to the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park (PNHZP).
The zoo's director said the pandas died due to old age even as Azam Zaidi, the chief wildlife warden and principal conservator of forests of West Bengal, ordered a probe into the incident.
"Both the pandas died of old age. One was so badly infested by maggots that it could not move around owing to the infection" said Piar Chand, director of the zoo.
"We have asked the PNHZP to submit reports on the death of red pandas," Zaidi told Hindustan Times.
There are currently six male and as many female red pandas at the zoo, where the animals are being bred in captivity since 1994 under Project Red Panda. Such breeding is also carried out at the Gangtok zoo in Sikkim and Itanagar zoo in Arunachal Pradesh.
Experts said the ideal life span of a red panda is 16 years.
"In a secure environment (such as a zoo), a male red panda can live up to 16 years or more. The span gets reduced under stress when in the wild," said Sunita Pradhan, an authority on red pandas.
Red pandas are primarily herbivores and are found in the forests of the Eastern Himalayas. They spend their days on treetops and come down in the evening in search of bamboo leaves and fruits.
A recent survey conducted by the PNHZP found that there were around 32 red pandas in Singalila National Park and another 38 in Neora Valley National Park, both in Darjeeling district.
The first red pandas made to breed under Project Red Panda were brought from several European zoos in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since then, there have been around 40 zoo-bred pandas at the zoo.
In a separate incident, the carcass of a red panda was found in Dhotreh near Singalila National Park. The report of the autopsy has not been made public as yet.