Saving the red pandas

Red pandas, like their better-known cousins the giant pandas, are an endangered species. Only about 10,000 remain in the wild, in China and in neighboring Himalayan countries. The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Northern Virginia is caring for seven recently-born red panda cubs.

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Red panda CBS News

Animal keeper Jessica Kordell hand feeds the youngest of the seven red panda cubs.

"They are pretty cute," Kordell told CBS News correspondent Edward Lawrence. "It helps when they are being very frustrating... The cuteness helps."

Kordell and one other animal keeper will raise five of the seven cubs born at the institute.

"They are like my kids," Kordell said.

She feeds them by hand six times a day, from 6 a.m. to midnight. Seven times a day for the two smallest cubs, who are just two days old.

The cubs get antibiotics, sleep in incubators set to 88 degrees, and are treated like any child after birth.

In the wild, red pandas are part of a complex web of plants and animals in the Himalayas stretching from Nepal to Myanmar.

"They are pretty calm as long as you leave them alone and let them do what they want to do," director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Steve Monfort, said.

"We know for sure if we allow nature to take its course, so to speak, that eventually species like red pandas and others are doomed to extinction," Monfort said.

Monfort said zoos must keep the species alive in captivity, in case red pandas need to be repopulated in the wild.

"If we don't do that now while there are still enough individuals to study, to understand, to reproduce," Monfort warned, "it will be too late if we are called in when there is a catastrophe."

Monfort said each panda has a role to play for the planet.

"We should care about diversity of species in the wild because it benefits us directly in our own survival. The food the water, the air we need to survive all comes from these places where red pandas and other species live."

Red pandas are among the most fragile animals in the world at birth. In the first four weeks of life the cubs have a 50 percent mortality rate.

Three cubs born at the institute were from a mother in the last stages of skin cancer. She died after their birth. The two two-day old cubs were taken away from their mother Regan, because of her history of abandoning her young.

"She has not had the best background history of maternal care," Kordell said.

The last two panda cubs are with their mother in the red panda area of the institute, all of them getting individual attention.

Once the red panda cubs reach four months, they will be sent to other zoos in the U.S.

Kordell hopes that will give them the best chance to keep their place in the world.