By Hiroshige Yazawa / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer SABAE, Fukui — One minute they’re curling their fluffy tails and looking dreamy in the sunlight, next they’re whirling around and deftly scampering over the ladders and bridges set up in high spots. Either way, they’re so cute. They have a sweetness you never get tired of watching.
These are red pandas, also known as lesser pandas, and there are currently 11 of them at Nishiyama Zoo in Sabae, Fukui Prefecture. With one of the foremost breeding programs in the country, this is a mecca for fans of the animal.
One panda after another
The word panda brings to mind giant pandas, with their memorable contrast of white and black on round bodies. However, in a way, red pandas “came first.” They were seen in the interior of Nepal at the beginning of the 19th century, and were introduced by the name panda in an essay in 1825. There are different theories about the origin of the name, but it appears to be based on the local language.
However, about half a century later, the existence of giant pandas came to be known to the wider world, and the word lesser was added to the name of their “predecessors.” Both animals are related to such carnivores as bears, cats and tanuki raccoon dogs, and they both subsist on bamboo.
Nishiyama Zoo is located in a corner of Nishiyama Park, which has a panoramic view of Sabae. It was established by the city for three red pandas that were sent as a gift from China to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the municipality in 1985.
With grounds covering 3,800 square meters, Nishiyama Zoo is one the smallest zoos in Japan.
At the time, Takayuki Ibe, 68, was reassigned from the city’s construction department and put in charge of the animals’ care. “I didn’t know how to take care of them, and I was groping in the dark,” he said.
The Hokuriku region is not suited in general to zoos. Because snow piles up in the winter, there are many animals that are difficult to keep there, and visitors stop coming. Red pandas also have difficulty with summer heat, and they’re particular about what kind of bamboo they like.
Ibe tackled these problems, calling on zoos around the nation for help. He installed air conditioning, which was not as common then as it is today, in the zoo building. This angered a municipal assembly member who came to observe the facility — “What is this, giving air conditioning to pandas?” the member said.
As for food, Ibe found that the red pandas liked madake bamboo that grows near the Echizen coast.
When it opened, the zoo was just 1,000 square meters, but it took advantage of its mountainside location and created a living environment similar to the animals’ natural habitat, living in trees at high elevation with a wonderful view.
They also removed such barriers as fences and cages to the greatest extent possible, thinking of children’s gazes, so that the animals could be viewed up close.
The red pandas appeared to like it, and in 1986, two females from among the first three animals both gave birth to twins. This drew attention from people involved with zoos around the world.
In 1989, the first grandchild of red pandas in Japan was born. As of the female born in June 2017, called Meishan, a total of eight generations and 61 red pandas had been born. They live at zoos around Japan.
“I still don’t know if our way of doing things was the best,” said Ibe with a mixture of humility and pride.
Avid fan support
The zoo was eventually expanded and today houses about 60 animals from 12 species, including Japanese cranes and white-handed gibbons. Admission remains free.
To raise money for such purposes as construction of the “Red panda house,” which was completed in March 2016, the city launched a crowdfunding campaign on the internet. Over three years from 2015 to 2017, ¥4,885,000 was collected.
There are many devoted fans of red pandas. Company employee Yoshiko Shima, 53, of Hirakata, Osaka Prefecture, became a fan about eight years ago through her hobby of photography. Shima visits zoos around the country to take pictures of them.
“Their facial features, poses and the like — they look adorable no matter who photographs them. There’s no other subject like them,” she said.
Regarding Nishiyama Zoo, Shima said, “I like the proximity, so close we can hear the crunch of them biting into the apples they like.”
Housewife Ai Tanabe, 31, came to Sabae from Shiga Prefecture in August last year when her husband was transferred. It’s become a daily routine for Tanabe and her 3-year-old daughter Yua to have a bento in the park and visit the red pandas.
“It’s a unique version of ‘at home.’ I’m glad it’s free,” she said.
They don’t have the presence of giant pandas, but they’re certainly giving someone quiet happiness today.
Nishiyama Zoo is about a five-minute walk from Nishiyama Koen Station on Fukui Railway’s Fukubu Line. Nishiyama Park, where the zoo is located, was developed from the Kyoyokei gardens created in the late Edo period (1603-1867). Visitors can enjoy features of each of the four seasons, including cherry blossoms, azaleas and autumn leaves.
Admission to the zoo is free; call (0778) 52-2737 for more information. Operating hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with the zoo closed on Mondays. When Monday is a national holiday, the zoo is closed the next day. Speech