Teddy bear, racoon, or panda? Possibly one of the cutest animals, the red panda was actually given the name panda long before the famous black and white panda. Their taxonomy has long been controversial, and back in the days when animals were assigned into taxa by their morphology, the red panda was initially grouped into the Procyonidae, the family that contains racoons, coatis, and their relatives. This is fairly understandable, given that the red panda has the cat like face and big, bushy ringed tail of the racoon, but once genetic analyses became more common, it became clear that they are more closely related to bears. Eventually they were placed into their own genus, Ailuridae, as it is distinct enough from those species it evolved away from. They are found throughout Nepal, Myanmar, China, Bhutan and India, inhabiting temperate and subtropical forests at elevations anywhere from 700 – 3000 metres.
Today, the red panda is divided into two subspecies, Ailurus fulgens fulgens, the Himalayan subspecies, and Ailurus fulgens styani, the Chinese subspecies. This is based on both genetic information but also morphological differences, as the Himalayan species has a straighter profile, lighter coloured forehead and ochre tipped fur on the back. Analysis of samples collected from either side of the Siang River revealed that the huge river has acted as a barrier to interbreeding of populations on either side and has led to the evolution of these two subspecies. These two subspecies have also experienced different evolutionary histories, with the Chinese subspecies experiencing two genetic bottlenecks, when their numbers fell very low, reducing their genetic diversity, then a massive population expansion, whereas the Himalayan subspecies experienced three bottlenecks, and one small expansion.
Although they are quite different from the famous Giant panda, the red panda does have one major feature in common; they LOVE bamboo! It makes up most of their diet, although they eat small amounts of fruit and leaves. Bizarrely, like the giant panda, red pandas have the stomach of a carnivore, although they have evolved to eat pretty much nothing but low nutrition bamboo! Aside from bamboo, red pandas also like to live at high elevation with a good water source, high vegetation cover and a lot of rain.
Cute but critical: the threatened red panda
The IUCN red list has categorised the red panda as endangered, and their population has undergone an estimated 50% decline in the last twenty years. Red pandas are particularly hard to survey, being nocturnal and having a naturally patchy distribution. Although red pandas are found in some protected areas, the essential corridors linking these areas are threatened, and in some cases even legally protected parks are threatened with the expansion of human developments like roads and towns. In fact, research has determined that as much as 77% of the red panda’s range is outside of legal protection. Harvesting of bamboo, and the trampling of the essential plant by increasing numbers of livestock are also threatening this species as they are so reliant on bamboo. As habitat fragmentation affects more and more of the red panda’s range, populations become more isolated and at risk.
Habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation are without a doubt a massive threat for the red panda, they are also at risk from illegal poaching for sport and for their skins. A study from 2020 revealed that the number of pelts being seized in Nepal is on the rise, but no one can figure out exactly why. There is the possibility that increasing poverty is driving people to turn to poaching for income, although it is unclear where these pelts are being sold. An increase in the number of online markets, which can reach more people and are harder to shutdown than physical markets, are driving more trade in not just pandas, but many other endangered animals too. There has also been increasing interest in red pandas as pets, and more are being taken from the wild to fuel this trade, although the exact numbers of unknown. Red pandas are often the accidental victims of hunting, with many of them caught in traps for other animals like pigs and deer.
Red pandas are also susceptible to illness from naturally occurring parasites, but also from canine distemper virus, which can be passed to them from livestock guarding dogs. As their habitat shrinks and they are forced into closer contact with humans, the risk of contracting the fatal virus increases.
Although the red panda is facing a very uncertain future, they are not a neglected species in the conservation world. Legally, red pandas are protected under CITES appendix 1, meaning any trade in live animals or their body parts outside of research purposes is strictly prohibited.
The IUCN has listed the following conservation priorities for the species:
- Protect against habitat loss and degradation: control potentially damaging tourism and promote community involvement with conservation measures.
- Reduce panda deaths by tightening anti-poaching controls and vaccinating dogs and sterilising feral dogs.
- Improving awareness and educating people about the plight of the loveable red panda.
Fortunately, a lot of hard work has been put into these aims already. The WWF works closely with yak herders in the Himalayas to help them work on better conservation outcomes. For instance, they have enabled yak herders to develop yak dung briquettes, which they can use an alternative source of fuel instead of cutting down the essential forest habitat of the red panda. They have also set up ethical tourism programmes, providing jobs for locals and keeping an interest in the cute little bear. You can check out more about the WWF’s Himalayan conservation work at www.worldwildlife.org/species/red-panda.
The Red Panda Network is a not for profit charity based in Nepal that was founded by Brian Williams in 2007 with the sole purpose of protecting the red panda and its habitat. They have done excellent research and monitoring work, carrying out surveys and even writing the best practice protocol and assessing the compliance of communities to the forest management needed for healthy red panda populations. Their researchers were the first to carry out GPS collating studies in Nepal, and their camera trapping surveys found the first evidence of the marbled cat, a small wild cat listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN red list in the country. They also work with communities, visiting schools and assisting in the development of more sustainable livelihoods. Their forest guardian programme is an excellent community driven conservation initiative, with a local being assigned the role to raise awareness in their village of the importance of red pandas and their habitat. You can learn more about this programme and the other excellent work the Red Panda Network do at Red Panda Network.
The red panda also has an excellent captive breeding programme in zoos across the world. Analysis has revealed these captive populations have good levels of genetic diversity, making them a great insurance population for their threatened wild relatives. Zoos also helped to set up the Red Panda Global Species Management Plan (GSMP).
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MASSIVE THANK YOU TO RACHAEL DA SILVA FROM THE UK FOR THIS WRITE UP! PLEASE FOLLOW HER ON INSTAGRAM AND HER WILDLIFE ARTWORK AT TILLY_MINT08