What is a Red Panda?
The Red Panda is marginally larger than a household cat with a body similar to a bear and thick russet fur. The tummy, arms and legs are black, with white markings on the side of the head and above its eyes. Red Pandas are very skillful and acrobatic animals that mostly stay in trees. Close to 50% of the red panda’s habitat is in the Eastern Himalayas. They use their long, bushy tails for balance and to cover themselves in winter, presumably for warmth. Primarily an herbivore although they do eat insects, the name panda is said to come from the Nepali word ‘ponya,’ which means bamboo or plant eating animal.
Where is the Red Pandas habitat?
Red Panda’s predominantly live in the temperate forests of the Himalayas, and ranges from the foothills of western Nepal to China in the east. Its range includes southern Tibet, Sikkim and Assam in India, Bhutan, the northern mountains of Burma, and in south-western China, in the Hengduan Mountains of Sichuan and the Gongshan Mountains in Yunnan.
It has also been know to live in south-west Tibet and northern Arunachal Pradesh, but this has not been officially documented and is more hearsay from locals. The highest density of red pandas include an area in the Himalayas that has been proposed as having been a refuge for a variety of species.
During a survey in the 1970s, signs of red pandas were found in Nepal’s Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve. Their presence was confirmed in spring 2007 when four red pandas were sighted at high elevations (3000+ feet). The species’ westernmost limit is in Rara National Park located farther west of the Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve which confirmed their presence in 2008.
The red panda lives between 2,200 and 4,800 m (7,200 and 15,700 ft) altitude, inhabiting areas of moderate temperature between 10 and 25 °C (50 and 77 °F) with little annual change. It prefers mountainous mixed deciduous and conifer forests, especially with old trees and dense understories of bamboo.
The red panda population in Sichuan Province is larger and more stable than the Yunnan population, suggesting a southward expansion from Sichuan into Yunnan in the Holocene.
The exact distribution of Red Panda is disjointed, with two extant subspecies:
- Western red panda A. f. fulgens (Cuvier, 1825) lives in the western part of its range, in Nepal, Assam, Sikkim, and Bhutan.
- Styan’s red panda A. f. styani lives in the east-north-eastern part of its range, in southern China and northern Burma.
Red Panda diet
Red pandas are fantastic climbers, and find their food mostly in trees. Eating mostly bamboo to survive, they are also know to eat small mammals, birds, eggs, flowers, and berries. In captivity, they have been seen to eat birds, flowers, maple and mulberry leaves and fruit.
Like the giant panda, they cannot digest cellulose, so they must consume a large volume of bamboo to survive. Their diets consist of about two-thirds bamboo, but they also eat mushrooms, roots, acorns, lichens, and grasses. Occasionally, they supplement their diets with fish and insects. They do little more than eat and sleep due to their low-calorie diets.
Are Red Pandas endangered?
Yes, they are a significant risk of becoming extinct in the wild.
Threats to the Red Panda
The main threats to red pandas are direct harvest from the wild, live or dead, competition with domestic livestock resulting in habitat degradation, and deforestation resulting in habitat loss or fragmentation. In India, the biggest threat seems to be habitat loss followed by poaching, while in China, the biggest threat seems to be hunting and poaching.
A 40% decrease in red panda populations has been reported in China over the last 50 years, and populations in western Himalayan areas are considered to be lower.
Deforestation can stop the spread of red pandas and cause further population subdivision leading to severe fragmentation of the remaining wild population.
Small groups of animals with little opportunity for exchange between them face the risk of inbreeding, decreased genetic diversity, and even extinction. In addition, clearcutting for firewood or agriculture, including hillside terracing, removes old trees that provide maternal dens and decreases the ability of some species of bamboo to regenerate.
In south-west China, red pandas are hunted for their fur, especially for the highly valued bushy tails, from which hats are produced. In these areas, the fur is often used for local cultural ceremonies. In weddings, the bridegroom traditionally carries the hide. The “good-luck charm” red panda-tail hats are also used by local newly-weds.
In the past, red pandas were captured and sold to zoos. Due to CITES, this zoo harvest has decreased substantially in recent years, but poaching continues, and red pandas are often sold to private collectors at exorbitant prices.
The red panda has a naturally low birth rate (usually one single or twin birth per year), and a high death rate in the wild