The Singalila National Park, the highest protected area in West Bengal, will soon get new denizens. A zoo in the picturesque Darjeeling Hills has started an ambitious programme to augment the wild red panda population.
In the first re-wilding programme of red pandas (Ailurus fulgens) in India, the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park has started an ambitious programme to release 20 of these furry mammals in about five years to the forests.
The number of red pandas has been declining in the wild, even in the Singalila and Neora Valley National Parks, the two protected areas where the endangered mammal is found in the wild in West Bengal. Recent studies estimate that there are 38 of them in Singalila and 32 in Neora.
Basavaraj Holeyachi, Director of zoological park who is at the centre of the Red Panda Augmentation Programme, says conservation breeding of red pandas is only one part of the programme. Selection of animals to be released in the wild, breaking their food association with humans and tagging the animals released in the wild are crucial factors in re-wilding of the red panda population, he adds.
The Padmaja Naidu park, at a height of about 2,000 metres above the sea level, is one of the high-altitude zoos in the country and has been quite successful in captive breeding of the furry mammals. With the birth of a couple of cubs a few weeks ago, the number of red pandas at the Darjeeling zoo has increased to 27. Dr. Holeyachi told The Hindu it was the coordination zoo for conservation breeding of red pandas in the country with decades of experience. He said most other high-altitude zoos were participatory zoos that have animals given by it.
In 2021, two pairs of red pandas were released in the Singalila park. While two died, signals were received from two animals who managed to survive in the wild. The zoo director said this year, three females are likely to be released in October. Dr. Holeyachi said the whole process of selection and identification of animals to be released in the wild is time-consuming and meticulous.
“We have a conservation breeding centre at Topkey Dara in Darjeeling where cubs are kept away from human presence. We also try to break food association with humans. At Topkey Dara we make soft releases of the animals before they are actually released in the wild,” he added. The zoo director said it is important that the animals fear humans so that they can adapt in the wild. Even in the selection of animals, experts look for diversity in genetic profile, and pedigree of the animals.
“Since there are no benchmarks as far as re-wilding of red pandas born in captivity is concerned, everything is a learning experience. We have to start from scratch. The collars which are fitted on the animals when they are released in the wild are iridium collars that can give signals for 70 weeks,” Dr. Holyecahi said. Experts also point out that for surviving in the wild, the dietary pattern of animals which primarily survive on bamboo leaves, needs to change. Zookeepers are helping the panda cubs include eggs in their diet which could be available in an unprotected landscape.
Categorised as an endangered species as per IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, red pandas are shy, solitary and arboreal animals and considered an indicator species for ecological change. They are also one of the most iconic species in terms of their importance to global conservation.
A couple of recent publications by scientists of Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) have resolved the mystery around the demography and speciation in red panda. The studies have concluded that India is home to both the (sub) species — Himalayan red panda (Ailurus fulgens) and the Chinese red panda (Ailurus styani) and the Siang river in Arunachal Pradesh splits the two phylogenetic species.