Six endangered red pandas have been seized by authorities in Laos after being smuggled across the Chinese border.
- The red pandas were in poor health, with only three surviving
- Laos is a major gateway for wildlife smuggling in Asia
- There are only about 10,000 red pandas left
The animals were discovered by chance during a random inspection of a van traveling from the Chinese border into northern Laos and handed over to the Provincial Office of Forestry Inspection.
Sadly, three of the six who were in critical condition have since died, despite the best efforts of veterinary staff.
Officials said the animals had been walked across an unmanned section of the border to avoid inspection and then placed in a transport van once in Laos.
The driver of the van, who claimed no knowledge of the origin or intended destination of the animals, was arrested for breach of wildlife trafficking laws.
The six pandas were handed over to Free the Bears — an Australian wildlife-protection organisation operating in Laos since 2003 — and transported to Luang Prabang Wildlife Sanctuary for treatment.
Michelle Walhout Tanneau, operations manager and vet nurse for Free the Bears Laos, treated the red pandas on arrival before setting up temporary quarantine pens for the three survivors.
"There is a high possibility these animals were suffering from serious disease due to the stress they suffered as well as potential exposure to infectious disease," she said.
The three remaining red pandas appear to be in good health despite their ordeal and are eating well, she added.
Largest rescue on record
Red pandas are highly endangered with as little as 10,000 left in the wild.
The IUCN estimates that the global population has declined by more than 50 per cent since the turn of the century.
Major threats to their survival include habitat loss and fragmentation, as well as poaching.
As people encroach on panda habitats, disease has also become an increasing threat, in particular the spread of canine distemper.
"To our knowledge this is the single largest seizure of live red pandas ever recorded anywhere in the world," Free the Bears regional communications manager Rod Mabin said.
While the seizure is good news for three red pandas, it does raise concerns over a wider wildlife trade in the region for restaurants, private zoos and traditional medicines, Mr Mabin said.
These pandas were likely destined for the exotic pet trade, which is largely carried out online to avoid detection.
Mr Mabin said Laos is one of the major gateways for illegal wildlife smuggling in Asia.
"The Laos Government is making efforts to get this problem under control, but unfortunately their resources are limited and actual confiscations of trafficking are rare," he said.
There is also no clear system in place to prosecute wildlife crimes, so traffickers often go free.
The red panda is native to the Himalayas and major mountain ranges of south-west China and are not known to occur in the wild in Laos.