Northern Ireland

Belfast Zoo celebrates birth of endangered red pandas

the babies Image copyright Belfast Zoo

Two new arrivals have caused a stir in Cavehill in north Belfast.

But the bouncing babies are not your average twins - they are endangered red pandas born at Belfast Zoo after a breeding programme.

Their parents met after dad Chris was brought all the way from Beekse Bergen Safari Park in the Netherlands and mum Vixen came from Germany's Dresden Zoo.

The pair hit it off straight away and Vixen gave birth to the two healthy female cubs in June.

But despite being five months old the cubs have only just started to venture outside.

Zoo curator Julie Mansell explained that red panda cubs are born blind and develop quite slowly, spending the first few months in the den.

"Over the last few weeks the twins have become more adventurous and visitors will hopefully get the chance to spot our colourful little arrivals as they start exploring their habitat," she said.

Image copyright Belfast Zoo

Red pandas are native to the Himalayas in Bhutan, Southern China, Pakistan, India, Laos, Nepal and Burma.

They are also known as "lesser" panda or "firefox".

Image copyright Red Panda
Image caption The Nepalese term for the species is 'nigalya ponya' which translates as 'bamboo footed' and refers to their bamboo diet

They spend most of their time in the trees - their sharp claws making them agile climbers and they use their long, striped tails for balance.

Image copyright Belfast Zoo

Red pandas may be cute, but there are serious concerns around their future.

They are classified as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Image copyright Belfast Zoo
Image caption Red pandas are also known as 'lesser' panda or 'firefox'

Numbers are declining dramatically due to habitat loss and illegal hunting for their fur, in particular their long bushy tail which is highly prized as a good luck charm for Chinese newlyweds, according to Belfast Zoo manager, Alyn Cairns.

"Our mission is to be a major force in conserving and safeguarding habitats and wildlife to make a significant contribution to their survival in the future," he said.

"The twins are therefore not only a cause for celebration for the Belfast Zoo team but for the species as a whole," he added.

Image copyright Belfast Zoo

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