PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE
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This red panda was photographed for Photo Ark at the Virginia Zoo.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE

When Matchmaking Is for a Good Cause: Staving Off Extinction

Red pandas are endangered in the wild. But in zoos’ captive-breeding programs, they’re protected, procreating—and replenishing the species.

This story appears in the September 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Sundar is his name; Khusi is hers. Matchmakers in New Zealand introduced them—in the red panda habitat of the Wellington Zoo. Objective: reproduction.

Global networks of captive-breeding programs share and pair animals, hoping to replenish at-risk species and foster genetic diversity. When Sundar and Khusi came from other zoos to Wellington in 2015, they “got on very well together,” says Maxine Jenkins, the zoo’s carnivore team leader. Even so, starting a red panda family can take time because females are in heat only once a year—for just 24 hours.

On a July day in 2017, zookeepers noticed courting behaviors: loud vocalizations, Sundar forcing Khusi from a tree to the ground, trailing her for hours, and then … consummation(s). A few months later, more telltale signs: Khusi looked a little heavier and was gathering sticks and leaves for a nest.

On December 17 Khusi gave birth to a cub. His name is Ngima, a Nepali word meaning “sun in the sky.” Someday, Jenkins says, Ngima may “be part of the breeding program too.”