Birth of twin red pandas gives hope for future of one of the rarest - and cutest - mammals

The pandas were born on Monday morning at Drusillas Park in East Sussex

It was a regular Monday morning at Drusillas Park in East Sussex when head keeper Mark Kenward went in to check on the centre's red pandas as part of his daily rounds. The creatures were in the enclosure that has been their home since they were brought to Alfriston last year, having been paired as part of the European breeding programme from their respective homes in Asson Zoo, France, and Paignton Zoo, in Devon.

On this particular visit last month, Kenward was met by Tibao, the male. This in itself was a little odd – it was usually Mulan, the female, the more outgoing of the pair, who was first to say hello. Mulan, though, was nowhere to be seen so Kenward called out to her.

Moments later, the day took a heart-melting turn when she emerged from a nest box. She was gently carrying in her mouth one of two new babies, which have added precious numbers to some 10,000 adult red pandas remaining in the wild. "She brought the cub over, as if to show me, before returning to the box," Kenward says. "I can't explain how happy I was."

Normally inhabiting the Himalayan mountains of China, India and Nepal, the red panda – a creature slightly bigger than a domestic cat and infinitely fluffier – is threatened in its natural habitat by a combination of deforestation and poaching. As well as getting caught in traps meant for other animals, they are hunted for their distinctive pelts, with hats made from their fur found for sale in Bhutan.

To add to the plight of this gentle mammal, which feeds largely on bamboo and resides mostly in trees, they lead solitary existences in the wild except during mating season; even then, female red pandas are only fertile for just one day a year and can delay implantation until conditions are favourable.

Quietly, Kenward had harboured suspicions for a few weeks because Mulan had been unusually lethargic and off her food. The keeper had also spotted her plumping out her nest boxes with bits of sycamore and straw; but given the animal's young age and the fact that she had only been paired with Tibao a year previously, the prospect that she might already be expecting was, he suspected, too good to be true. Even once the twins were born, staff at the zoo held back from announcing the news until this week, so high is infant mortality for the first month.

Now four weeks old and gaining between seven and 20g a day, the new arrivals (who have only just started to open their eyes) not only represent a significant hope for the future of this vulnerable species, but also win the prize for the cutest creatures you've never heard of. Except, apparently others have.

Video: Watch San Francisco's Red Panda in his new home

A winning combination of fairy-tale fox, teddy bear and giant panda (a creature to which they are, surprisingly, only distantly related), the outrageous cuteness of the red panda has not gone unnoticed by Hollywood, with tributes including Master Shifu in Kung Fu Panda, who is a master of the Kung Fu art of self defence – not to be confused with the main character, a giant panda named Po. Nor indeed by the creators of Sylvanian Families. The delightful mammal, sometimes known (deceptively) as the lesser panda or (more understandably) red cat-bear, even served as inspiration for web browser Mozilla Firefox.

Until the as-yet unnamed brother and sister are big enough to go off and have babies of their own as part of a carefully orchestra breeding programme, the new additions will stay put at Drusillas, and are expected to start showing their faces to the public late next month.

"I am so proud of Mulan," says Kenward. "She is a natural mum and has not put a foot wrong. It is as if she has grown up overnight. Tibao has less to do with the babies but he seems to have an extra spring in his step and has definitely grown in confidence."

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